“Up until today, I have never received a SIM card from XXX” (a leading mobile network operator). “The agent SIM I use is not mine, it is in the identity of another person, and I bought it from him,” explained Francis Malamu.
Francis is a mobile money agent from Kongo Central in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). His problems with registration came up while we were determining his pathways of becoming a mobile money agent. MicroSave Consulting recently conducted a market research study in the DRC to determine the key trends, success factors, and challenges in the operational management of agent networks. The research comprised 50 in-depth interviews with digital financial services (DFS) agents across the DRC, as well as interviews with key staff from Airtel, Equity, FINCA, Orange, and Vodacom.
In this blog post, we take a deep dive into one of the key findings from the market research study—the reselling of MNO agent SIMs on the black market.
This is not a phenomenon unique to the DRC. In fact, we’ve observed this across numerous markets, usually during the initial stages of DFS industry growth. We believe that DFS providers in the DRC need to address this issue urgently if the sector is to flourish in a way that is sustainable for providers while providing high quality, transformative financial services.
What is the “Black Market” for Agent SIMs?
A black market for agent SIMs is created when the original owner of an agent SIM re-sells it for use by an unregistered third party, who will use the SIM to provide DFS services. A special SIM is necessary to enable a person to act as an MNO agent, carrying out cash-in and cash-out transactions, among other services, and reaping the accompanying commissions.
We established that there are two main reasons for the agent SIM black market:
- MNOs generally have a permissive agent SIM card issuance policy, enabling one agent to own many—or even an unlimited number in some cases—agent SIMs. Some of these are then sold (illegally) to people who are keen to become DFS agents.
- Regulations allow MNOs generally to have agent selection criteria that are less strict than the banking sector. MNOs tend to issue agent SIMs relatively freely to interested parties. Without any real barrier to entry for this work, the perception is that it is an easy job to get and that it will generate income quickly.
Unfortunately, this means many new agent SIM owners are underprepared for the job. They lack capital, skills, and sufficient client base, among other factors. Moreover, agents rely on commission earnings: if they do not transact, they quickly become inactive. Inactive agents may choose to re-sell their SIMs to other people who are interested in becoming agents, thus perpetuating the black market.