BUSINESS

More people than ever open bank accounts, helped by mobile phones, growth in Asian economies

04/15/2015 04:10 EDT | Updated 06/25/2015 04:59 EDT
NEW YORK, N.Y. - Africans using cellphones, older Chinese, and Indians getting a push from their government have fueled an unprecedented surge of people opening their first bank accounts.

The number people with an account — either on mobile phones or at bank branches — jumped by 700 million between 2011 and 2014, the World Bank said Wednesday.

The rise in new worldwide accounts has been driven by the spread of cellphones throughout areas like sub-Saharan Africa, where a bank could be miles away, and by strong economic growth in Asia.

A bank or payment account is a gateway for people to integrate into modern society. Without an account, goods cannot be bought online, money has to be transferred physically, and savings cannot be stored safely. Remittances, where people send cash home to family, becomes expensive and time consuming.

"It's the first step of getting into the world's financial system," says Asli Demirguc-Kunt, who directs research at the World Bank and co-authored its 2014 Global Findex Survey. "Basic financial services can help people save and lift themselves out of poverty and take control of their finances."

Now, 62 per cent of the world's adult population has some sort of bank or payment account compared with 51 per cent in 2011.

Mobile payment accounts are especially popular in Africa, where nearly 12 per cent of the population has a mobile account compared with 2 per cent worldwide, according to the World Bank. Overall account ownership in Africa rose from 24 per cent in 2011 to 34 per cent in 2014, largely driven by the wider use of devices.

In Kenya, the number of people with bank or payment accounts has nearly doubled in three years, with almost all the growth coming from mobile accounts. Now, nearly 80 per cent of the country's 44 million people have access to basic financial services. Tanzania and Uganda also saw a surge in accounts. More than half of farmers in the three African countries are using mobile accounts to sell their goods.

In five African countries — Ivory Coast, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe — more adults have mobile money accounts than traditional bank accounts.

In India, account ownership has risen by 18 percentage points in three years to 53 per cent. A big part of that increase is due to an Indian government program that aims to get every household to open an account. The World Bank estimates that the program spurred 125 million new accounts in four months.

Chinese account ownership also rose sharply to 79 per cent in 2014 from 64 per cent in 2011, with most of the growth coming from people living in rural areas as well as from older adults.

Other key takeaways on worldwide bank accounts:

— WOMEN LAG MEN:

The World Bank says 58 per cent of women have an account, up from 47 per cent in 2011, while 65 per cent of men have a bank account, up from 54 per cent in 2011. That 7 percentage point gap between the genders is consistent with the last World Bank survey, in 2011. Account ownership among women is particularly low in the Middle East, where women are half as likely to have an account. However, the gap between women and men decreased when the World Bank only considered wage-earning women.

"As women's participation in the labour force rises, that will be one way to close the gap between women and men," says Leora Klapper, lead economist and co-author of the Global Findex report.

Female account ownership is important because it can provide a separate, safe place for women to store savings and allows them to make their own spending decisions, Klapper says.

— A JUMP IN DEVELOPING WORLD ACCOUNTS

In the developing world, account ownership rose by 13 percentage points between 2011 and 2014. However, it still lags the developed world significantly. In the developed world, 94 per cent of adults have a bank or payment account compared to 54 per cent in the developing world.

— NUMBER OF 'UNBANKED' DROPS

In 2011, the number of adults without bank accounts totalled 2.5 billion worldwide. Now it's 2 billion, a 20 per cent fall.

— THE SURVEY:

The World Bank and Gallup surveyed nearly 150,000 people in 143 countries and territories. The survey period varied from country to country, with some interviews done as early as February 2014 and some as late as December 2014, using both phone and in-face interviews. The margin for error varied by country, and was as low as 2.2 per cent in China to as high as 5.2 per cent in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

This is the second time the World Bank has done this survey. The original Global Findex survey was published in 2012, using 2011 data.