Saturday, April 19, 2014

Had enough of mobile money hype? Look at Cambodia and renew your faith.

I will start this blog post by declaring my bias. I was the founding managing director of WING Cambodia and spent close to three wonderful years living and working in that beautiful and mesmerizing country. I also spent seven years working in mobile money, and have observed business models in Kenya, South Africa, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and China, in addition to numerous other countries. I have recently moved back into the mainstream financial services world, so now have the benefit of looking at mobile money from a distance. An article was recently published on the growth of mobile money in Asia and sadly there was no mention of WING in Cambodia, despite in being one of the first mobile money operations in Asia and globally, hence I felt compelled to write this blog.

I recently joked with a group of industry friends that ‘2014 was going to be the year of mobile money’. The reason why this was a joke is that we have been saying the same thing for the last five years! Our cynicism is driven by the fact that the success of mobile money has been incredibly hyped. The reality is that there are very few successful mobile money operations in the world, and most media and attention focuses on the same three every time; M-Pesa in Kenya, Easy Paisa in Pakistan, and bKash in Bangladesh, with a liberal sprinkling of MTN in Africa. Without undermining the success of those operations, isn’t it time that other successes be celebrated, particularly in an industry with such little success? So recognizing my innate bias, I challenge the mobile money world to take a closer look at what is happening in Cambodia. Initial owners ANZ started WING in early 2008, and a small and dedicated team managed to build and launch the business within nine months. The first couple of years were tough, with middling interest by the owners, and the normal development time it takes for a payment business to build scale. ANZ divested WING in 2011, and it would not be an understatement to say that the business has gone from strength to strength since that time.

WING broke even as a business in 2013, and reports that it will have its first profitable year in 2014. Whilst a longer period then the original business case estimated, five years to profitability is a reasonable outcome considering the margins on transactions and the need to build sufficient payment volume. Payment volume in 2013 was a whopping US$1.5 billion in a country where GDP is approximately US$14 billion. Contrast this with Easy Paisa in Pakistan who reported payment volume of US$1.4 billion in 2012 after launching at a similar time to WING. The GDP of Pakistan in 2012 was $225.1 billion or 16 times that of Cambodia! So WING is now profitable and has achieved significant payment volume in a relatively small country. Fantastic stuff. However the really interesting development in Cambodia for me as an emerging market payments professional is what WING is now leveraging given its mass.

The core business of WING is similar to that of Visa or MasterCard, with one exception. Visa is a four party model where they bring together the customer, the merchant, the issuer and the acquirer. In the WING model, they are both the issuer and the acquirer, and therefore maintain their own merchant network and issue accounts to customers. Like Visa however, WING is using its volume in Cambodia to leverage into new products. Visa devotes a lot of time and investment to products outside its core in order to maintain its value proposition in a world of challengers. Information products, digital wallets and corporate propositions all provide Visa with an improved ability to drive transactions to the core.

WING appears to be following a similar strategy. As payment volume increases exponentially, WING is finding new ways for customers to transact, and like Visa recognizes that these new products will drive transactions to the core. Here is an example of some of the new products that WING has launched over the last couple of years:
  • eCommerce transactions with PIN authentication on the mobile
  • A joint WING & FTB Bank Visa prepaid card, topped up using a WING account
  • Loan repayments at a variety of microfinance institutions
  • Bill payments at almost all major billers in Cambodia including electricity and water
  • Integration with online games platform including Facebook to allow in-game purchases
  • Payroll and disbursement services

WING is focused on both its core service of transferring money safely and cheaply, but is also leveraging its capabilities by providing an increasingly sophisticated suite of services for Cambodians in urban and rural locations. Coupled with its impressive growth I would challenge the mobile money industry to turn its attention to the success of WING. With its many political and economic challenges Cambodia needs positive media attention and how better to do so then by focusing on how a local company is changing the financial services landscape for the better.

-       Brad Jones

Brad Jones was Managing Director of WING Cambodia from late 2007 until mid-2010. He then worked at Visa on their emerging markets mobile strategy in Africa, Middle East and Asia before spending a year consulting to IFC and a number of other clients. He now works in a transformation and growth role for a bank in Singapore.


  1. Hi Brad, Great article! I think it is particularly important to recognise the level of integration with the mainstream that has been achieved by WING. When you look at its usage for bill payment (particularly for core services) and payroll it is clear that WING is serious business and a standout in terms of financial inclusion. Silicon Valley keeps pumping out flashy first world peripheral capabilty and niche networks but here we have a proper solution.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this up.

  2. Thanks for your comments Rene. I have always believed that the more integrated mobile money becomes with mainstream payments, the more successful it will be. Appreciate you reading!


  3. Agree with you Brad, WING has not been highlighted as it should have been. It has the max number of features in a mobile banking platform.

    Tech Lead - WING Dev Team ( 2008 - 2010)


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