As Nigeria rolls out one of the developing world's most ambitious policy platforms to boost digital payments and drive greater financial inclusion, it's important to take stock of the country's progress to date, so that policy-makers around the world can learn from Nigeria's experiences.
To this end, the Better Than Cash Alliance has just released two pivotal studiesdocumenting Nigeria's digital journey, including the prospects for further progress in key areas, and four in-depth case studies which, whilst not a representative sample of all large businesses, nonetheless provide several important lessons.
In aggregate, the studies paint a mixed but broadly encouraging picture of Nigeria's success. The transition from cash to digital payments is progressing at very different speeds in different sectors of the economy and by different payment type.
The most promising findings relate to mass payments from a single payer to many payees ('bulk payments'). On this front the Nigerian Government is leading by example, making all of its pension payments, supplier payments and payments to state and municipal governments electronically, along with 61% of its salary and social subsidy payments. Importantly, the Government's leadership has created momentum that is combining with the Central Bank of Nigeria far-reaching Cash-less Nigeria program and driving significant progress towards digital payments among large businesses.
Cash-less Nigeria entails a wide range of policy initiatives ranging from public information campaigns, point-of-sale guidelines and restrictions on cash-in-transit services, and fees to disincentivize cash withdrawals. It is supported by the National Electronic Identity (e-ID) Card, a national ID that citizens may also choose to activate as a MasterCard-branded payment card. The policy was first implemented in 6 states (Lagos, Rivers, Anambra, Abia, Kano, and Ogun State) and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), and it was rolled out nationwide in 2014.
As an indication of progress in Nigeria's corporate sector, as of 2013 large businesses now pay 61% of salaries electronically (compared to 31% in medium businesses, and 15% in small businesses). Indeed, one of the key insights to emerge from BTCA's studies is that digital payments now appear to have passed a tipping point in Nigeria's corporate sector, with the result that for large businesses it is not a question of whether to make the transition to digital payments, but rather one of when and how.
However, for other payment types the progress has been more modest. Although they exist, when it comes to payments by many payers to one payee (e.g. consumers paying a utility company or the national tax authority) digital payment options have not been widely utilized. Factors contributing to this low take-up include an absence of aggressive marketing of digital payment options by utility and other consumer-facing companies, the ubiquity of cash payments, and the large portion of the population that does not have a bank account.
Payments by individuals to one commercial payee (ie. a merchant) make up the overwhelming volume of payments in Nigeria, as it does in many markets. In this category, only 1% of payments by volume are currently being made digitally.
Several key barriers to the faster digitization of payments emerged from the Better Than Cash Alliance's studies. Chief among them is the widespread concern among individuals and small businesses about the scrutiny and consequent tax obligations they will face if they adopt digital payment tools. At the same time, there also exists a broad lack of understanding among individuals and small businesses of the benefits of going digital. There is a clear need for more public education campaigns to fill this knowledge gap. That being said, there is also evidence from a 2014 survey of 600 small businesses that some merchants are starting to recognize some of the key benefits, such as better record-keeping tools.
Also central to the findings is recognition of the need for better infrastructure and stronger incentives to drive change forward. While digital payment infrastructure is advancing rapidly in Lagos, and to a lesser extent in other major cities, it is, unsurprisingly, far less developed in rural and remote areas. Action is needed to overcome these digital gaps.
It is also noteworthy, that debit cards have been widely issued to Nigeria's urban and banked population, but consumers overwhelmingly only use them for cash withdrawals (which are generally free), rather than to make payments at the point-of-sale (POS). This low demand among consumers for digital point-of-sale facilities in turn means merchants have little incentive to invest in digital POS facilities, such that "the use of cards at merchants appears to be at a standstill", according to our analysis.
These are the types of challenges that Nigerian policy-makers will need to address with a new round of targeted initiatives if Nigeria is to build on its successes and aggressively drive greater financial inclusion through digital payments. Happily, the ambition and leadership the Government and Central Bank of Nigeria have already demonstrated augurs well for the future.
Camilo Tellez-Merchan is the Knowledge and Research Manager for the Better than Cash Alliance. Prior to joining BTCA, he worked at CGAP in Washington and the GSM Association in London where he supported providers in the area of digital financial services. He has also worked at the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, and at the Microsoft Labs in Bangalore where he conducted ICT4D research in the technology for emerging markets team.