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.
A new wave of technological change is right beyond the next hill, really in the next couple of years. Its most visible symptom is the hyper-connectivity to the Internet, which fuels the evolution of:
bitcoin-inspired distributed systems,
open APIs (application programming interface) as a new way to consume business services on the internet,
crowd-sourced identity schemes, and
open source hardware and applications.
How can the traditional industry players prepare for such changes? How can we leverage these changes to make low cost, secure and reliable financial services available for everyone on the planet?
Imagine yourself being an electro-mechanical engineer back in the late 1940s. This was a period of vacuum tube electronics, and the appliances using this technology were widely used from the household to the heavy industry. it was a time where the technology was mastered. This vacuum tube “castle”, a safe and predictable technology, had gone through many cycles of improvement since its inception at the turn of the century. On the other hand, it was clear that the technology was reaching its limits in many applications that required different characteristics of portability and power consumption. The ”sandbox” experiment that would revolutionize the whole field of electronics had been carried out in Bell Laboratories and was unveiled in 1948 – the transistor. We know what happened next. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the transistor would wipe away the old technology. But I’m sure that it was not so obvious to electro- mechanical engineers a few short years before 1948.
Is the traditional consumer financial system, based on bank accounts, in the same situation today? Are we in the age of “vacuum tube financial services”, with the transistor right beyond the next hill? I can see solid, substantiated indicators that make me think we are indeed facing such change. I’ve observed these indicators over the last year, and they appeared even more clearly to me in the new job I took in the Financial Services for the Poor and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Let’s first consider a number of changes that can be observed on the way people perceive and use financial services. Technology has so far made it possible to accelerate the pace and volume of transactions, but it has not transformed the relationship between the industry and its customers in the same way as it has in, say, publishing (from books to e-books), movies (from DVD to mp4), or popular music (from CD to mp3 to streaming).
Changes in the use of financial services
The first change comes from the next generation of consumers. The Internet is now more than 20 years old, which means that anyone under 40 has never known a social or working life without it. As a result, younger consumers come to the market with different expectations from service providers. Instead of technology being used to hold them captive, they expect service providers to use technology to empower them to determine not only how services will be provided, but what services will be provided. Just consider how today people prefer to use their Facebook name to identify themselves to new sites on the Internet, showing how the power gradually moves into their hands.
The second change comes from the estimated 2+ billion people who today have no access to any financial service, and resort to cash for all transactions. The traditional banking system has all but ignored them, as they don’t fit the established business model of the
banks. The problem the banks have in serving these people is not so much in terms of lack of revenues, but it is mostly of having access to them, as many of the poor people are far away in rural areas without traditional banking coverage (branches and ATMs). The other problem is getting to know them, as the traditional ways of identifying people (social security, street addresses, etc.) are mostly not available to these people. On the other hand, a large majority of them have a mobile phone, a very powerful instrument of communication but also inclusion. This explains why the telecommunication companies are increasingly seen as instrumental in making financial services available to the unbanked.
The last change comes in the way we access and consume financial services. Perhaps this change is most perceptible with the advent of the tablets. As an European consumer until recently, I was used in dealing with my few banks through heavily secured web sites – all different, all using specific and incompatible hardware security tokens. The smart phones and especially tablets have simplified this considerably, but most of us are still facing a different app for each service provider, while what we really want is to have a seamless and integrated view of our financial assets. One identity, one user interface for all service providers.
The above changes – really new, fundamental requirements – are driving the pace of technological innovation. I’ve observed four of these innovations, and I will illustrate them mentioning companies that have products available today or in a matter of months (I’m mentioning these particular companies because I had the opportunity to study them firsthand. I’m not related in any way with any of the mentioned companies).
Four financial innovations
The first innovation is bitcoin. I think of “bitcoin” (lower case) as a technology, as opposed to “Bitcoin” (upper case) the crypto-currency. Bitcoin, the currency, has been through several boom and bust cycles, served (or not so well served) by the Bitcoin exchanges, some of which have recently succumbed to concerted hacking attacks. It is possible that the new wave of exchanges, should they be better equipped for operational excellence and “five-nines” availability, will propel Bitcoin as a widely used currency.
In my mind though, the true innovation is not about the currency but is about the bitcoin blockchain, a single database massively distributed and replicated, without any central coordinating point. Ripple, a company based in San Francisco, uses this idea to propose what they describe as a low cost, worldwide, multi-currency payment mechanism they say is faster, more secure and simpler to use than any banking based alternative. The system is based on secure wallets managed by the users themselves, and a distributed ledger inspired by the bitcoin blockchain. From the customer perspective, the operative word is low cost – the system is open, and as there is no central authority necessary, there are therefore no fees associated to intermediaries.
