Ten years later, more needs to be done to achieve financial inclusion for all

As a popular African proverb tells us, “if you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.” However, going fast and together is what Africans need to do to secure sustainable development that leaves no one behind. In 2011, I began my journey in the financial sector while on the team working on Rwanda’s third instalment of the national technology plan 2011-2015, a part of our Vision 2020 agenda. The strategy aimed to transform the country into an information-rich digital economy. Central to this transformation was to build digital payment systems to serve more Rwandans.  Nearly 10 years later, the country has made good progress and, indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic showed the value and foresight of these investments.  However, much more needs to be done.

Unlike ten years ago, today we have bank and mobile money agents in all 30 districts and people can easily open accounts, digitize and liquidate their monies. Similarly, we have ATMs accepting card and card-less transactions for both local and international users and can obtain payment cards to access our monies abroad and make purchases online, all of which was inexistent in 2010. Even tourists are no longer burdened with carrying large sums of cash as all attractions now accept digital payments.   

Further, entrepreneurs in technology or “techpreneurs” are growing thanks to opportunities to bring businesses services online, which is made possible by improved connectivity and digital payments, itself built on the foundation laid between 2010 and 2012 as noted above.  Accordingly, the digital payments sector as a portion of Rwanda’s GDP has grown from less than 1% in 2011 to over 36% in 2019.  By the time Covid-19 came, hundreds of thousands of people were able to pay and be paid using bank applications and mobile money.  These are the result of the foundation laid over the last decade, and for this, we should be proud.

Remaining gaps

While we have made good progress, the 2020 Finscope survey, and the many gaps revealed during Covid-19 lockdowns, has exposed the need to decisively address the factors which continue to  hinder the inclusion for all.  For instance, when I started paying attention to this survey in 2012, only 14% of Rwandans were banked and nearly 10 years later, this share has grown to 36% (i.e. 2.6 million Rwandans). 

This is disappointing because I expected the country would be well above 50% by now.  Also disappointing is that I did not expect to see huge disparities in banking between districts. For instance, Gasabo district is leading with is 80% of its residents who are banked while Ngororero is trailing at a miserable 8%. This is simply unacceptable.

I noticed that one of the challenges is that while banks have mobile banking, agency banking and merchant payments that help to ease access and inclusion, growth has not been nearly as fast in mobile money.  Even though transacting with banks applications is cheaper than mobile money, account maintenance and card fees, accessibility when one needs cash fast, and the process of obtaining loans remain prohibitive. 

Mobile money does better. For one thing, if you have a phone or even just a SIM card, you have a wallet.  Additionally, mobile money is a job creator: one can be an agent overnight with a small float deposit and simply pitch an umbrella on the roadside or walk to serve customers. This is unlike banks where agents need to register a business and meet a list of requirements.

2020 Finscope eye opener

Women lag behind men in accessing digital financial services. One, more men than women (34% versus 39%) use banking services. Two, women still need permission to register accounts and even to access as mundane services as a SIM card. Clearly, while progress has been registered in empowering women, more needs to be done to remove unnecessary hindrances such as these and others.

Another factor limiting digitization is that although most Rwandans have SACCO or Microfinance accounts (2.4 million and 0.7 million respectively), the majority of these institutions are not digitized despite the fact that 87% of adults in Rwanda have access to a mobile phone. This challenge was exposed during COVID-19 lockdowns when work hours and cash withdraws were significantly reduced, according to the Finscope survey. Similarly, there still remains a large proportion of the employed whose salary isn’t channeled via bank accounts. Indeed, it takes on average 18 to 43 minutes to find a financial institution/agent, which discourage integration into the financial system and therefore the ability to access digital solutions. More, therefore, needs to be done in efforts for financial inclusion in general and digitization in particular by improving access, especially to women, reducing costs, bringing farm workers and part time irregular earners into the banking system. Indeed, the to achieve greater financial inclusion will require boosting interoperability by ensuring that every banking institution, whether commercial banks or Saccos, is connected to a single platform that allows access to all available financial services.

Collaboration brings endless possibilities

The possibilities for accelerated digitization are endless in an environment of collaboration.  For example, it is possible to consolidate capital of banking and mobile money agents with one rather than multiple service providers. This would free up capital for reinvestment in the growth of their businesses as well as employing more people. Moreover, the ability to accept all forms of digital payments through one account, gives agents the volume they need to access greater credit for re-investing in their businesses.

This can be done beyond a single country to enhance regional collaboration across financial institutions, as well. For instance, a single platform connecting the country’s payments can easily be connected to regional and continental platforms, making it easier to make digital payments across borders, which would be a contribution towards AfCFTA goals.  The Finscope survey shows that digital payments helped to increase usage of banking services by 16 percentage points since 2016.  However, more can be achieved through collaboration.

Collaboration will help to overcome some of the negative competition that prevails in the majority of banking institutions and shift it towards healthy competition that overcomes poor experiences that customers suffer from these institutions. The African people, in Rwanda and across the continent, are waiting for leadership that one, removes impediments to access for all; two, drives a policy framework of inter-operationability; three, envisions collaboration beyond borders.

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