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AI and Big Data have transformed digital finance in China. Can they do the same in sub-Saharan Africa?

This blog has been co-authored by David del Ser, Practice Director at Bankable Frontier Associates and David Edelstein, Senior Director at FiDA Partnership

The recent FiDA Partnership trip to China was eye-opening in many ways: ranging from the speed of adoption of digital financial tools to the sophisticated ways in which financial services are built around nuanced client behavior to the rapid growth of online to offline linkages.  We heard a lot about “A, B, C and D”: the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, Cloud Computing and Big Data to transform how financial services are developed and delivered.  

We were particularly impressed with advanced applications of AI and Big Data and the critical “behind the scenes” roles they play.  In this blog we highlight some illustrative examples from China, identify how these approaches can be applied to the African context and suggest some practical approaches to begin to harness the potential.

AI and Big Data Enable Practical Innovation in China

Accelerated Customer Acquisition and Support

The use of AI and Big Data is pervasive in the development and delivery of financial services in China. For example, Yirendai, the largest P2P lending platform in China and a rapidly growing investment platform, relies on AI to help customers evaluate risk and recommend loans.  Their automated bot, Yiri, which provides investment advice and education, has led to an increase of 50% in assets under management and is slated to be the primary entry point to all of Yirendai’s services.

Our group visit Yirendi’s Office in Beijing

Breakthroughs in Core Banking Software

In another example, WeBank, partly owned by Tencent, has built an advanced back-end platform relying heavily on AI and Big Data to support a range of accounts and transactions.  The service, which they white label and license to financial institutions, costs ~$1/customer/year at scale, nearly fifteen times less than a traditional banking platform. WeBank has achieved this impressively low cost through heavy use of chatbots (which handle 96% of transactions) and reliance on AI for preventative maintenance and to achieve other back-end saving.  AI is also used to assess microloans, drawing on tens of thousands of data points using both financial information and WeChat’s social data to assess creditworthiness. With this sophisticated technology in the back-end, one-third of people who draw upon WeBank credit have no previous credit history — and the non-performing loan rate is below 0.7%.

Reductions in Credit Risk and Costs

And Alipay, owned by Alibaba, relies heavily on big data, AI and biometrics to assess credit risk and reduce fraud.  Able to reduce the fraud rate to 0.001% (as compared to 0.2% for PayPal) and relying on large economies of scale, Alibaba has driven down transaction costs to well below 1% (compared to 3% to 4% at PayPal) and close to zero for P2P transactions.  They also proactively “white list” users based on a large number of factors.

These stories of low-cost scale provide a glimpse of how leading companies in China have embraced AI and Big Data to extend the reach of financial services.  Indeed, many consider themselves technology companies first, which happen to provide financial services, and have adopted the TechFin moniker.

Opportunities to extend approaches from China to sub-Saharan Africa

While China does benefit from a somewhat unique enabling environment, there are a number of ways in which companies in sub-Saharan Africa could benefit from strategies employed in the digital finance revolution in China.  

Some of the “lowest hanging fruit” involves extending knowledge gained and approaches taken using AI to the African context.  Talent to effectively use AI techniques has been a barrier in the past — but through a combination of using newly-available advanced tools (e.g., WeBank example), a growing talent base in Africa and the ability to rely on talent from outside the region, these concerns can be ameliorated.  

AI tools typically require large amounts of aggregated data.  Mobile network operators (MNOs), and to a lesser extent financial institutions and PayGo Solar players, possess or are amassing such data.  Through strategic partnerships and adoption of existing tools these companies could be doing more with the information they have, for instance predicting payment behavior to reduce churn.  For now (due to regulatory concerns around sharing/selling data), the use of AI and Big Data may be limited to optimization within companies, but in the future data sharing across companies may be able to provide a more detailed and nuanced understanding of clients.  African companies can learn from the value of big datasets and creative partnerships (to build big and diverse datasets) which we observed in China. While leveraging big data in Africa is still in its early days, the opportunity should be taken seriously.

The opportunities on the “back end” are more immediate than those on the “front end”.  This begins with the low penetration of smartphones (relative to China) and on-going reliance on USSD.  While China made a rapid leap from feature phones to using smartphones to read QR codes and conduct financial transactions, in sub-Saharan Africa the path has involved mobile money and slower adoption of smartphones.  The leap in China has enabled sophisticated use of AI on the front end — such as biometrics for KYC and facial recognition based on selfies — which will only be possible in Africa with big advances in smartphone usage.

The “silver lining” of the African path may be the extensive CICO agent networks — which generate a large amount of data.  While lacking e-commerce and smartphone data, the AI journey in Africa can draw upon the data held by MNOs, financial institutions and PayGo providers, and benefit from the growth of smartphones.  Indeed, we are already seeing companies like Pezesha, Tala and Branch capturing their own data from their apps.

What can be done today — and over time

So what can be done now?  We will close with a few pragmatic recommendations of actions that can be taken by companies in sub-Saharan Africa to benefit from advances in AI and Big Data seen in China.

We were struck by the degree of collaboration between companies in China.  This ranged from sharing data to using advanced tools to better understand and serve clients (see recent blog on this collaboration).  Neobanks in Africa should consider using advanced tools from WeBank and other providers (from China and elsewhere).  To the extent allowed by regulators, MNOs, Financial Institutions and PayGo providers should share data to develop richer consumer profiles.

Companies should consider “non-traditional” types of data — both information that may be lost today (in China factors such as how hard a user pushes on the screen and the angle the phone is held are captured and considered) and “non-traditional” sources of data (companies tapping into alternate sources of data exist in Africa — but much more could be done).  When brought together these often yield unexpected insights about consumer behavior. Knowledge of local context combined with thoughtful, applied use of data holds a lot of potential.

As smartphone penetration expands consider creative approaches to tap into the multiple data streams.  Companies today are just skimming the surface of what can be done.

Over the longer term the home-grown talent base must be strengthened.  Institutions such as Ashesi University in Ghana, the African Leadership Academy in South Africa and the Mastercard Foundations Scholars Program are pioneers — and others can and should learn from them.  

Can China’s Ethos of Collaboration Work for Africa?

This blog was authored by Annabel Schiff – Senior Manager, Partners at the FiDA Partnership – with input from Lesley Denyes – Program Manager and Digital Finance Specialist at IFC

In China, collaborative relationships have played an important role in driving financial innovation and inclusion in the country. In Part 1 of this blog series we discussed the Chinese ethos of building the digital finance space together, based on insights from our recent FiDA Partnership fintech study tour to China. In this blog, I touch on the existing partnership landscape in Africa, as well as some of challenges in recreating China’s collaborative atmosphere.

The Partnership Landscape

Partnerships and contractual relationships between banks and non-banks

Partnerships are happening in Africa. In fact, they are critical to the success of digital finance either to fulfil regulatory requirements, as a means to provide mutually beneficial and essential channels (e.g. funding, distribution, communication), or as an avenue to grow both service offerings and customers.

MNOs partnering with banks to offer more sophisticated products

MNO-led bank partnerships – such as Safaricom and CBA’s M-Shwari product – enable mobile money providers to offer products beyond payments and in turn enable banks to reach a wider audience. These types of partnerships, however, also face challenges. A good example is the unsuccessful partnership between Equity Bank and Safaricom through which the M-Kesho product was launched. Both partners struggled to define a mutually beneficial partnership, in part due to them perceiving each other as competitors rather than partners.  

Banks partnering with MNOs to reach new customers and grow their business

We also see banks and MNO’s cooperating when a bank wishes to develop their own digital finance brand in order to grow their customer base. They therefore partner with an MNO to leverage its infrastructure for the delivery of digital finance. For example, in 2015 Equity Bank in Kenya signed a contractual agreement with Airtel to leverage its access channels to deliver their Equitel service.

Equity Group CEO James Mwangi with former Airtel Africa CEO Christian de Faria (photo credit:

Partnering for regulatory compliance

Partnerships between banks and MNOs also take place for regulatory reasons. In bank-led markets, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and to an extent Uganda, non-banks are required to either buy a bank, or partner with one, in order to be issued an e-money licence. While the majority of bank-led services are found in Asia, Uganda also regulates that non-banks must partner with a licensed financial institution to offer digital financial services. In Uganda, these banks tend to sit in the background while the MNOs design, brand, market and distribute the services.

Partnerships to enable wallet-to-wallet interoperability

Wallet-to-wallet interoperability between MNOs is one of the most notable examples of industry cooperation in Africa. In fact, countries such as Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya that have introduced interoperability at the wallet level are ahead of China where wallets still do not interoperate. In Tanzania providers have noted how interoperability has impacted the quality of services, focusing them on driving “value into the system, rather than growing our own, segregated network”. Despite the potential commercial and financial inclusion benefits of interoperability, expansion has been slow. Even in mature mobile money markets such as Kenya, interoperability has only just been established, and the jury is still out regarding the success of the interoperability pilot.

