Mobile payment platforms, like M-Pesa in Kenya, have turned mobile devices into transactional tools and are now used by over one billion people globally. In Kenya alone, M-Pesa transactions amounted to nearly half of the country’s GDP in 2018 while EcoCash transacted close to 90% of Zimbabwe’s GDP in 2019. In China, Alipay and WeChatPay, the most popular socialised payment services, counted more than 1.7 billion users in 2019. Everywhere around the world, people have been able to access much needed financial services thanks to fintech innovations.
As it turns out, the benefits of fintech extend well beyond financial inclusion. For example, fintechs have played a key role during the coronavirus pandemic, with e-commerce platforms enabling hundreds of millions of people in lockdown to buy essentials online, payment platforms channeling trillions of dollars of stimulus packages in cash transfers, and algorithmic lending facilitating financial support to small- and medium-sized business.
Furthermore, fintechs have been instrumental in unlocking access to high-cost utilities and infrastructure in both developed and developing economies, from pay-as-you-go models driving access to clean-energy through more affordable solar home systems across Africa, through to rent-to-own approaches allowing farmers in Asia to use and eventually acquire expensive agricultural equipment. Fintech innovations have also enabled Bangladeshi and Kenyan citizens to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects and have facilitated sharing economy models that are transforming the way we all think about mobility and manage office space.
But perhaps most importantly, it is in the area of climate and biodiversity that fintechs are yet to have their most significant impact. Awareness around the climate crisis and natural capital loss has dramatically increased in recent years and has triggered a broad range of institutional and policy developments, along with market innovations. While the Covid pandemic has taken centre stage in the short-term, the more fundamental crisis facing mankind has not lessened and will require all the ingenuity, knowledge, and resources that we collectively possess if we are to prevail as a species.
Current trends are pointing to the fact that fintechs are already playing an important role in protecting our environment: it would indeed be impossible to have $1 trillion of green bonds — which are bonds created to fund projects that have positive environmental and climate benefits — without fintech-enabled real-time data flows on use of proceeds. Carbon markets, which aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, would not exist without underlying digital infrastructure and fintech products.
In addition, emerging innovations in the digitalization of assets are increasingly facilitating citizen participation in climate adaptation and mitigation. For example, digital assets such as Cedar Coin and Carbon Coin are enabling individuals to contribute to reforestation and conservation efforts. And Forest, a flagship product developed by Alibaba’s Ant Group in China, has advanced a gamified approach to citizen engagement around virtual tree planting, which is matched with actual trees being planted in real life. Within two years, the platform has mobilised 500 million users and resulted in 200 million trees being planted.
These are just a few examples of what is possible today. One could easily imagine a world in which fintech innovations could support the greater good and help us overcome our most pressing challenges. Whether that happens is largely a matter of choice, incentives, and good governance.
Digital literacy is becoming increasingly important in our technology-driven world. To learn more about the developments shaping our future, and how to prepare for these, visit our collection of Digital Awareness articles on The Ismaili.