Why QR code payment would never succeed in Africa

Paying with QR code is so cool. All you need to do is bring out your smartphone, take a snapshot, and voila, payment is made. The simplicity and versatility are simply unparalleled. QR code payments have been adapted from in-store shopping; to online payments; to even paying for cable subscription on TV.

As much as you would love QR code, it’s not really a global phenomenon. While QR code is in use almost everywhere in the world, it’s more prevalent in China. It’s so popular in China that is regarded as a currency – it’s practically the only way to pay for anything. This is even more evident in that kids as young as four years may never have seen cash before. Remember, if you carry cash around in China, people will probably think you have lost your mind.

QR, which means Quick Response, code has a fascinating background. It was invented by a Japanese company called Denso Wave in 1994 as a means of tracking vehicles during manufacturing. Just imagine robots bringing out their smartphones to snap pictures of cars. That may not have been how it worked, but you get the drift. After a while, people figured that if QR codes could be used to identify car parts then it could also be used to identify things to be paid for. Before long, it was adapted to various situations. Considering that QR code is similar to a fancy barcode, it could now be put or printed on practically any surface with a display.

However, Tencent popularized the use of QR code for payments when it started embedding it into its WeChat platform. The accessibility and ease of use made for a viral adoption and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, if QR code is versatile, cheap, and cheerful, why hasn’t it been used to transform payments in Africa? I guess it’s easier said than done.

Seeing how successful QR code has been in Asia, many attempts have been made to bring this magic to Africa. But practically each of these has failed woefully. I recall a meeting I had with one of the global payments giants in Tanzania in 2016; they wanted to use QR code to make payments in the country but failed to read the tea leaves; the Telco they were pitching put them on the next plane out of Darussalam.

It’s not rocket science to figure out why QR codes schemes never work in Africa. Some are obvious while others require seeing beyond technology into the realities of the African space.

The lack of network effect is one of the major killers of payment schemes in Africa, QR code included. Quite a number of supposedly smart fintechs naively believe their innovative products can be scaled without leveraging on others; instead of establishing a common standard, they go at it alone. And usually watch the product die alone as well. Companies like Tencent and Alibaba who can define new ecosystems are a rarity. Majority of successful companies rely on common standards and collaborate actively with others to thrive.  By the way, there is now an EMV standard for QR code, it’s too little too late.

While the sale and adoption of smartphones have been impressive for years, the reality is that Africa is still an impoverished continent where 41% of us live below the poverty line. Being poor means only 33% of Africans can afford a smartphone even if they barely made it through getting a feature phone. QR code payments depend 100% on smartphones, and where the majority can’t afford smartphones, the chance of QR scaling is zero.

The beauty and elegance of QR code payments come alive when you use it; but needs a working Internet. Unfortunately, telecoms services in Africa are shitty because of many reasons; poor investment, dilapidated infrastructure, fiber cables getting sabotaged, sometimes thieves making away with batteries and other telecoms equipment. With a patchy network, payments get stalled, and after a few failed attempts that must have taken many minutes into completing a transaction, little wonder QR codes get abandoned

And even for the few that have smartphones, they hardly leave the mobile data on. Also, though most Africans get their internet from their mobile phones, data is still costly in most parts of the continent. Consequently, savvy users turn off their data; the chore of turning it on for just payment is significant friction that has made QR code payments not habit-forming.

Lastly, payments apps in Africa have poor usability, which doesn’t exclude even the largest pan-African banks. In fact, you could almost say that app usability is inversely proportional to the size of the bank; the smaller fintechs have snazzier designs and more responsive interfaces. Poor customer experience means it takes just a little too long to bring out a smartphone, unlock it, spend minute logging in, finding the QR menu, and getting payments done. Imagine a scenario at a retail checkout where a paying customer is spending minutes fumbling with her phone when cash and cards are faster. Here comes the death of QR.

While QR has stumbled across Sub-Saharan Africa, other payment methods, which are aware of the African realities, such as USSD and STK, have made significant progress. M-Pesa processes billions of transactions each year over STK. 35% of the over 700 million interbank transfers in Nigeria in 2018 were made on USSD.

Would QR code ever catch on in Africa as the infrastructure gets better and smartphones cheaper? Maybe. Maybe not. But for the time being, it has been certified dead on arrival, needing no post-mortem inquiry.

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