Mobile Money Services across Africa and Middle East get a leg up

Residents transfer money using the M-Pesa banking service at a store in Nairobi, Kenya

Residents transfer money using the M-Pesa banking service at a store in Nairobi, Kenya

Nine mobile network operators across 48 countries in Africa and the Middle East have joined forces on the GSM Association’s Mobile Money Interoperability (MMI) program. The program aims to develop standards and implement convenient and affordable financial services across the regions, where many citizens have limited access to traditional banking services.

Mobile money transactions in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East totaled US$5.7 billion last year, and more than a quarter of Kenya’s economy now flows through groundbreaking service M-Pesa – which has been adopted by 56 percent of Kenyans since its introduction by Vodafone and Safaricom in 2007 – without touching a bank account. (Comment: over time, me thinks cross-border enforcement authorities will scrutinise such schemes).

But while Kenya stands as an exemplar of mobile money, far ahead of even the US in usage of payments through a mobile phone, other countries have been much slower to adopt the model – thanks in part to regulatory challenges that hold back innovation. There’s hope that this MMI program will accelerate growth through collaborative development of best practice guidelines, regulatory support, performance benchmarks, and interoperability between services.

It could have widespread implications, as an estimated 1.7 billion people in lower to middle income countries own a mobile phone (primarily with prepaid credit), yet currently lack access to the financial services taken for granted in the developed world. Mobile money is now available in most developing markets, although the 2013 GSMA Mobile Money for the Unbanked State of the Industry report indicates that services tend to be limited outside of East Africa.

That’s where MMI comes in. The initiative is meant to connect mobile network operators with banks, governments, and other partners in a bid to allow access to more mobile financial services for a broader range of people. This would provide a means for them to take out insurance, invest in savings accounts, make and accept payments, and send money across borders.

Explosive growth in the field has seen mobile money accounts outnumber bank accounts in nine African markets, with 98 million registered and over 60 million active in Sub-Saharan Africa as of June 2013. Competition is also growing – 52 countries (36 of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa) have at least two mobile money services, and 27 of those have three or more. This could lead to accelerated innovation, but without interoperability it will devolve into a total mess.

Figure from the GSMA 2013 State of the Industry report on mobile money for the unbanked showing the number of registered and active mobile money accounts by region.

Most existing mobile money services act as closed-loop systems wherein electronic money must be converted to cash before it can be sent to someone on another mobile money service. But cooperation within and across regions should soon see these kinds of barriers disappear in favor of interconnected schemes that seamlessly (no doubt with some transaction fees) transfer funds from one service to another at the press of a button.

“Mobile money is a young industry, with over 80 percent of all deployments launched during or after 2010,” said GSMA Director General Anne Bouverot. It’s a field under rapid, enthusiastic, unparalleled growth, and it falls now on the signees of the Mobile Money Interoperability program to steer the ship to safe waters as mobile money races toward ubiquity across all of Africa and the Middle East. Source: GMSA

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Top 10 Most Used Currencies In The World

China Daily reports that China’s yuan surpassed the Swiss franc to become the seventh most-used currency in the world in January based on data provided by the global transaction services organization SWIFT.

The top 10 are:
1. US dollar
2. European euro
3. UK pound sterling
4. Japanese yen
5. Canadian dollar
6. Australian dollar
7. Chinese yuan
8. Swiss franc
9. Singapore dollar
10. Hong Kong Dollar

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Deftness of the Border Elephant

I received this series of photos of an African Elephant via email. Now it may not be the designated border crossing, but gee – how skillful and considerate of “Mighty Mo” in leaving no damage to someone else’s property.


“Captain Phillips” lands Six Oscar Nominations

phillips-oscarsThe blockbuster film “Captain Phillips” has lived up to the hype, receiving a total of 6 Oscar Nominations including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for the first-time Somali actor who played the pirate leader, Muse.

“Captain Phillips”, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks, was released in October and tells the story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking in the Indian Ocean and subsequent kidnapping of the captain, Capt. Richard Phillips.

Perhaps the biggest talk of today is the nomination of Barkhad Abdi in the Best Support Actor category for his role as Muse, the leader of a band of Somali pirates who seized the MV Maersk Alabama. Born in Somalia and raised in Yemen, Abdi moved to the U.S. as a teenager and was living and working as a limo driver in Minnesota when he was cast for the role, his first acting job ever.

Tom Hanks, on the other, did not receive any nominations for his role as Captain Richard Phillips.

