Digital Innovation: On the Frontier of Financial and Digital Inclusion in Sub-Saharan Africa

November 24, 2022

By Mark Elliott, Division President of Mastercard, Sub-Saharan Africa 

As the digital economy continues to grow, increasingly relevant financial solutions emerge. Consumers can access services that make their lives simpler, and businesses run more agile and efficient operations with enhanced potential. Governments can reach more citizens. Long-term prosperity comes into vision for more and more people. It is why financial inclusion is so critical. Because financial inclusion is the first step to financial security.  

At Mastercard, we are innovating for impact in financial and digital inclusion. In 2020, Mastercard doubled down on its financial inclusion commitment to connect a total of 1 billion individuals and 50 million micro and small merchants to the digital economy by 2025 – with a direct focus on 25 million women entrepreneurs.  

While this is a global goal, there is a vast amount of work to be done in Africa, because there's widespread inequality and exclusion that persists. We have a responsibility to continually think about how we can find different and more innovative ways to address t.  

Innovation unlocks digital inclusion 

Local innovation is critical in driving inclusion. As a global technology company, we cannot simply pull things off the shelf from our product set in the US or Europe and expect it to work in Africa. This is especially true in an environment where many people may still have limited access to basic technology and financial services. To create products and services that truly solve the local pain points for communities in Africa, we must think carefully about the technology and partnerships that will further these goals.  

The adoption of digital payments is becoming increasingly relevant, and in Africa, mobile phone adoption is inextricably linked to this. For millions who have never had a brick-and-mortar bank account, leapfrogging legacy banking to digital first banking services is an easy transition. 

This dynamic makes it even more important for institutions in the financial payment space to adopt ‘Digital First’ platforms. The Mastercard Digital First program provides or partners with a complete digital experience in the world of payment methods. Digital First provides the customer with a 100% digital product: no paperwork, branch visits or snail mail. Customers can open a bank account immediately by uploading identification, apply for a card, activate it, and use it for all their payment needs from their mobile devices. A physical visit to a branch then becomes an optional extra. 

Though the financial sector is already digitally transforming, there are still some barriers to progress, which include a preference for cash – often in areas where there is limited infrastructure. It is important to note that access to the internet and data is a critical enabler for adoption of digital financial services. Digital inclusion is a prerequisite for financial inclusion.  

At Mastercard we are addressing this challenge through our partnership with Samsung, Airtel, and Asante Financial Services to put digital devices in the hands of more people who can pay for them with small, manageable instalments while also building a credit history.   

Digital commerce enabled for small businesses 

A stable, growing, connected small business can be the key to financial inclusion for the whole community. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) have been trending toward digital banking and payments for some time and changed behaviours during the pandemic accelerated this shift. While small businesses traditionally lagged larger ones in omni-channel presence, the trend of shopping from home, and the need for touch-free payments in-store ignited a need for them to accept digital payments. 

For example, when we realized that the most urgent need of SMEs in South Africa was to start selling online using e-commerce without having access to tools or knowledge, our collaboration with Standard Bank resulted in a solution that helps businesses move online and accept digital payments. The online solution involves having a dedicated website in a matter of minutes, receiving orders, accepting payments, and finding a delivery partner. 


New technologies like Mastercard’s Tap on Phone, which turns an Android phone into a contactless acceptance device, is further helping small businesses to adapt. For microbusinesses that largely operate in the cash economy, Mastercard Quick Response (QR) code technology provides a simple and more affordable solution to accept card payments than traditional POS devices for both online and face-to-face transactions. 

Access to credit is also a major paint point in Sub-Saharan Africa, with SMEs facing a massive finance gap of US$330 billion, according to the World Bank. In Kenya, a partnership with consumer goods company Unilever and KCB Bank helped resolve the need for financing. Called Jaza Duka, Swahili for ‘fill up your store’, the program connects the dots between the small retailer, which has been procuring and selling little shampoo sachets for years, and the bank. The distributor who sells to the storeowner becomes the data intermediary, making it possible for the storeowner to get credit from the formal rather than the informal system at one-tenth the cost. We also teamed up with Kasha, the purpose driven digital retail and distribution platform, to include an additional 5,000 micro, small and medium enterprises into the program. 

Fast track inclusion with fintech 

Kasha has a long legacy of collaboration with Mastercard, having joined our Start Path engagement programme in 2019, which invites later stage fintech start-ups to participate in a rigorous six-month engagement programme, benefit from mentorship and the get introduced to our broad network of partners around the world. Over 300 companies globally have come through this programme, and we’ve seen stars from South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Rwanda excel in driving financial inclusion.  

Another of those African Start Path companies is Hello Tractor. It connects tractor owners to farmers through an Internet of Things-enabled digital solution that bridges the gap between manual and mechanized farming. This gives smallholder farmers easier access to affordable tractor services and equipment rental, so they can plant on time and increase yields. 

Reaping real rewards in agriculture  

In Sub-Saharan Africa over 60% of the population are smallholder farmers. Economic growth from agriculture in Africa is four times more effective at reducing extreme poverty than any other sector.  Inclusion in agriculture is a fantastic place to make an impact. 

Yet farmers face significant challenges, including limited access to markets, access to working capital to secure quality seeds and pesticides, and access to relevant financial tools to pay and get paid efficiently.  

To help smallholder farmers overcome these challenges and transition from subsistence to commercial farming, Mastercard launched a digital platform in 2015 called Farm Pass, bringing together various agri-sector stakeholders from the supply and demand sides in one agricultural marketplace. Smallholder farmers can sell their produce at a better price, access quality inputs and farming information, get paid and pay digitally and develop a financial profile that can unlock financing opportunities for working capital and inputs. 

Across Africa, Farm Pass has already helped nearly 1 million smallholder farmers access better prices. It is transforming agricultural ecosystems and connecting farmers to the formal financial system, also providing them with a digital record that could support future loan applications. During the pandemic, farmers were able to sell produce at 25%-50% higher prices by connecting directly with buyers in Farm Pass, even though local markets were closed.  

Soon, more farmers will discover its benefits because of the partnership between Mastercard and Ecobank Group, which will see Farm Pass rolled out to 33 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, growing the solution’s footprint beyond Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania where it is currently live. And as more farmers move from subsistence to commercial farming, it will in turn stimulate agricultural growth, increase competitiveness, and improve food security in Africa – which has also experienced the knock-on effects of disrupted supply chains due to the Ukraine crisis. 

Tech for good 

These solutions, which help create new connections, truly showcase ‘tech for good’. And the efforts are recognized. It’s been wonderful to see Mastercard awarded ‘Best Financial Inclusion Services Provider’ at the recent Digital Banker Awards – for three markets, namely Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. 

Mastercard’s goal is to build a connected digital economy that is secure, sustainable, financially inclusive, and works for everyone. Such ecosystems are built as a concerted effort undertaken by private and public stakeholders. We are excited to continue collaborating with like-minded partners, in and beyond payments. By applying our expertise, insights and solutions to forge pioneering and scalable commercial models across sectors and industries – so we can enable a bright and more financially inclusive future for all. 




About Mastercard (NYSE: MA)

Mastercard is a global technology company in the payments industry. Our mission is to connect and power an inclusive, digital economy that benefits everyone, everywhere by making transactions safe, simple, smart and accessible. Using secure data and networks, partnerships and passion, our innovations and solutions help individuals, financial institutions, governments and businesses realize their greatest potential. Our decency quotient, or DQ, drives our culture and everything we do inside and outside of our company. With connections across more than 210 countries and territories, we are building a sustainable world that unlocks priceless possibilities for all.

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