It is important to note that interoperability enabling transfers between mobile money accounts and bank accounts, is more common and better established. In their 2017 State of the Industry report, GSMA noted that bank-to-mobile interoperability has contributed to a notable rise in funds entering and leaving the mobile money ecosystem in digital form.

Cooperating with the fintech players

Traditional mobile money providers, such as banks and MNOs, are also cooperating with fintechs, who tend to be smaller, more agile, technology-focused organisations. The ecosystem manager at Barclays’ Rise innovation hub in Cape Town highlighted that the reality for fintechs is like the African proverb: If you want to go fast, go on your own. If you want to go far, go together. For small fintechs, partnerships are key to helping them not only access funding, but also reach new customers, overcome regulatory constraints, train data to develop new and better models, and access necessary technology to delivery their services. For banks, the pressure to innovate has led many to invest in and collaborate with fintech start-ups. For example, in 2015 Barclays opened a product lab in Kenya and Standard Bank launched incubator programs in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Challenges with Building this Collaborative Environment

Heavy OPEX investment can breed competition rather than collaboration

In China the government has invested heavily in driving financial inclusion by mandating state-owned banks to roll-out cheap bank accounts, resulting in 80% of adults having a bank account in China. High bank penetration means that rather than relying on a cash-in, cash-out (CICO) network, customers seamlessly load funds into their digital wallets through linkages to their bank accounts. While customers can cash out at some retail locations, there are no agent networks.  

In contrast in Africa, owing to low bank account penetration, financial inclusion is increasingly driven by mobile money. While digital finance has helped accelerate financial inclusion, most African digital finance providers have had to invest heavily in building out their own CICO agent network. Agent network management is the most costly element of a digital finance business; costing between 40–80% of revenue. Such significant investment not only excludes smaller players, but also reduces incentives for larger players to open up and enable other providers to ride on their distribution channels, hence the slow uptake of wallet interoperability. While some African markets have set regulations against exclusive agents, in most markets mobile money is yet to be interoperable at the agent level. For those who have invested heavily in agent networks, they have also likely invested in building up a brand reputation and trust among their customers. The legacy of heavy investment can breed an ethos of competition rather than collaboration.

M-PESA agent in Nairobi, Kenya

Alternative lenders struggle to partner for loanable funds owing to lack of scale

FIBR’s research in Ghana and Tanzania showed that, unlike China, regulation prohibits non-financial institutions to lend. Beyond regulatory restrictions, funding obstacles exist due to early stage risk. Much of this is related to a lack of scale, data, and thus weak algorithms to develop credit-score models.

In contrast China comes with scale. The online population size is 730 million, twice the size of America. African countries, even Nigeria, are small in comparison. With scale comes data, which not only enables providers to trial products more effectively, but also allows them to more efficiently test algorithms. This is why technology companies in China are able to negotiate low cost loanable funds from banks by proving their credit score model (see the JD Finance example in Part 1 of this blog). In Africa, digital finance players and even large banks are still refining their models and algorithms. Weak, unrefined algorithms have resulted in banks tending to finance on-lenders at a high price due to the risks involved, or fail to provide any funding at all.

Partnerships to help expand data sets have been slow

It is not only scale that helps Chinese fintech players garner huge swaths of customer data, but also their product offerings. In China, merchant payments led the digital uptake, driven by technology companies who layered payments on top of existing use cases, such as Tencent with their social network and entertainment offerings, and Ant Financial with e-commerce.  As mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, payments permitted players to gather valuable data on customers which, along with their existing customer insights, enabled them to develop more sophisticated financial services.

In contrast peer-to-peer payments first drove adoption in Africa. Merchant payments have struggled to take hold, except in Kenya where Lipa Na M-Pesa has gained some traction, and South Africa where bank cards and POS terminals are widespread. The lack of merchant payments means less engagement with customers, and therefore less data. Without the prevalence of merchant payments, there is the question of what data could be used to develop new financial services products, particularly data-driven digital credit products for which there is latent demand. A recent IFC market survey asked “What product will lead DFS adoption in the near future?”: 30% of respondents said credit and 25% said merchant payments, beating out P2P at 23%.  While digital finance players are exploring partnerships with non-financial institutions to help fill these data gaps, the uptake of big data and analytics in the region has been slow.


In the end, partnerships are good for customers.  They create options, promote competition and inspire innovation. The Chinese digital finance journey illustrates the value of collaboration, for both providers and customers. Most African countries present a very different commercial landscape with significant barriers to a similarly collaborative environment. However, as traditional bank and MNO revenue streams come under increasing pressure, we will likely see a shift towards business models with a higher reliance on collaboration. Looking to the Chinese experience may present some valuable lessons when the time is right.

How to study MSMEs in the digital era

In the coming months the FiDA team will be conducting new research at the intersection of two broad themes: financial inclusion in the platform era and enterprises and financial inclusion.

Apart from agriculture, Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), are the greatest source of employment in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. They have have long been a focus of interest to the development community, but as digitization transforms the nature of work—from gig economies to international supply chains—the links between MSMEs and ICTs are increasingly important. We’ll be exploring how, in particular, the spread of ‘platforms’ (Google, Facebook, Alibaba, etc.) creates new models for (and avenues to) financial inclusion.

As we get underway, we’d like to share the results of an exercise we conducted to help focus our research. Granted, it’s basically a 2×2, and as consultants we know these are common, but in this case we think it’s durable and useful to share.

The first dimension in our table is the size of the firms in question. In our discussions, we found that the definition of MSME was quite broad; accordingly, we distinguish ‘Micro’ from ‘Small and Medium.’ However, there is no hard and fast rule for drawing this line. Some countries define microenterprises as firms with <10 employees, others draw the line at <5 employees. For sub-Saharan Africa, where firm sizes tend to be smaller (and the majority of firms are sole proprietorships) we think the <5 delineation makes more sense.

  • Firms with fewer than five employees—both sole proprietorships and microenterprises, are the most numerous type of enterprises. Many are informal, and most struggle to grow. Microfinance rose as a community of practice specifically to address the needs of these tiny businesses, and the literature on them, their use of ICTs, and their challenges is now quite robust
  • By contrast, Small and Medium Enterprises(SMEs) are usually formal, registered, and paying taxes. These firms also face challenges vis-a-vis financial services, but they are not so much challenges of access as they are of suitability or affordability—loan terms might be too short, bank fees too high, etc.

The second dimension refers to the nature of the enterprise as it relates to the digital economy. As Duncombe and Heeks have explained, there’s a key distinction between small firms that benefit from ICTs and small firms that produce ICTs. We see a durable conceptual split between ‘the broader economy,’ which is benefiting from and being transformed by digitization, and the subset of firms with ‘digital DNA’, which are making the products, delivering the services, and writing the code that underpins that digitization.

A related but distinct category of firms are the platforms themselves—the handful of multinational superplatforms as well as a larger set of local and regional electronic marketplaces—that are transforming sectors of the economy in real time. This is what we mean by ‘the platform era’: platform logic has become central to the ways in which digitization and the internet are changing economies, and this platformization is a major theme for our work in the year ahead. Our typology is more clear if we place platforms in a different section of our framework.

The result is a 2×2 with a modified adjunct for the platforms themselves. As you can see, the research topics than emerge are distinct enough to clarify the most relevant research questions:

  • Box 1 involves the largest number of firms in any economy. Here we are dealing with the struggle of the everyday, how firms  from small restaurants and fix-it shops to retail establishments might utilize national and global platforms in new ways. Research here would (and will!) explore how the traditional clients of microfinance institutions are adapting to the platform era. It could focus on the ways in which social media and the personal Internet is being appropriated to fit the needs of the smallest firms, even when the lines between entrepreneur and enterprise are blurred.
  • Box 2 is quite different in that platforms may be providing new opportunities for small-scale economic organizations with ‘digital DNA’ to offer products and services in entirely new ways. The best, and perhaps most controversial, example of this might be gig work whereby individual proprietors or small firms utilize the infrastructures of labor platforms to earn livings in the cloud, mediated completely by the platform.
  • Box 3 involves a country’s established, formal SME class. How do these firms adapt to the platform era? There are a host of innovations, from inventory and product management to advertising and financing, that can be offered at lower cost and higher value to these firms thanks to digitization. How, specifically, are the platforms involved with these new offerings?
  • Box 4 involves digital startups; the stuff of businesses coming out of accelerator programs and preparing to take off. Many are businesses that write the software or design the new hardware that is customizing the global Internet and other digital technologies for African markets. There’s a great deal of enthusiasm around these businesses, but the research that one would do to understand a digital startup differs from the research  one would do to understand the motorcycle repair shop just down the street. Both are enterprises, but they occupy very different places structurally, both in terms of their local economies and their international visibility.
  • Box 5 is our floating adjunct to the 2×2, our acknowledgment that the platforms themselves deserve and require significant scrutiny. From Jumia to Sendy to WhatsApp for business, the terrain of platform-related digital services is shifting and expanding. Yet there is  little work that specifically engages with the interface between platforms and all four of these MSME segments, particularly with respect to financial inclusion outcomes. Recent findings from FIBR, an R&D project of BFA in partnership with Mastercard Foundation, are beginning to fill this void, looking first at how Tanzanian merchants are moving online.

Our next research project, kicking off in late 2018 in Kenya, will explore the connections between “box 1” microenterprises and the “box 5” platforms that serve them.  

All in all, there’s a lot of work to be done. The point of this post is to sensitize readers to the importance of a bit of specificity regarding terms so that a generalized enthusiasm for platforms and/or MSMEs does not get in the way of refined research questions that can uncover new insights. We look forward to sharing updates about the research as it nears completion.

How can platforms improve financial inclusion in Africa?

Authors: Marissa Dean, Jonathan Donner – Senior Directors at Caribou Digital

The Internet does platforms well. By the late 1990s, eBay was growing like gangbusters, partly—but famously—by hosting the exuberant exchange of beanie babies among collectors. Later, Facebook and Google leveraged network effects in social media and search to grow massive multi-sided markets in attention and advertising. More recently, innovators like Alibaba (direct to consumer sales) and hundreds of others are changing not only online experiences but also real-world livelihoods and economies impacting billions of people around the world.

Indeed, the Internet does platforms so well that it’s fair to say that the digital “platformization” of markets is one of the defining forces of change in the shift to digital economies. Moreover, platformization presents both new possibilities and new challenges for developing countries.

FiDA is exploring the impact of platformization on financial and economic inclusion in Africa through Caribou Digital’s multidisciplinary platformization lens, which combines perspectives ranging from management studies and economics to sociology and media studies. In 2018 and 2019, we are extending that lens to identify how platforms can promote financial and economic inclusion.

Platforms are mechanisms for hosting interaction and exchange between third parties in which  the host (a) facilitates value creation (financial or otherwise) and (b) takes a share of that value but (c) doesn’t completely control the scope of interactions or their outcomes. This lens helps us reveal and isolate a variety of platform functions.

Caribou Digital Platformization Lens

Sources: Platform types—Cusumano, Gawer & Yoffie (2018); Market functions in transaction platforms—Drouillard (2017), Palepu and Khanna (2010); Sectors—Caribou Digital Analysis.

Are there different kinds of platforms? The split In the lens—innovation vs. transaction— illustrates a well-documented diversity in platforms. Echoing Cusumano, Gawer & Yoffie (2018), who remind us that some platforms are infrastructures for innovation and others are hosts for transactions.

  • Innovation platforms, like operating systems or developer tools, emerge when an institution invites others to use its code or other assets  to encourage further innovation in the provision of products and services. The more one can do with the host’s infrastructure, the more apps that run on the host’s operating system, or the more records that a host’s database contains, the more value everyone (hosts and contributors alike) can create through the system. Google’s Android operating system, Amazon Web Services, and Ethereum’s blockchain computing offerings are notable examples of innovation platforms.
  • Transaction platforms create multi-sided markets by hosting interactions that match buyers and sellers. Transaction platforms are proliferating and touch every sector of the economy, from goods and shared rides to gig work and advertising impressions. eBay’s marketplace, Google’s paid search, and AirBnb’s homestays are examples of transaction platforms. In 2018 and 2019, much of FiDA’s research will focus on transaction platforms.

How does platformization work? The vertical axis of the grid brings in economics and management thinking about market functions and pivots attention from discrete institutions to the underlying concept of platformization. Drawing on earlier work by FiDA’s Marissa Dean (in turn drawing on Palepu and Khanna), this axis   distinguishes four basic functions with bearing on the structure and performance of markets and transactions: 1) aggregation and distribution, 2) transaction facilitation, 3) information analysis and advice, and credibility enhancement.

What are the impacts of platformization? The horizontal axis of the grid illustrates the different ways in which  transaction platforms affect markets in goods, labor, assets, attention and data. Distinct communities of practice, critique, and inquiry have coalesced to explore the social and economic impacts of platforms around each of these domains. The grid allows us to look for commonalities between these conversations while preserving key distinctions.

What happens if platforms are wildly successful? One caveat is important here: this lens does not capture the benefits or risks associated with the runaway success of a handful of the biggest platforms—what our colleagues at the FIBR project call the superplatforms. Thanks to network effects or other favorable structural factors, when superplatforms compete in a winner-take-all market, they exert outsize influence on the shape of an entire industry. If superplatforms extract a greater than merited proportion of the value created or discourage local or regional competitors, then they deserve scrutiny for potential detrimental effects. Additionally, when platforms that are successful in one industry harvest data, market to captive customers, or otherwise leverage network effects in order to enter new or adjacent industries with an inbuilt advantage, there are similar anticompetitive considerations to take into account. Neither of these important policy questions are directly reflected in our lens, but they should be included in broader conversations about platformization and development.

Applying the lens to financial inclusion

The platformization lens allows us to critically analyze digital platforms at the intersection of their marketplace functions as well as the sectors of the economy they touch. The result of this exercise is a set of tactics and partnership strategies employed by digital platform organizations and linked to specific implications for development, prosperity, and inclusion.

For example, if we examine the gig-work platform Upwork, placing it in the labor section of the grid, we see several discrete implications of its model for financial and economic inclusion:

  • Aggregation and distribution market functions: Upwork works with enterprises to disaggregate demand for tasks that can be performed with access to a computer. It also offers a flexible workforce to small businesses and enterprises. Both of these elements decrease slack and matching friction in the labor sector. Moreover, as gig workers use Upwork to expand their trade rings, their income generating opportunities grow.
  • Transaction facilitation market functions: Upwork offers escrow/milestone based payment options and a pathway for recourse if something goes wrong with a transaction. This gated process increases trust among businesses and workers transacting remotely, which in turn impacts the level of formal employment activities (via Upwork and other gig-work platforms).
  • Credibility enhancement: Upwork offers skills tests and certifications, and qualifies certain freelancers as “Upwork Pros”. Both ratings enhance the credibility of workers participating on the platform and reduce the likelihood of fraud. However, these ratings tend to lock suppliers into the platform because, while extremely valuable, they are not portable

Any one of the discrete functions offered by Upwork or its kin could be the the anchor point for an intervention designed to promote financial inclusion and broader-based economic participation in sub-Saharan Africa. But the lens underscores how important it is to unpack the details and acknowledge that these elements may not be equally beneficial to workers at the margins of the digital economy.  

The lens is applicable to a variety of development challenges in the digital era, including employment, innovation, and participation in civil society. Each application would generate a specific set of elements connecting stakeholder behavior, sector dynamics, and outcomes.

In 2018 FiDA is applying this lens to financial inclusion. We see the lens as a powerful tool for exploring literally hundreds of digital platforms operating in Africa—both domestic and international—to assess their prospects for delivering financial services and furthering the economic activity of underserved individuals, small businesses, and developing economies. Later in 2018 and in 2019, we will complement the work currently underway with interviews to better understand how platformization is affecting partnerships with bearing for financial inclusion. We will also look at how platformization is impacting the livelihoods of micro and small enterprises. Stay tuned and please tweet or contact to get involved or give feedback.

Tipping the Scale: Can Social Media Drive DFS Adoption and Use?

This blog was co-authored by Adaora Ogbue, Associate Programme Manager at Mastercard Foundation and Renita Nabisubi, Head of Digital Financial Services at Access to Finance Rwanda


As we go about our daily lives we engage in basic financial transactions such as making payments or saving and borrowing money. These can hardly be separated from our social lives since they occur to facilitate our day-to-day livelihoods. Looking at how people across the globe interact socially through digital media and entertainment platforms, it is no wonder that these have become key drivers for the adoption and use of digital financial services (DFS) in China.

Social media and digital entertainment in China offer a natural consumer base for digital finance providers, to an extent which might make Facebook and other social media platforms salivate. Having cultivated digital interactions through their existing communities, Alibaba and Tencent have found innovative ways to convince users to live their digital lives within these platforms. This allows Alibaba and Tencent to study their users’ profiles and monetise their behaviour. Chinese internet finance companies have leveraged their vast user bases to drive DFS adoption and use. What can Africa learn from these Goliaths?

Tech Giants’ Large User Bases Drive DFS Growth in China

Social media and digital entertainment are increasingly important in our lives, cutting across social and economic levels based on the entry point of the cost of smartphone ownership and mobile data. This is great news for digital financial service providers in China who own the social media and digital entertainment platforms themselves. They can, therefore, analyse social behaviour in order to develop and monetise new products.

To be worthwhile, however, user bases must be large enough to prove commercially viable, since the model often followed is one of low commissions but high volumes. The large user base in China has proven beneficial to Alibaba and Tencent, who were able to identify and capitalise on trends in the usage of social media and entertainment to create a reusable source of customers for the introduction of new DFS products.

For example, Alibaba’s Alipay mobile and online payment service emerged in response to the need for users of Alibaba’s original e-commerce platform to process payments within the system. Similarly, Tencent’s social messaging service, WeChat, and mobile games such as Arena of Valor, provided natural paths to monetisation through in-app transactions.

Still, these limited use cases did little to generate customer “stickiness”, or encourage customers to make repeat purchases. Simply having a large customer base does not guarantee viability of the business model. This is where the ability to develop products around its knowledge of customer behaviour proved beneficial to Tencent.

Building on the tradition of exchanging red envelopes containing money between family and friends during special occasions (such as weddings and the Chinese New Year), the company developed a digital wallet in WeChat to digitise this age-old custom using P2P payments. Coupled with a media campaign and live interaction during the New Year’s broadcast, and with the requirement that customers link their bank account to a mobile wallet, this proved to be another simple yet effective customer acquisition strategy. Having launched the product in 2014, Tencent reported 2.3 billion transactions on January 1, 2016 alone. Despite a decrease in holiday transactions since then due to competition from new market entrants, more than 768 million WeChat Pay users sent or received red envelopes during the six-day holiday in 2018, a growth rate of 10% year-on-year.

Similarly, Alibaba introduced a competing product, giving away an equivalent of $97m of “lucky money” to users, in order to convert customers to their wallet. It further modified the product so that, when shared with WeChat users, users would be required to download and open the Alipay wallet to access the funds. Despite Alipay’s initial advantage, however, of handling payments on China’s biggest e-commerce platforms Alibaba, Taobao and Tmall, Tencent’s WeChat Pay grew its market share to 40% in Q1 2017, while Alipay’s dropped to 54%.

Tencent has further exploited the popularity of WeChat, known to have approximately 980 million active monthly users, by introducing over 10 million light-weight apps and more than 500,000 social commerce mini-programs. These provide shops with new ways of selling products to WeChat group members, without users having to install additional software on their phones. With such ease of use and various discounts offered for group purchases, WeChat and its popular app-within-an-app model have become ubiquitous in China. It is estimated that 77% of all Chinese mobile phone owners use WeChat Pay, with 30% of mobile use dedicated to WeChat and another 30% spent using other apps developed by TenCent’s subsidiaries, meaning that there is little reason for customers to engage in activity outside of the WeChat mega-app.

DFS and social media in Africa

In Africa, use of social media and consumption of entertainment are on the rise. The African social media market was estimated at 100m users in 2014 but has now grown to over 120m. Facebook and WhatsApp dominate this usage, with over 80% of access being done over mobile.

Furthermore, the number of African internet users in 2017 grew by 20% year-on-year, representing the fastest rate of growth among the four billion new users of the internet worldwide in that year.  Also encouraging is the growth of the mobile gaming market on the continent, with African developers creating African–themed games. Industry associations for developers now have presence on the continent, for example, the International Game Developers Association with seven chapters in Africa.  

Due to the nascent stage of these markets, and the prohibitive total cost of mobile ownership preventing widespread smartphone adoption, the current African user base and resulting social media and entertainment consumption are dwarfed by those of China. This is partly because the African social media user base is owned mainly by US platform holders such as Facebook and WhatsApp, which have yet to integrate DFS into their current service offerings for African markets. Furthermore, DFS providers in Africa tend to be smaller MNOs and banks that struggle to find ways to grow and profit from their small base of customers. Finally, many barriers to bank account ownership persist in Africa, making it impossible for Africa to follow China’s path to DFS growth through social media and entertainment.

With the  growth in smartphone penetration in Africa, however, there has been a reversal in trends that saw smartphone importation surpass that of feature phones for the first time in 2016. Ovum predicts year-on-year growth of 52.9% culminating in 929.9 million smartphones in Africa by 2021. Though still expensive for low-income users, Huawei and Tecno models now cost as little as US$50 to US$100.

As smartphone ownership grows, the popular use of mobile money wallets that are funded using widely-spread agent networks can create opportunities for digital payment services. According to GSMA, the total value and number of mobile money transactions in sub-Saharan Africa grew by 14.4% and 17.9% to reach US$19.9 billion and 1.2 billion, respectively in 2017. Furthermore, East Africa accounted for 56.4% of the continent’s market for mobile money that year, with Central and Western Africa’s uptake doubling over a five-year period thanks to evolving regulatory policy.

The growth of Africa’s budding social media user base can be reinforced by lowering the total cost of mobile ownership and making DFS offerings, such as payments, more affordable. As seen in China, where peer-to-peer transfers within payment services like Alipay and WeChat Pay are free, mobile money customers still pay a transaction fee that, though tiered, is often prohibitive to middle- to low-income earners. This is possibly because Alibaba and Tencent’s business models treat DFS as a value addition to their core revenue streams of social media and entertainment. They prefer to upsell customers to other income-generating services such as e-commerce, digital credit, and wealth management products.

While African financial institutions such as EcoBank have also begun to introduce mobile banking applications that enable free peer-to-peer payments, they remain constrained by low bank account penetration. To overcome this, African providers should consider partnerships with fintechs such as Norway’s Blockbonds. It launched SPENN, a mobile application payment service that offers free money transfers and does not require the users to have a bank account. Customers can fund their accounts at I&M bank branches for free or through fellow customers who opt to perform cash-in and cash-out services at a 2% fee. Having launched the platform in Rwanda as their initial market in June 2018, SPENN’s founders have targeted  Botswana, Kenya, Mauritius, Namibia, and Tanzania as potential markets for expansion.

There have also been reports of Alipay and WeChat Pay being introduced in the East African market. According to Xinhua, in June 2018 Equity Bank and Red Dot Payment, a Singapore-based online payment company, signed an MoU to link the Equity Bank payment gateway to both Alipay and WeChat Pay. Equity Bank is present in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Rwanda.

Which model will bring the long-awaited exponential growth in digital financial services in Africa?  Taking stock of the widespread adoption of DFS by Chinese social media and entertainment consumers, African markets can learn much about how to permeate the everyday lives of mobile users by creating useful products and services, which lend themselves to the addition of value-added DFS. Whether it is the introduction of existing Chinese payment services through partnerships between Chinese companies and local financial service providers or the development of completely new services, one thing is clear: scale is important. Regional market creation through policy and regulatory harmonisation will be a key driver in achieving this.

Unpacking the Impact Question in China’s Superplatforms

This blog was written by Lamia Naji, Associate Manager, Learning and Strategy at Mastercard Foundation, & Xavier Faz, Lead, Digital Finance Frontiers at CGAP

‘Impact’ can be defined in different ways. In the context of inclusive economic growth, the kind of impact we look for are meaningful changes in the lives of low-income clients, such as an increase in income or an enhanced quality of life. In context of financial inclusion, we expect these outcomes to be achieved through higher savings (financial and time), consumption smoothing, investments in income-generating pursuits, and asset-building among others.

On a recent trip to China led by Mastercard Foundation’s Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa and hosted by the Chinese Academy of Financial Inclusion, we had the opportunity to visit a range of businesses to learn and experience first-hand how the internet and technology are driving financial inclusion, an objective central to both CGAP and the Mastercard Foundation in Africa in particular.

On our ‘learning tour’ of the so-called BAT-J companies – Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and JingDong – and others, we quickly learned about the ubiquity of China’s superplatforms and how they offer alternative channels for financial services. In the process, we noticed a knowledge gap relevant to our work: how much do we know about the impact of ‘superplaforms’ on the lives of low-income clients?

While China is ahead of many markets in making tech-based business models a reality, the associated impact of such development seems less clear. Although an analysis of client impact evidence on digital finance showed mainly positive results for the digital finance sector overall, it also revealed null and negative changes at the client level. Furthermore, it highlighted significant knowledge gaps in our understanding of client impact of digital credit, savings and insurance products. Thus, we must be cautious of assumptions about if and how the development of these models elsewhere, including in Africa, will contribute to positive changes for individuals, institutions and the market. Put simply – what is the causal pathway through which superplatforms lead to positive “impact” for low-income clients when considering access and adoption?

In this blog we will try to unpack the individual (consumer use case) and institutional (firm business case) effects of superplatforms, focusing on three types of digital services: digital payments, social networks, and ecommerce.

Digital and mobile payments (e.g., Alipay, WeChat pay)

Throughout China, mass-market access to smartphones enables a whole suite of mobile transactions between individuals and businesses. We observed how the widespread use of QR codes for electronic payments enables simple mobile payments transactions, and large scale of adoption allows for low user fees. We could infer the following types of effects arising directly from their use:  

  • Simpler and faster purchases, as well as simpler administration of a sales point. For small vendors at Panjiayuan market in Beijing, mobile payments reduce the need to maintain a cash stock and fractional change, facilitating more efficient sales and reducing leakage from theft and fake notes.  Street sellers have a QR code sticker in a visible part of their stall, customers scan the code, enter amount to pay, show the shopkeeper the proof of payment in their screen, and walk away. Selling transactions are reduced to visually confirming payment.  The reduction in the costs associated with cash and the improved convenience and efficiency are hard to quantify. However, both have driven consumer adoption of payments: the total transaction value of e-payments in China is 77% compared to 48% in United States, as we learned at our meeting with Tencent.
  • Easier access to credit for both consumers and merchants. Payment transactions automatically create digital records of sales and purchases for both consumers and merchants. This data can be used to assess credit risk, which is particularly valuable if either are outside the traditional finance ecosystem. Providers such as Alibaba and JD Finance use this transactional data to extend credit access to both consumers and merchants which provide working capital that enable small businesses to grow.  On the consumer side, this leads to uncollateralized loans which can have different kinds of effects – which can be positive, or sometimes negative.
  • Enable participation in the emerging “sharing economy”. People participate in shared schemes by virtue of being able to pay (or be paid) instantly and remotely with electronic money. For a low-income person, the “shared economy” may mean being able to do more with limited resources. For instance, s/he may not be able to buy a bike but may have enough to pay to ride one from a bike-share company, such as Ofo, and reap the benefits that more efficient transport can bring.  Additionally, a person who owns a motorcycle can offer rides via an online ride hailing service, such as Didi, or distribute packages in his/her spare time to earn additional income.
  • In some cases (particularly larger businesses), improved inventory, merchandising and sales processes. Transaction records are used by shop-management systems to access consumer data, track purchasing patterns, and use tools to strategically manage inventory and make better business decisions. An example of such a system is Alibaba’s free retail-management platform, Ling Shou Tong (meaning ‘Retail Integrated’), which we saw in action in Weijun Grocery, Hangzhou.

Social media and networking (e.g. WeChat)

While electronic payments change the way people do business, the effect of social platforms is of a different nature.  While in their origin, social networks facilitate interactions among people, some have integrated a payment mechanism that eases access to a wide array of services. In China, the popular WeChat platform enables users to pay their bills, hail a taxi, split the restaurant bill among friends, or play games and stream videos, all in the context of social interactions across chat groups. While we were not directly able to load funds on our WeChat accounts as non-residents, we had an opportunity to experience these applications courtesy of our Chinese hosts.

We see two direct ways in which social networking can lead to financial inclusion impact:

  • Improved exchange of money in context of social relationships. During our meeting with Tencent, we learned of a fascinating example of how WeChat integrates social custom with technology to creatively produce contextually relevant products for its users. For Chinese New Year for example, families provide their loved ones with red envelopes containing cash. Given many people cannot physically come together during the holiday, WeChat facilitates the sharing of digital red envelopes, which enable even Chinese living outside of China, to also send or receive digital money in the New Year. In 2018 alone, the total amount of digital red envelopes shared on Chinese New Year exceeded CNY ¥ 768 million (USD 115 million).
  • Improved access to credit for thin-file customers. Social networking companies such as Facebook, end up knowing you better than your partner given their access to social data.  Traditional banks can access your financial history, but can’t place your financial transaction in the context of everyday life.  In China, Tencent Holdings the parent company of WeChat also owns a bank, WeBank. Data from social interactions and monetary exchanges enables WeBank to manage a loan portfolio at very low default rates even with clients traditionally classified as ‘thin file’, which is particularly relevant in the absence of credit bureaus in China.

E-commerce platforms (eg. Alibaba/ Taobao,

E-Commerce facilitates trade among distant parties who wouldn’t conduct a sale/purchase transaction in the absence of a mechanism to connect demand with supply. Ecommerce platforms also enable a minimum trust needed to purchase something remotely without immediate and tangible validation of product quality (an escrow account).  Here are some of the impact pathways we observed in China:

  • Increased sales and firm growth for small businesses.  For SMEs, particularly those outside urban settings, eCommerce means being able to tap into a larger market, by selling beyond the immediate physical geography where businesses are located.  Businesses that manufacture and sell products (e.g., shoes, textiles, furniture) can sell nationally as opposed to just the town or city where they are based. In China, good roads and availability of different logistics services enable efficient delivery across a wide geography. Electronic records of sales enables access to digital finance (working capital).  The growth of businesses as a result of e-commerce can have a direct effect on job-creation and income-generation for local citizens: Alibaba’s rural-focused entity, Cuntao, has created more than 1.3 million new jobs nationwide through its rural eCommerce solution.  According to Cuntao, this brings RMB 180,000 benefit annually to each village. We were able to see this first hand during our visit to a ‘taobao village’ in Huidong specializing in women’s shoes. We chatted with suppliers and producers to surface their strategies on optimizing sales, learning about increasing domestic and international retail and wholesale trends resulting from selling on online marketplaces. For one factory owner, annual advertising on Alibaba coupled with the branding support provided by the platform dramatically expanded his shoe production business, which in just 4 years grew to employ 200 people and sell 1 million pairs of shoes annually.
  • Access to expanded variety of products and services, which can potentially be better suited and/or more affordable. For consumers, shopping in online marketplaces (in addition to brick-and-mortar stores), could increase access to a wider range of products and services.  These can be options that are potentially better suited for his/her needs or perhaps more affordable. Purchasing online may also bring time-savings, which may lead to having more time for productive activities. More work on the demand side is needed to better understand the benefits of ecommerce for low income consumers.

Concluding thoughts

In summary, there are indications that superplatforms can impact both consumers and businesses, bringing efficiency gains, increased digital data on transactions and social media, and access to capital. However, we think we should remain concerned around the digital divide – the extent to which the shift to digital can touch poorer and low income segments.  We should be well aware of these limitations so that the design and delivery of digital products can be improved. As of yet, there has been limited in-depth exploration of the outcomes ‘after access’ and this is where additional investment could be allocated. Perhaps the next step in the China discussion is to begin identifying the impact of superplatforms on different segments of users, including low-income women, youth and rural residents. In other words, what does this mean in terms of bringing meaningful changes and opportunities for low income people?  Is there growth and job creation in smaller and rural towns? Does self-employment improve and does it change income and expenditures? What other effects can these changes bring in access to education, upward mobility and gender equality? What are the intended and unintended consequences? How would these responses differ across different country contexts in Africa?

Emerging examples of impact stories – through qualitative anecdotal research or more rigorous experimental and non-experimental studies –  can help us understand where to marshal our efforts when advancing digital financial inclusion. In light of this, actors such as CGAP and the Mastercard Foundation can contribute to building the evidence-base on the impact of digital financial services on low-income clients in emerging markets.

Authors Xavier Faz (far left) and Lamia Naji (third from right) pictured outside a shoe factory that is leveraging Chinese e-commerce platforms to expedite growth.

You Can’t Clap with One Hand: How Collaboration Drives China’s FinTech Success

This blog was written by Lesley Denyes – Program Manager and Digital Finance Specialist at IFC and Annabel Schiff – Senior Manager, Partners at the FiDA Partnership – with input from Jessica Osborn, Senior Manager, Partners at the FiDA Partnership

Harmony has always been a highly valued virtue in the long history of China’s civilization, and it remains the cornerstone of Chinese culture today. It is no wonder then that harmony and collaboration were recurring themes during Mastercard Foundation’s FiDA Partnership fintech study tour to China, where we visited a number of leading technology and fintech organisations. Among these players there was an ethos of building the digital finance space together, rather than an atmosphere of disintermediation as we see among many banks and telcos in African markets.

To put this into context, among the technology organisations we met, both Ant Financial and JD Finance told us they each partner with over 400 financial institutions. WeBank, which started operations only three years ago, has already partnered with over 50 banks. A recent survey found 68% of financial institutions in China expect to increase fintech partnerships in the next 3-5 years. This is in stark contrast to the digital financial services space in sub-Saharan Africa in which partnerships are less common and often hampered by challenges such as power dynamics in the market, restrictive regulation and the relatively nascent stage of big data capability.

The evolution of WeBank through multiple partnerships

Here we discuss the journey to partnerships among players in China and the underlying incentives to partner. In a second blog we will reflect on if this ethos of collaboration and partnership can be replicated in sub-Saharan African markets.

Journey to Partnerships

All the companies we met with in China are using partnerships in some way to better serve their customers. In the global context, commercial partnerships are most eagerly sought by smaller companies hoping to leverage larger companies’ access to new markets or new revenue sources, with challenges often surfacing due to the imbalance of power. Rarely do we see the largest financial service companies actively seeking partnership to expand their services. We do, however, see partnerships between larger organisations (such as MNOs and Banks) for regulatory compliance reasons.

To understand how Chinese organisations partner we mapped four companies’ products by degree of partnership, and noted clear trends. There are no partnerships on payments; providers have not even integrated to enable interoperability between their wallets.

Beyond payments, as organisations offer more sophisticated financial services, partnerships play a more dominant role.

* Loans: WeChat offers loans from its sister company, WeBank. JD Finance allows customers to access credit from other financial institutions through their app. Ant Financial is the only organisation that does not leverage a partner for loans, instead packaging the lending into asset backed financing which they sell on to investors. However, with the regulatory clampdown on asset-backed securities (ABS), it is likely that they will be need to look to partner for loans in the future.

* Wealth Management: Wealth management products from banks such as China Construction Bank are offered across Ant Financial’s Yu’ebao money market fund. WeChat’s Licaitong has partnered with China Rapid Finance for investment products.

* Insurance: Collaborations enable products to leverage the expertise from specialized underwriting institutions.

Analysis of the partnerships landscape for these four organizations reveals their shared strategy to protect the payment business and share the other financial services. This demonstrates the central importance of payments for customer acquisition, as a gateway to their other financial services offerings. Payments also hold valuable customer insights that the providers are reluctant to share.

It will likely be difficult for the Chinese market to continue with two dominant payment player wallets that don’t interoperate – mobile payments are dominated by AliPay (53% market share) and WeChat (40%). Customers and merchants appear to have put up with this for now because they can move money from their bank accounts to their Alipay and WeChat pay wallets without cost, and on the same SIM card. However, with WeChat Pay starting to charge for this bank to wallet transfer we may see greater customer demand for integration of wallets in the future.

Incentives to Partner and Collaborate

Our meetings in China not only revealed journeys to partnerships, but also incentives behind collaborations and partnerships. Below we highlight some of our key findings.

Risk Management

In China the lack of a credit reference bureau (CRB) forces organisations to employ different strategies to mitigate risk. Some share data bilaterally, others leverage data shared through a quasi CRB, while others pull data from sister companies and subsidiaries to provide a comprehensive view of existing and prospective customers.  

During the study tour, we learned about a lot of data being shared among organisations for risk management and credit facilitation. Two of the largest players, Tencent and JD Finance, share customer data with each other. JD Finance combines Tencent’s social media data with their own e-commerce intelligence to help JD develop a deeper understanding of their customers for credit profiling. Data collaboration also happens through the National Internet Finance Association of China (NIFA). Many non-traditional financial service providers spoke to us about how they share data with NIFA to fill the gap left by the lack of a CRB. Similarly, Ant Financial’s Zhima (Sesame) Credit – one of eight private credit rating systems – works with various entities to develop its credit scores to combine data from Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms, the Alipay payment service, as well as other financial institutions, credit agencies and government ministries.


Strategic partnerships also permit access to new customer bases. Banks offer access to offline channels, while internet companies have immense active user bases from mass market segments that are largely missing from Chinese traditional financial institutions’ portfolios. JD Finance told us how they joined forces with Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) to launch the ICBC Xiaobai Digital Bank, enabling them to acquire customers who are outside of – including those offline – and enabling ICBC to tap into the millions of users.

Regulatory Compliance & Government Influence

In China, the government strongly encourages partnerships with state-owned banks in order to fortify their relevance amid competition from incumbent tech players. The gradual transition of China’s internet finance companies away from finance and towards purer technology plays can be attributed to governmental pressure. For instance, Ant Financial has transformed from fintech to techfin and now to tech services.

All the technology organisations we met were very careful to demonstrate their collaboration with banks, and highlight their core competencies in technology rather than finance. For banks, teaming up with internet companies enables them to quickly catch up on the tech innovations that have created the internet finance boom.

We also heard from technology companies, such as JD Finance, that regulation mandates them to partner with financial institutions to offer certain products and obtain certain licenses. This is similar to what we see in African markets where compliance is often the main motivation for bank partnerships.

Capital Constraints

As regulators have clamped down on asset-backed securities (ABS) and financial products have reached a scale that can no longer be supported by internet giants’ own balance sheets, banks’ low fund cost have encouraged collaboration.

Two companies we met with, WeBank and JD, are syndicating their loans with other financial institutions due to capital constraints. In the case of WeBank (in which Tencent has a 30% share) we learned how they syndicate their Weilidai micro-loans due to their limited access to loanable funds, with capital split 20/80 between WeBank and partner banks. While WeBank benefits from the the banks’ capital, the banks benefit from WeBank’s access to Tencent’s large customer base, as well as the efficiency and reduced risk presented by their tech innovation, leveraging blockchain for real-time settlement and AI for risk scoring.

JD Finance similarly shares its customers and channel with banks in exchange for cheaper financing, something that is rarely heard of in Africa. Usually banks finance on-lenders at a high price, due to the risk involved in lending to customers they don’t own. However, JD Finance told us how they have been able to negotiate low cost funds due to the appeal of their large customer base and a proven credit scoring model – that is the envy of most banks – owing to their expertise in AI and their ability to test this with vast amounts of customer data from and their partner, Tencent.

Technology Infrastructure and Expertise

As financial products have increased in sophistication, there seems to be a growing recognition among Chinese tech companies of the value of bank partnerships, and vice versa. Banks offer professional financial product design and packaging while internet players have tech capability and algorithms that they have been able to test on vast amounts of user data. A recent survey highlighted that the main driver in the expected increase in partnerships between financial institutions and fintech is to strengthen innovation.

Even among leading players there is acknowledgement that you can’t be good at everything. Ant Financial described how their rural finance strategy is reliant on partnerships with banks, insurance companies and county governments to deliver credit services to rural individuals and SMEs. They rely on banks for both their data on local individuals as well as their offline infrastructure (branches) to reach, educate and acquire rural users.  

Some organisations also offer their technology infrastructure to other players. WeBank licenses its technology capabilities, enabling smaller players to benefit from a level of innovation they would struggle to develop themselves. They also license their facial recognition technology to help partners with KYC. Similarly, Yirendai – through their Yirendai Enabling Platform (YEP) –  provides solutions to business partners such as risk management and customer acquisition. While these are currently commercial partnerships, in which institutions are buying services from tech companies, it is clear that China is entering an era of collaboration with financial institutions looking to move from these expensive commercial arrangements to collaborative partnerships.

Customer Stickiness

Large platform players in China, particularly Tencent, pride themselves on their super-app status, through which they offer a vast array of services to their customers. We learned from Tencent that due to the sheer breadth of services offered through WeChat, consumers find little reason to leave the app: over one-third of WeChat’s users spend over 4 hours in the app each day, and 60% of the total time they spend on their phone is either within the WeChat app or other Tencent platforms. This stickiness creates a customer relationship built on trust, longevity, and relevance in every aspect of users’ daily life, paving the way for a multitude of lifecycle scenarios and new touchpoints for financial service providers. Therefore, partnering with large platform companies can enable financial institutions to insert products into the daily lives of their clients in a way that is optimized for relevance and convenience. For instance, on WeChat you can book flights, hotels, car hire – and purchase travel insurance – all in the same place; funds can be moved between wealth management accounts and WeChat wallets seamlessly without leaving the app. For the tech giants, integrating financial services on top of their existing offerings in this way creates the potential to more effectively monetize their consumer base and increase the stickiness of their core offerings.

This blog has highlighted how partnerships, and an ethos of collaboration, are beneficial not only to small players in China, but also the tech giants themselves. While these insights into the Chinese fintech landscape are relevant for Africa, lessons cannot be simply replicated. In part 2 of this blog we will discuss whether China’s ethos of collaboration can work for African fintech as successfully.

Barriers and Bridges to Building Africa’s Digital Silk Road

This blog written by Sieka Gatabaki, Financial Services Manager at MercyCorps Agrifin Accelerate Program in Kenya with contributions from Annabel Schiff -Senior Manager, Partners at the FiDA Partnership.

In Part 1 of this blog, Stephen Deng shared insights from our recent trip to China about how e-commerce, and a sophisticated set of last-mile products and services, has helped drive the digital finance revolution in the country. In this blog we take a look at the e-commerce landscape in Africa, and the opportunities and challenges of developing a similar stack of last-mile offerings on the continent.

The growth of e-commerce in Africa is evident. Launched in 2012 in Nigeria, e-commerce platform Jumia now has a presence in 30 African countries and reported 80% year on year growth last year. In 2017 Naspers invested $202 million in South Africa’s online shopping site Takealot, and MNO giant Safaricom recently launched their own e-commerce platform, Masoko. We are also seeing social media platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram being used as informal marketplaces.

Growth, however, isn’t without its challenges. A 2017 report showed that less than 30% of African e-commerce startups are profitable due to issues around funding, logistics and trust. Despite its expansion, Jumia is yet to turn a profit. Naspers’ recent sale of Nigeria’s largest online shopping mall Konga has been attributed to the platform’s lack of growth. When it comes to Africa and its various markets, there are clearly opportunities and challenges within the e-commerce landscape:  

From roads to smartphones

The continent of Africa covers 30.3 million sq kilometers, with sub-Saharan Africa comprising of 48 countries. This is a huge land mass with multiple infrastructure and political implications, compared to China’s 9.6 million sq kilometers and single governance. Although Chinese partnerships and loans are helping to finance infrastructure projects, physical transport and road infrastructure in Africa remains a challenge. This is further hindered by a lack of a formal address system in most African markets. Apps like Google Maps and solutions such as OkHi are improving the ability to locate physical addresses, but this still remains a challenge with e-commerce companies often resorting to utilizing drop off points.  

The backbone of China’s successful e-commerce landscape has been attributed to smartphone penetration and its supporting infrastructure. While Africa is experiencing increased smartphone adoption and internet penetration, it is far from widespread, with digital literacy challenges adding another layer of complexity.  

Opportunities and challenges with distribution and delivery

Leading players such as Jumia have invested heavily in their logistics network. There has also been significant interest and investment in third-party logistics, particularly in Kenya. Lori Systems utilizes returning empty truck capacity to provide opportunities for rural-urban delivery,  Twiga Foods, an agricultural e-commerce company, recently raised US$7 Million from IFC and other partners to expand its aggregation and logistics capabilities, and Sendy offers a marketplace for last-mile delivery, allowing customers to send packages using an app that connects them to motorcycle, van and pickup drivers.  Sendy now does distribution for Safaricom’s e-commerce venture, Masoko. Global ride-sharing companies, such as Uber and Taxify, are also trialling on-demand courier services in metropolitan areas to cover the gaps in current delivery systems.

Despite the increased presence of logistics services, slow, inefficient delivery systems remain a major barrier to e-commerce. This is especially the case in rural areas – home to over 60% of Africans – where populations are highly dispersed, precluding the route density required for last-mile delivery business models to work. African markets could learn important lessons from Indonesian ride-sharing companies such as Go-Jek, who have overcome some of these challenges to bring e-commerce services to non-urban low-literacy customers. It will also be interesting to see what lessons China’s Didi can provide with their recent investment in Taxify.

Developing a digital data trail

While in China there is a “stack of digital services that help suppliers adapt their previously offline businesses to the digital economy”, in Africa there is a relative “lack”. This is in part due to a dearth of data, and a lack of prioritization of data analytics for segmentation and buyer behavior analysis. While in China merchant payments drove DFS adoption, thus creating a plethora of financial and non-financial customer data, in Africa person-to-person transfers have tended to lead the way. This has resulted in a significant gap in consumer insights, hindering the digital augmentation of such businesses. Data collection, consolidation, and analytics perhaps remains one of the most challenging areas for advancing e-commerce – and indeed sophisticated digital financial services – in Africa.

Kenya is, however, showing some traction in this regard. Over 200,000 merchants are enabled to take digital money – through providers such as Masterpass QR, mVISA and Lipa Na M-PESA,  – providing a transaction footprint hitherto undigitized. Additionally the acceptance of M-PESA for payments on Google Playstore and the integration with Paypal should also accelerate the volume of transaction information gathered for behavioral predictions.  

Poor user experience across e-commerce platforms

The clunky nature of digital merchant payments is evident through e-commerce behaviour in mobile money markets where 70% of e-commerce payments are still cash-on delivery. The poor user experience also extends to delivery, refund and exchange processes, and a lack of trust. The persistence of cash-on-delivery payments within the e-commerce landscape in Africa is in part driven by this lack of trust and a desire to see goods before paying for them. Perhaps lessons can be learnt from China’s Alibaba who launched Alipay in 2004 as an online escrow service enabling shoppers to claim back refunds if unhappy with their purchases.

The role of government

At the policy level, many sub-Saharan countries are grappling with the need for policy reforms in order for the digital economy, new models of transaction, and e-commerce to thrive. Some governments in Sub Saharan Africa are creating conducive environments for the digital economy to thrive through reforms and policies on digital financial transactions, however the journey ahead is long and fraught with issues such as data privacy and ownership. We have witnessed some public-private partnerships with parastatals, such as the Kenyan Postal Services partnership with Jumia for countrywide pick up and drop off points to facilitate rural ecommerce. However, much more government support will be required if e-commerce is to overcome current last mile challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In conclusion, it may be difficult to predict when African e-commerce will have the enabling last-mile services to bring about a hockey stick adoption trajectory. Many pieces are coming together, but many more need to be put in place. Studies of successful implementations in countries like China provide insights that should be closely watched.

The Digital Silk Road: Lessons from Last Mile Distribution in China

This blog is authored by Stephen Deng, co-founder at DFS Labs, an early-stage fintech accelerator for emerging markets

Recently, I had the opportunity to join a group of donors, investors, entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders and spent a week in China to understand the dramatic digital financial revolution that the country has undertaken.

We quickly realized that China’s story is not just about the meteoric rise of its tech giants, but just as importantly, the layered set of last mile products and services that was built up to enable such fast growth. As much as this is a story of ecommerce, it is a story about how traditional, physical commerce has been adapted to a mobile-first economy.

After a week visiting a set of ecosystem players from corporate executives to end users, I came away with the following set of building blocks that have played a critical role in the evolution of China’s digital financial services:

Continual improvement of physical infrastructure

It would be shortsighted to discredit the critical role that years of massive infrastructure development has played. The backbone of China’s ecommerce revolution has been the smartphone and its supporting infrastructure; 2018 estimates suggest that China has over 699 million smartphone users. During our learning trip we saw how much focus there still is from companies like Huawei who are striving to upend the price to performance equation for these technologies.

Likewise, we cannot discount the importance of building out the literal last mile – the roads, bridges, and addresses which underpin physical delivery and location. The country’s One Belt One Road initiative underlines this focus and is set to reshape international commerce in as well. In China, we also saw examples of the next generation of this effort, including’s drone delivery for the remote last mile. Technological advances like autonomous hub-and-spoke delivery will continue to push China’s last mile infrastructure forward and continue to add new customers to its digital economy.

One of JD.Com’s Drones – taken during a visit to JD.Com’s offices in Beijing

Seamless last-mile delivery as a service

China’s ecommerce engine would not run without the parallel development of a group of last mile logistics companies. Alibaba has Cainiao, it’s tech-enabled logistics platform, but its the kuaidi (delivery and logistics) companies from Tonglu: Yunda, ZTO and STO that have been the physical backbone for the country’s ecommerce demands.

We found it especially important to understand how seamlessly these logistics services are integrated into a SME’s sales process. For example, 3 hours outside of Shenzhen, we met a shoe producer who grew his business from $10,000 to $50 million RMB in four years. From a small warehouse, he sells over a million pairs a year all over China by utilizing Alibaba’s various wholesale platforms Taobao and 1688 to reach customers and uses kuaidi services to deliver them. The SME owner just has to focus on creating the best products – marketing, payment, delivery and even returns are handled on the platform.

Helping to bring offline suppliers, online

In addition to last mile delivery, there is a stack of digital services that help suppliers adapt their previously offline businesses to the digital economy. One of the biggest areas of support relates to the necessity to collect, sort through, and make decisions around the massive amount of data now available to sellers. During our Live Learning trip, we saw a very cutting-edge example in Alibaba’s TMall Weijun Grocery where traditional convenience store owners were able to participate in a franchising package that includes the hardware, software, and insights to bring them into a big data world. Store owners gained access to foot traffic heat maps, customer online purchase histories, and regional shopping trends to inform restocking and store layout decisions.

Shopping at the Weijun Grocery Store in Hangzhou

Similarly, sellers were brought into a digital payments ecosystem, not only through Alipay and Wechat Pay’s QR code infrastructure, but also in online ecommerce with access to services that reduce barriers, such as working capital loans on Taobao and a digital escrow service to bridge the trust gap between online buyers and sellers.

In another key example, smaller sellers are able to livestream directly to an audience customers on Taobao, introducing otherwise undifferentiated products to thousands of potential buyers at once with a single smartphone.

Empowering new digital economy customers everywhere

None of the above layers would matter if end customers were not empowered to participate and spend money on ecommerce platforms. The ecommerce services made available to customers are designed to digitize offline purchases and increase online purchases. Prior to this trip, many of us were familiar with Amazon and the strength of its recommendation algorithms to guide and increase their customers’ online purchases. Thanks to the prevalence of mobile payments in China, the recommendation algorithms can be built on both online and offline shopping behaviors. Buyers are advertised the right products at the right times, no matter where they are.

Additionally, newer e-commerce buyers are able to spend more and with more confidence through a group of services including: unsecured digital loans and generous return policies adopted on platform like Taobao. For users who aren’t fully digitally literate, Taobao agents can provide digital education and even take cash orders to provide an easier onramp for newer, often rural customers.

Government reducing cost of entry to the ecosystem for first movers

Finally, the trip highlighted to us the large role the government played in setting up and supporting the ecommerce ecosystem. The initial rise of “Taobao villages” included government incentives that awarded top product producers with cash bonuses. A government focus on rural bank account ownership set the backbone for the debit features that allow Wechat Pay and Alipay to function, eliminating the otherwise daunting issue of cash-in, cash-out (CICO).

Inspired by our experiences in China we scanned recent trends in Africa in order to better understand the opportunities and challenges of using e-commerce platforms, with powerful last mile capabilities, to drive access to inclusive digital financial services. In Part 2 of this blog, we delve deeper into the implications for Africa, and explore new ideas and initiatives taking place on the continent.

This blog is part of a series focused on deep dives into learnings from our trip to China. Follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn to catch each blog and learn more about these insights. If you are interested in joining a Live Learning trip, get in touch!

What LulaLend Learnt from Fintech in China

This blog was written by Neil Welman, Co-founder and CTO of LulaLend 

China is currently undergoing a digital revolution of an unprecedented scale never before seen. The rollout of digital financial services to all sectors of their vast population is nothing short of incredible. China has many similarities to the African story as well as many differences. Could some of what China is doing to achieve financial inclusion be used in the African context to bring digital financial services  to the huge unbanked and underserved population there? I was fortunate enough to be invited on a trip to China to explore this further. The trip was very generously arranged by the Mastercard Foundation Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa  (FiDA Partnership).

In this short blog I focus on some highlights from the trip, namely:

  • How tech platforms have leveraged their user base to drive adoption of digital financial services (DFS)
  • The innovative ways that financial services are offered to SMEs
  • How Chinese tech companies are delivering financial services to rural customers
  • How data and AI is used to understand customers, deliver tailored products and reduce risk

Tech Platforms driving DFS adoption

The first thing that strikes you when you wander the markets, shops and restaurants in China is the lack of cash or even card transactions. The majority of face-to-face payment transactions you see in these places are done via mobile payments, namely using a QR code system.

The de-facto way of paying in China

Why this massive take-up of mobile payments? South Africa, where LulaLend is based, has  similar QR code based payments systems which are enjoying consistent growth but not at the rate seen in China. One key difference in China is that the mobile payment systems are generally leveraged from existing, non-financial platforms that already have huge uptake. For example, WeChat Pay is leveraged off the WeChat social messaging app (similar to WhatsApp) which has around a billion users. So iwhen WeChat Pay was released it was already accessible to a huge user base.

While this might sound impressive, WeChat Pay is not even the most popular mobile payments platform in China. That title goes to Alipay. Alipay was originally developed to facilitate transactions across Alibaba, the largest e-commerce site in China, which now has an enormous over half a billion customer base.  With such large tech players offering financial services on top of non-financial platforms, it becomes clearer why there is such a massive uptake of mobile payments.

Another benefit of leveraging financial services from an existing platform is that identity can be accurately verified which leads to much lower fraudulent rates. From our meeting with Ant Financial we learnt that less than 0.001% of transactions are fraudulent on Alipay, compared to circa 0.2% on PayPal. Lastly, the tech companies are making huge drives to grow their customer bases, and in doing so building up a bank of data on their customers. This is done by offering incentives and discounted charges on some of the services – payments commissions being one – with revenue generated from other sources such as e-commerce sales and in-app purchases. While customers benefit from really low commissions, platform providers are able to capture a lot of payment data which can be used for credit assessment and delivery purposes.

Innovative ways Chinese tech companies deliver financial services to SMEs

JD.Com is a big B2C (business to consumer) player which focuses on an Amazon-type approach thats sells directly to its 300 million customers. This means it is responsible for delivering the goods themselves and therefore has developed a vast distribution network to support this model. Its strengths lie in its customer and supplier interfaces and management systems, and its supply chain network. JD Finance is the finance segment that was spun off recently to focus on financial products.

The brand

By managing all aspects of the process, from purchase to delivery, gains access to a huge amount of data on its customers and their behaviour. The data is turned into insights and understandings, allowing JD Finance to offer unique products to the various elements of the process. For example by observing user behaviour on the platform and transaction history they are able to accurately assess the eligibility of their merchants for credit. This can be unsecured as is the case for suppliers, or secured for the merchants who use their warehousing services and have stock in them. Interests are charged at a daily rate and paydowns are generally flexible.

Alibaba is the biggest e-commerce firm in China. Their Taobao business is a B2C company that focuses on their marketplace that connects business and consumers, much like the eBay model we understand. Their finance focused arm is called Ant Financial. They too offer various merchant funding that is driven off data collected from interoperation with their site. But their main offering is Alipay, their digital payments system. The payment data from Alipay is also leveraged allowing them to segment an incredibly low risk SME base to offer funding too.

Serving the rural population

What was really fascinating and inspiring to see is how financial services are being rolled out to rural populations. This is probably the most relevant aspect to the African context. It involves extraordinary coordination and strategy between government, the banking industry, tech infrastructure companies and new internet based technology companies. The first step was a massive push to get connectivity and ICT out to the rural populations. This created the infrastructure that could essentially leverage smartphones to the majority of people.

Then, the banking industry did a massive push to get branches out as far as they could and drastically increase their number of rural customers. But what is the use of a bank account if you don’t have any money coming into it? That is where technology companies come in. Companies like Alibaba have focussed their efforts into capturing the essence of rural economy. Taobao, their eBay like site, allows any merchant, no matter how small, to sell their wares or services. This has enabled even a producer to link up to a larger supply chain and eventually deliver their goods to an international market. So the supply chains are made up of many merchants supplying goods, logistics, and brokering agents all working cohesively together using the specialist management functions of the platform. The process has become so popular that whole villages have been focussed to cater for specialities required. Rural Cuntao (Rural Taobao) is the term coined for this product. For example, we visited a Taobao village that focused on manufacturing shoes.

A typical production element for this type of supply chain

Perhaps in the African context this is not yet possible due to the still relatively low penetration of smartphones. But companies like Huawei are developing innovative ways of increasing access in rural Africa at a much lower cost than previously. This involves new communications technology to optimise usage across the frequency band and much more efficient infrastructure (e.g. much smaller tower networks needed to support this than previously).

Huawei showcasing some of their technology goods

Summing up

It was fascinating and inspiring to see how fintech in China is being used to offer digital finance, and how funding products are offered to all areas of the populations. Below are summed up keys of what we would like to pervade our thinking going forward:

Scale. The awe-inspiring size of the audience Chinese digital finance companies reach and the pace with which they are growing is staggering.

Data and AI. The use of data and AI to understand all aspects of this customer base and enable in-depth offerings at incredibly low default rates.

Innovative lending products. Drawing on the vast amount of information available to focus specific credit products to specific sectors.

Reaching rural communities. The coordination of all sectors to reach out to the underserved and provide innovative products to get them onto the platforms. Then providing the supply chain management to keep them on.

A new approach to data sharing. Customer data is seen as an asset that can be shared with competitors to improve your own offering and the value to the customer.

Understanding customer needs. Constant focus on what customers use in their everyday lives and adding platforms and products around this.

Cool, but how does this affect my business?

At Lulalend, we are looking forward to using these insights to add to and shape our strategic thinking to offer a better experience to the SME owner. A lot of the concepts we saw are already incorporated on some level in our platform so it was amazing to get insight into the most advanced platforms. Lulalend are on the forefront of championing digital lending in South Africa and a lot of what we have seen will result in direct improvements or those inspired by the strategies seen:

  • Increased refinement and accuracy of our machine learning models to assess a business.
  • Increased use of AI technology to drive down fraud and risk, so that better rates could be offered to customers.
  • Pragmatic usage of AI in the application and onboarding process, including serving customer queries. Being a data driven company, a big part of what we do is around handling and processing data, and there were some great lessons to see how truly big data is being handled.
  • Deepening the relationships we have with our partners to compliment and leverage different services.
  • Increasing the potential base of the local SME ecosystem by focussing on alternative methods of credit assessment, rather than being totally reliant on credit bureaus for this.
A golden outlook for digital finance in China (Shenzhen skyline)