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Banks and Phone Companies Vie for South Africa's Hidden Cash

Banks and phone companies try to expand their reach
M-Pesa, a big success in Kenya, is making another run at the South African market
M-Pesa, a big success in Kenya, is making another run at the South African marketPhotograph by Trevor Snapp/Bloomberg

Standard Bank Group hired Itumeleng Heymann to convince her neighbors that their cash would be better off in a bank account than hidden at home. “A lot of people around here don’t have accounts,” says Heymann, 27, wearing a bright blue Standard Bank T-shirt as she works the morning rush at a market in South Africa’s Tembisa township. They “don’t want to open accounts because they are scared that maybe there’s lots of fees. We explain to them why it’s better to have an account instead of putting money under your bed.”

Heymann is part of an army of 1,000 salespeople who are helping the bank battle mobile-wireless companies like Vodacom for the more than 11 million mostly poor South Africans—a third of the adult population—who don’t have bank accounts. Both companies are No. 1 in their industries in South Africa. Johannesburg-based Standard Bank has 31 percent of the nation’s banking assets, according to the Banking Association of South Africa; Vodacom, a unit of Vodafone Group based in Johannesburg, says it controls more than half the wireless market.