The challenge of digital micropayments in Mexico

In a recent post in the Celent Banking Blog entitled The Mobile RDC Cost-savings Myth, Bob Meara discusses the mirage of costs savings for banking thinking of introducing mobile payments alongside a well developed mulch-channel network. His argument is spot on, the cost of the transaction might be lower but there are also maintenance issues to be considered, activity cost in banking is the stuff of Alice in Wonderland and more important, potential savings might be small when considering that many have already been realized.

At the other side of the spectrum, however, are micro-finance institutions working in developing countries such as Mexico. So far many they have relied on staff as the main distribution channel. Mobile payments offer the possibilities of foregoing legacy investments and jumping the queue, sort to speak.


Thanks to a travel and subsistence grant from FUNDEF,with Gustavo del Angel and Enrique Cardenas, we have started to map the evolution of payment systems in Mexico. While on site, I was lucky to be invited to a field visit to see first hand operations from Banco Compartamos, a Mexican microfinance institution.

The day started early (kicking off at 0630 hrs) to travel in group to the nearby city of Cuernavaca. The sherpa for the day was Enrique Majos, Banco Compartamos CEO, together with his IT and PR directors. We were joined by two other directors at the site. These visits are a regular thing for Compartamos’ directors.

I was introduced to all the local staff members and took part in the daily debrief (a pilot scheme in which all team leaders report on their activities for the day and any issues from the previous day). All “colleagues” set off on to meet with their customers groups – along the lines of Gramin, Compartamos lends small amounts to individuals (chiefly self-employed women), who are part of co-sponsor groups.

During the meeting individuals bring their weekly repayment and make sure everyone has met their commitment. The “colleague” role is to inquire on the nature and state of the indiviudual’s business while also looking for cross selling opportunities. An “expert colleague” will establish good rapport with all/most the members of the group. If appropriate he/she will also hand deliver a certified cheque for any new loan.

Virtually all individuals will bring their weekly repayment in cash. The leader of the meeting will keep track (through a basic ledger and updating individual pass books manually). At the end of the meeting all repayments are then taken to be deposited in a nearby retail bank branch.

Repayment (cash is collected within the white box) - also evident on the table (Compartamos' staff in their distinctive pink shirts)

Repayment: cash is collected within the white box and is also evident on the table (Compartamos’ staff in their distinctive pink shirts)

Hence, Compartamos’ staff do not handle cash. Yet Compartamos has to rely on larger banks and a network of correspondents (such as a chain of convenience stores) to collect deposits and distribute loans. Most of these, in turn, will charge individual depositors onerous fees to provide their service. Like many other microfinance, the distribution channel is challenging growth and diversification.

Mobile payments are not the solution at present. For one, the service is highly unreliable outside of big cities and in some of the regions where Compartamos operates, there is no network cover at all. Second and most important, individuals who borrow from Compartamos work in a cash economy. Their business (such as market stalls, beauty products, or seasonal goods) is carried out in cash. Few have access to the Internet or a smart phone (yet all have a mobile).

A mobile branch (i.e. on the back of a bus or minivan) could provide some relief provided it is not a target of highjacking or highway robbery. The volume of individual business is not enough to justify deploying ATMs (let alone self-replenishing machines) in the most remote areas while other financial intermediaries discourage their use of ATM through punitive fees. The time is perhaps ripe for Compartamos and other microfinance come together in the deployment.

Cashless at the Royal Mint

A recent item in the BBC News website on the Royal Mint (below), found the apparent controversy that where money is actually made (well coins really), employees are not allowed to use them to purchase their food during lunch. This in turn let to a invitation to discuss the pros and cons of the cashless society.

Article: Made of money: The Royal Mint where cash is banned

Video: Is there a cashless society? Jon Sopel Interviews Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo (Global – @BBCNews) (6 min)

Back on track

Well it seems teaching is over and the Autumn term was too much for Dave and I to keep feeding this blog.

We also had a very interesting and thought provoking meeting at UC Irvine entitled “Payment Technologies: Past, Present and Future” (read an excellent summary by Irving Wladawsky-Berger&lt) and I also had a couple of presentations at industry conferences (I am serialising the summaries underCurrent issues in payments within the Light Blue Touchpaper blog).

