The brains behind this rapid growing platform which has revolutionized the way people spend, save, and send money, is a Tanzanian, Epimack Mbeteni, the M-Commerce Director at the telecom firm. In this interview with Guardian on Saturday Reporter, Mbeteni sheds light on issue, excerpts:
How did you get into the telecoms sector?
My story begins at the University of Dar es Salaam in 2003 where I was among students of computer engineering. Vodacom had just started their graduate trainee (GT) program which identifies potential young brains to join the company.
I was one of the three that joined the company in 2004. From the moment I joined, I knew for sure this is where I was meant to be.
What was your role when you joined as a graduate trainee?
I actually joined as a system administrator in the IT department where I was managing a platform for post-paid customers and later on I managed subscriber administration platform which was like a central customer database.
I worked in IT department for six years but my dream was bigger than that because my ambition was not only moving into the commercial business unit, but actually heading the department because I felt it is where the “action” was.
I learnt that it is the commercial department that makes things happens through sales and marketing. There is a difference between enjoying a meal in the sitting room and actually being in the kitchen cooking it – I wanted to be in the kitchen, know how the food is cooked and cook it myself.
How did you pursue your dream and what motivated you?
As I said, I always wanted to be in the commercial business unit but I did not know how to get there from IT.
I knew I needed to learn and was on the lookout for opportunities to do something new. So when I saw a job opening in a different telco doing something out of IT, I knew that was my chance. I applied and got the job, I left Vodacom but kept my dream of coming back alive.
I was working for systems in the mobile money space for three years, which is where I first interacted with mobile money and immediately knew it was a game-changer. I worked hard to learn all about it and was a top performer which led to me being approached by another telco to set up their mobile money system.
The project had stalled for two years but I was able to launch it in six months then left and returned to Vodacom.
Back to Vodacom, what made you take keen interest in mobile money?
Returning to Vodacom felt like coming back home and because this time I joined the M-Commerce Department. This time I was exactly where I wanted to be and as head of product development, I knew I would make a difference.
I was awed by the uptake of mobile money in the country and happy to see the impact we were having not only on the economy but in the lives of Tanzanians so for me M-Pesa was more than a product, it was the future.
Why is M-Pesa so important to you and why should we watch out for it?
I believe businesses thrive when they have an impact to the society by providing solutions to their problems. In the past decade, M-Pesa has moved from just allowing people to send and receive money and to become an intrinsic part of life.
Today people save on M-Pesa, access loans, use it as a banking service but we have also simplified payments for electricity and water for instance and we support digital payments to government.
M-PESA is a key revenue driver for Vodacom contributing 34.5 percent. We are still growing by double digits year on year because of the solutions we offer to people and we are still coming up with innovative solutions to meet the real time needs of Tanzanians.
How do you see competition from rival telcos and commercial banks?
For me it is a good challenge and I welcome competition in the market. With 39 percent market share and slightly over nine million customers, we are bullish about growth prospects and maintain the leading position because we have strategically invested in key products.
We have done massive investments in infrastructure and we have clear diversification of our products. For instance, we have just launched Sharia compliant Halal-Pesa in partnership with Amana Bank to meet needs of Moslems.
Earlier this year we launched M-Koba in partnership with TPB Bank Plc to provide digital financial solutions to individuals engaged in savings through formal Vicoba and informal savings groups.
We have registered over 1,500 groups in two months, this is because M-Koba offers them exactly what they were lacking; transparency, security and record-keeping.
Actually if you ask me, the main competition for M-Pesa is not other mobile money operators but hard cash. In Tanzania more than 90 percent of financial transactions are cash transaction and all mobile money operators are working to bring it down.
So what are your plans to take the product to the next level?
Cash is very expensive; it cost the government a lot to print, handle and distribute cash all over the country in terms of transport and security.
The benefits of moving towards cash-less society are many including reduction of crime. Illegal transactions such as drugs trade and smuggling typically take place with cash to leave no trail.
Moving Tanzania towards a cashless economy is my top agenda. Vodacom has a vision to take Tanzania to the digital age, for me this means moving us to an economic state where bank notes or coins used in financial transactions gradually decline to pave the way for digital and mobile payments.
We continue to diversify M-Pesa products by coming up with innovative solutions for Tanzanians. We will also continue to grow the M-Pesa ecosystem through interoperability with financial institutions, businesses and government institutions thus pushing for financial inclusion.
Our promise to our customer is to reach a point where they will never need their wallets and handbags; all they need is their phone and a Vodacom simcard.
What is the secret behind M-Pesa’s success in the market?
I believe people are the driving force behind M-Pesa’s success. Our strongest asset is our team- I have a strong and motivated team who share the same vision as me. Businesswise we have the largest network with more than 106,000 M-Pesa agents which means we are everywhere. We have also invested a lot in our infrastructure, technology and marketing.
You are the first Tanzanian director of the M-Commerce department since it was established in 2008, what does it mean to you?
I vividly remember what my boss said to me upon appointment to this position; as the first Tanzanian to head a commercial unit at Vodacom, the investors were placing so much responsibility on me saying, ‘You have to succeed and perform well because all eyes are on you,’ so I carry the dreams of a nation, I have to prove that we Tanzanians can perform in large corporates. I am determined to performance at the highest standards possible.
Beyond career progression, what is more important about this position is my contribution to the company and the nation. I want to contribute positively to the development of the company and my country in terms of transforming lives, contribution to the economy and expanding access and scope of financial services.
Where do you see the future of mobile money in the country?
I am optimistic of future prospects as the government is encouraging growth in mobile money services to push financial inclusion. Mobile money is the secret to achieving this and attaining a cashless society.
I also envision a future where mobile money ventures into strategic areas such as agriculture to see how we can help to further empower farmers through our financial services.