Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Colloquium on ‘Digital Finance in Africa’s Future: Innovations and Implications’

by Lena Gronbach and Prof. John Sharp

An international Colloquium entitled ‘Digital Finance in Africa’s Future: Innovations and Implications’ was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 22-26 October 2018.

Opening Keynote: Mr. Trevor Manuel

Organised by the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study and the Human Economy Research Programme at the University of Pretoria, in association with Disrupting Africa, the colloquium brought together African innovators in the field of digital finance, as well as academics from various disciplines within the humanities, to discuss the latest developments in this increasingly important field.

The participants were drawn from a variety of academic institutions and FinTech companies, including the University of Geneva, the University of Addis Ababa, The Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion (IMTFI), Temple University, and the American University, as well as MFS Africa, eTranzact, Creditable, Wala, Inclusivity Solutions and Gosocket. The South African Reserve Bank and the Central Bank of Kenya were represented as well.

The Colloquium had two complementary aims. The first was to give some key players in the field of digital finance in Africa the opportunity to highlight the extent and sophistication of their innovations, and to discuss their successes as well as the obstacles and challenges they face. The second aim was to bring these innovators into conversation with academics with a special interest in the social, political and economic implications of the innovations in question.

South Africa’s former Minister of Finance, Mr. Trevor Manuel, opened the colloquium by emphasizing the importance of understanding the social and economic implications of new payment technologies and the need for prudent yet enabling regulation: “We must build on the success of mobile money, where Africa is recognized as a world leader. But much depends on the extent to which existing institutions can respond the demands of rapid, repeated structural and cultural shifts, and, at the same time, drive financial access to better serve all people across Africa.” Further, he acknowledged that “we have to focus on whose interests will best be served by the race to digitalization” – in other words, to consider the social impact of FinTech innovations in addition to their technological feasibility and financial profitability.

Mr. Manuel’s keynote speech led into an open discussion guided by Nnamdi Oranye, FinTech author and founder of Disrupting Africa, and Stephen Mwaura Nduati, former head of the Central Bank of Kenya’s national payment system.

Stephen Mwaura Nduati (former head of the national payments system of the Kenyan Central Bank) and Mesfin Fikre Woldmariam (University of Addis Ababa/ IMTFI alumni)

Eight working sessions took place over the next four days, each consisting of presentations by an innovator and an academic or a regulator, followed by group discussion. The topics included mobile money and digital payments, regulation, agent networks, remittances, G2P transfers, insurance, start-up capital, and the blockchain. While the number of delegates was kept small to allow for in-depth discussion among the delegates, ‘virtual participants’ from across the globe could follow the sessions via a live streaming platform and submit their comments and questions online.

The consensus that emerged from the lively and highly interactive discussions – frequently extending beyond the allocated time slots – was that there is a strong need for innovators, regulators and academics to engage in regular and interdisciplinary debate. While most innovators are aware that the technological feasibility of an invention does not guarantee that it will be socially beneficial, they do not always have the expertise to consider the wider implications of their technological prowess. And while humanities researchers can provide these insights, they do not always fully understand the technological complexity involved or the financial and regulatory challenges faced by innovators. Finally, regulators need to balance the interests of governments, banks, and FinTech start-ups with broader concerns about social and economic development. This difficult task requires insights into both the technological and the social implications of FinTech innovations and new financial products.

As one of the delegates put it: “Every innovator in Africa should have a Humanities scholar, such as an anthropologist, alongside them for the journey. The insights that emerged when we brought innovators and academics together were exceptional and far exceeded anything we could have imagined.”

Nnamdi Oranye, founder of Disrupting Africa

Other noteworthy points made by the delegates included the need to incorporate FinTech-related topics into academic curricula in order to prepare students for their future in a digital and globally connected world in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Further, the participants emphasized the need for a focused, interdisciplinary research agenda that explores both the technological and the social implications of FinTech innovations in different geographic, cultural and regulatory settings.

With these goals in mind, the organizers would like to encourage individuals, companies and institutions with an interest in these issues to join our emerging network of scholars, innovators and regulators (contact details below). The highly successful format of this Colloquium lends itself to replication in other parts of the world where innovations such as mobile money have already had a transformative impact or will do so in the near future.

From left to right, back row: Mari-Lise du Preez (i2i), Olufunmilayo Arewa (Temple University), Ubuhle Zwane (MFS Africa), Sean Maliehe (UP), John Sharp (UP), Dare Okoudjou (MFS Africa), Peter Vale (JIAS), Stephen Mwaura Nduati (FinTech consultant), Sechaba Ngwenya (Creditable), Nnamdi Oranye (Disrupting Africa), Solène Morvant-Roux (University of Geneva). Front row: Observer, Hennie Bester (Cenfri), Sibel Kusimba (American University), Lena Gronbach (UP), Marc Wegerif (UP), Mario Fernandez (Gosocket), Mesfin Fikre Woldmariam (University of Addis Ababa).  

The detailed deliberations of the Colloquium will appear in the form of a conference report in early 2019. Recordings of the sessions and the opening event are now available here. Regular updates on the progress of this emerging project will be made available on the conference website.

Read up on conference insights from IMTFI alums Sibel Kusimba and Solène Morvant-Roux: "Academics, Innovators and Regulators at 'Digital Finance in Africa’s Future."

Lena Gronbach, Researcher/Administrator: The Human Economy Research Project (Lena.gronbach@up.ac.za)

Prof. John Sharp, Programme Director: The Human Economy Research Project (John.sharp@up.ac.za)

Photo credit: Riaan de Villiers, acumen publishing solutions

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