Introducing The Global Prepaid Economy

This week, that venerable newspaper The Financial Times, published an original piece of writing on the World Economic Forum’s Agenda blog. Its not a reprint from their own publication. It proposes the end of “Emerging Markets” (EM) as we know them:

Now, commentators say, it is the world’s mental map that is in dire need of an overhaul, particularly when it comes to the practice of categorising countries as “emerging” or “developed” markets.

The current economic hierarchy, which places emerging nations at the periphery and developed markets at the core of world affairs, no longer accurately describes a world in which EM countries contribute a bigger share to global gross domestic product than their developed counterparts, when measured by purchasing power parity. Nor does the capacious category, which lumps together countries of such diverse economic strengths as China and the Czech Republic, serve to illuminate crucially different realities between these nations.

“The EM term has outgrown its usefulness,” says Michael Power, strategist at Investec, a fund management company. “The term today embraces big and small, developed and under-developed, industrialised and agrarian, manufacturing and commodity-based, rich and poor, deficit runners and surplus runners, and I could go on,” he adds. At issue are not merely the niceties of symmetry and order.

As someone who has been looking at emerging markets, one way or another, for the past 10 years, both in my writing as well as in my work, this comes as a welcome relief. These markets can’t still be emerging, I thought, when I was in New Delhi at the beginning of June this year.

Yet, in some ways, we need the conceptual means to capture their dynamic potential, as they’re still in motion. As the article concludes:

These contradictions threaten to consign the term emerging markets to the dustbin. But if it follows the likes of “third world” into virtual extinction, its passage will raise the question of what, if anything, should replace it.

prepaid-globalgsma-2011-2013

The Global Prepaid Economy. (Data: GSMA Intelligence)

In November 1996, Vodacom South Africa was the first network in the world to introduce prepaid airtime on an Intelligent Network platform, which made it possible to debit customers’ accounts while they were speaking. Two years later, they went on to win the Global Mobile Award for the “Best GSM Service” for the VodaGo prepay system. Less than twenty years later, prepaid airtime is the dominant business model across the entire planet.

And, interestingly, if you look at the map above, the economies where the prepaid business model dominates are more or less those which were formerly known as emerging markets, frontier markets, developing countries and/or the majority of the erstwhile third world.

2014 prepaid data gsmaAcross emerging markets and developing countries, the preference for prepaid mobile services cuts across income range, socio-economic class or type of employment. Choosing to pay as you use seems to have little or nothing to do with regular paychecks, bank accounts, credit cards or age.  So vast is it that one can consider it an economic characteristic in its own right.

The global Prepaid Economy.

What do all the regions where the prepaid business model dominates have in common?

  • Cash intensive
  • Informal sector employs more than the formal
  • Still developing
  • More volatile
  • Higher uncertainty
  • Less social safety nets
  • Faster growth

What does the prepaid business model do for the customer?

It empowers them. Control over how much to spend (the amount), and its timing (the frequency and periodicity of purchases) is in the hands of the end user, the mobile subscriber. There’s no bill at the end of the month, to be paid by a deadline, for an as yet unknown amount. That is, there are no surprises.

Why does this matter?

In cash intensive operating environments, where expenses must be managed within the constraints of cash available on hand, the prepaid model offers manageable access to voice, text and data. Where the informal sector might be the source of employment for a greater majority of the population, uncertainty is a defining characteristic as incomes may be irregular, unpredictable and/or seasonal. That is, there is a greater degree of volatility to be managed. And, where there are fewer social safety nets to rely on, surprises in the form of a bill at the end of the month might make the difference between going hungry to bed or putting meat on the table.

In this series of articles, I’ll be taking a look at the nature of the prepaid economy and characteristics common across many geographies. Next part will look at the relationship between Time and Money.

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