Visa buying Interswitch would upturn Mastercard’s game

In December 2010, Helios Investment Partners led an acquisition of a majority interest in what is now Africa’s first fintech unicorn – Interswitch. A decade later, Visa’s $200M funding confirms the hope of every investor in the first 10-12 years of their investment, an exit – Initial Price Offering (IPO) in this instance. What is more interesting is that Visa has been strategically acquiring fintech assets over the last few years and now has investments in 3 of the top fintechs in  Nigeria – Flutterwave, Paystack, and Interswitch. 

However, this strategy could go in more interesting ways and not always how you expect. I promise I’m not a conspiracy theorist – stay with me. 

Interswitch’s market dominance in Nigeria is nearly impregnable. Visa on the other hand, despite being a global leader, continues to play third fiddle in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest market. A little bit of history; Visa allegedly used to own 40% of ValuCard, now Unified Payments Services Limited (UPSL) but exited the company in 2012. At the nascent age of card payments in Nigeria, Visa was the dominant Chip and PIN card and the Visa Electron, its flagship. Card payments were quite unstable and domiciliary accounts were non-negotiable if you wanted to shop abroad with your debit card. The credit card was unheard of and even when they called some credit cards, they were 100% cash-backed. Talk of absurdities.

Enter Mastercard. 

While Visa card users were struggling, Mastercard swept into Nigeria and partnered with GTBank and Interswitch to launch the Naira Mastercard. Before anyone could say Jack Robinson, other banks had jumped on the train and Mastercard was crowned the Nigerian King of Cards. Overnight, everyone could shop abroad without hustling for FX; the pain of online payments became a thing of the past; banks earned revenue like bandits. The Mastercard international game was so profitable it accounted for 75% or more of profits declared by digital banking teams. 

Fast forward to the present day. 

Of the 60m cards in Nigeria, Mastercard is about ~43% of the lot while  Verve accounts for ~45%. The rest are Visa cards. Interswitch is a big player in this space, I mean, you can’t be worth $1B if you are playing around. They drive 100% of Verve transactions, about 25% of Visa and 95% of Mastercard. 

But what would happen if the dynamics change? What if Visa’s $200M investment in Interswitch leads to further investments before or after the IPO that then makes Visa the majority equity holder in Interswitch? 

If and when that happens

A  number of things could significantly change the face of payments in Nigeria. For starters, Verve cards would be accepted globally on the Visa network, suddenly giving the brand the legs it has tried to have for the last 9 years. Visa would probably convert all Verve cards to Visa, immediately putting Mastercard and Visa percentages at par. 

Should this happen, Mastercard will not siddon look, after all, they did not come to Nigeria to count bridges. It would be extremely unstrategic to let your biggest global competitor carry 95% of your traffic in the largest market on the last frontier.

What then could Mastercard do? 

The folks at Mastercard are probably thinking about the same thing. At this stage, it’s best to rapidly de-risk transaction transport. The alternative would be to back another switch and/or processor in Nigeria. Unfortunately, Paystack and Flutterwave cannot help with this; as sexy as they are, they are just Payments Services Providers. The game to become switches isn’t for the faint-hearted and it takes a gazillion years to connect a switch to every bank. If Mastercard decides to hit the ground running, they could acquire an existing switch or processor that is connected to every bank and is able and certified to carry Mastercard traffic. That leaves just Network International (NI), Etranzact, and 23-year-old Unified Payments in play. 

Mastercard already owns 10% of NI, which processes most of the credit cards in Nigeria. Using NI remains a viable option to drive Mastercard traffic in Nigeria but I’m not sure that NI as a company has what it takes to play the Nigerian game; it has been struggling for a piece of the pie for years and Mastercard’s 10% isn’t enough to give it the teeth it needs to take a good bite out of the chunk. Etranzact, on the other hand, is listed with a public valuation which makes acquisition easier and more transparent. They also have about 5 licenses covering processing, mobile money, etc.

United Payments might be an old workhorse but has previously processed Mastercard for Access Bank. The company also has a rich set of licenses to play toe-to-toe with Interswitch (Visa) and is currently the largest processor of Visa transactions in Nigeria. 

Should this sequence of events occur, there is no telling how regulators will react; the Okada ban has taught us this. While they love competition, they have always supported local standards like NIP and Verve. Mastercard and Visa going toe to toe further solidify a duopoly of global card giants in Nigeria. This does not mean it won’t be approved however both companies will likely come under increased scrutiny.

Banks so far haven’t liked dominant players as they create imbalance and stifle innovation and pricing. Visa and Mastercard will be caught in the middle trying to please banks. I expect Mastercard to win this round as they already have a history of understanding bank needs and creating the right alignments with incentives and programs. Or how do you think they won the market?

The fintech ecosystem will develop as both Visa and Mastercard would bend over backward to win players over. As usual, they will naturally be drawn to the card network with the more receptive team and better terms of engagement and Mastercard must remain this. 

While the Interswitch play looks interesting, and a Mastercard could buy either of UPSL or Etranzact, the three targets lack a good API play which is dominated by the duo of Flutterwave and Paystack. Knowing that API is the next big thing in payments and banking, the next contention would be to shore up the traditional ISO play by acquiring any of these as an icing on the cake. How this would play out would be an interesting game to watch. Pass me the popcorn. Visa and Mastercard are both investors in Flutterwave while the former has a stake in Paystack as well. Knowing how VIsa throws cash around, I wouldn’t be surprised if it buys both of them, mash them together, and layer them like fondants on Interswitch. 

But then, for all we know, nothing may happen beyond this investment.