The second innovation is the business API (application programming interface). The API has been used since many years by software developers to assemble program components within an application. The new use of APIs is to make business functions available as components on the Internet (think how Google Maps can be integrated into other applications and web sites).
The promise of APIs is to grow volumes from existing customers, and attract new customers without friction. Adopting APIs does require though a leap of faith in the traditional marketing doctrine – indeed, rather than trying to “capture” customers into a bespoke system, the API actually fosters opening the systems to be freely assembled by the consumers in the way they desire. As such, making the move to business APIs is a tricky decision to make for many businesses, especially the banks.
Stripe, a company based in San Francisco, proposes to enable a business to process electronic payments simply by integrating Stripe’s APIs (and supporting processes). Apigee, another company in the Silicon Valley, propose to “API-ise” a business and make their services available in new ways on the Internet. So does the Open Bank Project, a German startup, who focuses specifically on banks.
The third innovation is a crowd-sourced, social media based, identity system.
In the current financial system, regulation impose that banks and other players conduct “Know Your Customer” (KYC) activities, with the goal of confirming the identity of people that open accounts and conduct transactions. In many occasions though, KYC proves to be very cumbersome because it implies manual checks of various documents. I can vouch, as a newcomer in the USA, that opening an account can be very tricky if you don’t have a document proving that you live at a particular address (but living at a particular address does require usually to have a bank account, as you need to pay rent or mortgage – you can see how tricky this can be). Viewed from the perspective of onboarding billions of people, it is clear that a different solution is needed. OIX (the open identity exchange) and the Respect Network have come up with a crowd-sourced reputation system on the internet, where people on the internet can trust each other based on their digital reputation. I’ve written previously about how this works in some detail. I’ll use another example to illustrate – think about your persona on Facebook. Your timeline, friends, likes describe a digital identity that can be trusted over time, as more and more interactions accumulate. In other words, another way to look at Facebook (or LinkedIn and other major social networks) is as a trusted identity system. Now, Facebook connects in excess of one billion people, many of them unbanked, which could be a great opportunity to hook these people to financial services without friction. For example, Fidor, a financial service provider in Germany, allows you to open an account with only your Facebook profile. Of course, they will only let you start with a reduced service, and will provide additional financial services as they know more about you. This “tiered KYC” system reduces friction and is a powerful instrument of inclusion.
The fourth innovation is about using the open source movement in the context of financial services. Mozilla is a good example of how it is possible to create a community of millions of developers working on the same project, based on meritocracy. Outside of the well known Android and Firefox projects, Mozilla has recently shown that open source can be applied to hardware and not only software – the $25 Mozilla smart phone promises to be another instrument of inclusion to the internet, and also of course financial services in the long run. I’ve written about how the open source concept is being applying to core financial systems. Allevo, a Romanian software company, has recently put in the open source domain a core banking transaction-processing software. OpenGamma is a UK startup that uses open source to provide a risk analytics platform, one of the “crown jewels” of banking, to financial institutions.
How can we then envision a financial system that rides the wave of change, and leverages the technological innovations we have reviewed above?
I think about this from the perspective of the billions of unbanked, and the next billion of hyper-connected individuals that will be the customers of tomorrow. The financial system will need to be a platform that federates existing players (such as banks) and new players (such as telecommunication companies and other information technology companies) that will –
Be accessible safely and reliably from connected devices, from feature phones to smart phones to other specialized (wearable?) devices.
Enable new customers to be connected seamlessly, using a crowd- sourced and flexible “know your customer” system
Enable customers to own their accounts, and operate them themselves or choose freely who to contract to operate it for them
Be based on open APIs so new service providers (payments, insurances, loans, etc.) can be connected and discovered easily.
Be based on open APIs so customers can freely choose how to combine the services on the platform in new ways that suit them
In addition, the platform should be available in open source – so that it can be permanently refined and built upon, as a common asset of the humanity.
Deploying such a platform and fostering its deployment in countries and – why not – globally: that is the ambition of the Financial Services for the Poor initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In this endeavor, the technology I describe will be necessary, but not sufficient. As I have written previously, another important aspect of the work will be to put all the key stakeholders around the table – banks, central banks, telcos, startups. All hands will be needed on deck to deploy the technology to work openly, safely and reliably.
I’m lucky to have a job where I have the opportunity to meet a lot of innovators in financial services and fin-tech. As a consequence I build up a sense of the state of the industry and the key trends ahead, and I love to share these insights on this blog.
