The importance of Islamic financing

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation – out of the 260 million people living in the country, 87 percent identify as Muslim. But the country remains a laggard when it comes to developing a robust finance industry.

One of the factors contributing to the slow growth of inclusive economic development is lack of Islamic financing.

What is Islamic finance and how does it differ from conventional practices?

The main difference between Islamic and conventional finance is the treatment of risk, and how risk is shared. In a conventional loan, the financier has a contractual right to receive interest (and capital repayment) irrespective of the condition of the borrowers’ business.

The main principles of Islamic Finance is the avoidance of all haram (harmful) activities such as charging interest. Islamic financial institutions must ensure that ambiguity (gharar) or gambling/speculation (maysair) is minimised in transactions and contracts. Complying with Shariah law also means these Institutions are not permitted to invest in alcohol, pork, pornography or gambling. – Financial Times

Promoting risk-sharing instead of debt-financing, reduces poverty and inequalities, which are the necessary objectives that need to be addressed by economic development policy makers. – Journal of Business & Financial Affairs

Indonesia has long been a contestant to become a global hub for Islamic financing, and created a road map for its development since 2017. The government believes Islamic finance will be an engine of stability and drive financial inclusion. Both Muslims and non-Muslims can benefit from Islamic Finance as it aims, by principle, to be a more transparent system of finance.

The risk-sharing features in Islamic financings also help ensure the soundness of individual financial institutions and discourage the types of lending booms and real estate bubbles commonly seen as precursors to the global financial crisis.

By focusing on asset-backed and shared-risk principles, Islamic financing has the potential to persuade more financing by small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to kick start their businesses. With so many beneficial qualities, it seems strange Islamic financing isn’t more widespread in the country, why is that? Without the right financial literacy, people are reluctant to shift from conventional financing.

Lack of Islamic finance in Indonesia

The establishment of Islamic banks in Indonesia 25 years ago is considered late compared to other Muslim-majority countries such as the Philippines (in 1973) and Malaysia (in 1983).

Indonesian authorities were reluctant to support it for a long time because the country was colonized by Dutch adopted Western-led financial institutions that dominated international finance since the end of World War II.
But after the global financial crisis in 1998, Indonesia was keen to find alternatives to broaden its financial base and better protect itself from global financial shock.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) put together the National Committee for Sharia Finance (KNKS) in 2017 to boost Islamic finance and tackle the challenges surrounding Shariah banking in the country.

And while Shariah banking assets continued to increase in 2017, amounting to IDR 435 trillion (US$32.2 billion), or about 5.8 percent of total assets of Indonesian banks – up from 4.83 percent in 2015 – it was still small compared to Saudi Arabia’s 51.1 percent, Malaysia’s 23.8 percent, and the United Arab Emirates’ 19.6 percent.

The adoption of Islamic finance is also in line with government initiatives working to address barriers to SME growth, such as limited access to finance, which is frequently cited as a problem for smaller firms that lack sufficient collateral for loans.

In the last five years, SMEs have played a large role in Indonesia’s economic structure. Last year, SMEs accounted for 60.3 percent of the total GDP from 57.84 percent in 2012.The Governor of Bank Indonesia Agus Martowardojo hopes the role of SMEs to GDP can increase to 70 percent by this year.

A new early stage fintech startup hopes to help the government achieve their ambitious goal. Ex-bankers and friends Bembi Juniar, Dima Djani, and Harza Sandityo created Alami to boost Shariah financing and focus on educating SMEs about its benefits.

“Alami is a technology company that aims to facilitate small businesses to obtain Islamic financing from banks. It will accommodate Shariah financing, filter and provide accurate ratings for prospective borrowers and facilitate communication between banks and prospective borrowers,” explains Dima.

“I hope through the technological advancement that we offer, we will speed up Shariah banking processes and increase efficiently by at least 50 percent.”

Popularising Islamic-based finance in an unbanked country

Alami was founded in December 2017 and was the runner-up start up in the INSEAD Venture Competition held in Singapore and Paris. The company has raised at least US$100,000 in pre-seed funding round from undisclosed angel investors.

Bembi Juniar, Dima Djani, and Harza Sandityo the founders of Alami Shariah

Dima Djani, one of the founders of Alami, shares with ecommerceIQ that the lack of infrastructure, lack of support from key opinion leaders, and lack of education on Shariah finance are main roadblocks to the country’s slow adoption of Islamic financing.

“People don’t learn about this at school, and we believe technology is needed to spread the benefits of Shariah finance,” says Dima.

“Me and two other founders are young professionals with banking backgrounds. We create technology to simplify the loan process for SMEs to get financing and for bankers to easily focus on SMEs,” says Dima.

“Fintech is a strategic opportunity for Shariah finances to expand their market segment,” Financial Service Authority chief Wimboh Santoso said as quoted on CNN Indonesia.

