Why isn’t there more micro insurance in South Africa

After a recent Actuarial Society sessional presentation I gave on micro insurance and the regulatory developments, I was asked why there aren’t more micro insurers operating in South Africa. Here is a slightly paraphrased version of the full question:

The larger insurance players seem reluctant to enter the market. Why do you think this market has been slow on the uptake? The regulatory barriers to entry certainly don’t appear to be that restrictive so either existing insurance companies are not flexible enough to offer the products required or it’s a poor business decision/larger risk that they’re unwilling to take on. Do you have an opinion on what is causing the low number of microinsurance players in the market?

So here goes. Certainly a far from complete or perfect answer, but a starting point based on my discussions with many people and entities actively interested in pursuing the market over the last few years.

What do we mean by micro insurance in the South African context?

The issue with micro insurance is scale, particularly of distribution and distribution costs. Okay, followed closely by premium collections (and that is about maintaining scale so that you don’t lose insurance policies as quickly as you sell them). These are the two issues that need to be solved for real success for any new micro insurer or a new platform for micro insurance.

Micro insurance and funeral insurance

Whether micro insurance is big in South Africa or not comes down to how one defines “micro insurance”.  There are major life insurance players that have funeral products with modest premiums, below R100 or even R50 per month. So those large insurers (major traditional insurers plus the bancassurers) are operating in this space already, but as “assistance business” as the current licence category is termed.

Under some definitions, South Africa is already one of the largest micro insurance markets in the world. On other measures, there are still plenty of excluded people who could benefit from appropriately priced, appropriate value insurance on a micro scale. I still hope to see viable products with premiums below R10 per month (and not on some misleading bundled basis) or even less on a micro-transaction basis.

These players are less interested in the particulars of a micro insurance licence because they have yet to see a material benefit. Product restrictions and the complexity of an additional licence don’t warrant lower capital since they aren’t actually constrained by regulatory capital but rather by their own view of economic capital.

Distribution innovation

Some of these players have tried innovative products (pre-paid funeral plans, allowing skipping premiums) with low, no or at best moderate success. The bancassurers push heavily into ATM, USSD and call centre sales rather than branch sales because they are lower cost, and sometimes lower risk of anti-selection. Getting life insurance via the banking apps is an easy step (and some have taken it) so probably the view is that a dedicated app just for insurance is unnecessary.  The banking brands (target of popular complaints as they sometimes are) are still generally well trusted. Continue reading “Why isn’t there more micro insurance in South Africa”