Mobile money apps have proven to be a major force in building financial services in emerging economies, but under the hood they can be starkly different.
"There's really not been standards when you look at mobile ecosystems," said Ambar Sur, Founder & CEO of TerraPay, a Netherlands-based mobile payments company that powers an international network for domestic and cross-border transactions.
TerraPay is working with the GSMA, a 22-year-old association that represents mobile network operators, to ensure and promote standardized mobile application programming interfaces. TerraPay will provide a staging environment for a new GSMA Mobile Money Developer portal that will enable education and, the company hopes, easier access, deployment and use of APIs.
"The vision is any mobile number should be able to send money to another mobile account, in any country," said Sur said.
The GSMA portal provides a list of instructions and protocols that were published in late 2016, ending years of complaints among mobile money market stakeholders over the lack of standards or best practices. TerraPay is among the earliest companies using these resources following the March 1 release of the GSMA's APl.
The principals include the use of specific REST architecture in APIs, a set of defined objects that allow API clients to construct a message without requiring specific knowledge of the target server's technology, use of ISO standards for currency and country codes, and using a flexible construct to enable multiple identifier types for mobile money accounts.
"This will open up the ecosystem so people can come in and test on it and get properly credentialed," Sur said.
Sharing technology tools has become a mainstream part of payments technology, maturing to the point where it's seen as a broad cure, with arguments stating that companies not adopting APIs or software development kits may lose competitive advantage. But the news hasn't been all good. The growth of the model creates new security risks, and given the proliferation of APIs it may be hard to build a true standard for all use cases.
"Any toolkit will have its quirks," said Andy Schmidt, an executive advisor at CEB. "It will have some things that it does well and some things that it doesn't do as well."
Schmidt said the toolkits should consider the use case, so an API for cross-border or remittance will be able to develop based on the needs of that market. "It's having the right tools for the job."
TerraPay is targeting at least two trends with its standard API move. The remittance and cross-border payment markets are expanding as new cloud and distributed ledger technology takes cost out of traditional correspondent banking. And telco-powered mobile money apps, generally thought of as the MPesa model, are also growing, reaching a half billion accounts for the first time in 2016. Mobile money has expanded beyond Africa, reaching Asia, South America, India and other emerging markets with large underbanked populations.
TerraPay is active in Europe, Africa, Asia and other markets. It's also active in India, though Sur is not as bullish on the quick growth of digital or mobile payments in that market as many others, who feel that India's cash replacement policy will lead to a dramatic spike in mobile payments in India.
"We have a lot of guidance from the government, and there's a lot of wallets entering the market," Sur said, leaning toward the argument that the quick jump in digital transactions is not sustainable at its present pace and the market will settle with plenty of time to form a mobile strategy. "We're just waiting for things in India to settle down."