So rather than boast about our travels, I wanted to restart our thoughts on cashlessness through a provocation and with the help of an apparently unrelated article that caught my attention. Entitled “How Memes Are Orchestrated by the Man“, Kevin Ashton of The Atlantic, tells a very detailed and well documented story of how commercial interest rather than a new Internet culture that which propelled the Harlem Shuffle to stardom. Interestingly, it says the meme died in February, but I still find big references to it, chief among them this one in the Mexican football classic a couple of days ago – and my football blind, eldest son immediately knew what this was about.

But what is relevant to this forum is the following extract:

Google regards clicks and views as a “currency,” and take pains to get the numbers right, but unlike most other mass media, its figures are not verified by anyone who does not profit from higher numbers.

and goes on to conclude

The technology may have changed, but the money still flows the same way: to creators of contracts not creators of content.

And that got me thinking of Jon Matonis and other supporters of cryptocurrencies (see for instance Bitcoin Prevents Monetary Tyranny) or mobile wallets for that matter. Why? Because more often than not, the proponents of digital payments are focusing their discussion on content and are naive of institutional change.

Myths and realities of the cashless society

People *think* that technology moves fast and culture moves slowly. I mean, the Rolling Stones are still one of the world’s most popular bands, right? But that’s not always true. If you look at futurists’ takes from the middle of the last century, their biggest misses were not just technological (jetpacks instead of iPhones) but cultural .. [such as failing to] anticipate the rise of the natural and organic food movements. Alexis C. Madrigal – The Atlantic

A panel named as above took place at the European Business History Association annual conference (#ebha2012) in Paris (August 30th to 1st September, 2012). The panel was chaired by Carles Maixe (@carlesmaixe) from University of La Coruña (Spain), who introduced the audience to the authors as well as the idea behind this blog/forum. A common theme was looking at the practical implications of delivering on the idea of a cashless society by not for profit deposit taking financial institutions.

The panel was composed of:

The comments by Mark Billings (Exeter, UK) and the discussion that ensued included contributions from of Patrice Beaubeau (Paris Ouest Nanterre, France), Steve Toms (Leeds, UK), Chris Colvin (Queens Belfast, UK) and Osamu Uda (Nihon, Japan), among others. Points raised included (included, in no particular order):

  • This panel and indeed a good attendance, reflects a growing literature and interest to look at the impact of technology in financial services from an historical perspective, which is challenged to provide a true comparative history of automation (rather than individual case studies sitting side by side).
  • For the foreseable future we are likely to talk about “the less cash society” (see recent article in Gadget Lab — about generalise mobile payments needed at least another 10 years).
  • There is a need to look at the impact of cashless (and indeed deeper analysis of ATMs) into bank employees and banking practices.
  • Provide a comprehensive survey of how the idea of a cashless society has been dealt with, at least conceptually (including contributions to economics, social costs of different payments, anthropology, etc).
  • It is still not clear the importance of differences in the institutional setting to promote financial inclusion and aid (or hamper) a cashless society.
  • The 1960s sees the birth of the modern monetary economy, which in large part is based on applications of computer technology.
  • The discussion on the cashless society (and particularly contemporary narratives) tends to emphasise the artifacts (such as mobile phones or chips) as opposed to what is money and its economic and social uses.

The discussion continued during the evening (see photo below). An idea here emerged following last week’s post on transparency, as it was considered that surcharges on cash withdrawals were similar to a regressive tax: a fixed value regardless of amount withdrawn is more punitive on lower income individuals as the total payment of surcharging fees is a greater proportion of their income than for high-income individuals. An empirical issue is which of the two groups observes greater frequency of withdrawals and keeps a higher balance of cash and coins. Gustavo del Angel baptised this effect as “feeding the gander”, in a loose symil to the large tubes commonly used in the creation of fois gra, replicating the payments pipeline giving no option but to “eat” the surcharge.

(L 2 R): Gustavo del Angel, Carles Maixé-Altés and Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo, Paris (Sep, 2012)