This morning the World Bank hosted a panel on mobile money, the set of phone-based technologies that could bring basic financial services to the world’s poorest people. It’s a big deal, and the panel predictably featured Chidi Okpala of Bharti Airtel, a mobile provider in sub-Saharan Africa, Kamal Quadir, the chief executive of bKash, a Bangladeshi mobile money provider, and other obvious players. The surprise panelist, however, was Hortensia Contreras Torres, who runs electronic services for Mexico’s Grupo Bimbo, one of the largest baking companies in the world.
That’s “baking,” not “banking.”
Although mobile money sounds shiny and digital, you can’t actually start a mobile money service until you have places where people can get cash in and out of your system. The more places, the better. This has been the problem the global poor have had with traditional banks—there just aren’t enough branches. What Grupo Bimbo has discovered is that every one of the 700,000 mom-and-pop stores that buy its products could very well also be a bank.
Using technology from a South African digital payment company called Blue Label, Grupo Bimbo is installing machines in its customers’ stores that top up mobile airtime and pay utility bills. Visa has also chipped in, which will permit cashless payments as well. Technicians literally arrive on the bread truck to set up machines and train shop owners.
In developed economies, we expect banks to do three basic things: money transfer, loans, and savings. Bimbo is picking off one of these—money transfer—and offering it to its customers as a way to help them compete with the big box stores moving into Mexico. This is not a revolution, but it does turn mom-and-pop stores bank-ish, making them, along with Bimbo, a completely different kind of entrant in the contest to see who provides the next several billion bank accounts. The field is now open to any company with a lot of stores in a lot of places. That’s a lot of companies.