Video: Remittances in the Pandemic Age – Obstacles and Opportunities July 21, 2021
Continuing our recent spate of discussions exploring some of the challenges being faced by the remittance sector in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, RemitONE hosted a webinar on the 23rd June 2021 regarding the obstacles and opportunities of remittances in the pandemic age. The panel was made up of experts from both RemitONE and our friends and partners in other global companies. In case you missed the webinar, here is a summary of the key insights.
- Aamer Abedi, CMO, RemitONE
- Leon Isaacs, CEO, DMA Global
- Naved Ashraf, Head of India & South Asia, MoneyGram International
- Julie Neogy, Managing Director: Global Payments, MFS Africa
Originally the World Bank predicted that global remittances were set to decline by 20% as a direct result of the pandemic. Was last year as bad as expected across the Middle East and Africa?
Leon Isaacs: The numbers probably indicate that it wasn’t as bad as had been forecast. If we think back to this time last year, things were generally looking pretty grim for the second quarter. But actually, during the rest of the year, things really recovered in most countries. There might have been a projection of a 20% fall for last year but the actual fall ended up being only about 1.6% on a global basis – much smaller than even the most optimistic projections that were happening this time last year. I think all the individual stories behind both businesses and senders and receivers of remittances will probably show you the challenges but there’s also a great level of optimism and resilience that seems to have carried into this year.
What have been the main challenges during this period and in your point of view, are we at where you think we should be in terms of recovery?
Julie Neogy: We’re a digital payments company so we’ve actually been positively affected by COVID. In fact, our transaction values during that period doubled! I don’t really have an answer for recovery because it’s been so successful for us, but our partners certainly faced some challenges. Some of the remittance companies that we work with weren’t equipped for digital payments, for example, so they really had some hard times adjusting. I think it’s also worth mentioning the regulators were traditionally a little resistant when it came to cross border payments, but they really adjusted quickly during this time by doing things like waving transaction fees, allowing for larger limits and even encouraging interoperability in the central African region. There were challenges but I felt like besides ourselves we had a lot of our partners really thrive in that time period.
Naved Ashraf: Honestly, during April and May last year it was like doomsday and we saw an abrupt business decline because of job losses, people holding back on remittances, sending lesser amounts back home, retail locations being shut and curfews across the globe. It also led to reversed migration with people moving back home and not really knowing how long they were going to be staying for and how long the COVID situation would last. However, recovery was faster than expected. Obviously, there was governmental support, so all of this also led to people sending money back home to their loved ones or friends that needed it. And, as Julie mentioned, digital was a huge help. Moneygram is a hybrid company, and people really woke up to digital during the pandemic and started sending more money, even in countries like India, which is the largest remittance market in the world. In fact, we’ve seen triple-digit growth in the last few months.
Do you have any comments on channel cannibalisation? And do you think there is enough data out there in the market that our audience can access?
Leon Isaacs: I think the short answer is no. Obviously, the shift to digital has become very pronounced thanks to COVID but with money transfer platforms, the definition of digital often means digital only needs to be at one end of the transaction. So we should take any numbers with a pinch of salt. Also, more than half of transactions still involve cash as the key part of the transaction. Cash is still a key part of transactions even if one end is digital. I think the shift towards digital has really started, which is good. But from a data perspective, I think we’re going to need surveys that are conducted by governments or international bodies.
Some businesses have thrived during the COVID period, what do you think their differentiators have been to insulate them?
Julie Neogy: I would say it’s their agility. Agile companies have thrived. As soon as COVID hit our partnership with Moneygram skyrocketed because they were really open to changing the way that they thought and worked. For the people in the informal market that had a traditional resistance to digital payments, that barrier is now gone as digital became more of a necessity for them. I also think the companies that benefited most were the ones already in the digital space and were already on the right side of regulations, so had less groundwork to do.
What notable shifts have you seen in the remittance sector? What do you think will stick in the long term and where do you see the industry headed?
Leon Isaacs: Digital is definitely here to stay; it’s the new normal. I think that means digital as a channel rather than just remittances. So it doesn’t just have to be remittances that are being pushed, it could be lots of other financial services. In most cases, I think it has demonstrated to people that there are alternatives that they can access that are actually quite easy to use and have many advantages that they presumed they couldn’t get before. So for instance you can now transfer money to much more remote places and the speed and the certainty is all there. But I think some of that will undoubtedly shift back after the pandemic. Historically, remittances have generally been viewed as a transactional business but I think that’s changing. One of the things we’ve really seen is that digitisation gives consumers a better understanding of the product and gives us a better understanding of the consumer. And finally, perhaps for all of us, COVID really brought the attention of policymakers and governments back to remittances. Because of this increased attention, companies are also more likely to keep their customers or attract new customers because of the improvements being suggested by the regulators. For me, that might be one of the best long term benefits.
What do you think these bigger players are doing, the established players in our industry, what steps are they taking to tap into the informal sector?
Naved Ashraf: In the south Asian market the informal sector used to be a big market but I wouldn’t say it’s the same now. The rise of organised remittances has really taken over, and I think the biggest players are into all the nooks and corners of the countries now. The people who used to rely on somebody delivering money to them has almost completely stopped.