While the film has been the focus of some controversy over the Captain’s decision to sail close to the Somali coast, overall it has taken center stage in promoting a strong U.S. Merchant marine, not to mention hailed by critics.

“The courage shown by Captain Phillips and his crew during their ordeal is a shining example of the brave American mariners who receive the best training in the world,” said Tom Allegretti, Chairman of the American Maritime Partnership. “American mariners continually prepare for various operational challenges and are dedicated to the highest standards of safety and security. When it comes to the world-class training of America’s Merchant Marine, Captain Phillips and his crew are the rule rather than the exception.”

“Captain Phillips” also received four Golden Globe nominations, including Best Actor drama, Best Supporting Actor drama, Best Director and Best Picture, but failed to take home any awards last Sunday. Source:

Who Really Runs this Place?

SpinWatchUK public interest and transparency lobby group Public Interest Investigations (PII) recently published a somewhat perturbing paper on the activities and dubious role of the ‘Big 4’ accounting firms. The report aptly titled – Who Really Runs this Place?  takes a look at some of the relationships between the Big 4 accountancy firms and the UK government. It examines some of their lobbying activity: on their own behalf to block much-needed reforms of the industry that they dominate; at some of the lobbying they have undertaken to protect the tax avoidance industry; and at their role as lobbyists-for-hire.

Who Really Runs this Place? reveals how:

  • At least 50 employees of the Big 4 have been on loan to the government in the past three years;
  • One of the Big 4, lobbies for tax breaks for its clients – a service that it describes as a ‘low risk alternative’ to tax avoidance – while at the same time advising the Treasury on reform of the tax system;
  • They successfully lobbied the British government to oppose new EU rules designed to improve audit standards and challenge the monopoly of the Big 4;
  • They are profiting from changes to government policy, changes that are made by government departments that they are contracted to;
  • Lobbying by the Big 4 accountancy giants – either on their own behalf or for clients – is unlikely to be included in the forthcoming register of lobbyists.

You can also watch Spinwatch’s new Big 4 film here!



The Protection of Personal Information Bill

Grant ThorntonThe folks at Grant Thornton have prepared a paper on this important subject, which is no less relevant to the Customs environment. The Protection of Personal Information Bill (POPI) is expected to be passed into law soon. It makes sweeping changes to the way all organizations are going to be allowed to deal with personal information, laying down very strict guidelines about what we can do with such data once it is received and processed.

As with all acts of law, it is imperative that the public sector leads by example and ensures that staff are trained and systems in place so that personal data of South African citizens remains secure.

In its latest issue of In the Public Eye (available on their website), Grant Thornton provides a comprehensive legal and technical framework to assist you in getting ready for POPI. Remember that failure to comply with the POPI Bill may result in significant penalties including fines and imprisonment. Source : Grant Thornton

Nairobi Airport gutted by Blaze

A small fire at Kenya‘s main airport swelled into a roaring inferno Wednesday that destroyed part of East Africa’s largest aviation hub and hampered air travel across the continent. Firefighters were desperately short of equipment in an area where the county government apparently lacks a single working fire engine. Crews needed hours to get the flames under control and at one point resorted to a line of officers passing water buckets.

The early morning blaze gutted the arrival hall, forcing authorities to close the entire airport and airlines to cancel dozens of flights. The flames also charred airport banks and foreign exchange bureaus. No serious injuries were reported. Michael Kamau, the cabinet secretary for transport and infrastructure, said the fire began at 5 a.m. in the immigration section of the arrivals hall.

The fire broke out on the 15th anniversary of the bombings by al-Qaida of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, in neighboring Tanzania. No terror connection to the fire was immediately evident, but the blaze revived long-standing safety concerns about Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Kenya’s anti-terror police boss, Boniface Mwaniki, said he was waiting for more information before completely ruling out terrorism. Authorities last week shut down several duty-free shops at the airport, and some Kenyan media reports speculated that disgruntled parties from the forced closings may have had motive to carry out an arson attack. No government official made such an accusation Wednesday.

International airlines, including South African Airways, Etihad and Emirates, cancelled flights to Nairobi. Qatar Air said its Nairobi flights were being rerouted to the Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania. No U.S. carriers fly direct to Nairobi. Delta Air Lines, based in Atlanta, tried to open such a route in 2009, but the Transportation Security Administration rejected the plan because of security concerns.

The domestic and departure terminals, which are separated from the arrivals hall by a road, were undamaged. By the end of the day, the airport re-opened for domestic and cargo flights but remained closed to international flights. Officials planned to convert a domestic-flight area into an international terminal for the time being.

