Spreading The Word (My 2015 Recap in Tweets)

I went through my Twitter timeline to remind me of the key events in 2015 and I thought there was enough material for a blog.

One part of my job in the Financial Services for the Poor initiative at the Gates Foundation is spreading the word about what we are trying to achieve – which is enabling 2 billion people in Africa and South Asia to access banking services – and explaining it to stakeholders (private companies and public organizations and governments) so that they understand what is in it for them and how they provide such services in a way that is suitable and affordable for the 2 billion excluded people.

Most of this talking is done behind closed doors because the stakeholders I talk to are interested in the commercial aspect of financial inclusion – they see it as a way to create new business for them rather than a charity activity. This is very acceptable and, in fact, desirable. Banks have made it their business since five centuries to provide money management and lending. Unfortunately, they have done it in a way that’s left a lot of people out of the system. There are today new technologies that enable banks and new players to reach out to a much larger proportion of the population by using mobile phones, and my job is to educate them in the best way to do so and help them along the way (at least those who need and welcome the help).

There’s also a more public, wide, aspect of this talking, which I’ve done through a number of conferences, interviews and other projects.  The tweets below capture the key events and messages I’ve tried to communicate. Most of my talking was about Level One Project – the Gates Foundation’s idea of how a digital payment platform enables secure and affordable financial services for poor people. You can read all about it here.

The first tweet I picked was from FinTechStage in Milan (30-31 March 2015).

FinTechStage is a new type of conference created by two of my previous partners – Matteo Rizzi and Lazaro Campos. There were a lot of venture capitalists at the  conference, and most of the talk was about investing in apps (mobile or not) – lending, insurance, international remittances, etc. My tweet reflects a bit of my disappointment (about the subject, not about the conference which was great), as I felt then and I feel even more now that innovation is equally needed on the actual core payment infrastructure, which is today slow, expensive and opaque. This is a theme that will keep recurring through the year, as it is related to the heart of the Level One Project.

The next tweet is about my nomination by The Financial Brand to the 25 most influential voices in banking.

2015 was the year of  many such lists as FinTech is becoming a truly hot subject if you measure by the amount of venture capital being poured into it. I was nominated on some of these lists, but I care particularly about this one as it was based on crowdsourced opinions from my peers and colleagues – in my mind the most relevant and appropriate feedback.

The next tweet is from the G20’s Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion (GPFI) event focused on SME finance in Izmir, Turkey.

The event, held on 1-2 June 2015, dealt with innovating banking business models for serving small enterprises. I was invited to deliver the opening plenary speech with my innovation hat more than my Gates Foundation role. My key message, nicely summarized by Christie Pang from HSBC, was to urge established banks to engage in experimenting with new technologies to understand how to deliver new, agile and mobile based financial services – exactly the key message of my “The Castle And The Sandbox” book. Their new customers come highly aware of digital and mobile tools and expect their providers to be equally aware.

We then move to some deep infrastructure thinking. The first tweet is about the World Economic Forum (WEF) report on the future of financial services.

I was honored to have contributed to this report as a member of the WEF sponsored working group, led by Jesse McWaters. It is a great read (and involved read, set aside some quality time). The key point in the report is the emergence of new “rails”, or payment platforms,  driven by mobile money and crypto-currency technologies.

This leads directly to the next tweet, an interview I did with Coindesk in preparation of the Consensus 2015 conference.

I laid out in the interview that the blockchain, the technology underlying the Bitcoin crypto-currency, will be a significant invention for innovating the payment “rails” – national or cross-border. And thus that it may be a significant tool for financial inclusion.

The next tweet is about an interview I did with my old FinTech friend Chris Skinner.

The interview was done as Chris is preparing materials for his new book to be published in 2016 and in which financial inclusion plays an important role. It is a pretty comprehensive view of the work I do a the Gates Foundation.

The next tweet is a summary of the Consensus 2016 conference.

I was thrilled to be part of the conference, and in company of such great people. I voice a positive message about the blockchain technology, but at the same time a challenge – financial inclusion is not only about technology, it is also very much about how the technology is used and managed to achieve the goal – and there’s a lot on this subject to be talked about and done before the blockchain becomes mainstream, notably on the subject of control and regulation.

After this deep technology dive, we move back to the financial services business with these two tweets from the Cards & Payments East Africa conference held in Nairobi on 15-16 Sep 2015.

I was hosting a panel of banking CEOs for the region. The banks are under pressure from new entrants such as M-Pesa in Kenya (entirely driven by a a Telco) and many others. The banks are wrestling with reinventing themselves to follow the new digital models. There was a lot of great ideas and energy in the conference, I’m keen to see if and how it will translate in new products, as banks and telcos are key partners in delivering Level One Project.

