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South Africa: Fintech Ozow plans expansion into SADC and West Africa

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Monday, 9 August 2021 08:27

Instant payments can change South Africa's bricks and mortar banking legacy. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

South African electronic payments provider Ozow plans expansion to countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and West Africa as South Africa’s planned adoption of an instant payment system creates opportunities to increase scale, CEO Thomas Pays tells The Africa Report.

Plans to enter Namibia are the furthest advanced, with a regulatory application to operate having been finalised, Pays says from Cape Town. He aims to be in the country by the end of February 2022. Ozow is in the “preliminary stages” of engaging with other SADC countries and also wants to expand to Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya, Pays says.

Instant payments are set to bring a quiet revolution in South African banking. The country aims to create an instant payments system known as the Rapid Payment Programme (RPP), which Pays hopes will become a reality in the middle of 2022. The project is led by BankServAfrica, alongside the country’s banking and payments associations.

  • The plans will initially be implemented by 11 of the country’s major banks. The aims are to increase financial inclusion, reduce cash dependency and create an integrated digital payments platform.
  • In February, Tata Consultancy Services was chosen as the technology provider for the project. BankServAfrica says that by 2023, RPP will be South Africa’s most used e-payment option.
  • Ozow, set up in 2014 and formerly called i-Pay, will be a participant in RPP, for which it has lobbied over the last six years. The programme, Pays says, has the potential to “empower the SADC” region.

Bricks and mortar legacy

Users will draw on a verified identity to make instant payments by phone. Pays says that the programme will help South Africans who have bank accounts but can’t afford to pay for a credit card, as well as small merchants whose cashflow will be improved.

According to data published by the Electrum transaction hub, fees for requesting an instant transfer between South African banks range from R8 ($0.55) at Capitec to as much as R50 at Standard Bank and R65 at ABSA.

For the fintech sector in South Africa, RPP means that the “lack of scalability will be overcome,” and cross-border payments and remittances will become more efficient, Pays says.

In terms of banking cards, Pays says, South Africa is still working with systems designed in the 1950s and 1960s in a bricks and mortar banking world.

  • About 49mn South Africans have bank accounts but lack access to any kind of instant payments, he says.
  • Experience in India and Brazil, he argues, has shown that instant payments can make a positive contribution to GDP.
  • Some African countries have regulatory requirements for a  physical presence, and in others Ozow will seek to operate with local partners, Pays says.
  • Ozow is also looking at possible acquisitions in some markets.
  • The company is raising funds to finance the expansion. Pays says he aims to close the current round of fundraising by the end of the year, declining to say how much is being sought.

Bottom line

Ozow is betting it can use better scalability of instant payments in South Africa as a platform for African expansion.

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