Kenya’s Equity Bank launched a payment and telecoms MVNO, in a move that challenges incumbent Safaricom and its M-Pesa offering.

The new venture, which is called Equitel, offers a range of banking services such as loans, cross-border transfers, insurance and investment. Users can also receive international remittances, which can be accessed directly through their phones.

In addition, Equitel will offer a range of mobile services, including voice, SMS and data through the MVNO deal with Airtel.

Transferring funds within the Equity ecosystem (conventional bank as well as Equitel) will be done free of charge.

The new service is interoperable with other banks and mobile money services, meaning its users will be able to exchange funds with users of rival services, such as Airtel Money, Orange Money and M-Pesa.

The new venture makes use of so-called “Thin SIM” technology that converts a single SIM phone into a dual SIM model. Users can visit Equity branches across Kenya to obtain a SIM card, choosing between standard size, micro, nano and thin SIM, depending on requirements.

“We will be leveraging on the bank’s presence across the region to roll out Equitel and this is the basis of optimism of attaining a subscriber base of over five million by end of 2015,” said James Mwangi, Equity Bank Group CEO. However, Mwangi did not elaborate about launch plans for other markets outside Kenya.

Mwangi portrayed the new venture as a means to increase financial inclusion. “The unveiling of this new platform is part of our 30 year journey of promoting financial inclusion. Our aim is to raise the number of Kenyans with access to banking services to 90 per cent and above,” he said. Current penetration stands at 53 per cent.