Contactless cards can revolutionize payments in Nigeria

The ease and speed of a payment method are directly proportional to its adoption. Although payment with cards has been growing at about 100% CAGR over the last three years, all you need to do is stand behind that smug, self-entitled millennial stamping her feet while waiting for a purchase to finish to know that paying with debit cards at POS terminal would never be mainstream for everyday payments.

The UK was at the same junction a few years ago although using your card for payments was significantly faster. Then things changed when banks allowed regular debit and credit cards to be used to tap-in and out on buses, trains, and trams. Contactless transactions exploded. You only need to see contactless payments in action for you to be smitten. You will ask yourself just one question: why have we suffered this long?

When properly configured, contactless payments go through in less than 1 second, just the same time it takes to touch the card to the reader, and that’s it.

How do contactless cards work? Not so simple. On a contactless card, the plastic has a small antenna that allows it to wirelessly transmit payments information from the chip on the card to the card reader. When you touch your card against the reader, they both talk to each other. Contactless can work in both online mode (where transactions are sent to the bank for authorization) and offline mode (where the bank gives some leeway to allow payments to be approved by the chip on the card)

For security reasons, banks, governed by national standards set certain limits. For example, the bank will determine the number of times you can do touch-and-go before you can use your card for online payments (where you have to input your PIN). Also, there is also a maximum amount you can do at a time. You can read about the limits for different countries here.

Despite the benefits of contactless, this is yet to catch on in Nigeria. Nevertheless, this has not stopped by banks from taking the bull by the horn. Over the last three years, United Bank for Africa has been giving out contactless cards by default to all customers. But with no places to use them, it has been an exercise in futility.

The challenges to using contactless in Nigeria are not as many as I previously thought though they are not trivial.

There are no playbooks for contactless payments in Nigeria. In other countries, the regulators always specify the rules that govern payments, including contactless. We have myriad of regulations for payments in Nigeria, but none is looking at how contactless should work

Risk acceptance in Nigeria is also a challenge. Abroad, banks trust that transactions done in offline mode will always be paid by the customers. And when cards are stolen, the banks will refund the customer the amount the thieves have done for offline payments. In Nigeria, banks don’t trust the customers to pay back, and the customers don’t trust their banks to make good of money stolen when contactless cards are lost. An impasse ensures.

There are hardly any shops in which you can use contactless cards. It’s one thing to have a contactless card; it’s another thing to have places you can use them. The 3 million UBA Mastercard cardholders taking their contactless cards around use them as decorations since they are no places to tap and go. This, however, creates a chicken and egg problem. Apart from UBA, no other bank is serious with contactless cards, so the market is small, so this makes other banks not to invest in contactless reader POS. Why buy POS that nobody would use.

Irrespective of the challenges of contactless cards acceptance and issuance, the immense benefits and its ability to transform payments and make cashless real means it makes sense to pursue its usage. And the market is there; in every bank, there are more cardholders than users of USSD and mobile apps.

Product managers can deal with the risk by getting customers to activate their contactless limits. And it could work this way. Cardholders will go to their banks’ ATMs, insert cards and select the options for the number of offline transactions and amount. The bank CBA will put that amount as a lien on their accounts. Each customer will be responsible for his settings, and if the card gets lost, well, it’s like your wallet getting lost with the cash you just got from the ATM. The benefits are apparent; banks reduce their liability while customers can set what they are comfortable with to get the benefits of faster checkouts.

Banks should have a strategic partnership with high-traffic merchants such as tolls and major supermarkets. These would be anchor merchants that can help drive the adoption of the usage. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words – nothing will convince anyone to adopt contactless faster than seeing it in action. And by the way, the merchants also enjoy contactless as they can handle customers more quickly during peak shopping periods.

With those two things in place, the last logical piece of the tripod legs would be a massive campaign to let customers know about contactless. Nigerians are very aspirational so getting a few A-listers and Nollywood stars to be the face of this would quickly turn tap-and-go into a must do for everyone.

When the ease of payment with cards is now better than actual counting of dirty Naira notes to make payments, we should be looking at annual transactions at least ten times more than the 2018 POS payments.

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