January 2017 remained a very important month for smartphone users in Nepal, mainly for two big reasons. First, the iPhone was celebrating its tenth anniversary and the second, Nepal Telecom (NT) was launchingLTE-based 4G services for its postpaid GSM users in Kathmandu and Pokhara effective from day one of this year.
When late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs first unveiled iPhone to the public at Macworld Convention on January 9, 2009; most of the senior Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, including former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, suspected that it would have substantial impact on people’s lives.However, in just one decade iPhone has revolutionised the way people live globally. It transformed a traditional communication device into a real “smart-phone”with sophisticated user interface, easy connectivity, rich app store and took the concept of mobile computing to next level with unlimited potential. Enhanced security features, user-targeted and user developed multimedia rich content and alternative ways of doing things that were traditionally less effective changed people’s way of thinking and acting. These developments have changed the way we communicate online thus affecting most aspects of our lives. In 2016, of an estimated 4.61 billion mobile phone users globally, about 2.1 billion users were thought to have been using smartphones and the latter trend is peaking significantly, especially in emerging economies like Nepal.
While there were less than 50 internet users in Nepal in 1995, the year 2016 saw that number increased to over 30 million according to the mid-September 2016 Management Information System report by Nepal Telecommunication Authority with country’s mobile phone and Internet penetration rates now standing at 116.59 % and 54% respectively. Though mobile phone ownership rate in urban areas is higher by about 15 % than in rural areas, the latter parts of the country are expected to see considerable growth in the near future with improved network coverage and expansion of service facilities. With the recently introduced fourth-generation wireless facilities, eligible NT users now can browse Internet at a peak data rate of 32.4 mbps and if used properly it can help them to significantly enhance their personal and professional development. As NT plans to qualify its prepaid subscribers to use 4G networks towards the second half of the year, the anticipated overall positive impact of mobile computing on lives of Nepalis are quite exciting and most of these would take place in rural Nepal where more than 80% people live.
Globally, mobile computing has been helping emerging economies to minimise the digital divide and facilitate a variety of public and private services in money and banking, education, health, transportation, agriculture, tourism and governance sectors in rural and urban areas alike. However, in the context of Nepal, I see huge potential of leveraging emerging technology in order to increase people’s access to finance, especially in the rural parts of the country, given geographical distribution of the country’s population, their current and potential smartphones subscription patterns and projections, annual incomes, literacy rate and underlying difficulties and high transaction costs for opening branches of banks and financial institutions (BFIs) in these regions.
Finance is at the center of the development process. A 2008 World Bank study has outlined that access to finance with an inclusive, efficient and well-functioning financial system leads to steady economic growth through improvement in opportunities and balanced income distribution and poverty reduction. Access to finance, in simple terms, is the ability of individuals or enterprises to receive financial services, including credit, deposit, payment, insurance and other risk management services. Indicators of whether individuals have bank accounts, use banks as their primary financial institutions and can reach financial institutions by foot are used to measure the extent of access.
According to Nepal Rastra Bank, 61 % Nepali adults have access to formal financial services. In recent years, there has been a surge in the network of banks and financial institutions in the country. However, 18 % adults still do not have access to financial services. As of mid-June 2016, there were 4,219 branches of 182 BFIs in the country and population per branch of financial institution stood at 6,647 national average. In some parts of rural Nepal, this figure remained at 72,026. I see a potential injection of mobile computing in order to minimise the existing inequality among ‘banked’, ‘under banked’ and ‘unbanked’ Nepalis at reasonable costs.
Since the last decade there have been many discourses about and experiments on mobile phone’s potential impact on the financial industry. According to the Global Mobile Systems Association (GMSA), in 2015, people in 93 countries made 33 million daily transactions through 271 mobile money service providers. With these developments, mobile money has been changing the overall financial landscape – in 2015, 37 mobile money markets had ten times more registered agents than bank branches and the total number of registered customer accounts increased by 31 percent and reached 411 million globally. Sub-Saharan Africa still dominates mobile money market with Kenya leading the way in harnessing mobile phone technology in financial services. For example, M-Pesa was the first mobile money transfer service in Kenya. Run by Safaricom, a Kenyan mobile-phone operator, M-Pesa was launched in 2007 for basic money transfer and financial services and has now transformed overall economic interaction of the Kenyans. In 2013, this platform witnessed 237 million P2P transactions amounting 43 percent of the country’s GDP. Currently, M-Pesa has became an integral part of the local daily lives as it allows people to accomplish an array of banking services including money deposit and withdrawal, remittance transfer, utility bills payment and microcredit provisions.In less than a decade, it has extended financial inclusion for an additional 20 million Kenyans and helped to create thousands of other small enterprises. Between 2008 and 2011, Kenyan mobile money services users living under $1.25 increased from 20 percent to 72 percent. After promising accomplishments in Kenya, M-Pesa later expanded its services to nine additional countries in South Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. In addition to M-Pesa, FNB Connect and WIZZIT in South Africa, GTEasy Savers in Nigeria, Smart Money and GCASH in the Philippines, bKash in Bangladesh and EasyPaisa in Pakistan are some of the other successful mobile money service providers.
With the unprecedented innovations in mobile phones and related technologies in the recent decade, globally, more people now own real smartphones and these new devices are getting cheaper with the Internet too becoming easily accessible at lower cost. A 2014 study by GMSA has anticipated that smartphone features would allow every mobile money service provider to ameliorate the quality of its services through introduction of suitable apps, improved user interfaces, and enhanced functionalities. These features would also potentially ease adoption and usage by giving more intuitive customer experiences. Thus, the overall impact of mobile money services on people’s lives is certain to become even more evident in the future.
These successful experiences from different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and South Asia accompanied by available futuristic smartphones in the Nepali market that also can exploit NT’s 4G services, provide sufficient room for the country’s public and private mobile phone operators to work on utilising technologies to break the barrier among ‘banked’, ‘under banked’ and ‘unbanked’.
Jaya Jung Mahat, an alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is a Kathmandu-based public policy researcher. He writes extensively on issues that connect economics, politics and innovation. He can be reached at email@example.com