A man exercises on a bus stop with hoardings promoting digital payments in Mumbai, India, January 27, 2017. Picture taken January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

Every year, millions of people around the world transit out of poverty in any number of ways—by adopting new farming technologies, investing in new business opportunities, or finding new jobs, for example. At the same time, large numbers of people fall back into poverty due to health problems, financial setbacks, and other shocks. Compounding this situation is the fact that the majority of those living in or near poverty lack even the most basic financial services.

Access to the right financial tools at critical moments can determine whether a poor household is able to capture an opportunity to move out of poverty or absorb a shock without being pushed deeper into debt. However, the existing “bricks and mortar” banking system doesn’t work for poor people, in part because most of their transactions are conducted in cash. The global revolution in mobile communications, along with rapid advances in digital payment systems, is creating opportunities to connect poor households to affordable and reliable financial tools through mobile phones, and other digital interfaces

India is now expected to be the biggest hotspot of the digital planet. The digital medium is now seen as the most potent medium for cutting the divide between the wealthy elite and have nots. India’s earlier attempts floundered for several reasons but now the time appears to be ripe for such an enterprise. Moreover it is resonating well in the new technologically and financially empowered milieu. Digital finance   has suddenly acquired a magical nuance. Amazingly, even the laity has started tapping into the buzz of digital finance.

However, there are several challenges peculiar to India that may constrain a full-scale digital transition in the foreseeable future. On the surface, this transition may not appear to be very profoundly deep. But as it pans and plays out, this tectonic shift will have much wider implications and the policy executioners will have to contend with a diversity of   exponential societal changes. The race to go digital cannot be turned into a marathon sprint. India culturally believes in cash and a paradigm shift in thinking will need time and resources.   It will actually involve a migration to   new social and cultural patterns and habits. In a way it is more of a cultural-economic revolution.

An advertisement board of Paytm, a digital wallet company, is seen placed at a roadside vendor's stall as he arranges vegetables in Mumbai, India, November 19, 2016. Picture taken November 19, 2016. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade
An advertisement board of Paytm, a digital wallet company, is seen placed at a roadside vendor’s stall as he arranges vegetables in Mumbai, India, Nov 19, 2016. Reuters

There are   marked class issues which are built into India’s cashless transition. The tech class has poor exposure to critical social theory and will have to get a better grasp of the impact on the ground.  The new revolution will have better chances of success if it is driven less les by financial punditry and more by empathetic governance. People take to new technologies when they see clear benefits, have greater confidence in the markets and services, find it convenient and can afford it. The painful reality is that providers too often focus on short-term incentives at the expense of long-term consumer trust and loyalty.

Migrating from a cash economy to a digital economy will demand a recast of the entire mindset for the consumers. In fact, the last mile of the digital highway is not infrastructure but the skills of the users. Equally critical is the smooth functioning of the last mile touch point. Making gadgets available   will not help unless we bring about a change in the overall outlook of people.  It will require thinking very hard about the motivators that will pull the consumers into this new space. The issue is a lot more nuanced than what we are seeing today. Nuances change from culture to culture and consumer segment to consumer segment. The consumers will come into the digital platform and embrace the new opportunities believing that if they change their behavior and exert the effort to get into the new world then certain specific pains will disappear. We have thus to address real pains, not just offer benefits. “You have to look really hard and ask, ‘What problems are being solved?’” says Nick Hughes, who shepherded the team that turned M-PESA into a revolutionary financial tool. “Unless problems aren’t being solved, it becomes a bit of hype.”

India has to contend with a geographical and cultural divide of a great magnitude. The aversion of the other India to digital finance has more to do with their aversion to   everything that has to do with technology. And this stems from their lack of trust in it and also partly on account of lack comfort with technology and literacy needed to fully use these services. Women often face additional barriers: less access to mobile phone, lower literacy levels, less confidence in using technology, restrictions on travel or social interaction.

Increasing financial and digital literacy alone will not be enough. Some things are better addressed through regulation. If there are things that are clearly negative for consumers, then they don’t need to exist. But changing the financial framework is also not enough. Consumers will have to walk that extra mile if they want to reap the harvest of these new financial tools.

Although India must continue to make the case that responsible digital finance is good business, we know that isn’t enough. Independent and well-resourced regulators, consumer groups, and other organisations are critical to ensuring the consumer protections afforded by law and regulation are actually followed and enforced. The Helix Institute of Digital Finance’s latest survey of agent networks in Uganda highlighted just how commonplace fraud and robbery is for agents, not just in Uganda, but worldwide. Customers continue to experience trust-eroding problems in their dealings.  .

