Safaricom launched in Ethiopia in 2022, yet its lucrative mobile money service, M-PESA, is yet to launch. It faces competition from Ethio Telecom’s Telebirr, with 34.3 million subscribers. Both services will seek to appeal to Ethiopia’s mobile money users.
In October 2022, Safaricom officially launched operations in Ethiopia after months of lobbying and bidding, which cost $850 million in license fees. However, the launch is just the beginning of its story. Safaricom’s biggest revenue driver in its home country, Kenya, is yet to be introduced in its latest market—the popular mobile money product, M-PESA. The imminent launch of M-PESA in Ethiopia, which will cost the telco an extra $150 million in fees, raises the question – can it compete against a recently established rival, Telebirr, offered by the state-owned Ethio Telecom?
M-PESA’s dominance in Kenya
Before looking into the potential rivalry in Ethiopia, it is worth examining M-PESA’s performance in its home turf, Kenya, where it has been operational since 2007. To say the least, M-PESA has been and continues to be a success, attracting millions of users and generating billions in revenue for Safaricom. While there is room for improvement in transforming the platform into a revolutionary product, M-PESA has successfully sealed partnerships in the financial space over the past few years.
One notable M-PESA-based product is a super app, which integrates services from various companies. By integrating mini apps in the M-PESA ecosystem, such as movie ticketing services, customers no longer need to download multiple apps for each service. M-PESA also offers loan and savings products (M-Shwari and KCB M-PESA), an overdraft facility (Fuliza) in collaboration with two banks (KCB and NCBA), and a service tailored for teens
These offerings have allowed M-PESA to amass a substantial and loyal user base. As per Safaricom’s full-year report, the mobile financial service reported 32.1 million customers by the end of the financial year in March 2023. The service recorded an 8.8% year-on-year growth in revenue, reaching KES 117.19 billion ($824 million), and an increase in transaction volumes, with 21.4% growth to KES 35.86 trillion ($252 billion) and 33.5% growth to 21.03 billion, respectively. M-PESA’s reach extended to businesses and consumers, with one-month active customers rising by 5.2% to 32.11 million. The Safaricom report further showed growth in agents, recording a slight jump of 0.1% to over 262,000, and active merchants under Lipa na M-PESA, its payments service, grew by 23.1% to over 606,000. The mobile money service continues to be the primary revenue generator for Safaricom, accounting for a significant 39.7% of the company’s service revenue.
Telebirr’s emergence in Ethiopia
Contrastingly, Ethiopia’s digital financial landscape has changed with the introduction of Telebirr, a mobile money product that Ethio Telecom runs. Telebirr was launched in August 2021 in collaboration with Dashen Bank to meet the country’s increasing demand for digital financial services and drive financial inclusion.
Telebirr has gained popularity, attracting an extensive user base of 34.3 million subscribers, and has facilitated transactions worth ETB 679.2 billion ($12.3 billion). The development shows its early success in Ethiopia’s financial market. The product covers three digital financial services: Telebirr Sanduq, Telebirr Mela, and Endekise. Telebirr Mela and Endekise have successfully provided over 4.1 billion Birr ($74.4 million) microloans to 2.4 million customers. Over 768,000 customers have used Telebirr’s micro-savings, adding up to more than 3.6 billion Birr, through Telebirr Sanduq. Telebirr partnered with the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia to further expand its services to introduce more financial services similar to those offered by M-PESA, such as loan and savings products.
Telebirr has developed a network involving 615 service centres, 136 master agents, and over 107,300 agents. According to a financial statement seen by TechCabal, integrating various banks allows for money transfers from 23 banks to Telebirr and vice versa, making the service more convenient and versatile.
“In addition, integration with Banks is completed enabling money transfer from Bank to Telebirr in 23 Banks and from Telebirr to Bank in 21 Banks,” Ethio Telecoms noted in its 2022/2023 annual report.
Telebirr has also been inspired by e-Citizen services in Kenya through partnerships with Ethiopian government agencies. “521 governmental and non-governmental institutions have integrated their payment system with Telebirr as part of building digital Ethiopia,” reads a statement by the telecom.
As Safaricom prepares to introduce M-PESA to its 4-million customer base in Ethiopia, it faces stiff competition from Telebirr, which has quickly carved a niche in the Ethiopian financial landscape. While millions of users mark M-PESA’s track record in Kenya, Telebirr’s early success in Ethiopia cannot be ignored. As both services evolve and expand their offerings, the battle for digital financial supremacy in Ethiopia will intensify. Only time will tell which platform emerges as the preferred choice for Ethiopians in their quest for financial inclusion and digital financial services.