If there’s anything positive that the Covid-19 pandemic has achieved, it is the spurring of digitization across sectors. While the most skeptic of Pakistanis finally build their trust in the digital or online world, the latter has got a rare opportunity to grow and mature too. This swift digital shift has inevitably caused a spike in digital transactions and payments in the country. What’s wonderful is that this shift doesn’t look like a flash in the pan, but a trend that’s there to stay and become a norm.
An active, goal-oriented participation from the regulator as well as a key technology and financial services players in the country is behind the success of the long-overdue digital transformation. While the central bank is mulling allowing people to open bank accounts digitally without physically visiting branches, PTA has decided to hire a consultancy to boost and standardize Mobile Financial Services in Pakistan through a comprehensive study.
Furthermore, the SBP’s data for the previous quarter shows that Pakistan’s branchless banking (BB) industry has been bustling with activity, seeing improvement in pretty much all the main numbers from agent network to branchless banking accounts or volume of transactions. As Covid-19 continues to make people switch to online and branchless banking to transfer funds, pay utility bills, and shop online, the days of the age-old trust deficit now seem numbered.
Easypaisa, a popular name in Pakistan’s branchless banking sector, has been among the key players driving the change. Pioneering mobile banking in the country a decade ago, Easypaisa presented a practical solution to reducing financial inclusion gaps in the country by banking the unbanked and making financial services accessible like never before. It paved the way for the arrival of similar services by key industry players which would help Pakistan enter the fin-tech era.
ProPakistani spoke with M. Mudassar Aqil, CEO, Telenor Microfinance Bank/Easypaisa, about Easypaisa’s achievements, challenges, future, as well as the significant shift in consumer behavior that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about especially with regards to online transactions. Below is how the conversation went:
Q: The Emerging Payments Award 2020 for the ‘Best Financial Inclusion Payments Initiative’ is the latest feather in TMB’s cap. Tell us a little about that.
A: The Emerging Payments Awards are one of the most prestigious accolades in the global finance industry and it gives us great honor to be the platform of choice for this year’s ‘Best Financial Inclusion Payments Initiative.’
The Emerging Payments Awards are now in their thirteenth year. It was initiated to highlight and celebrate companies that have brought significant changes to transactional landscapes within their domain of operation. For Easypaisa, this isn’t the first time that our efforts have been applauded at a global scale yet it remains a matter of great pride for us to be recognized. For the past 11 years, Easypaisa has been creating ripples in the local payments ecosystem by ensuring simpler access to digital financial services through a robust network of partners and extensive branchless banking options.
We have always been at the forefront of bringing solutions that bring financial inclusion to the masses and this Award has further solidified our commitment to creating avenues where customers have the power to perform digitally empowered financial transactions. Being one of the most widely used platforms across the country, we are making it easier for everyone to become part of the formal economy.
Q: As per your own numbers, more than 12,000 QR merchants have been on-boarded on the digital payments platform to provide QR payment options to customers. Do you see further growth in QR users?
A: Growth of merchants and consumers go hand in hand and are directly proportional. QR use cases had, in the past witnessed a slow pace of growth as not many users opted for the feature. However, for the past couple of years, we have been witnessing significant growth in QR users on our app which is the reason why we went ahead with onboarding further QR merchants on our platform to provide seamless QR services to all our users.
Moreover, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a significant shift towards contactless payments from consumers that also included QR payments. This increase made it easier for us to expand our QR merchant base further. Given these trends, we definitely are looking forward to building a digital ecosystem in the country, a lot of which will be driven by QR payments.
Q: Many in Pakistan have distrusted digital payments and online marketplaces for long, preferring in-person transactions instead. Do you think Covid-19 has been a blessing in disguise for the reduction of digital payments trust deficit in Pakistan?
A: Digital payments have been around in Pakistan for quite some time yet their adoption rates have been relatively low. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a significant shift in consumer behavior especially with regards to online transactions. During the first wave, when lockdowns were initiated, life almost came to a standstill for those with no access to digital financial services.
