Observers are asking whether Apple's Pay system will push mobile payments into the mainstream in markets like the U.S.

With Apple set to launch its Pay system next week, observers are asking whether it will push mobile payments into the mainstream in markets like the U.S. that have so far been unenthused about adopting the digital wallet. In developing regions, however, many people have been using mobile money for some time, embracing a tool that is uniquely valuable for those with little to no access to financial institutions, as we noted in one of our 10 Trends for 2014, Mobile As a Gateway to Opportunity.

According to The Opportunities of Digitizing Payments, a recent report from organizations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, more than 2.5 billion adults worldwide lack a formal deposit account. In countries like Kenya, where Vodafone’s M-Pesa started, mobile money services—which let people send and receive funds and make bill payments through basic handsets—have been a godsend. M-Pesa now handles more than $1 billion in transactions a month in Kenya and has expanded to 10 markets, including India and, most recently, Romania. Nine countries have more mobile money accounts than bank accounts, according to the GSMA. And as smartphone prices drop further, these services will be able to offer consumers increasingly sophisticated financial tools.

Watch for similar services to make inroads in developed markets as well. In the U.S., T-Mobile launched Mobile Money in early 2014, targeting the un- or underbanked. It combines a money management app, prepaid T-Mobile Visa card and an ATM network. Among other things, users can pay bills, set up direct deposit and deposit checks by smartphone; T-Mobile customers pay no fees. And Walmart recently partnered with Green Dot Corp. on GoBank, a mobile checking account with a linked debit card. GoBank waives monthly and minimum-balance fees with qualifying direct deposits and doesn’t charge overdraft fees.

A digital payments infrastructure is “one of the most exciting, important and challenging projects the world will undertake in the years ahead,” writes payments expert Irving Wladawsky-Berger in a Wall Street Journal blog post. “Let’s hope that initiatives like Apple Pay will help propel forward the complex evolution toward mobile digital payments.”

Image credit: T-Mobile