The startup positions itself as a strategic partner to the few existing Islamic banks, not as a direct competitor and has already partnered with three prominent Islamic financial institutions: BNI Syariah, Bank Mega Syariah and Jamkrindo Syariah, with a total transaction value of IDR 9 billion and IDR 50 billion.

“The most common deals SMEs need money for is working capital to expand, either through trade finance or plain working capital financing and they are coming from the chemical and construction industries,” shares Dima.

How does Alami services work?

There are two simple steps SMEs need to follow to use Alami’s service:

  1. .SMEs register and fill out a form on Alami’s website – data to be shared includes corporate and some historical financial information
  2. The system assigns a rating indicating the SMEs risk and matches the business to Alami’s bank partners

According to Dima, Alami is an abbreviation of Alif-Laam-Meem, the first sentence of the second Surah or chapter of the Al-Quran (the meaning which only God knows according to Muslims).

But philosophically for Dima and his two other founders, Alami means to motor Islamic finance 2.0 in Indonesia.

“We see Alami as the second chapter trying to improve the Islamic finance sector in Indonesia through technology, creating value for our partners and being a unique Islamic-based fintech startup,” Dima elaborates.

“It is thought that wealth should be created through legitimate trade in assets,” – Dima, co-founder of Alamai

In Indonesia, there are other Shariah-based financing platform such as Cermati and CekAja, but these platforms focus on individual loans, not on SME financing.

What’s next for Islamic financing in Indonesia?

The startup announced its collaboration with Kapital Boost, the Singapore-based Shariah-compliant crowdfunding platform for SMEs to address the lack of financing available to SMEs in Indonesia earlier this year.

Under the partnership, Alami will leverage its SME network in Indonesia to direct businesses to Kapital Boost, who will facilitate fundraising and financing from global investors.

“We believe SMEs are a huge economic contributor for Indonesia and by helping them to grow, we are impacting positively on Indonesia’s economy,” shares Dima. “That’s our aim.”

“Our plan is to be one stop solution for Shariah finance in Indonesia, we are committed to popularizing Islamic finance in Indonesia and work hard to create easy to use technology for both SMEs and our bank partners,” says Dima.

When Singaporeans shop online, they tend to buy products sourced from outside the lion state.

Overall, it’s estimated that 55% of all ecommerce transactions in Singapore are cross-border – meaning the items were listed on etailers in the US or China, for example – and then shipped to their eventual destination.

The statistic is higher than corresponding figures for cross-border online trade in Japan, South Korea, and China.

This is undoubtedly strengthened by the fact that the overwhelming majority of ecommerce purchases in Singapore are prepaid with credit card and Singaporean consumers are exempt from GST and import duties as long as the total value of their order is below S$400.

Singapore is also a high-income country, meaning residents can afford to splurge, while also bereft of the same logistical challenges that stymie higher adoption of ecommerce in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. Next-day delivery is the norm.

In 2016, the World Bank declared Singapore the fourth-best country for logistics infrastructure in the world noting it’s an important hub for regional and world trade, located conveniently in the heart of major shipping lanes.

There are other factors at play, too. Amazon and Singpost have a collaboration to facilitate the delivery of overseas purchases within three days – roughly the average time it takes to deliver a domestic order in Indonesia.

Despite the fantasized utopia of a truly open world economy – a scenario where goods and services can move unhindered to where demand is – the reality is that cross-border flows still involve a great deal of friction.

Cutting down cross-border fees for Singaporeans

The first problem is that there’s a high degree of financial inefficiency, with banks and payment processors trying to capitalize on arbitrage opportunities to bump up their own bottom line. Foreign exchange rates also work against consumer interest with banks routinely charging far more than official rates. And lastly, consumers are simply unaware of the available discounts and promotions that may be applicable to their purchase.

Jake Goh, CEO of RateX.

“Consumers are still paying unnecessary fees when they shop online, e.g. they pay 2%-5% in transaction fees on top of the price of the goods they purchase due to the frictions in existing payment networks,” explains Jake Goh, CEO and co-founder of RateX, a Singaporean payments startup that’s trying to iron out these inefficiencies and level the playing field.

RateX, which recently raised a US$2.3 million pre-series A funding round, has built a free browser extension – currently available on Chrome and Firefox – where users can get the lowest exchange rates for overseas purchases on Amazon and Taobao.

The extension also aggregates coupon codes, applying it directly to applicable sales. It leverages partnerships with Sephora, Zalora, ASOS, and more.

The extension is currently only available for consumers in Singapore, but the team expects to add Taiwan and Indonesia to its roster later this year. The long-term goal like most companies is to dominate the region.

“Southeast Asia is the world’s fastest-growing internet market. Gross merchandise value of ecommerce will rise to US$65.5 billion by 2021, up from US$14.3 billion in 2016,” outlines Jake referring to a study by Frost & Sullivan.

