The international remittance market is currently estimated at more than US$320 billion. It is expected to reach US$700 billion by 2012. On the other hand, the rapid growth of the mobile phone industry in low income countries has opened up yet another avenue, the international airtime transfer (IAT), through which folks in diaspora help to improve the quality of life in their home countries.

The behind-the-scenes agreements between IAT companies, mobile operators and the authorities are generally complex. For users, IAT is, however, very simple, quick and effective, with the value arriving directly onto a recipients handset in a few minutes at most.

In my preliminary search for IAT companies that offer their services in African countries, I discovered these three companies:

  • Ukash – Apart from using Ukash vouchers for making payments online, you can also use them to send airtime to your loved ones abroad. Currently, African destinations include Cameroon, Egypt, Mali, and Morocco.
  • TransferTo – Their instant top-up interface shows Egypt as the only African recipient. Recent reports, however, indicate that courtesy of Zain, Ghana has joined the TransferTo recipient network.
  • Globaltopup – African destinations include Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, and Cameroon.

As you can see, only a handful African countries are benefiting from the IAT industry. This industry is still at a nascent stage. It will certainly explode in the next few years.

Due to the unavailability of  currency in some countries, airtime is being used to purchase goods and services. Some mobile money experts argue that using airtime as a means of barter is extremely dangerous. But I don’t agree with their way of thinking.

If two or more people agree to exchange airtime for goods or services and all of them are satisfied with the deal, what would be the problem with that? After all, bartering is here to stay, not only in low income countries, but also in developed ones.

When I was growing up at Mzokoto in Rumphi, Malawi, we could carry bricks to a construction site and in return we were paid notebooks and pens;  some folks would come from the lakeshore areas with their fish (nyakamunjuku, gandu, vibomo) and exchange it with maize flour in Mzokoto and surrounding areas; the more affluent folks (by village standards) would engage the services of other villagers in their gardens and give them used clothes in return. These habits continue up to this very day.

According to Simon Cavill, in some  recipient countries, it is currently possible for consumers to redeem airtime into cash at some operator outlets. Whether it is going to be used for barter or cash exchange, international airtime transfer promises to be a huge boon to African and other low income countries.

If you have some information on IAT companies featuring African destinations, give me a shout and I will update the list above accordingly.