Banking the unbanked – India's race to digital

Following my story around the learnings from China, I was tempted to do a similar one around my learnings from her fast-growing neighbour and rival, India! India has also made great strides in digitizing the financial services industry in the last three years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a champion of the “Digital India” program since coming to power in 2014. The “Digital India” program aims to transform the nation into a digitally empowered society and a knowledge economy.

However, unlike my experience in China, I do have to exchange some money before leaving for India. It is not as easy for me to get set up on one of the local payment wallets. I was told I needed to get a local phone number to set this up! Here are some perspectives from the view of an outsider into the Indian financial services industry.

Three distinct trends mark the incredible growth of the financial services industry in India:

1. The government’s digital push

India would possibly rank highest in terms of government initiatives to bolster the growth. The demonetization of the currency in 2016 was a huge stimulus that accelerated digitization. Post which, several other government programs brought financial inclusion to this largely unbanked country.

The local central bank, RBI has set a vision to quadruple the digital transactions in a three-year period by 2021. It encourages the participation of new players with a focus on customer experience as a key driver. India has seen the emergence of the Fintech industry over the last 4 years. It has been a hotbed for some of the largest investments in Fintech. The digital payments market will reach $1 trillion in value by 2023. And, India will form a significant portion of the global digital payments market.

Central to the innovation in India’s digital landscape is the development of “IndiaStack” by the government. It is an open API based technology stack that will change the way the country will function moving forward. It consists of 4 layers or technology stacks:

1. An Identity /Presence Layer

2. A Paperless layer to digitize all forms of records (E-KYC, Digilocker, E-Sign)

3. The Cashless layer (Unified Payments Interface)

4. Consent layer (allowing the user to give consent to various parties to access his/her data)

Each layer takes away considerable friction that citizens faced when accessing government or other regulated personal services.

The Unified Payments Interface (UPI) enables the user to power multiple bank accounts into a single mobile app. It merges several banking features including merchant payments in one interface. There has been about 800 million transactions a month worth US$19 billion–in just three years of launch.

2. The exploding activity among startups and global tech giants

India has been quite receptive to the global tech giants who have made big bets in this market. Research firm Twimbit estimated investments worth US$1.9 billion in 2018 alone.

The majority of the investments were in the payments sector led by PayTM, the pioneer as well as the leading platform. Global giants Amazon, Google are quite active in this sector. Of 2,035 FinTech startups in India, most belong to the Payments segment (375 startups). The payment segment amounted to 18.43% of the total number of startups. There is a high number of television adverts from competing providers offering lucrative cash back for using their payment services. (just over 5 years ago, all I remember was adverts on soaps and detergents) Lending and insurance are the other dominant sectors that have attracted the bulk of venture funding.

The ability for startups to access a platform such as UPI discussed earlier, will further accelerate the pace at which new startups will be founded and funded.

3. The digitization efforts of the existing industry participants

India is home to some of the best performing as well as worst-performing banks. The sector is gigantic and is home to about 99,000 banks (public, private, urban/rural co-operative banks). A recent government drive, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, to bank the citizens opened 355 million accounts. It also witnessed deposits increased by US$14 billion. This is still day one of banking in India!!! Imagine the potential.

Twimbit estimated the ICT spending by the banks reached US$9.8 billion in 2018, a growth of 10 percent YoY. It also mentioned API / Open Banking is high on the agenda of every CEO.

The co-operative banks (1551 urban and 96,612 rural) embarked on a digitization initiative to move their applications onto the cloud. They also sidestepped the process of investing in traditional IT infrastructure. An effective digital transformation program can greatly contribute to enabling financial inclusion in all sectors of the economy.

Whilst so much has been done in the last three years, I cannot but fathom the opportunity ahead. India will be the land where we will see the full spectrum of competition in the financial services sector, which includes the tech giants, the financial institutions of the world, Fintech startups as well as local banks. The stage is getting ready for digital-enabled partnerships to usher in incredible growth to this economy. “Incredible India”– it certainly will be!


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