Of course, I had the finger on the pulse of the fin-tech startup community in my Innotribe job in the last 4 years. Now, working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I focus on building financial payment platforms for the poor people and thus meet a wide range of stakeholders – governments, banks and central banks, telcos, mobile money operators, technology giants and startups. I can tell it makes for a very wide perspective and I do spend considerable time thinking and integrating this rich input.
I love doodling as well, so when inspiration comes I take my iPad and my faithful Jot pen and I try to capture this in a drawing. Here’s the latest one – a cartoon depicting in a funny way what I think is the state of the consumer financial services industry.
I’ve posted it on Twitter and it generated an incredible amount of interest, so I thought I’d share some more about the underlying thinking, and also some additional insights coming from the numerous comments on Twitter.
Well, optimist that I am, I really thought of my drawing as a cartoon, exaggerating a situation to make a point. Philip rightly points out that sometimes real life is itself an exaggeration!
Indeed, I don’t think someone will acquire a global bank with 2 trillion US dollars in its balance sheet. But the point is not about acquisition, it is about who will eat these bank’s lunch if they don’t pay attention. Telcos are tempted to provide financial accounts, even though it makes them getting into the murky (for them) waters of financial regulation. In fact, in my focus countries (Nigeria, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), telcos are probably best placed to reach out to poor people in remote, rural areas.
By delivering financial accounts and person-to-person payments, telcos and other mobile money operators are developing the next generation of low cost payments platforms. My belief is that these new platform will simply prevail in the traditional financial system (often referred to as “the rails”) – why in the world would we continue to use more complex and costly variants? In other words, if banks don’t embrace these new recipes for lower cost rails, they will be in dire straits. The readers of my book (“The Castle And The Sandbox”) will recognise this argument – banks will need to step out of their established “castles” and innovate and experiment in “sandboxes” to understand and adopt these new platforms.
The bounty, the vision, is the volume that will be brought in the system by the 2,5 Billion people who are currently out of any financial system.
Agreed, the predators are everywhere. Just to prove the point that banks can indeed step out of the castle, Simple was recently acquired by BBVA. I knew this when I drew the cartoon, and voluntarily included Simple in the “startups” cloud, just to show that nothing is really simple in the fin-tech eco-system 🙂
There is a show on French TV (“On n’est pas couché”) that used to start by introducing who is NOT invited to the show. Similarly, I’ve had a number of comments about who is not shown in the cartoon, and notably Paypal, Visa and MasterCard.
For me, the core business of these companies is really part of the current “rails”, so in my mind they are included in the “banks” cake in the cartoon. I know this is a big shortcut, and I can hear all the objections coming. But hey, as the author of the cartoon, I can choose who to invite in, right? 😉
More seriously, I do think Paypal, the card companies, and indeed many banks do have innovative products and services “on the rails”. If you are following my blog you know that I’m a big fan of Paypal for international payments.
Now, on to the “hot” topic!
I hope Philippe will comment on this post and explain more. I love the way Tomasz has captured my meaning – “Bitcoin slowly but surely heats up the pan”. I’ve written here why I think Bitcoin is important for the fin-tech industry – in a nutshell it’s not about the Bitcoin currency (which may or may not become one of the trading currencies on par with the RMB or the USD) but about the bitcoin (lowercase) inspired technology: the bitcoin blockchain and its massively distributed architecture. I believe this architecture will influence how the financial transactions are performed in the future. I used the opportunity of this post to add Ripple to the cartoon – I’ve also written about how this company uses the bitcoin blockchain architecture to perform very low cost international money transfers.
Gigi has the last word on bitcoin – financial technology, all electrons that it is, needs to contribute, as all other industries, to the massive ecological problem we are facing as a civilisation.
Danièle, Sam, and all the numerous others who have retweeted and favorited my tweets – many thanks for your kind words!
And I give the final word – pardon, picture – to Jorge. And Jorge please comment below and tell us more on your thinking!
I was recently in Nigeria, researching the state of financial inclusion in this country. While Nigeria is still in nascent stages of mobile money, I was impressed by the great willingness and energy to adapt and innovate. There certainly is no lack of interesting ideas, which inspired me to write this post.
I’ll start with some background.
The ultimate goal of the “Financial Services for the Poor” team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is financial inclusion – enabling everyone on the planet to have access to safe and reliable financial services. It is an ambitious endeavor, considering that in excess of 2.5 billion people on the planet are excluded from such services today. The financial services I’m talking about range from basic account management and payments to insurance, savings and loans.
The excluded people tend to be extremely poor and have thus been overlooked by traditional financial service providers such as banks. In many African and south-east Asian countries, cash is still king.
The key enabling technology to help achieve the financial inclusion goal is the mobile phone. It is a fact that a very large proportion of the financial excluded population does have access to mobile phones, making it natural to think of “mobile money” as just another use of the mobile phone – like making a call. The well-known and documented example of mobile money is M-PESA in Kenya.