We go back to the subject of SME finance with this tweet from China’s International Forum for Financial Inclusion.

China’s government has a huge priority on financial inclusion. The idea of the forum was on the one hand to collect experiences from other countries (I was invited as a speaker for this part) and on the other hand to expose more in detail the problem they are trying to solve. China’s focus is more focused on SME enablement and lending, and providing access to quite sophisticated trading and e-commerce services. At the same time, there is still a huge need for infrastructure services in the same way than other countries where I work with. Private sector players, such as Alibaba, are deeply involved in shaping the future of payments and it is a fascinating subject to follow and learn from.

Learning is also a huge part of my job. The next tweet (from Dave Birch, an uthority in FinTech) is a about a side project I did in 2015 – I was asked by the Journal of Payments Strategy & Systems, a respected academic publication, to be the guest editor for a special issue of the Journal focused on financial inclusion.

The project turned out to be very new for me and exciting, and I’m quite proud of the result. It was very rewarding (and challenging) to guide a dozen of researchers to look at different angles of financial inclusion, and compile their work into a comprehensive story that strengthens Level One Project. The articles cover research about the methodology of financial inclusion, the business and competitive aspects of mobile money services, and practical examples from Africa and India.

The next tweet is about an institution – Brett King‘s Breaking Banks radio show.

David Lubinski from my team and I were invited to the show to talk about our progress in deploying Level One Project (notably Pakistan and Nigeria).

We then move on to Sibos, held on 12-15 October 2015 in Singapore.

I was involved in the Innotribe “conference in a conference”. First, it was great to see it again after 3 years. I was very happy that Innotribe is doing well – I created it with my team at SWIFT back in 2009. In fact, Peter Vander Auwera from the original team has driven it to be the most polished and innovative FinTech conference that I know of. I participated as a speaker to the second day, focused on the social aspects of technology, and where financial inclusion played a big role.  Possibly the best part of the conference is meeting new people (or meeting in real people I knew only from Twitter before) such as Sam Maule, Christine Duhaime, Joyce Kim, Akhtar Badshah and others. The whole day inspired me to doodle, and I drew this picture showing on the one side the key user-facing aspects of financial inclusion, and on the other side the whole behind the scene mechanics and technology required to make this available for the unbanked poor.

We move on to three tweets from Money20/20, probably the largest FinTech event around, held on 25-28 October 2015 in Las Vegas.

Money20/20 is a much larger event than Sibos, covering a lot of ground. The second tweet from Sam summarises my overall impression – most of the conference covered the western economies, and assumed a pervasive connectivity and availability of smart phones and gadgets (in fact, if you look at the existing or upcoming xxxPay systems, a person needs to be equipped with hundreds of dollars of technology to execute a simple payment, and this is not counting the equipment merchants need to have). This is quite contrary to the nimble, frugal innovations happening in Africa and Asia. The last tweet points to a Forbes blog by Dan Simon which provides a counterpoint to the technology “arms race”.

The final tweet of the year is this article in two parts by Dinis Guarda from IntelligentHQ. Dinis and I have never met yet, but know each other well from Twitter and other social media.

I really appreciate Dinis’ enthusiasm and expertise, and so accepted to have this long chat with him covering a lot of ground from my past experience to the current efforts.

There you go, it turns out to be a quite long blog, thank you if you have made it all the way to the end.

Looking forward to 2016 which Bill Gates predicts to be the year of financial inclusion. Wishing you an exciting, innovative and enjoyable New Year.





The Winners Of The Merchant Mobile Money Challenge

It’s an exciting time for the Level One Project at the Gates Foundation. We’ve just announced the winners of our first Grand Challenges Exploration (GCE), which focused on promoting wide spread acceptance of mobile money by small merchants. This group of nine includes a diverse set of approaches and ideas to products, merchant services, technologies and models that will be developed and incubated in a number of countries, including Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Each of the winners obtains a 100,000 USD grant to help them refine and build merchantout their idea. Congratulations!

The idea behind this GCE was to provide a forum for those who are willing to think outside the box to help drive merchant acceptance of mobile money – one of the most relevant and critical enablers to a healthy and robust digital economy. Good ideas need a sandbox to grow, and the GCE is all about providing these ideas with the support and independence they need to be successful.

I want to say thank you to every organization that applied (we received a total of 304 applications from 30 countries!) and I want to encourage you to continue exploring outside the castle.

To learn more about the nine award recipients, please visit leveloneproject.org.

2014 Was A Positive Year For Financial Inclusion

(This post was first published on Ericsson’s M-Commerce blog)

In 2014, we saw solid indicators that governments are taking financial inclusion seriously. It is increasingly seen as a tool for improving poor people’s lives, and we witnessed concrete progress in many countries around the world.

On the importance of financial inclusion as a key governmental objective, I’ll use the examples of India and Pakistan, where I have been recently involved – among other countries – but many countries are taking similar and ambitious measures.

In the last six months of 2014, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) eliminated major regulatory barriers to digital financial inclusion, clearing the way for a big expansion in digital financial inclusion in 2015-16. These include:

  • Payments Bank regulations: RBI issued new regulations that allow companies with significant distribution expertise (including mobile network operators) to offer deposit accounts, payments, and cash-in/out services as a stand-alone business.
  • RBI also removed the Know-Your-Customer (KYC) requirement that customers must provide proof of their current and permanent address for opening a bank account.
  • The bank also partnered with India’s telecoms regulator to require mobile network operators to provide access to banks’ USSD channels for mobile banking.

Also in 2014 the Indian Prime Minister Mr. Modi launched the Jan Dhan Yojana (JDY) financial inclusion scheme with the goal of achieving 100% financial inclusion by January 2015. The program is a big opportunity to digitize India’s government payment flows. Indeed, in support of JDY, Prime Minister Modi embraced the Aadhaar digital identification system and 720 million Aadhaar numbers have now been issued.

We also saw encouraging developments in Pakistan, where the Finance Ministry and State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) took several major steps to expand digital financial inclusion:

  • The National Database & Registration Authority (NADRA) and SBP signed an agreement to reduce NADRA’s biometric verification fees for mobile accounts. SBP agreed to harmonize biometric KYC across mobile accounts and SIM cards.
  • Finance Minister Ishaq Dar gave a major speech announcing the government’s commitment to digitize government payment flows, join the Better Than Cash Alliance, and chair an Inter-Ministerial Council on Financial Inclusion.

Financial inclusion is a journey and 2015 will be another important step to completing the mission. I hope that we will soon see the first countries embark on a coordinated “all hands on deck”, multi-sector and multi-player program to connect, one by one, the hundreds of millions of people whose lives will be changed by relying on digital and safe payment and financial tools.

Share your thoughts below!

Getting To The Point – Digital Payment Platforms For New Economies

Here is my keynote at the recent “Get to the point” payments conference in Auckland, New Zealand.

The subject is very close to my heart: digital financial services platforms that are scalable, secure and affordable for poor people – in one word, inclusive.

What are they, who do they serve, how to deploy them in countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia? What are the barriers to their deployment? Who are the key stakeholders to work with? All these questions, and more, are answered in this 20 minute video. Included is a video clip envisioning a society empowered with digital financial services.

Humanitarian Innovator

Humanitarian Innovator – this is how Mindjet has referred to me in their “INQ” magazine recently (registration required to download it), listing me on their “Innovation’s Heavy Hitters” page.

It is a first and it does highlight, in a very short and elegant manner, the “why?” of my job and the core belief driving it.

Thank you!




Digital Disruptors

Erik Kruse and his Networked Society team at Ericsson have been publishing a number of reports, under the common theme of “Industries In Transformation”,  about how the hyper-connectivity brought by the internet is changing the business landscape. These reports are of very high-quality, well researched and documented and an easy read – the home page for the initiative is here.

The latest report in the series is titled “Digital Disruptors – Models Of Digital Operations” and focuses on how companies should organise themselves to operate in a digital environment, serving hyper-connected consumers and customers. I love this subject and have talked and written about it in my previous Innotribe work and my current job at the Gates Foundation. Erik Kruse and Jan Unkuri, the editor of this report, have been kind enough to reach out to me and incorporate some of my themes in the report.

I’m honoured to be featured among many other people with a very wide range of expertise and industries. I’m also excited to see how some deep themes resonate across this last report but also the entire series –

– open innovation and the change to internal culture it brings, the subject of my book

– user centrism, and specifically the notion that consumers are more and more in control of how services are provided to them, rather than being forcefully managed by providers. This is the Vendor Relationship Management idea promoted by Doc Searls. The idea comes from a book Doc co-authored back in 1999 with Rick Levine, Christopher Locke and David Weinberger. The book is called “The Cluetrain Manifesto” and I recommend it – it is still very fresh today!

– reducing friction. “Every single step that you put between the customer and the actual function is friction”. Yes- every superfluous click will drive customers away. This means that companies will have to “cut” their services in pieces that can be combined by consumer according to their needs – this includes combining business “pieces” from several different companies. The technology enabling this is called the API (application programming interface) and I have written about it previously.

Enjoy reading and let me know your thoughts.

PS: another fresh thing about the report is it doesn’t mention Bitcoin. Rare enough to be underlined these days 😉