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"The industry of banking and finance is not only entering the age of algorithms but also the age of disintermediation."
In this exclusive interview, Arshad Rab, Chief Executive Officer, European Organisation for Sustainable Development (EOSD), spoke to Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine, on the disruption of conventional finance and the future of the financial services industry.
Jide Akintunde (JA): The disruption of the financial services industry is underway. Is this something that will prove ultimately evolutionary or revolutionary in the provision of financial services?
Arshad Rab (AR): For centuries, the provision of financial services was the sole domain of banks. But that is no longer the case. Financial services are now increasingly being provided by technology companies, heralding the tectonic shift currently taking place.
The industry of banking and finance, as we currently know it, will cease to exist and this will happen much faster than many of us think. So, if we look at the emerging big picture, we can conclude that the change in the financial services industry will indeed prove to be revolutionary.
JA: Why is this happening?
AR: The disruptive nature of technological change is reshaping every aspect of our lives. We have entered the age of algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) and computer machines are taking over much of the work humans currently do, significantly, including decision-making. Therefore, the technology companies are in a much better position than the banks to take full advantage of latest innovations and make banking and finance their business domain.
On the demand side of financial services, we are also experiencing a radical shift in the customer behaviour. Today, we all expect things to be done much faster than say five years ago. For example, people have problems in understanding why in this digital age, banks need days to transfer money. We can of course offer reasons for the time lag such as regulations for clearing houses, but most people will not be satisfied with such explanations. The customers of today want money to be transferred instantly; they would like loan decisions to be made quickly; and they want to be able to enjoy banking services from any device, at any time and from anywhere.
Another factor influencing financial services is the growing population of young people who are tethered to mobile devices. The services that are not available on those devices are simply non-existent as far as the younger generation are concerned. This generation, quite often referred to as millennials - which generally means the people born between 1980 and 1997 - are becoming entrepreneurs, decision-makers and customers. They need technological and speedy solutions much more than the older generation. And the centennials, those born after the millennials, are now a big market for consumer electronics and IT products and services. In the next few years, they will be one of the largest customer groups for financial institutions.
And let me also underscore a very key point: The competitive edge that the algorithms and artificial intelligence-driven technologies enjoy is that they are much faster and less prone to errors than humans - including in making decisions - making them very attractive for the financial services they offer.
So, one could argue that what is happening currently, particularly the proliferation of algorithms, artificial intelligence and blockchain, will make banking more a business of technology companies than of the banks. Referring back to your first question, this is a revolutionary change in the history of banking and finance.
JA: What is the real hope of a better future of banking and finance that is deliverable by the disruption of conventional finance?
AR: There are two words that immediately come into my mind: Inclusive and democratic. First, through the use of technology, banking services are being made available to unbanked and underbanked customers at affordable costs. The massive and fast growth in inclusive banking and finance, to a large extent, is because of technological advances.
Secondly, I can see the emergence of banking for the people, of the people and by the people. For example, if we look at crowd funding or peer-to-peer real-time payment solutions, you can clearly see that the industry of banking and finance is not only entering the age of algorithms but also the age of disintermediation. The role of financial intermediaries, be it commercial banks, development finance institutions or other intermediaries, will continue to reduce. And as blockchain technology becomes real, the financial services industry will experience historic disintermediation. This will make banking and finance more democratic than ever before.
JA: We see that in e-payment there is tension between conventional banks and the telcos. Also, the regulatory and consumer protection frameworks for fintechs are, at best, work in progress. Should the efforts at resolving the issues assert competition or cooperation?
AR: The role of regulators should continue to be about protecting the public interest. There can and there should be no compromise on this issue as we transform from conventional to digital banking and finance. In the emerging scenario, there is a dire need for actions that can create a level-playing field for both incumbents and new players such as the financial technology companies.
Since there is a real prospect that few big tech giants will dominate the financial services industry within the next few years, we need policymakers and regulators to act fast to ensure safe, fair and competitive markets and to avoid market domination by a handful of powerful players. A good regulatory framework, as always, will promote competition. This is in the interest of the society and in the long-term interest of all the current and future players.
