Monday, March 22, 2010

Egypt awards mobile transfer licence to BNP Paribas

By Alastair Sharp

CAIRO, March 22 (Reuters) - Egypt's central bank has granted BNP Paribas preliminary approval for a mobile money transfer licence via local operator Mobinil, a first step to wider use of banking services in a country underserved by banks.

The licence will, for the first time in Egypt, allow a registered user to transfer money to another user via mobile phone. Only around 10 percent of Egypt's 78 million people have bank accounts, while there are 55 million mobile telephone subscriptions.

"We are aiming for mid-year (launch), however it is subject to the authority's agreement," the head of BNP's Egyptian unit Philippe Joannier told Reuters on Monday. "We do not expect major problems; there is no real uncertainty."

Joannier said in February the bank was expecting the licence by mid-March for its M-Wallet product.

The bank still needs to finalise its contract with Mobinil and have it approved by the central bank, Joannier said, declining to give details of the agreement with Egypt's largest mobile operator by subscribers.

Joannier said while the licence would initially only allow money transfers, this was likely to change as the system develops.

"At this stage the central bank is saying it is purely for Egyptian pounds in Egypt. No credit interest on the balance of the account, no lending allowed, and no link whatsoever between bank accounts and mobile accounts," he said.

"I believe this situation will change year after year," he said, adding that in the Philippines it is possible to transfer foreign currency from abroad and in Kenya to provide loans.

Customers will be able to move small amounts of money outside the formal banking system via an existing network of shops that sell phone credit. This network reaches much deeper into the Egyptian countryside than the retail banking network does.

"For us it is a very long-term investment, and we would hate to be absent from something that I believe will cover 50 percent of the population," he said.

Joannier said the bank was being guided by its experience with a partnership with France Telecom's Orange unit in Ivory Coast, as well as other firms' systems in Kenya, South Africa and the Philippines.

Vodafone, which runs an Egyptian unit that competes with Mobinil, has partial ownership of Kenya's Safaricom, whose M-Pesa mobile payment and money transfer service has at least 8 million customers.