An interesting, but inaccurate headline appeared on the Financial Times today: Africa’s digital money heads to Europe.

A close look reveals this has little to do with “digital money” per se, but rather with monetary payments made by phone. Nonetheless, the wave is about to spread.

The mobile payment system that has revolutionised business and banking in sub-Saharan Africa is to come to Europe as Vodafone seeks to spread the popular digital currency outside emerging markets.

Vodafone has acquired an e-money licence to operate financial services in Europe, with plans to launch M-Pesa (which means mobile money in Swahili) in Romania as a first step to potential expansion in the region.

M-Pesa has become so popular in parts of Africa that it is now a virtual currency, offering a secure means of payment for people who do not have easy access to banking services. A mobile phone text message is all that is needed to pay for everything from bills and schools fees to flights and fish, and means that the mobile phone can double as an office for the continent’s smaller entrepreneurs.

Vodafone now hopes to win over an estimated 7m Romanians who mainly use cash.

Michael Joseph, Vodafone director of mobile money, said that the European e-money license would allow Vodafone to operate M-Pesa in other markets, although he indicated that the focus would be on central and eastern Europe.

“There are one or two [countries] we are looking at but [these are] unlikely to be in western Europe in the next year or so,” he said, adding that countries with a large migrant population such as Italy were potential markets.

In Kenya, where M-Pesa launched in 2007, the platform is so widely used that a third of the country’s $44bn economy washes through the system, sold by 79,000 agents nationwide. It has since been extended to Tanzania, Egypt, Lesotho and Mozambique.

More recently, M-Pesa has been introduced in India, where Vodafone is seeing rapid growth given the large numbers of people without bank accounts. More than 1m people have registered in India, although Vodafone expects that will accelerate if revised regulations being considered by the Reserve Bank of India ease restrictions on such money platforms.

Romanian M-Pesa customers will be able to transfer as little as one new Romanian leu (0.22 euro cents) up to 30,000 lei (€6,715) per day.

“The majority of people in Romania have at least one mobile device, but more than one-third of the population do not have access to conventional banking,” Mr Joseph said.

M-Pesa had about 16.8m active customers at the end of last year, generating about €900m in transactions per month. While M-Pesa was originally conceived as a means to retain customers in Kenya’s mobile phone market, it is now profitable in its own right with $143m in revenues from the 18.2m M-Pesa customers in Kenya alone, or about 18 per cent of overall country sales.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock