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Malawi takes payments digital

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Malawi has taken a significant step towards creating a digital payment ecosystem in order to address poverty and drive inclusive growth. 

An event organised by the Government of Malawi, with the United Nations Capital Development Fund’s (UNCDF) Better Than Cash Alliance (http://www.betterthancash.org) and Mobile Money for the Poor initiatives, brought together digital payments players to accelerate the progress of digital finance in Malawi. The convening also marks the release of an in-depth analysis of the country’s readiness to transition from a nearly cash-only economy to one where digital payments are widely available through an ecosystem approach.

Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe said that the transition to digital payments is part of the Government’s commitment to achieving social and economic goals within the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy. 

“This is part of our mandate to realise balanced and sustainable economic growth and to reduce poverty,” said Gondwe. “We believe creating an economy where digital payments are widely available is the right path for us to embark on and we are doing so based on sound economic and fiscal policies.”

The research was conducted through a partnership between the Malawian Ministry of Finance, the Reserve Bank of Malawi, and the Better Than Cash Alliance, and is entitled The Opportunities for Malawi’s Transition Away from Cash (http://betterthancash.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/BTCA-Long-Version-Malawi-Diagnostic.pdf). The report detailed the current state of Malawian digital payments, providing an important baseline to track progress. The study also identified four potential opportunities for Malawi, including the Government advancing on digitizing its centralized payment system with support from banks, and merchants accelerating digital payment acceptance via mobile money and debit card at the point of sale. 

“Malawi is moving forward to build a strong digital ecosystem that will respond to the needs of the people in the country,” said Tillman Bruett, Advisor and Programme Manager, Mobile Money for the Poor (MM4P), a UNCDF initiative, undertaken in Malawi with the support of the US Agency for International Development. “We expect that as a result, Malawi will progress from 3.5 percent of total active adult population using digital financial services at the start of this year to 15 percent by 2019.” 

As part of the programme, UNCDF plans to provide technical and financial assistance to build capacity in public and private sector organizations to support the switch from cash to digital for the most promising payments streams identified in the research.

Making payments in cash can be expensive and inefficient for governments, companies and international organizations. Cash is also difficult to trace, and extremely vulnerable to theft and loss. Many people living in poverty only use cash, and this is a key barrier to broader financial inclusion because cash makes it costly to provide financial services.  According to UNCDF, in least developed countries such as Malawi mobile penetration is at 30 percent while access to a bank account is at 14 percent.  Mobile payments can therefore be one way to accelerate this shift.

Malawi’s approach can set an example for other countries in the early stages of transitioning to digital payments. 

“Digitisation is an important development tool for many countries looking to reduce the cost of delivering payments, increase transparency and increase access to financial services for citizens,” said Dr. Ruth Goodwin-Groen, Managing Director, Better Than Cash Alliance. “By undertaking this research and by using it to plan its shift, Malawi has taken a bold step in increasing transparency and moving towards an economy where the Government, businesses and people can pay and get paid electronically.”

Transitioning from cash to digital payments is a complex process, however, and requires collaboration between the government and businesses, as well as building trust and increasing familiarity among citizens. That reality is why leading figures came together today to discuss the diagnostic data and develop a blueprint for the country’s digital payments future. Participants noted that by working collaboratively to address the barriers to transitioning payments from cash to digital, they would be able to accelerate the shift and ensure that it brings real benefits to citizens in the form of greater financial inclusion.

USAID/Malawi Mission Director Doug Arbuckle noted in his remarks: “The U.S. Government is glad to join many other governments and international organizations in encouraging a transition away from cash to digital payments in Malawi.  This can be a long road, but the benefits are clear and overwhelming.”  

Mia Seppo, United Nations Resident Coordinator and United Nations Development Programme Resident Representative, added: “The introduction of digitisation is timely as Malawi is currently going through public service reforms that will ensure equitable access to financial and payment services in a manner that is transparent and efficient.” 

Malawi is a focus country of MM4P and member of the Better Than Cash Alliance.

Africa News

Wikipedia wants more Africa

At the recent Wikimania conference in Cape Town, a key focus was on increasing more regional contribution to the world’s largest free, collaboratively-built online encyclopaedia.

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The 14th annual Wikimania 2018 conference, the annual gathering of volunteers from around the world to celebrate Wikipedia and the Wikimedia projects, is expected to bring together over 500 volunteers from around the world to discuss and share ideas around the future of Wikipedia and free knowledge globally.

Wikimedia sites are read approximately 15 billion times a month globally, however only a small portion of volunteer Wikipedia editors come from Asia, Africa, and Latin America combined.

Anyone can edit Wikipedia in any of its almost 300 different language versions including Swahili, Hausa, Amharic, Arabic and Afrikaans versions.

“To achieve knowledge equity we need to have more voices represented in our community.  This is why we are creating an inclusive environment for people from all over the world to contribute knowledge in a way that considers custom, language, access to bandwidth, and more,” said Ellie Young, Conference Organizer for Wikimania.

Ghanaian Wikipedia contributor and free knowledge activist Felix Nartey says that some of the primary barriers to contribution from people living in Africa is lack of time and lack of access to an enabling environment (computers and access/affordability of internet).

“We have been engaging with our communities and holding a number of successful editathon sessions. What is apparent is that African people have a real appetite to see themselves represented on this platform. They want to see their content and their languages on Wikipedia and are crashing through some of the structural barriers to do so,” said Mr. Nartey.

For example, through a collaboration with the Social Theory Course at Ashesi University in Ghana, students have been given class assignments which have led to contributions of their research and term papers on Wikipedia through the Wikipedia Education Program model.

Across other parts of Africa, organised thematic workshops targeted at bridging the gender gap and other systematic biases that exist on Wikipedia have also been held.

Work to create more regional content also continues. In South Africa, Afrikaans and isiZulu are the most active language Wikipedias other than English.

“If you are passionate about a specific topic or piece of local history, or if you would like to see more articles in your own language, register and start making your contributions. The only way we are going to shift the content bias is by adding content that represents a more diverse user base,” said Douglas Scott, President of the Wikimedia Chapter of South Africa.

With over 5 million articles already on English language Wikipedia, Mr. Scott says that more African contributors can get involved by creating an account on Wikipedia and testing out different ways to edit — whether it’s fixing a grammatical error or adding a citation to an existing article, creating a new article, or asking other volunteer editors for support in reviewing a draft article you created.

Articles on Wikipedia need to have verifiable references and sources. This means that facts must be drawn from recognisable publications and institutions. A great way for more African contributors to get involved is to join a WikiProject around specific areas of interest. WikiProjects consist of groups of contributors who work together to create and improve articles about a specific topic on Wikipedia.

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Africa’s fintech is migrating

Africa’s fragmented markets and lack of legacy foreign exchange trading infrastructure means that the continent has become a melting pot of fintech activity and innovation, writes TIM HUTCHINSON, Head of Digital for Financial Markets, Standard Bank.

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The evolution to electronic foreign currency trading in Africa, while slow to start, is today gaining tremendous traction. 

In South Africa, only five years ago, almost 90% of foreign currency trades happened over the telephone. Today, despite challenges around illiquidity and complicated political and capital control environments, approximately 75% of trades are conducted digitally, with a mere 25% conducted on the phone. 

With 57.6% of the world’s 174-million active registered mobile money accounts in Sub-Saharan Africa, the continent is becoming a world leader in fintech generally, and in mobile money in particular. As African citizens and business people transact globally, Africa’s highly developed fintech culture is not only deepening on the continent, but is also migrating out of Africa.  

The foreign exchange flows that Africa’s expanding fintech culture supports are very important to the continent’s financial services providers, most of whom are developing fintech capabilities or partnering with the most popular or effective home-grown African fintech’s to ensure that they capture this flow.

Standard Bank has been an integral part of driving this rapid evolution to digital in Africa’s foreign exchange trading landscape.  

In order to function as an effective market maker, we need to source liquidity in market. We also need to, instantly, formulate risk-based pricing in an ever-changing world. Thereafter we need to distribute price. 

In Africa this requires developing solutions that allows retail, corporate and institutional customers to access foreign exchange markets across multiple jurisdictions. At the same time in most markets, “we also need to show central banks what we are doing,” adds Mr Hutchinson. All transactions need to be transparent and electronically traceable so that local authorities are prepared to approve digital trades. 

Today, however, banks are not only expected to provide the systems and networks to facilitate basic transactions but are also required to provide insight and guidance beyond pure execution by offering additional value-based services across research, hedging and, most importantly, settlement capability. Currency research for example, is increasingly a big client requirement. Having on the ground experience and local expertise as well as the ability to deliver this digitally, “differentiates Standard Bank’s distribution capabilities in this regard”. 

In addition, banks are also increasingly required to inform and guide clients through the broader economic, legal and political landscapes in which transactions occur. For example, one of the considerations in developing Standard Bank’s digital capability was how to combine market intelligence and research with real-time pricing, trade execution and post-trade services. Today it is not enough just to execute trades. It is equally important that we advise and inform the broader universe in which trades happen.  

From a technology point of view Regulatory Technology (Regtec), for example, is assisting Africa to manage new regulatory developments in heavily currency-controlled environments. Similarly, the rise in robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI), “has allowed Standard Bank to develop solutions that leapfrog traditional business problems”. 

Digital trading in Africa is also evolving in its own often very different way. We have found that it is not just a question of importing developed world systems. Our approach with clients is to work with them to help understand their internal needs in terms of governance and operational efficiency. We then partner with clients to develop and implement digital solutions that talk to the heart of their business need. 

Standard Bank’s own Business Online (BOL) platform provides an example of how the bank has built digital transaction capabilities that exactly meet client need. BOL, for example, allows clients to view balances across the continent while making third party currency payments and also supporting general cash management. This kind of broad, business-wide digital cash view and capability puts control back in the hands of the clients while also allowing clients, rather than the bank, to manage their own cash flow.

From an Institutional perspective it’s very important to be able to offer customisable solutions to clients managing money on behalf of their investors. Standard Bank’s investment in Application Programming Interface (API) technology, for example, is tracking exactly its client’s growing ability to build these capabilities into their own systems. 

On the retail side Standard Bank’s SHYFT app – a digital wallet allowing global transactions in USD, EUROS, GBP and Australian dollars has extended this control element to the man in the street. SHYFT has been recognised both globally and locally for its innovation.

Standard Bank presents a very compelling, unique and globally competitive digital trading proposition to local and developed world clients seeking to access Africa. Our footprint across 20 territories – most at different levels of digital development – provides a compelling pan-African proposition for global and local clients alike.

While Africa’s record in digital adaptation and innovation is impressive, the technology part is often the easier part to implement. The human and cultural systems, and client behaviour changes, required to give this digital evolution life – like getting customer analogue systems to start pricing electronically to make trades visible 24/7 – is often a lot harder to achieve than the technology upgrade. In short, bank employees, customers and regulators all need to undergo fundamental cultural shifts in how they do things and understand the world.

It is often these broader cultural and market shifts that Standard Bank as a pan-African bank is called on to advise as clients seek to understand and engage Africa effectively. 

Given the rapid pace of digital evolution within Africa’s varied market, customer, legislative and cultural landscapes, we need to balance customer value and efficiency – and regulatory pressures to be more transparent – with what is, in the long run, best for the market. 

As a pan-African bank inextricably committed to the growth and success of the continent, Standard Bank’s digital journey requires a judicious blend of developed world technology with African insight and innovation. This blend should be capable of balancing customer need and legislative oversight in the development of efficient and inclusive markets that sustain long term growth. 

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