Julie Neogy: It’s hard to say when I’m wearing my MFS Africa hat because we are only working with regulated entities. But what I can say is that when we’re talking about mobile money usage, we look at the number of users we are sending to on both the sending side and the receiving side. And the actual amount of people we are sending to on the receiving side has increased in all of the countries that we do business in.
Aamer Abedi: For me, it’s all about interoperability. In a receiving market like India or Zimbabwe, for example, the ability for money transfer solutions and mobile network operators to work together should help bring the untapped sector into the formal fold. Because the informal sector hardly uses mobile phones. But when they realise that cash can be transferred into a mobile digital wallet in some way, and this digital wallet can be used to send money to other mobile phone users, then you are strengthening our sector and bringing new customers into the formal fold.
Leon Isaacs: Interoperability definitely has become more important as it allows non-bank financial institutions to participate in mainstream financial services. So, for instance, we’ve seen a major increase in remittance software companies being able to credit bank accounts. If you can put together what systems exist now, then you can move money across different types of services where it needs to go and allow customers to access different types of products more quickly without building something yourself from scratch.
Is the usage of digital payment vs cash/physical methods, sustainable post Covid?
Julie Neogy: I want to say yes, but in Africa, the main barrier for using digital payments has always been trust. But there are a lot of other barriers, especially in certain African countries where cash-out fees are really high and wallet sizes are really small. Countries like Kenya and Uganda made adjustments during COVID. Now if they revert to the old ways and the cash-out fees go up or if send fees are reimplemented then it’s hard to say how sustainable it is. It really depends on how the regulators in the receiving countries are responding.
Has the bank account situation improved with the drive to go digital? Or are we in the same situation, as we’ve always been?
Leon Isaacs: We thought that more digitisation would help but from what I hear, it is not making a sufficient difference. There are still lots of companies that are having real difficulties getting accounts, particularly the newer technology companies. This is not just a UK or Europe issue either, it’s happening in most parts of the world. In a way, the discussion around it has moved from a business model where there were lots of concerns around the risks associated with digital into a discussion around cryptocurrency. I think what is concerning for me is that from a government level, things were really bad in 2012 and 2013 with many companies losing their accounts. Then things hit a plateau, and because they weren’t getting any worse, attention came off. But of course, things weren’t getting any better either. For me, the problem is not really solved and it’s only going to get solved if governments are prepared to take action, and I think governments are reluctant to take action particularly. It’s actually where digitisation should help because there’s much greater transparency and control, and the ability to identify people.
Naved Ashraf: From a South Asian perspective it is still harder for smaller players to get remittance bank accounts than it is for bigger players, but it is possible for smaller players to enter the mainstream. You just have to work a little harder than the rest.
If we have the technology, and we are proving that the technology is there, then why aren’t the governments and regulators doing more to put pressure on banks to help sustain the industry?
Leon Issacs: Ultimately, most banks want or need to deal in US dollars and to do that they need relations with big NY banks and these are the banks setting the standard. Because everybody wants to deal in US dollars at the moment, all countries are affected. This is not just an issue for money transfer platforms, but banks too, and the problem will not be resolved any time soon. There was talk about maybe remittance companies only dealing in euros rather than dollars to avoid that, but you can’t do that on a global basis.
What next then, in terms of opportunities that lie ahead for both traditional and digital MSBs post-pandemic?
Naved Ashraf: We touched upon bitcoin but bitcoins are not legal tenders yet, it’s quite popular but not legal. The central bank digital currencies are obviously blockchain-based and that is used to combat the growth of too many cryptocurrencies. But no bank as far as I know has banned the central bank digital currency. In terms of opportunities for both traditional and digital MSBs, I think blockchain that combats cryptocurrency growth could be the way forward but the biggest hurdle for blockchain adoption would be standardisation. There’s SWIFT which is like a standard that other agencies are also getting set up, and once that comes in I think it will bring in a lot of standardisation across the board. Also, we have to deal with the multiple layers of banks right now, and the lack of transparency at the moment of money. And obviously, we can’t forget about the customers, whatever apps and websites we are using right now they have to be more customer-friendly.
What does the future for the remittance business look like as we are witnessing more and more third-party open banking apps being launched?
Julie Neogy: Competition is fierce and I think what’s going to be exciting is that companies need to offer more than just a money transfer system. As more third-party apps are launched, remittance companies need to innovate with the customer’s best interests in mind in order to stay on top. Companies really need to stay at the cutting edge and come up with actual products instead of just conceptualising them.
Naved Ashraf: What I see is that there are two mediums of transfer. One is digital and one is traditional. I would say the end goal is the customer because everything has been done to make it faster, cheaper, easier and more convenient for the customer to receive their money. What will happen I think is that both mediums will have to learn to co-exist. Cash is here to stay.
Leon Isaacs: I agree that cash isn’t going away any time soon because very few specific markets in the region can operate using only digital payments right now. Ultimately, the majority of our users live in markets where cash usage is still quite high. I guess the question is, can you make a big enough business out of digital at the current time? It is very difficult to do digital-only. You have to find the right markets with the right remittance software and you need to have as many options as you can make work for you economically for consumers. Because at the end of the day, the consumer is going to use the service that works for them.
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