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From The C-Suite: ‘The Digital Economy Is An Extremely Powerful, Transparent Tool’

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Raghu Malhotra; image by Motlabana Monnakgotla for FORBES AFRICA

What are the big corporates thinking? Raghu Malhotra, the Dubai-based President of Mastercard Middle East & Africa, on developing clear frameworks for the current crisis, and why digital transformation is more important now than ever before.

Addressing the challenges of Covid-19

We absolutely find ourselves in a place where we are mandated to think differently about how we interact with the world around us. And it’s not just the challenge, but the scale of it that’s so astounding. Organizations need to play a vital role in enabling commerce critical to sustain people’s health and wellbeing.

Technology has always played an important role in how Mastercard addresses challenges, and that is even more true today. Through technology, we are better able to support all the partners with whom we interact in this ecosystem – governments, public sector, private companies, small businesses, fintechs, mobile network operators, retailers, merchants and consumers.

We developed a clear framework to address the impact of Covid-19 – containment, stabilization, normalization and long-term plans for eventual growth. We have been accelerating and enhancing our innovative services and solutions that can help businesses and governments in the region and around the world to assess, react and plan through the current crisis. We are now seeing signs that global economies are starting gradually to move into the stabilization phase.

Of course, first and foremost among the many challenges has been the cost to human health and wellbeing. We have committed to no job losses as a result of Covid-19. As an inclusive company, we know it’s paramount to consider diverse perspectives. We are encouraging learning, development and volunteering as our people combat challenges, but also discover new strengths.

Contactless payments and changing consumer behavior

Consumer behavior changes as people adapt to new environments. In order to observe social distancing, people are opting for digital and contactless modes of payment that are safe, secure and fast. While countries and sectors worldwide are at different stages of contactless deployment and usage for daily shopping habits, Mastercard saw the number of contactless transactions in South Africa grew 13X in March 2020 compared to March 2019 in grocery and pharmacy categories.

Contactless is definitely here to stay. In our consumer sentiment study from April this year, 78% of respondents in South Africa said they will continue to use contactless post-pandemic. The study revealed that since the beginning of Covid-19 in South Africa, 89% of South African respondents have been using contactless to pay for groceries, 60% for pharmaceutical items, 39% for other retail items, 15% for fast food, and 8% for transport.

When we look at the trends and data of growth in digital payments and online shopping, it’s significant. According to Mastercard data, for every $100 spent in Middle East and Africa (MEA), half was spent on e-commerce in May compared to a third of this figure in February this year.

Prioritizing inclusion

For everyone to benefit, we must include everyone – that’s why financial inclusion is so important. The digital economy is going to keep growing, and to ensure we advance real, genuine, inclusive growth, we need to make access easier and simpler. Bridging the digital divide is essential to enabling financial inclusion. Cash remains a drawback to financial inclusion and growth, which is why it’s so important for all partners to work together to build communities that are less reliant on cash and better positioned to take advantage of digital growth.

Our goal is to reach 1 billion people by 2025, including millions of small businesses and women entrepreneurs. Over the past five years, Mastercard has already reached 500 million people in 80 countries through 350 collaborative programs, including Kasha, an e-commerce platform in East Africa optimized for women’s health and personal care.

It offers confidential and convenient service, online and offline digital ordering and delivery to both urban and low-income rural areas. The digital marketplace for farmers via the Mastercard Farmers Network (MFN) and a digitized school payment ecosystem through the Kupaa initiative are other examples.

Mobile network operators play an enormous part in financial inclusion as we have a long-lasting partnership with these telcos, as well as fintechs and e-tailers, to reach people – especially those who don’t have bank accounts, as these are the people who will benefit from a digital wallet to transact with mobile money through QR codes and Virtual Card Numbers. Mobile money has transformed the landscape and almost half (45%) of all mobile money activity happens in sub-Saharan Africa. Technology is helping us achieve things previous generations could only dream of.

Helping SMEs reinvent themselves

Nine in 10 businesses in sub-Saharan Africa fall into the SME category, so they are incredibly important in driving growth for African economies and providing livelihoods for millions of people. Their success means sustainable prosperity for Africa’s entrepreneurs and going digital is a crucial part of this process. In Africa, online sales currently represent only 1% of total retail sales, so there are opportunities for Africa’s small businesses as they go digital.

One of the many initiatives we are supporting includes helping small businesses in Nigeria to set up digital money accounts and accept QR payments using Facebook Messenger and a Masterpass QR bot. In addition, we partnered with Letshego in Mozambique to pilot Community Commerce in order to digitize low-value transactions for shopkeepers of informal convenience shops. In South Africa, Mastercard has partnered with fintechs like uKheshe and iKhokha and other financial services providers, to offer low-cost digital payment solutions to SMMEs and the unbanked to fast track financial inclusion.

Over the next five years, Mastercard has pledged $250 million in financial, technology, product, and insights support to small businesses across the globe. These include measures such as helping small businesses with cash flow to sustain operations, providing access to credit, making insights available for decision-making and securing solutions to go digital, or grow in digital.

“Nine in 10 businesses in sub-Saharan Africa fall into the SME category, so they are incredibly important in driving growth for African economies and providing livelihoods for millions of people. Their success means sustainable prosperity for Africa’s entrepreneurs and going digital is a crucial part of this process.”

Shaping the digital economy

At its core, the digital economy is an extremely powerful, transparent tool that enables social welfare grants for pensioners, working capital to SMEs, secure revenue streams, more convenience and lower costs for citizens. Our multi-rail approach is at the heart of how Mastercard is positively transforming the future of the digital economy. Through product introductions and acquisitions, we are reinforcing our value propositions in terms of government, account-to-account, and business-to-business payments. Additionally, we have rolled out technology for real-time transfers in bill payments and payouts, and prioritized security technology to help guard against increased fraud risk. We are participating in as many payment flows as we can to stay ahead of the changing landscape, delivering essential choices to banks, businesses and consumers.

Africa remains a top priority for Mastercard and we strive to help create a more connected continent that can continue its digital transformation and reach its full potential. We have been committed to progress in Africa for over 45 years, we are able to stay connected to Africa’s unique challenges and tremendous opportunities, as well as its inherent possibilities to succeed.

– Interviewed by Renuka Methil

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