[Interview] Africa is central to our long-term growth strategy, says Visa CEO

AI Kelly is the Chairman and CEO of the global payments firm Visa. He joined Visa in October 2016 as Chief Executive Officer and was elected Chairman of the Board in April 2019.

Prior to Visa, Mr. Kelly was President and Chief Executive Officer at Intersection, a technology and digital media company which is an Alphabet-backed private company based in New York City.

How do you see Africa’s role in the global economy, and how important is the continent to Visa? 

Africa is home to both the world’s youngest population and six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies—two factors that will have an increasingly transformative effect on the economic and social trajectory of the world. As more and more people connect to the internet and gain mobile connectivity—both shifts accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic—Africa will continue to experience a significant economic and digital transformation. All of this points to Africa’s growing role in the global economy.

For Visa, Africa is central to our long-term growth strategy. Over the years, we have focused our efforts on giving both buyers and sellers on the continent access to digital commerce. Visa serves each of the 54 African countries from 11 offices, including a new office in the Democratic Republic of Congo that officially opened this week. We have a truly local business with teams across the continent, supporting public sector and private sector partners. Today there are more than 128M Visa cards in Africa and almost two million merchant locations that accept Visa payments.

Even so, cash remains a primary payment option for millions on the continent, leaving many outside the formal financial system and without the kind of security and reliability digital payments offer. We see a tremendous opportunity, particularly in rural communities, to bring secure, reliable, and convenient digital payments to commerce on the continent. We are committed to reaching the many millions of consumers and merchants who have lacked access to the digital economy, welcoming more people into the financial ecosystem, and supporting wider prosperity in the process.

What is your assessment of the health of the fintech ecosystem in Africa?

Innovation in financial technology is key to unlocking sustainable development in Sub-Saharan Africa, and we’ve seen substantial growth of the fintech ecosystem.  In the first half of 2022 alone, African tech start-ups raised almost $3 billion. Companies on the continent are building an enviable reputation for innovation in the global fintech sector. The potential is simply enormous.

We’ve seen some of this potential first-hand through partnerships all around the payments ecosystem. For instance, our collaboration with Safaricom, Africa’s leading mobile money network, is already enabling more than 24 million M-PESA users to make eCommerce purchases at Visa merchant locations around the world.

In Nigeria, we are working with Interswitchto enhance and improve our combined service offering and promote new solutions and products to clients and partners in Nigeria and across other African markets. Paga, another African fintech based in Lagos, has a reach across SSA that will enable account holders to transact anywhere Visa is accepted and help small business owners to digitize their business through payments, point of sale and access to credit, all via a mobile device.

We remain committed to accelerating the growth of the African ecosystem and continue to strive to be the partner of choice for new fintechs and innovators.

How is Visa enabling the growth of innovation across the continent? 

We’re continuing to invest in innovation through partnerships, products and solutions and our own business. In April, we opened Visa’s first African innovation studio in Nairobi, Kenya to serve the entire region. The studio has been purpose-built to help Visa clients and partners collaborate, co-create and explore both the future of commerce and the impact new technologies have on the way Africans shop, pay, and get paid. The Innovation Studio is just one of the more recent realizations of our company’s broader vision and purpose: to advance digital commerce and give individuals, businesses, and economies access to the financial services they need to thrive.

We’ve also invested in future innovators through our Visa Everywhere Initiative, a global innovation program and competition for start-ups and fintech companies. In June of this year, more than 1,300 applicants from across Central Europe, Middle East, and Africa competed and two Nigerian start-ups reached the final five. Technology-driven agricultural start-up, ThriveAgric, a Nigerian company emerged as the overall winner and CarePAY, another Nigerian start-up, earned the Audience Favorite award.

Governments across Africa have implemented policies to close the financial inclusion gap. How is Visa supporting this agenda? 

Two out of three people in Africa don’t have a bank account, yet nearly half of all mobile money users in the world live on the continent. Despite strong progress, these kinds of stubborn disparities in access to financial services remain.

We believe that the greatest impact comes through public/ private sector partnerships. Visa is committed to working with governments to help advance economies and society. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve had many examples of successful collaboration launching several community-based programs to help both individuals and small businesses gain access to the digital economy.

Recently, we partnered with Sotra, Cote d’Ivoire’s national transport company, to enable digital payments for transit. Through our collaboration with Bizzoly, O-City and Ecobank in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Visa will digitize payments for 1,000 buses of the DRC national bus company (Transco).

Beyond partnerships, and as part of our mission to drive equitable access for everyone everywhere, we have supported financial inclusion efforts by giving grants to organizations across Africa through the Visa Foundation. We have also launched several global initiatives such as, She’s Next, to support female business owners, and Practical Money and Business Skills, a financial literacy program that has helped millions of consumers, small business owners and potential entrepreneurs address their key financial challenges.

Much more generally, digital payments in and of themselves offer enormous to businesses and economies. Studies show that switching to digital payments boosts GDP by 1% for nations with mature economies, and up to 3% for emerging economies. For small businesses, which form the bedrock of communities throughout Africa, at a conservative estimate, the switch to digital means a 17% increase in revenue.  Simply enabling digital payments goes a long way toward creating greater prosperity for all participants in the digital economy.

What is the future of payments in Africa? 

More and more consumers in Africa are embracing digital payments, particularly through eCommerce, contactless payments, and mobile money. Businesses of all sizes have had to adapt to this clear and certain shift in consumer preferences, and we expect this trend to continue. We’re excited to bring transformative digital technologies like contactless payments to West Africa and have seen an encouraging response in markets like Ghana.

Another area that we are looking at closely is cross-border money movement. These kinds of transactions can represent financial lifelines for millions of families around Africa, often sent from across the globe. Nigeria, for instance, is in the top-ten countries worldwide for receiving remittances. We are working with our partners to expand cross-border remittances via Visa Direct, a service that allows a sender to push funds directly to a card or bank account.

While some degree of uncertainty and unpredictability has characterized the past couple years, one thing is clear:  the future of money is digital. At Visa, we’re setting ourselves up to unlock the potential of digital money for economies and businesses the world over. Reshaping payments and commerce more broadly will only further accelerate growth in Africa. We are very bullish on Africa and Visa is excited about playing a role in shaping the future of the continent.

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Nixon Kanali

Tech journalist based in Nairobi. I track and report on tech and African startups. Founder and Editor of TechTrends Media. Nixon is also the East African tech editor for Africa Business Communities. Send tips to

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