Expertise  |  Interviews   |   01.10.2021

How to Boost Financial Inclusion with E-Wallet Integration: An Interview with a Top-Tier Banking Expert

Creating holistic digital ecosystems at scale is one of the high demand services that Wallet Factory helps out financial businesses with.

Depending on the current and far-reaching goals set out by our clients—banks and financial companies, Wallet Factory offers them a wide range of bespoke software development solutions to optimize their operational efficiency and drive user experience.

While being easily integrated per component or as a single digital financial ecosystem, the most frequently requested offerings include:

  • E-wallet mobile and web applications
  • Neobanking business solutions
  • Online payment systems
  • Contactless card-based payments and EMV tokenization
  • Customer engagement and retention roadmaps via loyalty bonus, referral, and cashback programs

In COVID and post-COVID times, digital money has become the best way of securing a robust money goods relationship. Unlike conventional paper banknotes, electronic or e-wallets provide safer and more transparent access to banking services. Software solutions, namely financial mobile applications, are here on the market today offering personalized experiences that consumers truly need. For instance, the MENA region is projected to increase its contactless payment market size up to $18 billion by 2025.

With this, the level of financial inclusion in some developing countries and other regions leaves much to be desired in terms of mobile penetration and digital payments rates. The only way for the unbanked and underbanked population worldwide is to go digital and switch their financial habits to online banking services.

According to Statista, many countries in Central America and the Caribbean have recently made drastic positive changes towards improving the financial environment. The in-depth study commissioned by Mastercard revealed that progress in financial inclusion is due mainly to the introduction of innovative customer-centric business models.

banked population

The facts and stats above make us take a closer look at the current financial situation in Central America and the Caribbean. These economies are very interesting and different from Latin America due to the GDP composition and economies of scale. Being very much tourism driven countries, it’s extremely important to provide modern digital and contactless financial services to local customers and international tourists. One of the most advanced pioneers in this arena is Belize. Belize is the first country who launched a fully functioning digital wallet with an end-to-end electronic money ecosystem. Belize Bank is the financial institution who first launched debit cards in the country and now a digital wallet solution. E-kyash is the first digital wallet in the country approved by the Central Bank of Belize.

To get the most accurate first-hand insights on the topic, we’ve reached out to one of the leading experts in digital banking services in the region. In today’s conversation with Agata Ruta, the Head of Digital, Retail & Corporate Banking at Belize Bank we’re going to discuss the prospects of enhancing financial inclusion rates with the help of bespoke software solutions.

What is your take on the specifics of Central America in general—and Belize in particular—in terms of financial inclusion?

Central America has a lot of unbanked population, countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua differ significantly from Mexico for instance, where robust online payment services and gateways are already available. In these countries and across the Caribbean, cash is still a king and card usage is still in the low double digits. The reason for that is a weak interoperability between digital payment systems, high percentage of unbanked and underbanked population, relatively high transaction charges and still low digital adoption by businesses.

Let’s also remember that a lot of Caribbean countries’ GDP is based on agriculture and tourism. People either do not have much time to go to the bank and start the account opening process or may even feel intimidated as they don’t have a proper education and prefer to stay with what they know—which is cash.

In Belize itself, card penetration is on the level of 16.8%. Belizeans are ready for new, modern technology, but up until recently, didn’t have any tools they could use. With E-kyash now on the market, however, the financial landscape changes significantly.

From your own viewpoint, what accounts for such high rates of the unbanked and underbanked here in Belize?

Truth be told, there are many factors and it’s a very complex topic that requires deep understanding. To change the dynamics on the Belizean market and shift from the cash-heavy to cash-lite society takes time and a lot of investment in financial literacy programmes.

As you see, we are not even considering going cashless, we are speaking about a cash-lite society where two ecosystems—physical cash and digital channels—co-exist. In time, all stakeholders on the market will definitely start moving towards electronic money.

To answer your question, people do love cash as it’s very tangible—they can touch it, feel it. It’s a psychological, very important aspect. In order for this segment to move towards digital money, they need to gain trust, not only to the concept itself, but also that of the merchants.

One of our main objectives is to improve financial literacy in the country. We have launched many programmes in order to work with schools and other main stakeholders in the country, showing in a very simple way what the financial system is and how it works, how digital financial services can help everybody and what benefits they bring. We have even created a competition among secondary schools where students first wrote essays about the cashless era in Belize and now they are preparing business plans about complementary digital financial services. The winning school will get a fully equipped computer lab sponsored by E-kyash.

When it comes to the unbanked & underbanked, what is, you think, the adult-to-youth ratio so far? Why is it so?

In Belize we have around 40 thousand young people with an average age range between 14 and 17 years old. This is a completely untapped market, and as we mature—so does the financial ecosystem in the country. This given, I would like to make sure that the Belizean youths have tools they can use to make online transactions in a quick yet very secure way. Based on the current data in the system, we see that 70% of E-kyash users are between 18 and 40 years old. The next 10% are below the 17 year old threshold.

As the Head of Digital and Retail Banking at Belize Bank, what kind of strategy do you have to drive financial inclusion for Belizean people?

Our strategy and main objective is to transform a traditional bank into a modern bank with a wide portfolio of digital/mobile products and services. This will bring a lot of efficiencies and financial inclusion. The idea is to turn heavy traffic at the branch with lengthy lines standing in front of the bank into a smooth self-service channel via online and mobile banking applications.

