Cellular service provider MTN said Wednesday it has launched a mobile phone life insurance scheme in Ghana in a bid to expand mobile financial services for low-income markets.

The South Africa-based company touted the service as the first of its kind in the world, saying the new programme will bring life insurance to people without bank accounts who could not previously buy policies.

"Until now insurance hasn't really been made available or targeted at that low-income market. It allows us to reach our market in a fantastic way," said Jeremy Leach, head of micro-insurance for the Hollard Insurance Group, which partnered with MTN to design the product.

"Typically insurance has been predicated around bank accounts, and in Ghana only 34 percent of people have a bank account," he told AFP.

MTN, which operates in 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East, said the service lets mobile phone users buy life insurance by sending a text message to a number that will take them to a series of menus, or by going to an MTN service centre to register for a policy that can then be managed by phone.

Clients will pay their premiums through the company's mobile money service, which launched in Ghana in 2009 and lets users - many of whom have no bank accounts - send and receive money on their phones.

Bruno Akpaka, general manager for MTN's mobile money operations in Ghana, said the policies have been tailor-made for a new market.

"It's not a generic life insurance where we're using phones as a medium to connect the cash. We're talking about very, very low premiums," he said.

Leach said Hollard Insurance would also explore other kinds of mobile micro-insurance for the low-income market in Ghana, including policies to pay bills and school fees in case of the death or disability of a family's main breadwinner.

MTN said it plans to roll out similar products in other countries, citing a 2009 study by insurance services group Lloyds that found the market for simple and affordable insurance in developing countries is between 1.5 billion and three billion policies.