Established in 2010, bKash is amongst the fastest growing mobile money deployments in the world, serving millions of customers. bKash is a grantee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Another great example is the success of bKash in Bangladesh. In both cases, these companies have overcome the many hurdles of deploying mobile money and making it a business for them.
Indeed, and this is of great importance, financial inclusion is not a charity affair – it must be a sustainable business. And while these two examples are great, there are many other countries where success is still far off because of the many hurdles in the way.
In this post, I want to focus on one particular hurdle for financial inclusion: access to mobile money. I will use the example of Nigeria I have visited recently and am thus more knowledgeable about the situation there. It is similar to that of many other countries.
In order for mobile money to work, it is necessary for people to have access to locations where cash can be exchanged for electronic or digital value, and vice-versa. In the developed economies, this is of course the domain of bank branches and ATMs. The problem though is that the financially excluded people we are looking to empower live in rural areas far from the cities, where the nearest bank branch or ATM could be hours of days walking or driving away. The equivalent of a bank branch in a mobile money economy is an “Agent” – typically a small shop owner that provides cash-in/cash-out (CICO) services among other goods,
such as scratch cards for mobile phone airtime. It is estimated that 100,000 of such agents would be necessary in Nigeria to provide a sufficiently dense CICO network covering the entire population.
Now, who can provide mobile money services? In the case of Nigeria, there are 18 companies which have the necessary licenses. These companies are either emanation of banks, or standalone and often startup companies. Currently, telcos are not permitted to provide mobile money services. Each of these providers is seeking to build their own CICO network. The largest agent network is estimated to be 7,000, while the total number of agents across all providers is estimated to be 16,000 – far below the financial inclusion goal of 100,000. In addition, these networks are more concentrated in large cities, far away from the rural population.
Looking at this very fragmented situation, one can easily understand the market dynamic – each mobile money provider is looking to build their own business in this rather fierce competitive environment. But, looking at it from the financial inclusion perspective, it’s very far from success.
One possible trajectory is for one or a few of these players to grow into the next M-PESA or bKash and exponentially grow the agent network on their own. This trajectory could be made more solid if the large telcos in the market are allowed as well to provide mobile money services, possibly then at the expense of the smaller players
Another possible trajectory could come from answering the question: is there value in considering a shared agent network, serving all the players on the market and, at the same time, serving the financial inclusion goal? Coming from a long career at SWIFT – a shared utility in the banking sector – I understand deeply how utilities work and I look very positively at this idea of a shared agent network.
Building a dense, 100,000 strong, CICO agent network in Nigeria is deep, sustained infrastructure work akin to building a physical highway. Each and every agent needs to be –
Found, verified and enrolled
Equipped with the right tools to provide the service (at minimum a smart phone)
Upgraded with premises security
Educated to understand how to provide the service
Supported by a readily reachable support hotline
Supported by a readily available and controlled supply of cash (for cash-out)
There is a lot of merit considering the agent network to be in the collaborative rather than competitive space. Every mobile money provider needs to have these capabilities, but having them doesn’t, in the medium and long term, offer a true competitive advantage. It may be counter-intuitive, as it is natural in the short-term to think of infrastructure as a key competitive asset and key business enabler. The longer term economics of infrastructure favor sharing because the cost of maintenance and improvement of infrastructures accumulate over time and drag the margins down. This is true in the digital world as it has been true in many large projects in the brick & mortar world (think highways for instance).
I mentioned SWIFT earlier, because it is a good illustration of digital infrastructure. In a different domain and for different capabilities, the banks around the world have followed the same reasoning: why spend time and resources in building, over and over again, something that ultimately will become a commodity (in this case – a secure, reliable, world-wide inter-bank network). SWIFT celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2013, demonstrating how a shared utility can be a strategic tool.
So, a shared agent network could provide, in Nigeria, a strategic resource enabling the industry to save costs by rationalizing infrastructure and allowing each and every player to compete in the value-added services space (to name a few – end user pricing, service levels, additional services such as savings, insurance and loans).
It makes sense. However, it is a novel concept and as such needs much better understanding – questions of governance (who owns the shared network), economic and business models (how to price the shared network services), and reliability and safety of the network are all to be examined. It seems that the industry in Nigeria is willing to go a step further in refining this concept, and I certainly look favorably in participating in these exploratory efforts.
Ultimately, financial inclusion needs to be the business of all the stakeholders in the industry – all hands are needed on deck. And as my colleague Vincent Kiyingi of Pride Microfinance in Uganda says very vocally in this video (see clip from 5min 10 sec): “If cash is king, then the king is dead!”