The multi-stop journey to financial inclusion on digital rails

One of the foundational notions of digital financial services has been the distinction between payment rails and services running on the rails. This is a logical distinction to make, one easily understood by engineers who tend to think in terms of hierarchies (or stacks) of functionalities, capabilities, and protocols that need to be brought together. But this distinction makes less sense when it is taken to represent a logical temporal sequencing of those layers.

It is not too much of a caricature to portray the argument —and, alas, much common practice— like this: I’ll first build a state-of-the art digital payments platform, and then I’ll secure a great agent network to acquire customers and offer them cash services. Once I have mastered all that, then I’ll focus on bringing new services to delight more of my customers. The result is that research on customer preferences gets postponed, and product design projects are outsourced to external consultants who run innovation projects in a way that is disconnected from the rest of the business.

This mindset is understandable given limited organizational, financial and human resource capabilities. But the problem with such narrow sequencing is that all these elements reinforce each other. Without adequate services (a.k.a. customer proposition), the rails will not bed down (a.k.a. no business case for the provider or the agents). In businesses such as digital payments that exhibit strong network effects, it’s a race to reach a critical mass of users. You need to drive the entire stack to get there, as quickly as possible. Unless, you develop a killer app early on, as M-PESA seems to have done with the send money home use case in the Kenyan environment.

It is tough for any organization to advance on all these fronts simultaneously. Only superhero organizations can get this complex job done. I have argued in a previous post that the piece that needs to be parceled off is not the service creation but rather cash management: that can be handled by independently licensed organizations working at arms length from the digital rails-and-products providers.

What are payment rails?

Payment rails are a collection of capabilities that allow value to be passed around digitally. This could include sending money home, paying for a good or a bill, pushing money into my or someone else’s savings account, funding a withdrawal at an agent, or repaying a loan. The first set of capabilities relates to identity: being able to establish you are the rightful owner of the funds in your account, and to designate the intended recipient in a money transfer. The second set of capabilities relates to the accounting or ledger system: keeping track of balances held and owed, and authorizing transactions when there are sufficient funds per the account rules. The third set of capabilities relates to messaging: collecting the necessary transaction details from the payment initiator, conveying that information securely to the authorizing entity, and providing confirmations.

Only the third piece has been transformed by the rise of mobile phones: we now have an increasingly inclusive and ubiquitous real-time messaging fabric. Impressive as that is, this messaging capability is still linked to legacy approaches on identity and accounting. Which is why mobile money is still more an evolution than a revolution in the quest for financial inclusion.

The keepers of the accounts —traditionally, the banks— are, of course, the guardians of the system’s choke points. There is now recognition in financial inclusion circles that to expand access to finance it is not enough to proliferate the world with mobile phones and agents: you need to increase the number and type of account keepers, under the guise of mobile money operators, e-money issuers or payment banks. But that doesn’t change the fundamental dynamics, which is that there still are choke point guardians who need to be convinced that there is a business case in order to invest in marketing to poor people, that there are opportunities to innovate to meet their needs, and that perhaps all players can be better off if only they interoperated. A true transformation would be to open up these ledgers, so anyone can check the validity of any transaction and write them into the ledger.

That’s what crypto-currencies are after: decentralizing the accounting and transaction authorization piece, much in the same way as mobile phones have decentralized the transaction origination piece. Banks seek to protect the integrity of their accounting and authorizations systems —and hence their role as arbiters of financial transactions— by hiding them behind huge IT walls; crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin and Ripple do the opposite: they use sophisticated protocols to create a shared consensus for all to see and use.

The other set of capabilities in the digital rails, identity, is also still in the dark ages. Let me convince you of that through a personal experience. My wallet was stolen recently, and it contained my credit card. I can understand the bank wanting to know my name, but why is the bank announcing my name to the thief by printing it on the credit card, thereby making it easier for him to impersonate me? The reason is, of course, that the bank wants merchants to be able to cross check the name on the card with a piece of customer ID. But as you can imagine, my national ID got stolen along with my credit card, and because of that the thief knows not only my name but also my address. That was an issue because I also kept a key to my house in the wallet. None of this makes sense: why are these “trusted” institutions subverting my sense of personal security, not to mention privacy?

The problem is that the current financial regulatory framework is premised on a direct binding of every transaction to my full legal identity. As David Porteous and I argue in a recent paper, what we need is a more nuanced digital identity system that allows me to present different personas to different identity-requesting entities and choose precisely which attributes of myself get revealed in each case, while still allowing the authorities to trace the identity unequivocally back to me in case I break the law.

The much-celebrated success of mobile money has so far really only transformed one third (messaging) of one half (payment rails) of the financial inclusion agenda. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.