Dmitry Shcherba November 29th, 2023

Beyond Banking: How Mobile Wallet Apps Are Bridging the Financial Inclusion Gap

Financial inclusion ensures that individuals and businesses have access to useful and affordable financial products and services. These services help them meet basic needs, protect against vulnerabilities, start or expand businesses, and invest in the future. 

However, according to the findings of World Bank, about 1.7 billion adults globally remain unbanked. Most of them live in developing countries and survive on low incomes. Lack of access to financial services exacerbates poverty and inequality while constraining inclusive economic growth.

The financial inclusion imperative

Financial inclusion is especially critical for emerging economies, home to 85% of the world's unbanked population. Expanding access to these markets carries massive socio-economic benefits. McKinsey estimates that bringing the full unbanked population online could boost GDP across all emerging markets by $3.7 trillion by 2025. Financial access empowers people to save securely, invest in health and education, manage unpredictable income flows, launch small businesses, and gain resilience against shocks - all crucial for prosperity.

However, traditional banking leaves large swathes underserved due to deficiencies in reach, cost structure, accessibility, and customer experience. In contrast, big data in banking is addressing these deficiencies bu enabling more personalized and efficient financial services, thus playing a crucial role in transforming the traditional banking landscape. This makes a compelling case for banks and NBFIs (non-banking financial institutions) in emerging markets to harness mobile phones and digital financial services to responsibly expand access.

Adopting integrated eWallets can help providers rapidly on-board customers with basic KYC, make transfers vastly more affordable via interoperable payment rails, customize experiences to local contexts, and responsibly bring unbanked groups like women, migrants, and gig workers into the formal financial system. This includes leveraging alternative data sources to qualify credit invisible based on cash flow patterns. Such initiatives aligned with account aggregation services hold the key to genuine financial inclusion at scale in emerging markets.

Financial inclusion: Challenges to overcome

Improving financial inclusion is also badly needed for sustainable development and inclusive economic growth globally. Yet many barriers still exclude large parts of the population, especially in emerging economies, from access to basic financial services. This exacerbates inequality and constrains prosperity.

Barriers that hinder financial inclusion include:

  • Lack of physical access. People in remote areas don't have access to bank branches.
  • Affordability. Minimum balances and service fees are beyond low-income budgets.  
  • Exclusivity. People without ID proofs or credit histories don't qualify for accounts.
  • Low awareness and trust. Many doubt traditional banks serve the interests of common people.

However, digital financial services delivered via mobile phones can help bridge these gaps at an immense scale across emerging markets. Solutions like mobile wallets, payment rails, and agent networks can circumvent traditional barriers around cost, documentation, distance, and trust to promote inclusion.

Realizing this potential requires coordinated efforts between banks, NBFIs, governments, regulators, mobile operators, and fintech partners. By working together, they can build seamless enablers to expand the reach and capabilities of mobile-powered financial services. The result will be bringing billions more individuals and micro, small, and medium enterprises into the inclusive umbrella of responsible digital finance.

Digital Technologies Offer a Solution

Recent advances in digital technology provide an opportunity to rapidly expand financial inclusion. Smartphones, mobile internet connectivity, biometrics, big data analytics, blockchain, and cloud computing can circumvent traditional barriers.

Particularly impactful are mobile money wallets that let users store, send, and receive funds via basic mobile phones. Launched around 2007 in Kenya, such services took off globally this past decade. As per the GSMA State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money:

  • The number of registered mobile money accounts grew by 43 million globally in 2021 to surpass 1.35 billion. 
  • The total value of transactions hit $1.1 trillion, up 20% from 2020.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for the most growth, reaching 548 million accounts. However strong uptake continued in South Asia, Latin America, and MENA.

This positions mobile wallets as a potent solution for driving financial inclusion in populous emerging markets.

How Mobile Wallets Bridge the Inclusion Gap

Mobile wallets help underserved people enter the formal financial system in several ways:

  1. Easy Sign-up
  • Opening a mobile wallet only requires a basic mobile phone and SIM card. No paperwork or credit checks are involved.
  • Mobile operators leverage existing data for digital KYC during activation. This eases entry for those without IDs.
  1. Accessible Payments
  • Users can transfer money, pay bills, and shop digitally via basic USSD menus or starter apps.
  • Being network-based, wallets work on all types of phones. Agents assist new users unfamiliar with menus.
  1. Affordable Services 
  • Transacting via mobile wallets costs a fraction of using cash or bank transfers.
  • Most wallet apps allow micropayments, micro-savings, and microinsurance for people with irregular incomes.
  1. Localized Experience
  • Wallet apps now support multiple languages and voice assistance for wider adoption.
  • User workflows mirror local payment practices rather than bank transfer norms.
  1. Impact on Financial Inclusion

An IFC survey covering 5 Sub-Saharan countries found that access to mobile money services significantly improved financial resilience:

  • 53% of female survey respondents reported increased financial autonomy and safety.
  • 65% could now make emergency payments during income shocks or disasters.  
  • 15% of enterprises increased wages and hired more employees.

As this data shows, mobile wallets empower underserved communities in line with key financial inclusion goals like gender equality, resilience to poverty, and enabling entrepreneurship.

Challenges in Scaling Mobile Wallets

While mobile wallets dramatically boost financial access, some barriers slow their growth:

  1. Need for smartphone compatibility. Feature phones still dominate emerging markets. Entry-level wallet apps need to add robust smartphone experiences.
  2. Dependence on mobile operator distribution. Telco exclusivity limits interoperability. Third parties should be allowed to harness the technology.
  3. Security and compliance concerns. Rapid user growth makes wallets vulnerable to cyber fraud and money laundering. Robust safeguards are essential.
  4. Viability beyond cash-in and P2P payments. Adding value-added services can grow revenue streams beyond commissions on deposits and transfers.

What does the future hold for banking and mobile wallet apps? 

The mobile wallet revolution has come a long way in a decade but remains a work in progress. Some developments to watch for:

  • Growth of financial super-apps. Super-apps like Grab, Gojek, Paytm, and M-Pesa go beyond payments to aggregate services ranging from lending to insurance. Their scale can profitably expand financial access.
  • Global interoperability. Systems like Mowali enable mobile money interoperability across geographies. Seamless global money movement can accelerate financial inclusion.
  • Central bank digital currencies. Government-backed digital currencies aim to make digital payments universal. Policy coordination is needed to synergize CBDCs with mobile wallets.  
  • Banking as a service model. Open API infrastructure gives third-party managed access to bank capabilities. This allows nonbanks to use bank-grade rails to enhance mobile wallet security, speed, and versatility.


Mobile wallets have already delivered a seismic shift in financial inclusion over the past decade. And the technology still holds immense disruptive potential to achieve universal financial access.

Realizing this would require coordinated efforts between banks, governments, mobile operators, and technology partners. Working together, they can maximize wallets' coverage, capabilities, and interconnectedness at scale.

The result will be bringing billions more individuals and micro, small, and medium enterprises into the inclusive umbrella of digital financial services. This can significantly contribute to global targets around alleviating poverty, boosting prosperity, and promoting equality.

Featured image by Emil Kalibradov on Unsplash

Dmitry Shcherba

Dmitry Shcherba is Digital Content & PR Executive at Wallet Factory. As a long-time FinTech enthusiast, Dmitry is dedicated to spreading awareness about how financial technology innovations can promote financial inclusion around the world. He firmly believes that digital financial services have immense potential to let the underserved access the global financial system.

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