Nairobi County does not have a single working fire engine, the Daily Nation, a Nairobi newspaper, reported last month. One engine, the paper said, was auctioned in 2009 because the county had not paid a $100 repair bill. An Associated Press reporter at the airport Wednesday saw uniformed officers line up with buckets in hand, apparently to battle the blaze. Many of the units that battled Wednesday’s fire were from private security firms and had to fight airport traffic to get there.

Nairobi is the capital of East Africa’s largest economy, but public-sector services such as police and fire departments are hobbled by small budgets, corrupt money managers and outdated equipment or a complete lack of equipment. A top government official at the scene of the fire said an initial assessment shows that a complacent response helped a small fire grow into an uncontrollable conflagration. Some airport fire engines were not filled with water and others did not have personnel to drive them, said the official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to release details of an ongoing investigation.

Inbound flights were diverted to the coastal city of Mombasa, he said. Other flights were diverted to Dar es Salaam, the Kenyan cities of Eldoret and Kisumu and Entebbe, Uganda, according to Kenya’s Red Cross.

Kenya Airways, the country’s flagship carrier, diverted five flights to Mombasa and said all of its passengers in transit were being moved to hotels. The airline reported that one passenger and one employee suffered from smoke inhalation. Source: The Huffington Post

New Smart ID card next year


Home Affairs Minister, Naledi Pandor with the new Smartcard ID (SAPA)

The new South African smart ID cards will start being issued in the new year. The cost of the card had not yet been determined. The minister for Home Affairs said the cost would not exceed that of the current green bar-coded identity document, which the card would replace.

A microchip, the specifications for which cannot be disclosed for security reasons, will house the necessary biometric data and the information on the chip will be laser-engraved to prevent tampering.

A range of physical and data-security features was being considered, and that there was also ongoing discussion about whether to include provision for a pin code as a secondary means of verification, to complement the biometric features of the card. The minister said the department was discussing how to implement the process. One option would be to issue smart ID cards to first applicants. The project was likely to be implemented over the next four years. For more info on the ID cards read the Government Gazette (click hyperlink).

What are surfaces?

containerThis is the theme of peer review group –  Environment and Planning’s latest edition to its journal. Once I got past the verbage of seeming unconnected academic diatribe, I stumbled on a paragraph which provoked immediate interest, particularly given that I’m fanatical about multimodal transportation especially the ‘container’. It goes like this –

The question posed by this thematic issue is one with considerable intellectual heritage. Surfaces have held a long-standing fascination for science, social science, and humanities scholars, whether figured as material interfaces,(1) natural structures, aesthetic phenomena, geometric projections, or fetishistic distractions. Surfaces may be sculpted, calculated, smoothed, camouflaged, magnified, represented, sensed, or commodified. They may be revered for their beauty, clarity, texture, accessibility, and biodiversity, or criticised for their opacity, ugliness, or for obscuring ‘underlying’ relations and processes. Indeed, while certain disciplinary, philosophical, and scientific traditions are (or have been) concerned with understanding and apprehending surfaces, many scholars—most recently Divya Tolia-Kelly (2013)—emphasise the importance of getting beyond the surface, uncovering underlying meanings, motivations, power relations, ‘feelings’, and processes of production: pushing beyond boundaries, scratching beneath surfaces. The academic inquirer is urged to undertake sub-surface investigations, functioning as an explorer, fisherman, or miner who trawls, excavates, or pioneers new depths.

“So much of life occurs at the surface that, as students of the human scene, we are obliged to pay far more attention to its character (subtlety, variety, and density) than we have done. The scholar’s neglect and suspicion of surface phenomena is a consequence of a dichotomy in western thought between surface and depth, sensory appreciation and intellectual understanding, with bias against the first of the two terms.” Tuan (1989)

The six individual papers in this theme issue provide conceptually diverse and empirically specific responses to the central question posed: ‘What are surfaces?’

For Craig Martin (2013) surfaces exist first as logistical accomplishments, and are to be understood as physical phenomena crucial to the reshaped global geographies of commercial hipping and freight transport. Martin’s concern is with the advent of an intermodal, logistical system based on the standardisation of heavy-duty, corrugated metal boxes; otherwise known as the shipping container. This object, in which so many ordinary spatial interdependencies are invested, is arguably as close to a universal, surficial fix as global powers have got. The containers’ vital statistics and carrying capacities scale up to a planetary surface where integration is paramount, between materialities (of land and sea), mobilities (nautical and terrestrial), and sovereignties (political and legal). By these means, the specificities of earthly surfaces have been transformed into a commerce-driven sameness of sorts.

