Many GCC residents believe that the key to a cashless future in the Gulf lies in the wide-spread use of retina scanners and voice recognition software.
In truth, however, the cashless future envisioned by so many countries are only likely to be realised if we pay attention to the more commonplace forces in our economies. Creating a more convenient and safer way to transact for the small convenience store located in the out-of-the-way neighbourhood will be the true test. What happens here could decide whether we have a cashless future.
An estimated 180 million micro and small merchants (MSMs) in developing countries do business worth $6.5 trillion each year while serving more than 4.5 billion customers every day. While individual transactions might be small, this is a significant contribution to the economy. And the bulk of these are cash transactions.
A recent study commissioned by Visa and conducted by the Global Development Incubator and Dalberg, found that fewer than 10 percent of MSMs in the developing world accept digital payments. Our researchers spoke to small merchants who make as much as $500 a day, and have to send nephews on buses with cash stuffed in their pockets to the bank. This is inconvenient and not safe.
Even in such developed countries as the UAE, where electronic payments account for about 40 percent of the market, there is still plenty of room to remove cash from the system. In the race to develop cashless ecosystems, working with the smallest merchants and their customers is a good place to start.
Researchers asked MSMs in six developing countries why they remain so attached to cash. Among the reasons given was that customers do not have the means to pay electronically. Equally, tying up your income digitally when you have no choice but to pay suppliers in cash made little sense to respondents.
Others were put off by the time and expense of installing and maintaining a terminal, which might then fail due to intermittent electricity and connectivity. More broadly, there was a perception that the benefits of electronic payments - from improved security to reduced cash-handling costs - did not apply to businesses of their size.
The payments industry has started to develop products and services specifically attuned to the way MSMs and their customers operate. In the MENA region, which has one of the highest mobile phone user bases in the world, a customer’s smart phone matched with a merchant’s QR-code can be an effective way for the two parties to connect digitally. The result is that even the smallest merchants in the remotest areas can now accept electronic payments in a way that is both affordable and reliable.
While innovations like this can make an important contribution to the region’s cashless future, it is the impact on the lives of individual merchants and their customers that could prove to be of greater significance.
For MSMs, the expansion of digital payment acceptance is the first step towards greater financial sophistication. Greater acceptance could prove to be an important pathway to financial inclusion for all people. By helping to increase familiarity of, and confidence in, formal banking services, it could help prepare the unbanked for other financial services, including savings accounts.
Reaching this point, however, will require the participation of everyone involved with the payments industry. It will also require us to change perceptions that have persisted for decades. We now have the tools to do it, so it is time to make it happen.
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