Mobile Money and Airtime: Emerging Forms of Money

25 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2015

See all articles by Sunduzwayo Madise

Sunduzwayo Madise

University of Warwick; University of the Western Cape; University of Malawi; University of Malawi

Date Written: February 23, 2015


The emergence of mobile phones brought a new currency; ‘airtime credit’, commonly called ‘airtime’ or simply ‘credit’. The concept results from the fact that in exchange for money, one is given credit in the form of airtime in their phone, making it the currency for the mobile phone. To mobile network operators (MNOs), selling airtime, has proved profitable, making them to become financial conglomerates within a short period of time. To the phone user, without airtime, the mobile phone cannot function, especially in most parts of Malawi where Wi-Fi is not readily available and affordable. With time MNOs have another added another other service on the rails of the telecommunications backbone; the mobile money service. In doing so MNOs have also added a second and lucrative stream of revenue. In most countries, mobile money is now accepted as a means of payment, falling under the category of electronic money or electronic payment systems.

This paper analyses the emergence of money by going back in time. It argues that the future of money may actually be more in keeping with the past than the present: ‘back to the future’. It analyses the emergence of decentralised cryptocurrencies such as the Bitcoin which are not controlled by state authority. Using a framework developed based on fiat money, it examines mobile money and airtime as emerging forms of currency. While mobile money has quickly been accepted as a new form of payment, and Malaŵi’s central bank has issued guidelines regulating it, the emergence of airtime as a currency is still an uncrystallised ambulatory concept.

The paper uses lessons from Malaŵi where the two dominant mobile operators; Airtel and Telekom Networks Malaŵi have introduced mobile money services largely modelled on the successful M-PESA, a financial service that was developed in Kenya by Safaricom in Kenya.

The paper argues that airtime, like mobile money has characteristics of money. It can be used as a means of exchange for value. The paper therefore proposes that in the same way that mobile money service is quickly being embraced as a constituent part of the national payment system, airtime too may have to be so recognised. This calls for a new legal and institutional approach to the regulatory framework of these emerging forms of money.

Keywords: cryptocurrency, currency, economic money, fiat money, legal tender, legal money, money, mobile-money, airtime, currency

Suggested Citation

Madise, Sunduzwayo, Mobile Money and Airtime: Emerging Forms of Money (February 23, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Sunduzwayo Madise (Contact Author)

University of Warwick ( email )

Gibbet Hill Road
Coventry CV4 7AL, CV4 7AL
United Kingdom


University of the Western Cape ( email )

Private Bag X17 Bellville
Cape Town, Western Cape 7535
South Africa


University of Malawi ( email )

Faculty of Law (Chancellor College)
P.O. Box 280


University of Malawi ( email )

Chancellor College
Mathematical Sciences
Zomba, 265

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