Money transfer companies see rise in new customers

Having fled an economic implosion in his native Zimbabwe, Brighton Takawira was able to support his mother back home with modest earnings from a small perfume business he set up in South Africa.

Then Covid-19 struck. Borders closed. The buses he had used to send his cash stopped running.

"I had to send something, even a few dollars," said Takawira, though it meant sometimes going without bread. So he tried out an online remittance company on a friend's recommendation.

He is one of many African migrants being pushed towards digital transfer services.

This is fueling a boom for Africa-focused money transfer companies, despite predictions from the World Bank of a historic 20 per cent drop to Sh46 billion in remittances to poorer countries this year due to a pandemic-induced global economic slump.

"We saw an increase of transfers as the diaspora wanted to help their family," said Patrick Roussel, who heads mobile financial services at Orange.

Like Takawira, many had to dip into savings or make sacrifices. The virus gave remittance firms an advantage over their competitors - bus drivers and travellers used to send money home.

"We've seen an influx of new customers, and we see them mainly coming to us from the informal market," said Andy Jury, chief executive of Mukuru, the company Takawira now uses.

Jury and other industry executives say that shift is likely to last as digital remittance services are cheaper, faster and safer. Mukuru, which allows customers to send cash and groceries, has seen a 75 per cent acceleration in growth compared to last year.

Remittances to sub-Saharan Africa totaled Sh5 trillion last year, according to the World Bank. Experts say such figure tells only part of the story.

Much of the money Africans ship home via informal networks is absent from official data.

According to the Central Bank of Kenya data, remittance inflows for September hit Sh28.4 billion compared to Sh23.4 billion in the same period last year.

Remittance inflows to Zimbabwe were up 33 per cent through July. Remittance firm WorldRemit said transfers to Zimbabwe have doubled in six months.

Azimo saw a nearly 200 per cent increase in new customers in April, May and June.