In India, the RBI has been instrumental in enabling the development of the fintech sector and espousing a cautious approach in addressing concerns around consumer protection and law enforcement. The key objective of the regulator has been around creating an environment for unhindered innovations by fintech, expanding the reach of banking services for unbanked population, regulating an efficient electronic payment and providing alternative options to the consumers.

Talk of “cashless societies” might be overblown, but societies in which digital transactions can be made seamlessly by all are by no means fiction. The biggest success story is Kenya. The Kenyans discovered that with the right technology, exchanging money between physical and electronic forms can be done securely, and as naturally as exchanging notes for coins.

The famous mobile network Safaricom developed M-Pesa (M for mobile; pesa is payment in Swahili), a transformative mobile phone based platform for money transfer and financial services which is the driver of Kenya’s digital financial revolution. Launched in 2007, it quickly dominated the cash-transfer market, and grew at an astounding rate, capturing more than two-thirds of Kenya’s adult population as customers. It now stands as the most developed mobile payment system in the world, and has heralded a development revolution impacting millions of low income Kenyan households.

However, a deeper slicing reveals that the granular and higher resolution picture is not necessarily so tinted. Few mobile money accounts are actively used. While money flows through these networks, most of the volume comes from users merely topping up prepaid mobile accounts in transactions averaging less than a dollar. And, when people do make remittances, those receiving the money tend to cash it in, taking the money out of the system and limiting the potential for mobile money to become a medium of exchange – a mobile wallet for buying things or to provide banking services over mobile networks.

A survey of accounts opened under Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), India’s flagship financial inclusion programme found that only 33% of all beneficiaries were ready to use their Rupay cards. The others were bewildered by the complicated PIN and activation procedures. Inconsistent electricity and sporadic internet access further eroded customers’ trust in ATMs and POS machines, with one failed transaction enough to make an entire village swear off formal financial institutions.

India should avoid the usual overstep and over haste the way  it pushed millions of new users onto the digital economic grid by virtual fiat of demonetisation triggering large sale social and economic disruption and make sure that  the pace of this journey is determined by the ability of its people to cope with it. In an attempt to leapfrog the cash generation to digital payment solutions, it should not take to a highway that leaves millions by the wayside and puts them into a limbo of the sort we saw recently.

There will be challenges in shifting consumer behavior. In Kenya, agents were incredibly important to educating customers and assisting them with their first transactions, building awareness and a comfort level with the technology that eventually led to habitual usage.

India’s business correspondent (BC) model—the equivalent to the agent network in Kenya—remains relatively underdeveloped. The sticking point is that the commissions of Banking Correspondents who are an important piece in this ecosystem and key touchpoint are low and the government is not willing to consider this issue. Recent research by the Helix Institute of Digital Finance revealed that in the BC model Indian agents earn a median income of $52 per month compared to agents in Kenya who earn $192 per month.

Managing the agent network is the most critical post launch success factor. Agents conduct the cash-in and cash-out functions, enabling customers to convert cash into electronic money and back again in convenient locations. In the eyes of the customer, the agent is the face of the company. This means the agent can either build or destroy trust and credibility. Many providers focus on building their agent networks as fast as possible, without careful attention to the agents’ business case and profitability. Experts suggest three key tenets in managing an agent network: (1) grow the customer base and the network in tandem; (2) understand agent economics and risk—the business case for agents is not that simple; and (3) only enroll agents who have the right skills and dedication, and be prepared to train and retrain.

The right way to drive a revolution of this type is through empathy —not a form of empathy that comes from superiority, but one born from a profound humility. It is an offering of respect, a moment of listening to stand in the shoes of another. The most successful leaders were those who recognised it and invoked it in developmental interventions they shepherded.

Building inclusive digital economies requires the collective action of governments, industry, financiers, and civil society. Before speeding ahead, we need to build the infrastructure, align the policies, and create the tools that will enable the   poor to comfortably board the digital train.

When we design solutions that recognise all as equal partners, we have a real chance to of making to goalpost. Each society is at different stages of digital financial inclusion and the necessary solutions and interventions must be appropriate for the cultural and economic context. By respecting the cultural outlook of the people and embracing their concerns we enlist their buy in, and that is what paves the way for lasting and sustainable success.

Moin Qaziis the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has spent more than three decades in the development sector.