8 Oct 2015

“MFS in Africa need to keep welcoming innovation” Interview of Elizabeth Rossiello, Bitpesa

Elizabeth Rossiello is CEO and founder of Bitpesa, the first company in the world to link mobile money to Bitcoin. Based in Kenya since 2009, she knows financial services from the Mara to the Board room. 
Elisabeth will join a panel discussion on the future of international remittance services in the Mobile Money programme at AfricaComthis year. She share her thoughts on the subject ahead of the event.

AfricaCom: When and why did BitPesa start and how has your growth been since inception?
Elizabeth Rossiello: BitPesa was founded in Kenya in October 2013 just before Bitcoin gained global attention.  Since then we have expanded into 4 countries (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria) and had over $2M in transactions in the last few months.  We have connected into some of the best mobile money systems across the continent, as well as gained direct access to bank accounts.  Many international businesses use us to pay salaries to their staff in sub-Saharan Africa, making it easier and more efficient to do business in the region.  Some of them have expanded into new countries because our infrastructure was available.

A: What does bitPesa offer the man on the street in East Africa and how has it been received ?
ER: A way to grow their business.  Using BitPesa, they can order things internationally, pay suppliers abroad, or receive payments or salaries from global employers.  It brings East and West Africans into the global marketplace at a low-cost, with a low-barrier to entry. 

A: What would you say are the main challenges that mobile financial services in Africa need to overcome in the short to mid-term?
ER: MFS in Africa need to keep welcoming innovation.  While the African mobile money story was groundbreaking, innovation did not stop thereafter. There are new types of internet/cloud based payments systems, open source apps, and decentralized systems that are pushing the boundary on what we now know.  I think the incredible success of some mobile money systems has made some hesitant to change.   

A: Has the talk of cashless societies been over-hyped and how do you view the role of cash in society in the short to mid-term?
ER: In the last 7 years living in Kenya, I have used increasingly less cash every day.  In fact, I can go months without touching cash. This is the same as when I travel to NY. There are certainly some countries I travel to, like Nigeria, where cashless transactions are everywhere over a certain minimum amount, but there is still no omnipresent low-value cashless transfer system.  As data costs and smartphone penetration increase I think cashless societies are a sure bet in the next 5 years. 

A: How do you feel regulators should foster innovation in the mobile payment space? Is there too much flexibility or too much regulation at present?
ER: It certainly depends on the country and regulator. However, I would love to see more open dialogue between regulators and start-ups working on the latest innovation.  It can be quite difficult to receive clear guidance from some regulators, despite our best efforts to communicate and reach out.  While many regulators do not immediately outlaw innovation if there is no explicit guideline, companies can spend years without any clear statement from regulators.  This affects how investors and new entrants view the ecosystem and scares away potential vectors of growth. 

A: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities to BitPesa with the evolution of the mobile money revolution ?
ER: We are excited to see mobile money ecosystems continue to grow.  We work with and depend on several different mobile money ecosystems and find it very complimentary to our own business.  I would love to see MNOs be more open to start-ups and let them also have open avenues to work together and cooperate on new products. 

A: What will be the focus of your discussions at Mobile Money at Africa Com  ?

ER: I would like to share a bit about the development of global regulation on distributed ledger systems, like Bitcoin, and discuss the traction our company has made in terms of complementing local mobile money ecosystems.  

The Mobile Money programme will take place on Tuesday 17th and Wednesday 18th November at AfricaCom (CTICC, Cape Town, South Africa). For more information on topics covered and speakers click here