By Antti Arponen, CEO of Pyypl
In a world that appears to always get faster thanks to new ideas and new inventions, there is always a danger of being left behind. It’s challenging enough if you are used to having the latest smartphone and apps that open up opportunities, provide answers in an instant or offer short-cuts and easy access to purchases – but imagine how it works if there’s no bank account or credit card behind it?
What if you are one of the hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) in just that situation – you’ve got the phone but not the bank cards, real or virtual. What then?
As is so often the case, just as one door might appear to close another somewhere is opening, and so it is with alternative payment systems that address the specific needs of the under-served and under-banked – the 800 million smartphone users across MEA who have no formal banking facilities or live in remote, isolated communities with limited access to traditional financial services.
In a region where cash has been king for too long, new alternative payment methods – such as virtual cards, e-wallets or mobile money – act as the proverbial key to open doors that would otherwise be closed. For example, how do consumers pay for a streaming service subscription, digital education course, or even make an online grocery shop, without a traditional bank card?
Alternative digital payment methods will be the answer to the growing needs of the under-banked as part of an increasingly digital economy, and the wider shift from cash-only to cashless societies that many governments are now committed to. Countries such as Bahrain, for instance, are pushing to achieve cashless status within the next ten years, and in Kenya mobile cash transactions jumped by nearly a third in 2021, reflecting the impact of economic recovery and the rising uptake of cashless deals by consumers and businesses. FinTech is the right industry, at the right time to be in this geography.
With digitalisation further accelerated by the arrival of COVID-19, the demise of paper currency in the Middle East was already moving at pace prior to the onset of the global pandemic. In countries such as the UAE, for example, digital payments had been on the rise for several years, with consumer demand spurring a rapid increase in online payment transactions, growing at an annual rate of more than 9% between 2014 and 2019, according to a recent McKinsey report.
While the infrastructure in MEA countries is not always fully developed, mobile money services are already connecting millions of unbanked and underbanked populations in the region to digital financial services, and as a result, are opening up other socio-economic opportunities for financially underserved communities which they would not have had access to previously.
An example of how the winds of change coursing through Africa and the Middle East demands innovative answers is the growing success of EdTech, HealthTech and e-commerce.
Healthcare systems benefit from the increasing role of fintech start-ups as they help to facilitate payment processes and provide new routes to accessing digital health services online. Through alternative payment methods, the population is empowered to make digital payments related to healthcare – whether online or in person with a virtual card, for example – contributing to the long-term sustainability and development of the healthcare industry.
Likewise for EdTech services – being digital education courses, online tutorials or e-books – New virtual payment methods will enable millions in MEA with smartphones and internet connections to access online education services. This digital integration into the education system is a big force for societal change, liberating people from immobile physical structures and opening up new cultural attitudes and traditional conformist belief systems to competition and challenge.
For these reasons, the online payments sector in MEA is ripe for innovation – the region has two billion people and it is the fastest-growing in the world, with a high adoption rate of smartphones. And with this increasingly tech-savvy population and a supportive environment for FinTechs to thrive, it will enable the region to build a foundation upon which lasting socio-economic improvements can be achieved.
The opportunities for FinTechs to grow and develop new alternative solutions in the MEA region is exciting – and the social empowerment and benefits they will bring – are endless.