Fintech innovators can't let the coronavirus derail financial inclusion
Many of us take it for granted, but accessing basic financial services is fundamental to our economic and social development. It is hard to "get on" if you are forced to hide life savings under the mattress, or rely on predatory loan sharks for credit.
Yet an estimated 1.5 billion adults around the world do not have a bank account or access to formal finance systems – making 40% of the global population "unbanked." This limits opportunity and stifles potential. Indeed, research by EY has shown that financial inclusion could improve some countries’ GDP by up to 30%.
Given the transformative benefits (and yes, revenue opportunities), promoting financial inclusion has been a key priority for banks and fintechs in recent years and as a result, significant progress has been made. But with COVID-19 plunging the world into a period of unprecedented uncertainty, it is imperative that these gains are protected.
Undoubtedly, enabling financial inclusion has become significantly easier in the wake of technology-led innovation in financial services and payments. Take increasing smartphone penetration, which has allowed banks, fintechs and telecom operators to offer highly accessible, low-cost digital financial services to previously underserved populations.
These initiatives have had a huge impact. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has become the global leader in mobile money, with competition between different providers driving rapid innovation and promoting financial inclusion at scale.
This success provides a blueprint for the power of technology. But despite the huge long-term potential, we must be realistic about the current limitations. Although mobile connectivity is increasing, over half the world’s population remains unconnected. To rely solely on digital interventions is to leave billions of people behind.
Where there is no digital infrastructure, establishing safer financial systems is the first critical step to transitioning out of poverty. This is where organizations such as WeSeeHope, a charity committed to creating community-led change for vulnerable children in Southern and Eastern Africa, play a crucial role in laying the foundations for a sustainable future.
WeSeeHope’s Village Investors Programme (VIP), for example, has established a community banking system enabling parents and guardians of vulnerable children to access savings and loans. By providing training and tools, communities have been able to establish self-funded and self-regulated savings and loans groups, helping members to start and expand small businesses.
It may not be complicated, but this simple, sustainable and scalable approach delivers tangible benefits and supports a range of positive outcomes. Since the start of the program, nearly 24,000 members have been trained as part of the VIP.
As a result, 67,000 children have directly benefited from access to financial services, as their parents and guardians can afford school fees, improve their homes and invest in naturally reproducing assets to secure future income. This creates a virtuous circle, with economic prosperity driving better infrastructure to enable the delivery of more advanced financial services.
In 2018, I was fortunate enough to see these benefits firsthand in Malawi where, on average, members of VIP see their income rise from $1 to $3 a day. As you drive through this beautiful country, it is easy to spot a community where WeSeeHope has made a difference simply by counting how many homes have upgraded their traditional straw roofs with tin sheeting. Literally a shining example of improved financial prosperity.
Unfortunately, we are at risk of taking a significant step back. We have all been impacted by COVID-19 in some way, but the crisis is set to extend and exacerbate extreme poverty and financial insecurity for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
As part of a global financial community, we must consider the long-term impact and see financial inclusion as a fundamental priority as we look to rebuild a fairer, more sustainable world.
Technology will undoubtedly be integral to this effort, but as the International Monetary Fund notes, “to tap the high potential of digital financial services in the post-COVID era, many factors need to fall into place.” This will take time.
We must therefore take a holistic view and ensure that organizations like WeSeeHope, which are playing a crucial and immediate role in promoting basic financial literacy and service availability, do not slip through the cracks themselves. Immediate short-term funding and long-term income projections across the entire third sector have been decimated, putting vital initiatives at risk.
These are challenging times for everyone, but we must trust that in acting now the rewards will be worth it.