Following up on my recent blog entry regarding
my attempt to go cashless and cardless for a week when in San Francisco late last year, it’s worth sharing observations of payment methods from a recent trip to Argentina and Uruguay in late December 2012.
As those of you who know me, I am a strong advocate for mobile financial services, having spent a greater part of the past 7 years entrenched in the industry, working for different players in the ecosystem – bank, technology vendor, fintech start-ups and
most recently a VC fund specializing in disruptive financial technologies (but more on that in a future post). As a practitioner, I have been mostly involved in bringing mobile banking and payment solutions to market in Western Europe, with broad exposure
to deployments and strategies across the Americas. Based on my own experience, as well as the success stories being written in Africa and India, I have always been a strong proponent of mobile technologies being a driver for financial inclusion in unbanked
societies. However, my recent trip exposed me first hand to the challenges that will be encountered along the road.
First and foremost, it’s important to consider the strong presence of cash. My observation in Argentina and Uruguay is that cash is still the preferred payment method in both countries. Makes sense: its legal, doesn’t require identification and has immediate
value to the merchant/recipient, of utmost importance in economies like Argentina where inflation is sky high.
Related to this, I was surprised when we set foot in Uruguay to see that most merchants accepted four different cash currencies – US dollar, Argentine Peso, Uruguayan Peso and Brazilian Real – sometimes not accepting card payments. I have trouble managing
my personal finances in a single currency; how on earth do gift stores, coffee shops and ice cream stands manage their business in four?!?!
While card penetration is significant (and growing) across the region, there seems to be little incentive to use them. In Argentina it was common to find retailers listing two prices, a list price when using a card as your payment method, and a discounted
price when paying in cash. Card issuers try to counter this practice by offering interest-free payment installments over 6 or 12 month periods, but my observations in the two weeks I was out and about was that consumers preferred to pay in cash. Again, inflation
plays a key role here as consumers rush to get the little cash they have off there hands before it is devalued.
After some additional research upon my return, I also learned that some countries, for example Colombia, are unwantingly de-incentivizing the use of electronic payment methods (cards among them) through tariffs that increase the cost to the consumer.
Lastly, personal safety and security are important as mobile technologies are considered a conduit to financial inclusion. In a trip to Colombia last August, I was told by local friends not to use my smartphone when out and about the city. If I did, I ran
the risk of losing my phone, my hand, and sometimes even my life. I later learned that the black market for used (and stolen) technology is huge in developing countries. While nothing happened to me (or my smartphone) on that trip or subsequent trips throughout
the region, I have observed that technology is not as widely used in open spaces. My recent exposure and experiences have brought me to realize that while technology can be a driver to inclusion and electronic payments, it is also a hindrance since the hardware
itself is many times valued more so than cash itself (or even a life).
This being said, I am still a believer, albeit a bit more pragmatic about the importance that mobile and digital technologies will play in bringing financial inclusion to the unbanked.