Sean Park Portrait
Quote of The Day Title
I say profound things

High resolution economies.

Bankers like to talk about channels – branches, call centers, internet, mobile. Sell the same products via multiple channels: adapt to individual customer preferences. Horses for courses. In wealthy developed economies, this way of thinking is mostly correct; or more precisely the resolution of the market renders the fallacies (of this way of thinking) invisible. To see the fundamental differences, to understand why – at sufficiently high resolution – these channels cease to be simply distribution mechanisms and become integral to the service being offered, one needs a better economic lens.

Developing and emerging economies provide just that: a high resolution lens on economic activity: in a developing (ie relatively poor and resource constrained) economy, the concept of a ’rounding error’ is ridiculous: micro-everything matters: pricing, transaction costs, payment media, etc. ‘Newtonian’ economics and finance is insufficient to understand how these economies work; you need to look at “quantum” effects. You need high resolution. Why do I find these markets so fascinating and important? Yes, there are many investment opportunities and this is exciting; but we are not yet in a position to really explore these and take advantage and so that’s not the main reason. Yes, it is clearly rewarding to encourage and marvel at human ingenuity that so often leads to success in what are often enormously challenging conditions. But that’s not it either. The main reason I think these markets – especially ‘frontier’ markets – are important, is that by observing the world through the lens of these economies and markets, one cannot help but gain a deeper, more granular, fundamental understanding of how markets work (or don’t work.) The fundamental forces – the risk quarks – that are invisible to the naked western eye are revealed by the tunneling electron microscope of emerging frontier economies.

Nowhere is this effect more obvious than in the cambrian explosion of innovation in markets and services built on the substrate of mobile networks in emerging markets. From the point of view of someone concerned with envisioning and understanding the future of financial services, one of the most pertinent and exciting laboratories is the explosion of mobile trading, payments and banking systems in Africa and other poor, developing economies. I first wrote about this a few years ago, and since then, many of my expectations have been borne out and the potential for disruption – both at home and abroad (ie in the West) – if anything has grown. Indeed one company I wish I had invested in – Obopay – was founded by Carol Realini (who I would love to meet one day) after having spent some time in Africa where she saw first hand how powerful a mobile approach to payments could be. Obopay logo

Of course, although I may have been among the first, I’m by no means alone in seeing mobile financial services as an enormous opportunity, or in seeing the developing world as a key driver of innovation. This is great news as hopefully it will encourage people and institutions with more capital than I to look seriously at investing in developing innovative business models in this space. A few weeks ago CGAP (a very interesting organization, check them out) published a report predicting that:

The market of mobile financial services to poor people in emerging markets will surge from nothing to $5 billion in 2012.

There are about one billion people in emerging markets who have cellphones, but no bank accounts. CGAP expects that number to rise to 1.7 billion to 2012, with around one in five of them picking up mobile money — and creating the $5 billion market.

Most optimistic researchers expect more than a billion people in emerging markets to start using mobile money within a few years, while some are more cautious than CGAP.

Now a billion potential customers – even if they are relatively poor – is a market opportunity even the most jaded venture capitalist should be able to get excited about. But it gets better. I figure if you can figure out how to profitably provide basic payment and banking services to this billion, you probably have a pretty decent business model with which to take on the billion or so people who already consume banking services in more developed countries (and who by the way all have a mobile phone…) These potential customers in the developing world are a dream come true in the sense that if you solve their problems, you’ve solved everyone’s problems (via Reuters:)

“The Grameenbank model works, but the scalability is limited,” said Hannes van Rensburg, chief executive of mobile financial services provider Fundamo said on Wednesday.

“The problem is about the inertia of money. It’s very difficult to move very small amounts of money fast,” he said in an interview with Reuters at the GSMA’s Mobile Money summit in Barcelona.

Access to financial services could not only remove the need for long, costly and risky journeys to move money around, but also reduce the burden of constant, active money management endured by those living on tiny amounts and in constant danger of financial crisis.

“Poor people are doing a tremendous amount of financial transactions just to survive,” says Stephen Rasmussen, who runs a mobile banking program for CGAP, an association of non-profit organizations under the auspices of the World Bank that seeks to help to increase financial access for the poor.

“People at the very bottom spend far more energy and mental time on managing these systems than we do,” Rasmussen told Reuters.

Mobile money deployments have huge momentum, with the number expected to double to 120 by the end of the year, according to the GSMA.

The more cynical amongst you might say: “..yeah, ok. But so what? The big telecom and financial services providers are just going to carve this up and so where’s the opportunity?” I don’t have all the answers but I am fairly certain that most – especially western – large incumbent industry players (from both sides) are structurally and evolutionarily poorly adapted to harness this opportunity. They already have, and I suspect they will continue to frame this opportunity through the low resolution historical lens of their existing business models and approach. Phrases like “We are a bank. We do ‘x’.” or “We are a telecom operator. We do ‘y’.” will continue to be all too prevalent. And so while the giants sit around haggling amongst themselves as to how they can and will divide this market, there will be ample room for the nimble, energetic and open-minded entrepreneur to make her mark.

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  1. […] OboPay is the first truly comprehensive mobile payment service in the United States. Written by Chris F. Masse on July 13, 2009 — Leave a Comment OboPay – (via Park Paradigm, who invested in it): […]

  2. At 10:28 am on 14 Jul 09 cfarley said:

    Big institutions are going to have a very hard time not undervaluing the human capital of the social networks of the unbanked. To a westerner and her bank, the marginal value of having a big extended family — in terms of credit worthiness — is not that large. But something like this is very important in an emerging market. I would agree there are plenty of opportunities for small players.

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