Now, talking about cooperation, this is currently being led more by market dynamics than by regulatory pressures. A growing number of incumbent financial institutions are closely collaborating with small and medium-size fintechs to overcome technological challenges. In fact, this is one of the top trends happening today and some of the banks have even started to acquire fintech startups. Nevertheless, there will still be existential threats looming over the incumbents, including the big financial sector players.
Technology, market conditions, regulatory framework and socio-economic and political climate will continue to change extremely fast. However, the organizational structure and business processes of the incumbent financial sector players are not very responsive to the fast-changing environment, at least not in comparison with the fintechs.
JA: One issue that has been little highlighted is that disruptive finance can be zero-sum. While the fintechs are already helping to drive down the cost of financial transactions - especially remittances, aggregate labour in the financial services industry can be eroded. Do you have concerns about this trade-off?
AR: There is no doubt that a lot of work done today by humans will be done by robots in all sectors of the economy, and the financial services industry will not be exempted. But do we have a choice? Since we know that digitization of everything is unstoppable, it is time to move forward and meet the challenge head on. This means embracing the technological innovations and getting ready to benefit from the digital economy.
For instance, imagine if we could soon free up almost 50 percent of the world's human resources by taking them away from doing monotonous tasks and deploying them to do creative work. And imagine if we could enable majority of the world's workforce to unleash its true talent and potential, all because for the first time in human history, it is now possible to do so - thanks to technology. And let there be no doubt: All monotonous jobs can be and will be taken over by robots.
Nonetheless, my concern is not about the threat that technology poses to human labour. We cannot "undigitize" the economy or halt further developments, anyway. I am earnestly concerned that governments, regulators, businesses and society are not realizing the pressing need to take immediate and resolute actions to ensure a smooth transition to the age of algorithms and artificial intelligence. The danger of mass unemployment and destabilizing markets is real but preventable, provided we act fast and smart.
So, I am calling for urgent actions and inviting the stakeholders to work together to create a win-win outcome and not wait till the water runs dry.
JA: The EOSD has been encouraging financial institutions in the global South to embrace Sustainability. What would be your message to African banks on how they should continue to position for the future of banking and finance?
AR: This is a difficult question to answer in few words. However, I would like to suggest that banks must embrace technology and use it to its full potential. But let me hasten to add that investments in technology alone is not enough because it is very challenging to keep up with the fast pace of technological change. For the incumbents, it will be too tough to compete on the basis of technological edge with the tech giants and other fintechs entering financial industry.
In my opinion, the financial institutions, irrespective of their location, size and infrastructure - and in addition to full-scale digitization - need to focus immediately on true value creation for all stakeholders. The successful financial services providers will be those that deliver real socio-economic value in their communities and to society at large, while fully recognizing the natural environment as one of the key stakeholders. This is not only the right thing to do from a moral perspective. But, at the end of the day, this is where the battle for survival will be won or lost.
About the author
Arshad Rab serves as the CEO of the European Organisation for Sustainable Development (EOSD) which is a dedicated body that has in its unique charter the purpose of developing strategies, programs and initiatives and undertaking projects that contribute in implementing the EU Strategy for Sustainable Development. Having his academic background in business administration, extensive work experience with private, public and multilateral organizations and wide-ranging in-depth knowledge, expertise and experience in the field of sustainability sciences, Mr. Rab today is a powerful voice on innovating for a sustainable future and leading with responsibility in times of disruptive change. His ongoing research interest include disruptive innovation in the financial services industry. In addition, he is the initiator of the Global Sustainable Finance Network that brings together about 70 financial institutions from over 30 countries.
This post was originally posted on the GSMA website.
In a previous blog post, we outlined some of the barriers that affect women at a higher rate than men and that can help explain the origins of the mobile money gender gap in Rwanda. But do these barriers affect women regular and power users differently? What are the main drivers for mobile money usage among women? And finally, what can be done to bridge the mobile money gender gap?
These observations are based on 40 semi-structured interviews and five focus group discussions we conducted with men and women in Kigali. Participants were between 25 and 34 years of age. Each participant was either a regular user (sent or received at least one transaction via mobile money in the last three months) or a power user (sent or received at least one transaction a week via mobile money over the last three months). The barriers and potential opportunities to drive uptake of mobile money are also likely to vary with different demographic groups (e.g. for those in rural areas).
