Only Free Interbank Transfers Can Fix Financial Inclusion in Nigeria

Financial inclusion is a buzzword, but it’s also a real issue for third-world countries. Many things have been thrown at it, including the kitchen sink. As far as Nigeria is concerned, nothing seems to be working. Nevertheless, I believe that significantly reducing the cost of transactions, up to the point of free transfers, will break the exclusion barrier all through the invocation of the Network Effect.

The Network Effect, also known as Metcalf’s Law, says that the value of a network grows as the square of the number of its users increase. In simple English; when there are many people in a network, there is always someone you want to do aproko with.

Why am I so confident that this is possible? Well, I have the evolution of mobile telephony in Nigeria as a reliable basis.

Before MTN and Econet transformed mobile telephony in Nigeria, you would have imagined that we all used witchcraft to talk to ourselves. Apparently, we did! Or how would you describe 400K active lines for a nation of 126M disconnected souls?

However, what most people don’t know is that just before the GSM licenses were awarded, Nigeria had 6 GSM licenses issued by Obasanjo, and before then, 33 GSM licenses were given by the Dark Goggled General.

Many licenses and nobody was talking. The GSM providers felt telephones were for the middle-class and HNWI (High Net Worth Individuals, the fancy name for people who have hammered). Maybe that was true, but unfortunately, Nigeria never had many of the rich guys. The GSM providers failed spectacularly.

So, when MTN and Econet, the new kids of the block of 2001, started their operations, they came to the market with N20,000 SIM cards; only the middle-class and uber rich could get them. Apparently, some of them failed their networking classes and didn’t know about Metcalfe’s law. I’m happy there were remedial classes: MTN promptly introduced BOGOF and Econet brought Buddie to the masses. The market exploded; I finally got my SIM and phone, my friends got theirs, and we trade stories about girls. Nigeria was never the same again!

Just like telephony where you call those within your social and business circles to peddle rumors, close business deals, track errant staff, or check on your grandmother; transfer of money is also a social and business construct.

In the days when telephony was expensive and not for the poor, according to General David Mark, Nigerians thronged business centers to make local calls and cybercafes for international calls. For the trivial gist, they talk to their neighbors. Today, for the essential transactions such as transfers and bill payments that cost N50 a pop, they use their mobile apps and USSD codes. For small purchases of N10 to N1,000, they fish out dirty Naira notes from corners we can’t talk about to give their maiguards, bike men, Garri sellers, etc.

Why? Because it doesn’t make sense to use N50 to transfer N200.

My fancy friends in the e-trade argue about financial literacy, money stuffed in mattresses, etc. What they have not been able to explain to me is that even with poor literacy in Nigeria, how does everyone know how to use mobile phones: punch in airtime credit, dial numbers, and read digits of those calling them? Because when technology is demystified and pervasive, the knowledge becomes commonplace.

Ask yourself, when last did a new phone come with a manual even though it’s significantly more powerful than the dead-ass Motorola Talkabout of the early 2000s?

Back to cheap transfers, when the Central Bank of Nigeria crashed the cost of transfers from N100 to N50, the monthly transfers exploded from the measly 7M a month in 2016 to 58M in May 2018. The average transaction size dropped from N320K to N112K. In 2001, it cost N50 per minute to call; most people didn’t bother to call anyone. When the networks crashed the cost to Kobos per second, calls exploded.

Dropping interbank transfer to N5 for bank customers would do more magic than anyone could imagine. Not only that, making transfers of an amount less than N1,000 free means that the flow of money to the excluded would be free. When it is free to send money to my shoe shiner, he would learn how to receive it and also send it to others as well. After all, if he knows how to check his airtime balance, he will know how to check his wallet or account balance. And he would be able to send to his friends and his young wife in the village; all for free.

Bankers are scared because they think of the margins that would be wiped out. But, the addressable market is so huge, probably 100 times more, than what we have today. Instead of the 58M monthly transfers we are happy about, we could be talking about 5B transfers a month. Most of these would come from the N20 to N500 transfers that are small, trivial and extremely habit forming for even the least educated, as long as they have a phone and fingers to punch the keys.

Nigerian Banks of all shades, the CBN, international Development Finance Institutions (think WHO, DFID), Bill Gates, etc. have spent years and a lifetime trying to make Financial Inclusion work in Nigeria but the efforts haven’t yielded tangible fruits. Why not try making transactions cheaper? After all, nothing beats free.

Comments 1

  1. Nnanna wrote:

    Reducing the fee will increase usage on the network for sure.. the stats have proved this already. However are there any stats on how many new (unique) customers actually opened bank accounts because of this reduction?

    How many farmers in Idanre can walk out of their farms into a shiny bank branch to open an account? asides fees for bills (which they probably don’t pay) and bank transfers what of the cost of opening an account, mystical monthly account charges, SMS charges, card issuance fees (even when he did not apply for a card), card maintenance fees (continuously collected for years after the card has expired). Access to banking services, acceptance points for bank tokens and the cost of banking in general are the reasons why the financial inclusion issue might never be solved.

    If the banks are interested in attempting to solve the problem they have to understand that banking is no longer a place you go, it’s something you do. They have to take banking services outside the 30M+ unique people that have bank accounts. The addressable market is huge but they won’t come to you.. you have to go to them with services that matter at the right price.

    Posted 12 Jun 2018 at 6:28 am

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