The Pulse

India’s Digital Revolution

On Digital India Day, a look at where India stands in bringing the digital world to its rural residents.

India’s Digital Revolution
Credit: Flickr/ Narendra Modi

Every year, millions of people around the world transition 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, which observes “Digital India Day” on April 14, is now expected to be the biggest digital hotspot of the planet.  The digital medium is now seen as the most potent tool 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. Digital finance has suddenly acquired a magical nuance.

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 deep. But as it pans and plays out, this tectonic shift will have much wider implications and policy executioners will have to contend with a diversity of exponential societal changes. The race to go digital cannot be turned into a sprint. India culturally believes in cash and a paradigm shift in thinking will need time and resources. Digitalization will actually involve a migration to new social and cultural patterns and habits; in a way it is more of a cultural-economic revolution.

There are marked class issues built into India’s cashless transition. The tech-savvy class has poor exposure to critical social theory and will have to get a better grasp of policy impacts on the ground. The digital revolution will have better chances of success if it is driven less 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 consumers. In fact, the last mile of the digital highway is not infrastructure but user skill levels. Making gadgets available will not help unless we bring about a change in the overall outlook of people. Consumers will take up digital platforms and embrace new opportunities if they believe that changing their behavior and exerting the effort necessary will make certain specific pains go away. We have thus to address real pains, not just offer generic 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 in Kenya. “Unless problems are 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 is connected to a larger aversion to everything that has to do with technology. This stems from their lack of trust in technology and also partly from a lack of comfort with technology. Women often face additional barriers: less access to mobile phones, lower literacy levels, less confidence in using technology, and restrictions on travel or social interaction.

Thus, increasing financial and digital literacy alone will not be enough to bring about the digital revolution. 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.

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. M-Pesa 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 some underlying issues. 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.

Similarly, a survey of  accounts opened under Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), India’s flagship financial inclusion program, found that only 33 percent 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 haste, such as the way it pushed millions of new users onto the digital economic grid by virtual fiat of demonetization, triggering large sale social and economic disruption. Instead, the government must make sure that the pace of this journey is determined by the ability of it people to cope with it.

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 for users, 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.

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 recognize all as equal partners, we have a real chance to of reaching the goal. 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 Qazi, a former banker and an accomplished poet and writer, has contributed articles to leading publications around the globe and authored several books. He holds doctorates in Economics and English and is author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker.