What’s next for the next billion users

May 14, 2020 | By Michael Elliott

When I first started working to connect the underserved in Africa to the tools they need to build their businesses, the financial services industry was still largely focused on access — the number of mobile money accounts and bank accounts that existed. They were easy to count and frankly easy to generate, particularly for mobile network operators that already had a relationship with the consumer.

I remember asking cocoa and dairy farmers why they didn't use their bank account or mobile money account they had signed up for. The answer was a simple "For what?" We weren't yet solving a real pain point for them.

And I still see this — the World Bank’s most recent Global Findex uses access to a financial service as its headline stat. But more than 1 in 5 bank account owners in developing countries made no deposit and no withdrawal in digital form or otherwise within the past year, according to the report.

Thankfully the industry as a whole, private and public sector, is moving away from this metric to something more impactful — usage of a financial service. As Mastercard doubles down on our commitment to harness our partnerships, technology and expertise to bring more people into the digital economy — we recently announced a goal of bringing in a total of 1 billion individuals into the digital economy by 2025, including 50 million micro and small merchants and 25 million women entrepreneurs — we believe a laser focus on usage will be key.

These are the new consumer groups in developing markets, many struggling with financial insecurity and far less experience with technology but the same needs and desires as anyone else. In her book “The Next Billion Users: Digital Life Beyond the West,” Payal Arora says these consumers use mobile connectivity in the same way we in the developing world do — for dating, gaming, streaming video.

But when it comes to digital banking and payments, the type, frequency and volume of transactions may be quite different than in the more developed economies. Government disbursements and peer-to-peer commerce may overshadow traditional e-commerce. Transactions may be supported by fiat currency or something else entirely. Where I now live in New York City, everyday purchases may be coffee, fast food, groceries, gas. In sub-Saharan Africa, it may be basic necessities — water, heat, light.

Use cases for the Next Billion Users will be impactful and scalable if they solve pain points for people and businesses across the ecosystem, and transactions fall squarely in that bucket. 

Notice I say transactions, not payments. For the Next Billion Users, providing them safe, simple and smart payments may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Instead, we need to be wrapping the payment within a broader problem to be solved.

In agriculture, we do that with Mastercard Farmers Network, a platform built by Mastercard Lab for Financial Inclusion in Nairobi that helps farmers find a buyer and a fair price for their produce. With more than 500,000 farmers currently on board, we are materially impacting how agriculture is done across East Africa. And we do it with our Pay on Demand platform, where we've helped users get access to electricity and the lights they need for their children to study at night. Focusing on the broader use cases above and beyond basic payments is a trend I expect to continue.

But for usage to really take off, we need to build on the knowledge, behaviors and tools that these new consumers have today. If consumers want to safely store cash, how can we tap into the behavior and support of not just the digital storage — but the digital use of cash? We are doing exactly that with Community Commerce in Mozambique in partnership with Letshego, a pan-African Inclusive finance organization. We are enabling “digital savings on a card” so that funds cannot be stolen or family budget misspent. We enable the use of those funds with simple, safe contactless payments at local merchants without the need for connectivity or electricity. By building on behaviors and tapping into daily concerns, we are harnessing trust, making it more likely for people to embrace it.

And finally, usage will rest on human-centered design that takes into context cultural differences and by enabling seamless interoperability between those use cases — creating the same holistic experiences for the Next Billion Users that the first few billion expect and receive, and that everyone deserves.

Michael Elliott, Senior Vice President, Strategic Growth Portfolio, Mastercard Labs