By Ashley Immanuel
On Monday morning, hundreds of employees at Nigeria’s leading banks woke up, bathed, brushed their teeth, and put on their business attire. They trimmed their beards and applied makeup. Then they sat down in front of their computers, switched on their webcams, and reported for work.
Despite Lagos’ notorious traffic, banks and other financial service providers in the nation’s largest city typically require employees to come to the office daily. They are now scrambling to figure out how to cope in a world in which both employees and customers are sequestered at home. Unaccustomed to cultures of remote work, some banks want to see staff suited and booted and reporting on camera by 8 am. However, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic will require the Nigerian financial sector to work differently, both during the immediate crisis and in the longer term.
In the immediate term, innovation will need to focus on survival. Nigerians will need more credit when their income is interrupted, yet they may also struggle to repay those loans until regular economic activity resumes. Some financial institutions, such as microfinance banks, may be put at risk if customers are unable to repay loans for a period. Some measures, such as the Central Bank of Nigeria’s N50 billion Targeted Credit Facility, are being introduced to help bridge the gap.
Some financial service providers have responded by reducing fees and finding other ways to support customers. EFInA had provided grant funding to a FinTech called Riby to expand access to financial services via cooperatives. In the wake of COVID-19, Riby is planning to provide a one-month moratorium on loan repayments for customers and to use its existing network of agents and customers to provide last-mile delivery of donated money and goods to households in need.
The crisis may also act as a catalyst for certain digital services. Nigeria is home to several digital platforms, including e-commerce sites such as Jumia, some of which may see a boost in business as markets and restaurants close. Some governments are encouraging the use of mobile money in order to reduce the risk of transmitting disease through handling cash. As inter-state movement becomes restricted and bank branches close, mobile money could also become a more attractive option for sending money to family or friends.
Longer-term, we run the risk of more Nigerians becoming financially excluded as a result of this crisis, at the exact moment when they as individuals and the overall economy would need their participation the most. Global evidence suggests that access to financial services can help households weather financial shocks and can contribute to economic growth. Yet the EFInA Access to Financial Services in Nigeria Surveys found that financial inclusion dipped following the last recession. Companies that can innovate and extend low-cost, digitally-enabled services to the Nigerian mass market will have an enviable customer base when the economy recovers. Building this business case will require support from regulators, including evaluating regulations on fees and pricing to help financial service providers reach low-income customers profitably.
Over the past decade, Nigeria has fallen behind several other African countries in terms of financial inclusion, as mobile money has taken off in those markets but remained low in Nigeria (only 3% of Nigerian adults used mobile money in 2018). EFInA’s research indicates that the newly established category of Payment Service Banks has the potential to drive financial inclusion, including in underserved areas. Accelerating the deployment of Payment Service Banks may be one of the most efficient ways to expand financial access following the COVID-19 pandemic and set the “digital rails” that Nigerians can use to access other services that will improve their lives, such as pay-as-you-go solar solutions.
In some ways, this pandemic can provide perspective about other crises, current, and future. As of the date of writing, there have been approximately 30,000 deaths globally from COVID-19. Each year, approximately 1 million children die in Nigeria alone, mostly from preventable illnesses. COVID-19 is reminding us of what we already knew: we need to urgently invest in access to healthcare for all Nigerians.
Microinsurance is one way to expand access to healthcare. The EFInA Access to Financial Services in Nigeria 2018 Survey found that less than 2% of Nigerian adults have insurance. However, 31 million Nigerian adults said that they would be interested in microinsurance, 20 million of whom own mobile phones.
Last, COVID-19 can force us to face future crises. For years, we heard warnings that we would be unprepared for the next global pandemic; now it is upon us, and we are unprepared. Perhaps this will be a wake-up call to take other global threats seriously, particularly given that some climate experts expect Lagos to be underwater by the end of this century if we do not act quickly. The financial sector can innovate to support more climate-friendly initiatives; one example is the recent issuance of green bonds in Nigeria, which provide an opportunity to attract foreign and domestic investment for environmentally friendly projects.
In Nigeria, we have 200 million people. We have rural areas and large cities, teeming with people and entrepreneurs. We now have COVID-19.
We have uncertainty. We have an opportunity With restrictions on movement, we have time to sit quietly, to reflect, to think.
We need ideas!