[Column] Daniel Monehin: Policy and regulation should bolster innovation to ensure financial inclusion is achieved
Walk through bustling marketplaces in Africa and you will see a substantial amount of money changing hands, as merchants and consumers haggle over the goods and services.
What stands out is just how many of these transactions are conducted using cash, and the reason for this is because most people don’t believe they have any other pragmatic option.
There is a large number of unbanked or underbanked people on the continent, and so many individuals that don’t save or have a financial history with a formal financial institution and are therefore found on the fringes of financial services – where most transactions are carried out with cash.
What this typically creates is a vicious cycle that serves to prevent most of these individuals from accessing critical financial services to better manage their finances, grow their businesses or protect themselves against eventualities.
Financial inclusion remains a challenge, particularly in developing countries. Only just over 30 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans, for instance, have any formal account. There is a collective focus by both the private and public sector on the need to find ways to bring greater numbers of people into the financial mainstream and improve their livelihoods.
One of the areas that has the greatest potential to narrow the margin of exclusion is policy and regulations. Policy surrounding financial inclusion has garnered considerable attention in the last few years, as the importance of inclusion has been aligned with financial integrity, stability and literacy.
Policy makers face the ultimate juggling act as regulatory frameworks and policies need to find the balance between providing the necessary support that will bring citizens into the formal financial fold while simultaneously ensuring that these requirements do not discourage access to critical financial services by stifling individuals’ abilities to transact.
What is clear is that it is simply impossible to make tangible progress by working in isolation. It takes collaboration between players in both the public and private sectors to bring their specific area of expertise to the table with the view to develop holistic strategies and policies that will enable inclusion.
The good news is that industry stakeholders across the board have largely realised this and joined forces through organisations like the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI) to share knowledge and engage to formulate and implement these policies.
AFI is led by its members, comprising mainly financial regulatory institutions such as Central Banks, superintendence’s and Ministries of Finance from developing countries.
The network currently includes members from 94 countries working together to accelerate the adoption of proven and innovative financial inclusion policy solutions with the ultimate aim of making financial services more accessible to the world’s unbanked.
Mastercard is a proud member of AFI and continues to collaborate to ensure open dialogue with focus on building a strong network where solutions can be found.
What has made these platforms so impactful is that the regulators and policy makers understand the unique African context and have been formulating policy solutions that speak to this.
Advancing financial inclusion through digital financial services, for example, has been a top priority and continues to dominate the agenda because of the role that mobile money, new tech and innovation are playing in allowing Africans to pay for goods and services safely and easily.
Although mobile money is a global disruptor, its impact has been especially noticeable in Africa, where mobile penetration continues to grow and where it has already proven to be a game changer in terms of providing affordable financial services.
Using a tool that people already hold in their hands means that more people can be connected to an interoperable financial ecosystem at a fraction of the cost – backing this up is the fact that there are nearly 280 million registered mobile money accounts in Sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 178 million bank accounts.
As such, driving policy that supports mobile-based payments as a critical enabler will remain a core focus going forward. But even with mobile and digital finance recognised as an answer of sorts to facilitating financial inclusion, that is only half the battle.
There needs to be continuous innovation and advancement in this space to ensure that all Africans have the opportunity to be financially included – and the answer lies in collaboration across the public and private sectors to leverage each other’s strengths.
Daniel Monehin is the Division President for Sub Saharan Africa and Lead of Financial Inclusion for International Markets at Mastercard