That is to create a lifestyle platform with easy access to financial services, which you can use in your everyday life without even thinking about it. For sure, easy and fast transactions drive greater user experiences. In light of the current pandemic that necessitates changes, such digital adoption becomes even more important to meet the growing demands from the public.

Why do you believe the widespread digitalization and adoption of data-driven financial services is just the right approach in banking?

Modernization of the customer journey, better data analysis, automation and operating at scale are necessary, but insufficient for the digital future. Agility, innovation (product and customer), and trust are also the key drivers to surefire success.

When it came to choosing the right digital wallet platform—did it have to suit any specific requirements in terms of functionality and performance?

Oh, yes—my goal was to find and make use of a robust platform that would work on the market already, with all the basic functionalities being well developed and reviewed by the market players. And on top of this, I wanted this software to address specific Belizean needs: create a network of access points via Retail Operators, and enable smooth facilitation for social media sales.

Here in Belize, there are not many merchants that have cutting-edge websites. Majority of our merchants use social media platforms to communicate and transact with their customers. They publish their products and in order to finalize sales, customers were provided with two possible options: cash on delivery or bank account deposit receipt, however with the latter, you would have to wait for your items after confirmation. Today, with E-kyash that’s history…transactions are instant!.

So how come you started working with Wallet Factory? What made the Belize Bank executives take such a decision? In other words, did the company fit your business vision for a new software product?

We went through a very detailed selection process. We considered and performed a full due diligence of the various providers and their capabilities. We spoke to the companies from India, Europe and both Americas. We had a very specific criteria that we wanted to meet. We were looking for an experienced partner to make sure that all the financial processes and their reconciliation were already developed and in place.

What’s more, we needed our potential partner to be flexible enough to keep a project moving in ever-changing business environments. Truth be told, it was quite a challenge to find a software development company on the market who met all our requirements. As Belize is not a big market, we also looked at the quality to price ratio. With all that said, this initiative is our wholehearted investment into financial inclusion in the country.

I have to say, you’ve coined the perfect brand name for your mobile wallet solution—e-kyash—which is pretty easy to learn. Is the mobile app itself easy to install, secure and user-friendly for non-technical people?

We laser-focus on the improvement of user experience. As you know, for the app to be easy and seamless from the user perspective, it takes a lot of hard work in the backend to meet these business criteria. But in the end, it’s truly worth it as the app has to be easy, user friendly, and self-explanatory. And I think we managed to accomplish this objective for both apps: business as well as consumer.

What benefits this financial application has brought to people in Belize? What services are already available for app users at the moment?

Currently, we hone in on Person-to-Person transactions, and QR-code purchases. We also enable Request-to-Pay, which our customers particularly love. After the first month of operations, we already have over fifteen thousand P2P transfers and almost three thousand QR code transactions.

What was it like working with the Wallet Factory team?

You know, especially from my perspective it’s a very interesting experience. I’m European myself, however, I’ve been working with emerging markets for a very long time. It’s extremely exciting to see and help uncover the opportunities while assisting to bring modern financial services. Europe is very mature in regard to the financial sector and bringing this type of solutions is incredible.

Belizeans are very much ready, all they needed before the integration was just to have a proper set of digital tools. Wallet Factory—due to its European roots and experience based on international projects while working with developing markets—has given us a lot of good perspective and knowledge sharing. We are sure that it will be a long-lasting relationship.

What marketing tools and platforms do you use for promoting the e-kyash mobile app across the country?

Excellent question. Belize has never seen such a comprehensive marketing strategy and a launch of the financial product. We started in March with the anticipation campaign, where we created short videos explaining the evolution of money, origination of digitalization, and main digital wallet features. Then, we also focused very much on financial literacy at schools.

As one of our targeted markets is young people 14+, we wanted to ensure that they knew what a digital wallet was, and how they could benefit from it. So, we have created an online financial literacy course. We also introduced our E-kyash ambassador, Ray Moni. He explains the concept of electronic money and makes all the definitions and financial terms more digestible for non-tech savvy audiences.

Moreover, we use social media channels, all media houses in Belize, radio, Google Ads, and TV. Here in Belize, TV is still very popular among people and has a great impact on them.

After launching the e-kyash app, what are your next steps? How about planning any further collaboration with Wallet Factory in the future?

We already have a full roadmap planned with the WF team. I’m confident that our next joint releases will bring a lot of excitement to the market, so I can’t wait to launch them to the public.

Along with this, we have an implementation strategy to enable the in-app geolocation of our online and offline merchants, bill payments with over 180 integrated payees, salary payments (which is an incredible feature especially to the unbanked population as it will increase their disposable income on the monthly basis), Spanish version of both apps, merchant-to-merchant transactions, and a lot more.

Bottom line

Big thanks to Agata and her team for taking the time to clarify on the matter of enhancing financial inclusion rates with digital banking app solutions. Hoping the blog readers will find the insights shared above quite useful and inspirational, Wallet Factory is open for new challenging projects to help financial businesses strengthen their digital presence on the global and regional markets.

About the Expert

Agata Ruta

Agata Ruta currently works for the Belize Bank Limited. She rightfully holds the most interesting yet extremely responsible position of the Head of Digital, Retail & Corporate Banking. Agata’s life credo is based on three pillars: Passion for work, Trustfulness, and Focus on constant improvement. She always sets ambitious goals up to herself that allow Agata to improve her everyday teamwork and develop higher standards within the organization.

WF Team
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