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Banking revolution saving lives in Africa

From Robyn Curnow, CNN
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Mobile banking boom in Tanzania
  • Millions of people in developing countries use mobile phones to move cash
  • Mobile banking makes up for lack of access to banking services
  • Doctors in Tanzania are using mobile banking to pay for patients to travel to hospital

CNN's Marketplace Africa offers viewers a unique window into African business on and off the continent. This week it takes a look at how mobile banking is changing business and saving lives.

(CNN) -- In a clinic in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Dr. Robert Marenga employs an unusual but invaluable tool in his bid to treat patients: his mobile phone.

The surgeon is taking advantage of a growing mobile-banking industry, using his cell phone to send money via SMS to Tanzanian women suffering from fistula -- a highly-stigmatized condition that women can develop after a long, traumatic childbirth without proper medical care.

The money is used to pay for a patient's bus ticket -- helping them travel from rural areas to Dar es Salaam, one of the few places where corrective surgeries are performed.

Marenga says the practice is helping transform the lives of many women who, unable to afford treatment, become outcasts in their communities.

Gallery: Mobile banking

"It has changed our treatment, because now we are having so many patients who could not access treatment before because of the transport barrier," he says. "Last year we treated only 100, we had 163 surgeries; this year, up to now we've had 253."

Doctors at the Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania clinic (CCBRT) say the average cost of a return bus ticket for a woman traveling from a rural area for treatment is $60, a huge amount in a country where the majority of people live on $2 a day.

"We use the mobile phone to actually transfer those transport grants to the communities, so that those woman can reach our facility -- and then the cost of lodging in a hospital, we also bear the costs," says Erwin Telemans, who runs the clinic.

The service is part of a growing trend in developing countries that sees millions of people using mobile phone technology to make up for a lack of access to banking services.

They use services such as Vodafone's M-Pesa to pay their bills, withdraw salaries and send remittances to distant areas via SMS.

East Africa is the hub of mobile money in the world.
--Danny Lennox, Vodafone

The process for registering with M-Pesa is very straightforward: it requires a PIN and an official form of identification (a passport or a national ID card) but there is no need for a bank account or a home address.

According to the Bureau of International Information Programs at the U.S. State Department, around one million of Tanzania's 41 million inhabitants use mobile phone technology to carry out financial transactions and save money.

At the same time, only 12% of the population have a formal bank account, while almost half of them own a cell phone.

"Banks need power, they need roads, they need cash replenishment, they need all of those things to be in place before they can spread; mobile money doesn't need as much of that," says Dylan Lennox, of Vodafone, which is one of the companies tapping into the booming mobile banking market in developing countries.

"It's a very popular way, and a very easy way, to grow financial services in a country," he adds.

After successfully launching M-Pesa in Kenya, Vodafone has rolled out its service in Tanzania, where it says its customers made nearly 700 million transactions last year.

And although the amounts of money transferred via mobile services are usually no more than just a few dollars, the overall volume of transactions provides a powerful impetus for growth in coming years.

According to the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, an organization focused on expanding financial services in the developing world, mobile banking in emerging countries could be worth up to $5 billion by 2012.

The group estimates that about 1.7 billion people in the developing will have access to a cell phone but no bank account in 2012.

Vodafone says it is now looking to expand its mobile banking service to several other countries.

"East Africa is the hub of mobile money in the world," says Lennox, "so really the world has been incubated out of Tanzania with regards to mobile money and mobile payments. So Vodafone is looking at Tanzania and Kenya and learning and making sure that we can roll this out to the rest of our territories.

"It's been launched in South Africa now, it's been launched in Egypt, and it's been launched with a few of our partner markets in Afghanistan.

"Bangladesh is looking at it, India is looking at it, so the aim is to take it everywhere in the world."

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report