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Cellphones are rapidly replacing wallets, as banks, card operators, retailers and communications companies provide alternatives to cash as a means of payment.

M-commerce, where cellphones are used to pay for goods and services, has advanced beyond mobile banking to debit and credit transactions. Proponents of m-commerce claim it is more secure than internet commerce.

Hilary Mitchell, vice-president of mobile commerce for Visa's Central Europe, Middle East and Africa branches, says the company is developing m-commerce in those regions.

There has been a rapid increase in the number of cellphone users -- particularly in Africa, where there is limited access to the internet and poor fixed-line infrastructure.

Visa wants to "break the cash habit" by encouraging electronic payments, Mitchell says. She says mobile payments have the potential to be a secure payment device as the chip in a phone is used to provide security.

Yvonne Muthien, group executive of corporate affairs at MTN, says m-commerce is becoming increasingly relevant as consumers become more "technology savvy" and as the personal "banking/transaction paradigm" changes.

"SA has experienced a relatively rapid shift from the 'old-fashioned' cash only, to cash and credit, and finally to electronic banking," Muthien says. She says that because of this, banking has become a commodity rather than a service. She says the biggest "paradigm shift" for businesses and consumers will be the belief that their money is safe.

"South African consumers are still very cash oriented and somewhat wary of cashless transactions," Muthien says. "It is here where cellphones become the single binding factor that most South Africans can identify with, and trust."

According to research house BMI-TechKnowledge, "strategic relationships are being forged, not only with banks and operators but also with banks and retailers, operators and retailers, and between telecommunications service providers and operators".

In a survey of consumers and small businesses, BMI-TechKnowledge found that most would use m-commerce to make balance enquiries and view mini statements, while fewer would use their cellphones to top up airtime, transfer money and make payments.

The main inhibitors to m-commerce are the limitations of the "mobile platform", complexity and security concerns.

Muthien says consumers started procuring goods and services from the internet only a number of years after its advent. She says m-commerce has experienced similar patterns and trends.

Muthien adds now that airtime payment by cellphone has been institutionalised in SA, broader payment infrastructures can be introduced and cellphones can be used to pay other accounts such as utility bills.

"In MTN's opinion, the market is ready for the next generation of m-commerce," she says.