The barriers affect regular and power users in different ways
Transaction fees - a high price sensitivity to the fees associated with making a mobile money transaction was much more likely to be mentioned as an issue by female respondents across the usage groups. However, female power users were more likely than female regular users to value the convenience offered by mobile money, which seemed to compensate for the transaction fees.
Confidence and understanding - female regular users were more likely than female power users to mention poor confidence in their ability to make a transaction and low levels of understanding of the service as a barrier. While it is intuitive that lower exposure and understanding of the service may contribute to lower usage, this was never mentioned as an issue by men across usage groups. Also, while female power users were confident users, they claimed that women are shyer than men and don't believe in their ability to use the service effectively. This perception that women have low confidence in the ability to use mobile money, and that they are likely to not understand how the service works was also often mentioned by the men interviewed.
Trust - female regular users were more likely to report lower levels of trust in mobile money services than female power users. Female regular users were more likely to attribute low levels of trust in the mobile money service to the fact that agents tend to be mobile and not have permanent addresses. This meant that, when mistakes were made, women were unable to locate the same agent who helped them perform the transaction. While female power users were more likely than female regular users to trust the service with their money, once the amount of money on the mobile money account had reached a certain point, female power users tended to withdraw it and take it to a bank.
Trust in mobile money services was not particularly mentioned as an issue for the majority of the men interviewed - male regular and power users were indeed more likely than women to trust the service with their money.
What do women like about mobile money?
Throughout the qualitative research, women were consistently enthusiastic about the convenience offered by mobile money as it helped them save travel time and travel money.
Women also identified a saving opportunity in their mobile money account - all the women interviewed were consistently using their wallet to "store money for emergencies" (which was portrayed as different from saving money, which they were more likely to do at a bank as it was deemed safer than mobile money). Specifically, women noticed that when they kept their money in cash, they were more likely to spend it on what were seen as "unnecessary things", while as they started keeping it on their mobile money account, they were more likely to avoid misusing it. Women reported always keeping a certain amount of money on their mobile money account, which they could withdraw in case of emergency.
Finally, having a mobile money account gave women a sense of empowerment, as they felt able to manage their finances in a quick and secure way, while keeping this process private. Also, mobile money gave women a sense of independence. 100 per cent of the respondents said that it felt good when their transactions went through.
A few ideas for mobile money providers on how reach more women with their service
Make mobile money a competitive alternative to cash - as discussed in the previous blog post, women (both regular and power users) are more likely than men to be price sensitive, and to look for cheaper alternatives when making financial transactions. This is truer for female regular users than for female power users, who tend to value the convenience of the service over the transaction fees. With this in mind, mobile money providers need to be creative if they want to increase uptake of the service among women, for instance by creating targeted promotions that incentivise women to adopt and use the service.
Promote group savings via the mobile money - all the women interviewed during this research in Rwanda reported saving money via the bank or a local savings group. They also reported storing money away in case of emergencies, which happened primarily via the mobile money account. Providers seeking to improve the attractiveness of mobile money services for women should consider offering group savings products that target existing female savings groups. Introducing the mobile savings account to an already-existing and trusted savings group, would not only allow the provider to reach new women, but also to teach women how to use it in a network where they are supported and encouraged by their peers.
Consider women's preferences for distribution and marketing - women in our sample were more likely than men to report instances of poor customer service and to blame these instances for the poor trust they had in mobile money. Also, women suggested the creation of fixed locations and small houses where mobile money agents could host their customers, to enable customers to return when issues arise. From a marketing standpoint, it is also important that women are portrayed in billboards, TV ads, and radio ads, to avoid giving women the sense that the service is not for them.
About the Author
Elisa Minischetti is the GSMA Connected Women Insights Manager. Before joining the GSMA, Elisa worked as an intern at the social enterprise WomenCraft in Ngara, Tanzania, where she contributed as Grant Manager and Budget Analyst. Prior to that, Elisa worked for Europe Direct, Forli', Italy, as a European Trainer and covered roles at the Italian Consulate and at a shipping firm in Germany. Elisa holds a Master's Degree from the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in International Economics and Conflict Management. This degree was a complement to her MA in International Security and Politics from University of Bologna and BA in Political Science and International Relations from University of Siena.