This made most people realize the need for having mobile wallets. Strict implementation of SOPs and realization for personal health and safety on a large scale also became factors in the rapid growth of customers preferring digital payments over conventional ones.
During the first wave of the pandemic amid strict lockdowns, from March till April of 2020, Easypaisa alone recorded a 35% increase in new account registrations while old returning users grew by 25%. At the same time, daily transactions saw a rise of 17% and bank transfers via e-wallets increased by a staggering 184%. These numbers are a testament to a changed reality that not just Pakistan but the world is witnessing in light of the ongoing pandemic.
These numbers show that COVID-19 has definitely come across as an opportunity for banks and fin-techs working towards bringing greater financial inclusion to the masses.
However, the more demanding challenge at present is the sustainability of the gains made during the last few months. Pakistan still remains a predominantly cash-dependent economy and there are deep-rooted reasons behind this, the primary being the lower cost of paper currency transactions.
The Government and State Bank of Pakistan have laid out substantial plans for developing a digitally enabled infrastructure in Pakistan and it is the need of the hour for online payments to receive focus under these initiatives as well. Ensuring frictionless onboarding for customers and retailers, reducing costs associated with digital payments, and collaborating for new use cases is what is required in order to bring about a lasting shift in consumer behavior.
Q: Skeptics are now seeing the benefits of cashless transactions. Now that lockdowns have largely eased, do you see these new users going back offline?
A: The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely shed light on the need for digital transactions but there lies a need for making digital payments sustainable for the long run. Consumers prefer cash transactions in Pakistan due to a predominantly cash-based economy. Another reason for cash-based transactions is due to their low cost as compared to higher costs associated with digital transactions and other relevant barriers that keep customers from using these services on a regular, long-term basis.
The Government and other respective authorities are working on plans to address these concerns. As a welcome step, the Government of Punjab in a recent move reduced taxes on payments made through cards thereby incentivizing the use of digital payments over cash.
Similar initiatives across the country focusing on all forms of digital payments will have a major impact on the path towards a digital economy and we are hopeful that practical solutions are introduced as well as implemented to ensure that digital transactions can remain at par with or even become less expensive than cash payments.
Q: Easypaisa began in 2009 with the aim of bridging the financial inclusion divide in the country. In its 12 years of existence, how has the service changed the financial services landscape of Pakistan?
A: Easypaisa was introduced at a time when a significant chunk of the population had no access to formal banking channels. Almost 100 million adults across the country did not have a formal bank account forcing them to resort to informal and often unscrupulous means of financial support.
In 2009, remote money transfer was introduced through Easypaisa enabling people in far-flung areas to simply send amounts to loved ones through their phones. The service redefined money transfers. It came as no surprise then that the platform quickly grew into an extensive network of more than 150,000+ merchants nationwide. The strides made by Easypaisa paved the way for branchless banking to become the highlight of the National Financial Inclusion Strategy of 2015.
As the service evolved over the years, Easypaisa enhanced its offerings to customers on every network through the mobile app which brought a diverse range of services to the customers at their fingertips. Today, with 7 million-plus active users and an annual throughput of PKR 1 trillion, Easypaisa has become the most widely used digital payments platform in Pakistan and leads the fintech revolution in the country.
Through a range of unique partnerships, the service has enabled customers not just during the pandemic but overall as well to perform various transactions including bill payments, money transfers, mobile top-ups, food delivery, ride-hailing fees, and various others. The efforts from Easypaisa have allowed a bigger chunk of the unbanked population to accept and utilize digital payments enabling greater financial inclusion among the masses.
Q: 2020 has been a tumultuous year, but it brought fintech players a rare opportunity to innovate and capture a greater market share. What innovations did Easypaisa bring in 2020?
A: 2020 has been an extremely happening year for Easypaisa. The application has seen a host of new services across diverse domains all aimed at bringing more convenience and simplicity to users and their daily lives. For starters, the Easypaisa App was upgraded to offer school fee payments for many educational institutions across the country. Numerous COVID-specific measures including an updates tab as well as a tailor-made insurance plan for the disease were introduced.