So now I think….how long it will take me to save up £1000 to purchase a year’s subscription to this journal – perhaps just for this one article?

Source: Environment and Planning  

A touching pictograph from India

Yes, this post seems quite off the usual topic, however, I was deeply moved by an article titled “Free school under a Bridge in India” posted by fellow blogger Joe Seeber. It’s not so much a written article as Joe’s pictures express the necessary – “dedication”, “innocence” and “sincerity” – all of which tell a compelling story which requires few words. In a country like South Africa which shares a similar plight facing our youth, it’s the dedication of these two teachers which strikes a chord! The attentiveness of the youngsters in their studies and no less their pride in keeping their ‘school’ clean are clear – evidently attributes of their teachers.

One visitor to Joe’s blog observed –

I always wonder who these people are; all of a sudden someone comes, changes a little scene, and it becomes a little world with hope inside of it. Sometimes I think they may be Angels in disguise, sent by the almighty to show an example of what can be done. Look at the cost of Input; a temporary shelter, two dedicated men, thirty willing children: The value of output, immeasurable, one of the children may be a Prime Minister, one a well renowned Physician, one a Scientific genius, who is to say? All the children work harder, learn more, because they have a gift of hope and a promise of to-morrow.

And Joe preface’s his picture story as follows – “This is heart breaking, God bless these 2 guys, Rajesh Kumar Sharma and Laxmi Chandra.  They’ve been running a free school under a metro bridge in New Delhi, India for the last 3 years.  There are at least 30 children living in the nearby slums that have been  receiving free education from these 2 guys.”

How China’s Cheap Phones Make Their Way to Africa

The following article (forgive the length), comes courtesy of Think Africa Press. It details a fascinating story about one of Hong Kong’s most notorious buildings – “Chungking Mansions”. The down-market building situated on some of the world’s most expensive real estate is home to some of the best South Asian restaurants, several $20-a-night guesthouses, and a mall that at one point, sold a fifth of all the cell phones that ended up in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nathan Road is Hong Kong’s busiest shopping street. It is lined with skyscrapers and decorated with neon signs of every size, colour and shape. Most of the logos are familiar: McDonald’s, KFC, Samsung, Rolex, Carlsberg, 7-Eleven, Standard Chartered. This is Asia’s Times Square, a luminous roll call of the world’s biggest companies and products, a shrine to consumer culture in the modern world. Workers, tourists and others cram the neon shadows of the sidewalks, clutching engorged wallets and sleek plastic bags. The luxury goods in the shop fronts of polished glass and mood lighting beckon their business. Lots of money changes hands. Many shiny new items are purchased. This is the apotheosis of globalisation as we know it best: big companies, handsome profits, fancy boardrooms, high-flying executives, top quality goods. But this is not the globalisation I have come to Nathan Road to see. I know I am getting closer to my destination when an Asian gentleman outside a Rolex store approaches. “Want nice watch? Mister, nice Rolex for you? I give you best price.” Despite admiring his brazen attempts to shift fakes not a metre outside a shop displaying the genuine articles, I shrug him off and turn into a narrow passage that takes me to the heart of a building called – in Hong Kong’s typically optimistic style – Chungking Mansions. This three-towered utilitarian block is one of Hong Kong’s most notorious buildings. Unlikely as it may seem, it is one of the major drivers of Africa’s technological revolution. The building’s history is infamous. Erected in 1961 to fulfil Hong Kong’s insatiable need for low-cost housing, it soon turned into one of the most legendary stops on Asia’s hippy backpacker trail, thanks to the proliferation of tiny, cheap guesthouses on its upper floors, many of which are still operating. These cheap tourists enticed merchants of tacky goods, whose stalls swamped the building’s lower floors. In turn, this activity attracted illegal immigrants, drug dealers and prostitutes, turning Chungking into Hong Kong’s seediest underbelly; a place that locals avoided completely and even police feared to tread. In recent years, the place has cleaned up its act somewhat, but still offers the city’s cheapest accommodation. It is home to a large South Asian community (primarily Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) and plenty of cheap tat: luggage, souvenirs, fake football shirts, etc. But in the last decade or so, shopkeepers have introduced a new product which has kept Chungking Mansions ticking: the mobile phone. Continue reading →

Port of Genoa Control Tower Collapses Following Ship Collision

Prized location is not always practical. An Italian-flagged cargo ship crashed into a control tower at the Italian port of Genoa late Tuesday night, causing it to collapse. The 30,217 DWT Jolly Nero, a containership/ro-ro owned by Genoa-based Ignazio Messina & Co., slammed into the control tower at about 11 p.m. local time. Part of the 50-metre tower is said to have fallen into the water when it was hit by the Jolly Nero as the vessel was leaving the port for Sicily.

