Mobile-money platforms have not taken off in every location, but innovators are launching insurance and lending services that bring new utility to the sector.
Come November's election in Sierra Leone, presidential candidates may be asking their supporters to 'Splash' them with cash.
Conversations currently under way between a third-party mobile-money startup called Splash and leading political parties could turn into one of the first attempts in Africa to fundraise for elections via mobile money.
"If it works, it could become a pretty nice credibility booster," says Daniel Osei-Antwi, chief executive of Splash, which launched in 2010 and passed its $1m transaction mark in June.
As mobile-money schemes spread across the continent with varying degrees of success, election fundraising is just one in a range of innovative services.
The new products are cutting costs for bankers, microfinance lenders and insurance companies to reach financially excluded parts of the population.
Some are also providing new investment tools, such as Kenyan firm AIB Capital, which launched a mobile service in May allowing customers of mobile phone firm Safaricom to buy and sell shares on the Nairobi Stock Exchange through its M-PESA mobile platform.
The World Bank's Consultative Group to Assist the Poor found that only 1 in 15 'branchless banking' services launched globally since 2007 had more than 250,000 active customers.
The real danger is that we face a backlash from collapsing mobile-money schemes
Apart from Kenya's M-PESA, which has a 68% market share and 14.9 million users, other schemes have a large number of subscribers who transact infrequently.
Thomas Schmidt, an investor at UK-based firm ChainCapital, argues that most mobile-money products do not work because they do not give people enough reason to transact.
"The real danger is that we face a backlash from collapsing mobile-money schemes," he says. "After the initial fireworks and the enthusiasm of the first three to four months, you have huge dormancy issues. Agents lose interest and don't carry float. Your transaction base is below 5%."
The non-profit Grameen Foundation is focusing on creating new products in Uganda that beat back this pessimism.
A mobile-money incubator launched in 2011 is supporting the development of applications that help bring financial flows to poor households, explains Camilla Nestor, Grameen's vice president for financial services.
One product, called Me2Me, allows users to make forward payments to themselves, for example if they know that on a certain date they will need to have to pay school fees. Another, called Beat the Bank, introduces a competitive element for savings groups.
Grameen is choosing the most promising ideas to develop into prototypes, and Nestor hopes it will have two products scaled up by the middle of 2013.
The foundation is also partnering with MTN to support a mobile-money accelerator that can pick up these ideas and take them forward.
Donor agencies are also pushing into this space, and in June the United States Agency for International Development announced a $23m partnership with the financial group Citi to expand financial services to the unbanked.
MicroEnsure, owned by the NGO Opportunity International, has teamed-up with mobile operator Tigo to offer free life insurance to its subscribers in Ghana, Senegal and Tanzania.
Insurance cover for the upcoming month is based on a person's airtime use, offering a ready-made retention tool for Tigo.
A year since launch, there are 750,000 people signed up in Ghana – doubling the amount of insured people in the country – and around 400 people have received payouts via mobile money, each averaging around $300.
Another MicroEnsure product, launched in collaboration with MTN and called mi-Life, allows subscribers to pay insurance premiums through the telecom company's mobile-money platform.
Peter Gross, MicroEnsure's business development manager for Africa, explains that while the poor face more risk, they cannot afford the same premiums as middle-income clients, and insurance companies have never offered them appropriate products.
"Our approach has been to use mobile channels to get massive scale in a very short amount of time. With that scale you can eliminate all the cumbersome elements of insurance, like exclusions and heavy underwriting requirements," he says.
By calculating coverage for a million people, insurance companies price in general risk and only need a name and age, allowing them to offer blanket protection. MicroEnsure is about to launch a health insurance product and will soon launch a life insurance programme in Kenya.
For microfinance lenders, the lure of a mobile-delivered loan is the cost savings that come with being cashless. In Kenya, a company called Musoni is the world's first mobile-only microfinance institution. It uses M-PESA to pay out and receive loan payments with interest rates of between 18-22%.
"Microfinance is a volume business. It's a lot of work for loans that average $200. With our model we should be a lot more efficient than traditional microfinance," explains Bart van Eyk, chief executive of Musoni BV, the Dutch firm that founded Musoni Kenya.
In May, Musoni BV sold three 25% equity stakes in the Kenyan company to the Grameen Foundation, KfW and CARE in a move that will give it enough of a diversified shareholding to apply for a savings deposit licence in Kenya.
Van Eyk says other products such as crop loans with flexible repayments are also on the cards, as well as a credit scoring tool based on repayments.
There was an early hope that mobile-money products could be used to collect data to build a credit history, but that has not happened.
The size and frequency of person-to-person transfers give little insight into a person's finances.
Mobile money remains a young phenomenon that is still being assessed. In July, a World Bank report called Maximising Mobile warned against the domination of one player, such as Safaricom's M-PESA in Kenya.
Last year, M-PESA's revenue grew 43% and now represents 16% of Safaricom's revenue.
The World Bank study said that a major obstacle for mobile money is the lack of interoperability between schemes run by banks and telecom firms.
Third-party projects, such as a newly licensed bank-led scheme in Nigeria, are beginning to break down these barriers, although telecom operators are still holding out.
"[Interoperability] is going become an urgency for the telecoms operators once they've tried it [mobile money] themselves and failed," says Grameen's Nestor●