The following are remarks by Zimbabwean Finance, Economic Development and Investment Promotion minister Professor Mthuli Ncube on financial inclusion]-exploring initiatives to bring banking and financial services to the underserved and unbanked populations using technology.
He was speaking on 8 December at the 2023 Global Reputation Forum, at the British House of Lords.
INVITED guests, ladies and gentlemen, greetings to you all, and welcome to this event.
My address today will focus on the topic “Exploring Initiatives to Bring Banking and Financial Services to the Underserved and Unbanked Population Using Technology”
Before I get to the topic, let me give some background on the architecture of the Zimbabwean financial sector.
The financial sector comprises the banking sector, insurance, pensions and capital markets, microfinance. All these institutions contribute towards implementing financial inclusion initiatives enshrined in the National Financial Inclusion Strategy.
While my remarks focus on Zimbabwe’s case, the initiatives apply to a wide variety of African countries Zimbabwe’s financial inclusion journey, has been very positive. Since 2014, we witnessed a rise in financial inclusion, from 69% of the adult population to 83% in 2022, reducing the financial exclusion gap from 23% to 12% respectively.
This was largely driven by the increased uptake of mobile money services, sprouting with 72% of households having access to a bank, microfinance or mobile account with which to transact digitally.
I now turn to the area of focus, “exploring initiatives to bring banking and financial services to the underserved and unbanked population using technology”. Financial technology plays a key role in providing financial services to all levels of society, underserved or marginalized groups including women & youth, Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), rural communities & smallholder farmers, people with disabilities, pensioners and the elderly.
Technology-enabled financial innovation, has proved to be efficient and cost effective, and continues to play a crucial role in shaping the financial inclusion landscape, from product and service development to new financial intermediation methods and delivery channels, including management of risks by the financial service providers.
Having recognised the importance of digital transformation and financial inclusion, the Government of Zimbabwe first developed and implemented its first National Financial Inclusion Strategy (NFIS I) (2016-2020) which defined financial inclusion as “the effective use of a wide range of quality affordable & accessible financial services, provided in a fair and transparent manner through formal/regulated entities, by all Zimbabweans.
As a follow-up to the NFIS (2022-2026), the country is currently implementing the 2nd National Financial Inclusion Strategy, mainly focusing on increasing financial inclusion access and usage for special groups including women & youth; Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs); rural communities & smallholder farmers; people with disabilities; pensioners and the elderly.
In so doing, Zimbabwe has explored the following financial technology initiatives to bring banking and financial services to the underserved and unbanked population;
Digital financial services
Digitisation of financial services has provided an array of financial services through a variety of digital channels, including payments, credit, savings, remittances and insurance. Thus, the use ATMs, bank cards, electronic banking, mobile banking applications, among others can significantly improve customer benefits and usage, as well as long-term sustainability for providers.
National payment system
The national payment system for Zimbabwe increased the use of digital payment channels in a bid to increase financial inclusion, for example, through the Real-Time Gross Settlements (RTGS).
Mobile financial services
Mobile money financial services, offered through basic feature phones, have played a pivotal role in increasing uptake and usage of financial services and products in Zimbabwe and in making the financial sector more inclusive.
Mobile banking requires the presence of a bank account, in the first place, effectively banking the unbanked in order for individuals and corporates to make deposits, withdrawals, and even access microloans with just a mobile phone. This has therefore unlocked economic opportunities for the grassroots businesses. The bank account is mirrored on the mobile phone. This has, therefore, unlocked economic opportunities for the grassroots businesses.
A significant portion of Zimbabwean’s population relies on remittances from family members working abroad. Mobile financial services have streamlined cross-border remittances, making the transfer of funds faster, cheaper, and more efficient, e.g. EcoCash, One Wallet.
Cognisant of the importance of mobile network operators (MNOs) in facilitating financial inclusion in the digital space, the central bank introduced bank and mobile money interoperability in 2020, which accelerated instant payments. MNOs have had a growing impact in this space while new technologies, especially those driving digital finance, provide immense opportunities for connecting businesses across the world.
There is still work to be done to ensure full access to telecommunications in rural communities to enhance access to financial services. It is envisaged that Potraz (the regulator for telecoms), mobile network operators, non-profit organisations, and other stakeholders will partner up in guaranteeing and achieving such access.
A credit registry system aimed at enhancing the credit referencing environment in Zimbabwe and improve access to credit, has been successfully deployed.
The credit registry promotes responsible lending practices, and a reduction in over-indebtedness and credit costs, as credit service providers are now able to better understand their customers using verifiable credit data. The long-term benefits of the registry include a reduction in the level of non-performing loans in the financial sector and improved access to credit.
Credit Guarantee Scheme
Following a realisation that micro-small to medium scale enterprises (MSMEs), women, youth and persons living with disabilities have limited, or no formal collateral required when accessing finance. In 2018, the bank in line with the National Financial Inclusion Strategy, resuscitated the Credit Guarantee Scheme which is provided through the Export Credit Guarantee Company of Zimbabwe (ECGC). The main objective is to facilitate productive lending to small businesses to stimulate economic growth and development.
SME auction system
Ladies and gentlemen, Zimbabwe MSMEs contribute 60% to the gross domestic product (GDP) but the majority face challenges due to limited access to foreign currency to finance importation of critical inputs into their production.
In this regard, to cater for the foreign currency needs of these MSMEs, the country introduced a second foreign exchange auction system on 4 August 2020. The MSME foreign exchange auction system has ushered in a more predictable foreign exchange market that is conducive to sustainable MSME development.
While significant progress was registered in the area of access strand, surveys have revealed that women, youth and MSMEs continue to face challenges due to inadequate or lack of requisite collateral. As a solution to this challenge, the country, in November 2022, launched the Collateral Registry System which to date has proved to be a “game changer” in facilitating access to credit to the marginalised and the young people who normally would be considered risky because of lack of collateral. It is pleasing to note that currently, the Collateral Registry System has a total of 1186 Active registered security interests with a corresponding loan amount of ZW$4.2 trillion.
Gold coins and gold-backed digital tokens
The 2022 FinScope survey indicated that savings have generally been on a downward trend from about 47% in 2014 to 36% in 2022, largely due to low disposable incomes and few investment alternatives, particularly for the marginalised groups.
Zimbabwe introduced gold coins as an investment alternative and to inculcate a savings culture among Zimbabweans. Reflecting our focus on engendering inclusivity, the gold coins have small denominations to allow targeted groups to adopt them as an alternative store of value.
As a complement to the sale of physical gold coins, the Central Bank introduced Gold-Backed Digital Tokens (ZiG) to expand the value-preserving instruments available to the marginalised segments of the society and enhance the divisibility of the investment instruments. The ZiG is fully backed by physical gold held by the Bank and its value is at par with the value of the physical Mosi-oa-Tunya gold coin and remains informed by the international gold price. In addition, the ZiG has now been transformed to be able to facilitate transactions in the economy, complementing the domestic currency.
Technology key driver to inclusive insurance
In respect of the Insurance sector, ladies and gentlemen, Africa’s insurance penetration rate averages 3% compared to the world’s global insurance penetration of 7% while Zimbabwe’s insurance penetration rate stands at about 2.54% as at September 2023.
Some of the major barriers to the uptake of traditional insurance by the underserved include the relatively high cost of insurance premiums, low levels of awareness, inappropriate products that do not meet the needs of the vulnerable population and inadequate infrastructure for the distribution of insurance services to rural communities.
Zimbabwe is not out paced by the technology wave. Technology has played a key role in improving the uptake of insurance in Zimbabwe’s underserved communities, However, the Insurance sector and in particular the microinsurance space in thereby increasing the communities’ adaptation and resilience, thus promoting inclusive insurance.
A microinsurance framework, which facilitates the licensing of dedicated microinsurance entities, low- and irregular-income earners is being implemented, eleven (11) microinsurance entities having already been registered.
The major distribution channel for insurance products offered by micro insurers is technology-driven through mobile phones e.g. Credsure, However, more products and players are needed in this area.
Agricultural index-based insurance
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe produce 70% of the country’s staple foods, i.e. maize, millets, and groundnuts yet have access to less than 5% of national irrigation facilities and relatively low access to insurance products.
In view of the climate change-related risks , and the need to increase adaptation and resilience, the insurance regulator, in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the Access to Insurance Initiative (a2ii) is working on projects that will result in the development of agricultural index insurance, These projects will hinge on technology, which allows for innovative risk assessment and pricing techniques, ensuring that insurance products are more tailored and affordable to smallholder farmers.
It is envisaged that such projects will form the basis for leveraging artificial intelligence and data analytics for insurance entities to identify and understand risks in a more granular and accurate manner.
Insurers will also be able to develop customised products that meet the specific needs of the underserved communities.
Econet Wireless, the biggest mobile network operator, has onboarded a large number of policyholders for the funeral policy using its platform which has a wider reach.
Exchange-traded funds (ETFs)
On the capital market front, the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange has introduced new products, namely the exchange-traded funds (ETFs), which are unitised investment portfolios in the equity market, the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange.
ETFs also come with low transaction costs, and have enabled individual investors to access unitised and diversified portfolios, and thus improved financial inclusion in the equity markets.
To date, five (5) exchange-traded funds, namely: Cass Saddle Agriculture, Morgan and Company Multi-Sector, Morgan and Company Made in Zimbabwe, Old Mutual Top Ten, and Datvest Modified Consumer Staples, have been listed.
Unit trusts/mutual funds
Ladies and gentlemen, Zimbabwe is also promoting unit trust/mutual fund products, which again are deepening financial inclusion in capital markets
Real estate investment trusts (REITs)
For inclusive investments in the property/real estate sector, Zimbabwe has introduced REITs. This goes a long way in deepening financial inclusion in the property sector. The REITs market has listed the Tigere Property Fund and the Revitus (initial public offering).
Zero-cost bank accounts
In addition to the many products available, the central bank, working with commercial banks and other financial institutions, has introduced zero-cost bank accounts which are in the form of savings accounts to the general public in order to promote and encourage a savings culture and promoting financial inclusion in the process.
In conclusion, ladies and gentleman, Zimbabwe’s embrace of digital transformation in the financial sector is a beacon of hope for the underserved and unbanked communities, in particular rural communities.
While digital transformation holds immense promise, Government is seeking to address the following challenges: Infrastructure: Access to network coverage remains a challenge in rural areas, hindering the reach of digital banking and mobile financial services.
Cybersecurity: With the shift to digital platforms, cybersecurity becomes paramount, ensuring that financial data is secure is a continuous endeavour.
Financial Education: Ensuring that the newly included population groups have adequate financial literacy.
However, Zimbabwe has integrated digital literacy into the national curriculum in schools, and ICT capacity development programmes are being implemented. This initiative will facilitate digital financial literacy which is critical in understanding and interacting with financial services providers on the digital platforms that have now become the norm in the financial sector.
Ladies and gentlemen, Zimbabwe’s drive in embracing digital transformation in the financial sector, is a beacon of hope for the underserved and unbanked communities, in particular, rural
I THANK YOU!