BBC reports that 3 people have been killed and others are injured. The report says that 10 people were in the tower at the time of the accident. According to Reuters, harbour officials confirmed on local television that 3 people were killed and 6 others injured. As many as 10 more may be missing, the report said. Two of the dead are believed to be harbour officials and the third was a pilot, local Primocanale quoted officials as saying. The Jolly Nero was under the control of two pilots and was leaving the port when the accident occurred. All that was left of the control tower was the exterior staircase, tilted on its side. The tower itself, which was located on the very edge of  the quay, was either in the water or in a heap of wreckage on the dock. The pictures below bear testimony of the tragedy. Source: Picture credits: Reuters and various.

Giant Rubber Duck Arrives in Hong Kong

Today’s ship photos come to us via Hong Kong, where on May 2nd internationally renowned artist Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck project made its way into the harbour. The duck measures 16.5 meters tall, easily dwarfing its escort tugs.

About the project from the Hofman’s website (because it makes more sense when he explains it): The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn’t discriminate people and doesn’t have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them. The rubber duck is soft, friendly and suitable for all ages.

Since 2007, the duck has been making its way around the world and has already been seen in St. Nazaire, Sao Paulo, Auckland, Hasselt ,Osaka and Hiroshima, Sydney, Nürnberg, and Amsterdam, among other places. But Hofman’s art isn’t just limited to giant rubber ducks. He also has a Fat Monkey, Slow Slugs, and Mickey the Pig exhibits on display in cities throughout the world. The Rubber Duck will be in Hong Kong until June 9th.

Egypt’s Most Ancient Maritime Harbor in Suez Discovered

Statue of Khufu in the Cairo Museum

Statue of Khufu in the Cairo Museum

A French-Egyptian archaeological mission discovered the oldest commercial harbor from the fourth dynasty King Khufu (Cheops) at Wadi Al-Jarf area, 180 km south of Suez. On the Red Sea shore at Wadi Al-Jarf area along the Suez-Zaafarana road, a French-Egyptian archaeological mission from the French Institute for Archaeological Studies (IFAO) stumbled upon what it believed to be the most ancient harbor ever found in Egypt.

The harbor goes back to the time of the fourth dynasty King Khufu. The harbor is considered one of the most important commercial ports where trading trips to export copper and other minerals from Sinai were launched.

A collection of vessel anchors carved in stone was also discovered as well as different docks.

Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim announced that a collection of 40 papyri, showing details of daily life of ancient Egyptians during the 27th year of King Khufu’s reign, was also unearthed during excavation.

“These are the oldest papyri ever found in Egypt,” asserted Ibrahim. He also stated that these papyri are very important because they reveal more information about the ancient Egyptians’ daily life. Source: Egypt State Information Service

For a more detailed account, checkout The History Blog – Click Here!

To view a video report click this link:

In for a Penny, In for a Pound

An armed Somali pirate sits along the coastline of Hobyo town in northeastern Somalia on January 7, 2010. (Mohamed Dahir-AFP-Getty)

An armed Somali pirate sits along the coastline of Hobyo town in northeastern Somalia on January 7, 2010. (Mohamed Dahir-AFP-Getty)

Are ‘Somali Pirates’ Real? Some may only be acting. According to Channel 4 the “fixer” offers journalists the opportunity to interview real live pirates – for a fee of US $200. Touting his local knowledge, he promises to reach parts of the community a western journalist never could. He then follows an elaborate scheme to convince journalists that he is legitimate.

The video opens in the slums of Eastleigh, a sprawling suburb of Nairobi in Kenya and home to ‘the fixer,’ a man who the UK’s Channel 4 claims has duped countless western journalists. But it’s a scam, one that has fooled the readers of many top media organizations including Time magazine. Watch the video above for the full details.

Somali pirates have kidnapped hundreds of people and cost millions in ransom payments. Jamal Osman finds journalists keen to interview them do not always get what they bargained for. Click this link to watch the video: