Innovations in digital technology have created new and exciting opportunities to reach unbanked and underbanked low-income customers in emerging markets as well as developed countries. Traditionally, these customer segments have been considered too risky and too poor to be of interest to banks and insurance companies. Mobile wallets and mobile money transfers, peer-to-peer and other alternative lending platforms, pay-as-you-go asset finance and digital micro-credit are examples of recent innovations that are reaching hundreds of millions of consumers and small businesses. These innovations are radically changing the financial services landscape around the globe.
While the opportunities have increased, so too have the risks surrounding digital financial services for investors, investees, customers and wider digital ecosystems across markets and regions. An example is the rapid growth of digital lending products, some of which carry risks of overpricing and over-lending to customers. One factor that is holding back investors in inclusive digital financial services is the lack of a framework to help them evaluate these risks. In a world where the old rules are being rewritten daily, it can be hard to know where best to invest your time, energy and money.
Recognizing this, over 50 leading organizations have joined up to develop a set of guidelines for investors who are interested in funding inclusive digital financial services in a responsible way. How these organizations define and handle the issues facing the fintech industry will enable the investor community to better identify new opportunities and manage investment risks.
The resulting Guidelines for Investing in Responsible Digital Financial Services comprise 10 touchpoints that financial investors and their fintech investees can use to evaluate opportunities, mitigate risks and contribute to a more responsible and inclusive digital finance ecosystem. These include promoting fair and transparent pricing and better disclosure of terms and conditions for customers, preventing people taking on more debt than they can comfortably manage, increasing their financial literacy, establishing customer identity, data privacy and security standards, fostering a proportionate legal and regulatory framework, and enabling the interoperability of digital financial services.
The guidelines will enable investors and their fintech investee companies offer new financial services to millions of consumers by helping them recognize the opportunities and points to consider and mitigate risks. Any investment organization can subscribe to the guidelines and join the community of investors. All they are asked to do in return is to use them as the basis for due diligence and monitoring of their fintech investments, and to share new insights with their fellow investors as the fintech revolution spreads across the globe. “The guidelines are just that – guidelines,” says Martin Holtmann, Head of Digital Finance and Microfinance at IFC, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group and one of the co-founders of the Guidelines. “They are not new rules or regulations, not a law, not red tape. They are a voluntary framework that organizations can sign up to and use as guidance when they invest in responsible digital financial services. The guidelines will benefit digital financial service providers and their customers by helping investors to better evaluate and manage risks associated with digital transformation and digitalization.”
“By teaming up with other leading investors, we want to create a community of practice around responsible fintech that will give more low-income customers easier access to better and more affordable financial products,” says Wim van der Beek, managing partner of emerging markets private equity firm Goodwell Investments, also a co-founder of the Guidelines. “As an active investor in digital financial inclusion, we saw a growing need in the marketplace for a framework that could support investors and operators in building sustainable and trustworthy products and services. We’re proud that so many investors have joined us in our efforts to develop the guidelines that we are launching today.”
“From the Netherland’s perspective we like to compliment Goodwell, IFC and the other investors for initiating these guidelines,” says Hans Docter, director of the Department for Sustainable Economic Development at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “In the financial inclusion agenda, the developments in digital financial services are very promising. These Guidelines address the issue of awareness and protection of the vulnerable clients at the source of capital, being the investors in these digital technologies.”
“We are very pleased to see that so many fellow public and private investors, lenders as well as equity investors, are subscribing to these Guidelines,” says Christiane Laibach, member of the Managing Board of DEG, the German development finance institution, another co-founding signatory. “They aim to streamline the growing digital financial service sector and to support service providers and investors with professional guidance to prevent abuse of inexperienced consumers. The guidelines will help investors and operators build and sustain customer trust and continuously improve the design and delivery of products and services.”
“We are realising the need to be more focused on the customer in the financial services sector,” adds Maria Largey, Director & Head of Financial Institutions team at the UK’s development finance institution CDC Group, also a co-founding signatory. “We, as investors, have a responsibility to ensure that our investees’ customers do not fall through the cracks or are inadvertently put at risk. The Guidelines help us to assume that responsibility in a practical way and encourage our investees to do the same.”
The guidelines were launched on Wednesday, June 20, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, at the CONNECTING THE DOTS conference organized by Goodwell Investments in partnership with IFC, DEG, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and with support from CDC. The launch is the first of a series of engagements to further broaden the outreach to strategic partners as signatories, and to build a critical mass of investors and innovators committed to accelerating responsible investments in digital financial services.
The industry event focuses on the many investment opportunities offered by responsible digital financial inclusion and innovations. It brings together leading investors, sector leaders, tech entrepreneurs, bankers, digital lenders and industry experts to exchange innovative ideas and share proven solutions to the issues facing digital financial services today.
The programme reflects the broad range of stakeholders who are leading the development of inclusive digital financial ecosystems. Speakers include: pioneering entrepreneur Michael Joseph, founding CEO of Safaricom and pioneer of Kenyan mobile payment system MPesa, which is used by 75% of Kenyan adults; Tayo Oviosu, founder and CEO of Paga, Africa’s largest independent digital banking platform; Dare Okoudjou, CEO and founder of mobile money hub MFS Africa that connects 170 million mobile wallets across Africa; Jocelyn Cheng of social investor Global Innovation Fund, Abhimanyu Munjal, CEO of Hero FinCorp, Isabelle Barrès of the Smart Campaign, the world’s first industry-led financial consumer protection standard, Michael Fiebig of ResponsAbility, Zhiying Liao of Shanghai’s F-Road and many other representatives of the co-founding signatories.
In a message to the conference, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development (UNSGSA), underlined its importance: “As investors, many of you share the view that digital finance is uniquely positioned to bring financial inclusion to millions of people, creating powerful opportunities to improve access, usage, and customer-centricity. Yet the evolution of digital finance comes with risks for both customers and the financial system.
The launch of the Guidelines for Investing in Responsible Digital Financial Services provides an excellent starting point to address and mitigate these risks. Looking forward, I encourage you to build on your momentum, expanding your consultation with investors beyond development institutions and impact investors and implementing time-bound action plans. With the rapid pace of innovation, new risks will arise. It is critical to ensure that the Guidelines are a living document that is continually adapted to our changing landscape.
This launch is the beginning of a journey, not the destination. I look forward to supporting your efforts to build a more responsible and inclusive future for digital finance.”