At the same time, Easypaisa partnered with the Government of Punjab’s Zakat and Ushr department to disburse zakat funds worth PKR 1.5 billion to 170,000 beneficiaries in the province. Discounts were offered on Telenor airtime packages to customers and partnerships with other telco players enabled their network users to take advantage of the Easypaisa App without any data charges. With social distance being implemented in bank branches, we also partnered with Bykea to bring doorstep cash deposits for Easypaisa customers.
Since Eid-ul-Fitr fell during the first wave of the pandemic, ‘Eidipaisa’, a digital solution for sending eidi to loved ones was introduced allowing the essence of this spiritual occasion to remain intact.
In the midst of the first lockdown, food deliveries were also a challenge and Easypaisa simplified this by allowing Eat Mubarak integration directly within the platform. The Easypaisa app was also made available on the Huawei Mobile App Store. Similarly, over 100 new billers were added to the revamped bill payments section of the application including the Sindh, Punjab, and Islamabad Excise departments. Customers can now easily pay their vehicle token taxes directly through the Easypaisa App.
Q: How is the blockchain-based international remittance solution for Malaysia performing in numbers? And, have more countries been added to the system yet?
A: The blockchain-based remittance solution with Valyou Malaysia added a significant amount of value for customers. However, at present, our partnership with the organization is being re-evaluated considering the acquisition of the company by another Money Transfer Operator.
At the same time, a similar blockchain-based solution has been deployed with a Singapore based aggregator that is currently working with almost 10 organizations and will be adding more partners in the coming months. This initiative is ready to be implemented once the necessary regulatory approvals are received. Blockchain has immense potential and it is under serious consideration from major financial institutions across the world.
Q: WhatsApp payments are making their way to some countries. In India, the facility was recently launched. How, in your view, will the local fin-tech industry be impacted if WhatsApp payments come to Pakistan?
A: As the leader of the fintech revolution in Pakistan, with local knowledge spanning over more than a decade, Easypaisa is well-rooted to create a transparent and a formal, digital economy that all Pakistanis can participate in.
However, the provision of financial services to the under-banked and the unbanked segments of society is a herculean task that can never be achieved alone. As an organization focused on tackling the problem of financial inclusion in the country, we are committed to working in collaboration with other players to the creation of a digital ecosystem that benefits the entire country.
In all markets, new entrants always help evolve the local trends and the fintech space is no different. With global players entering the local stage, everyone will be able to learn and evolve in terms of technology and the user experience they provide. New players also help expand and grow the market which is the need of the hour in Pakistan. The entry of new players will be more than useful in making the consumer more aware and expanding digital services far and beyond where they are today.
Q: What does Easypaisa have in store for its users as we enter a new decade?
A: The world as we know it is changing. Digital payments are becoming the need of the hour and the decade we are entering is going to require major chunks of the population to embrace these transactional channels. Easypaisa has been a revolutionary platform since the time it was launched and today, we remain steadfast to our vision of ‘creating a transparent economy that all Pakistanis can participate in’.
Over the last few years, we have been working continuously on addressing the concerns which keep people away from digital payments in general including higher costs of transactions and ease of use. We have added numerous new use cases to our platform allowing users to transfer money, pay bills, perform airtime top-ups, buy movie or bus tickets, shop online, or order food simply from their fingertips.
The idea is to reimagine how we transact – everyday banking made simple for all Pakistanis through one platform which offers an array of digital financial services in a convenient and secure manner. The new frictionless, hassle-free, and transparent mode of operation will give the power right back where it belongs – with the consumer.
As we enter a new decade, we will remain committed to undertaking efforts that can make a cashless ecosystem and financially inclusive society accessible to everyone across the country. We will continue to incorporate state-of-the-art technologies and collaborate with others to create value for all enabling a digital Pakistan.