Jake claims RateX has helped shoppers save S$500,000 in both foreign exchange conversion fees and coupon codes since launch. He adds that they’re expanding at 30% month-on-month but doesn’t specify whether that’s in terms of users or transaction value.

A cursory examination of the website reveals the number to be actually S200,000 though.

Leveraging blockchain

The founder accepts that while the ultimate goal is to simplify cross-border commerce for all of Southeast Asia, a key hurdle the company faces is siloed infrastructure when it comes to payment and settlement mechanisms. There are significant overheads and fees involved when dealing with multiple currencies and paying merchants in different countries.

So what’s the solution to this problem? Jake believes blockchain can minimize the intermediaries involved in cross-border settlements. The team’s already working on the Rate3 token – a proprietary payment network built on top of the Stellar horizon platform that specifically looks to solve problems in fintech.

“This significantly reduces the risk and fees associated with different banks in various countries […] RateX eventually leverages on [it’s] own payment network to scale in a much more efficient way compared to existing methods,” explains Jake.

The eventual aim is for the Rate3 token to be used pervasively across the ecommerce ecosystem, bridging together shoppers, merchants, 3PLs, wholesalers, and manufacturers.

“We believe that blockchain technologies are key to creating this [enabling network],” affirms Jake.

The key challenge for the team will be convincing the disparate players in the ecosystem to come onboard by accepting this token as a payment mechanism. It’s unclear what the incentive structures will be for them to move away from existing structures towards Rate3.

At the moment, however, the primary mode of monetization is via affiliate sales, where merchants give RateX a commission of the sales it brings to them. The RateX browser extension will suggest products as users browse sites and the site has an updated list of trending deals.

“This business model allows us to give consumers zero markup on exchange rate conversion fees and transaction rate fees,” outlines Jake.

Singaporean shopping preferences

The startup’s been facilitating shoppers in Singapore for a couple of years now. What has it noticed about trends in the country?

Jake reiterates the view that Singaporeans are one of the top cross-border shoppers in the world. Despite a thriving mall culture, the sheer variety of international brands and fast-fashion trends means that all products cannot be found in local stores. Even when they are, it’s sometimes cheaper to purchase from overseas via online shopping even after factoring in shipping fees.

The two largest segments for its user base are consumer electronics and appliances – which are primarily sourced from either the US or China – as well as clothing and fashion brands that haven’t established a presence in Singapore yet.

The dynamic goes some way in explaining why Amazon set up shop in Singapore as well as the decision of Lazada to offer merchant goods from Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace. Consumer purchase intent is marked and vivid, why not double down to make the process even more seamless?

Jake also notes that most RateX shoppers display a tendency to purchase things late at night.

Online activity spikes between 10PM – 1AM in Singapore.

Mobile shopping is on the upswing, Jake says, but it’s still not the dominant channel particularly when it comes to big-ticket purchases. Desktop browsing and shopping are deeply ingrained in the Singaporean consumer psyche, a factor that Jake believes is due to the better product comparison features on a larger screen.

Singaporeans are also incredibly plugged in. The average resident has over three connected devices and the overall internet penetration rate is about 85%, one of the highest in Asia, but Singapore isn’t a mobile-first country like Indonesia or the Philippines. Consumers accessed the web on desktops and PCs before the smartphone revolution engulfed the region. It doesn’t seem like these preferences are going away anytime soon.

In 2015, Thailand’s insurance sector was valued as the 8th largest in Asia, with an annual growth rate of 4.5%. Thai residents spent approximately $334 on insurance every year, accounting for an overall penetration rate of 5.5%.

Life insurance accounts for the largest segment within the insurance industry in Thailand. These are annualized premiums paid out in the event of death or permanent disability; or after reaching a certain age. If you subtract life insurance from the overall industry pie, premiums decline considerably to $100/capita.

Photo credit: Thaire.

And this is where the largest potential for growth lies.

Thailand is already considered to be an upper-middle income country by the World Bank, with a GDP per capita of $6,033. When you combine that with a rosy economic outlook, it’s straightforward to predict that the size of motor and travel insurance will rise, too. Higher disposable incomes will lead to a greater outlay on cars and vacations – and the insurance industry is bound to benefit.

But one of the problems currently plaguing Thailand’s insurance sector is that distribution channels are antiquated and riddled with inefficiencies. To purchase an insurance plan, you normally have to arrange for a broker to meet you, prepare an unwieldy amount of paperwork, and wait for the bureaucratic red tape to churn its wheels.

The entire process is frustrating from a consumer standpoint and expensive for insurance companies too; broker commissions can eat into premiums and the process is only scalable by hiring a greater number of agents.

In 2016, a total of $5.1 billion in non-life insurance premiums were solicited via brokers, agents, and bancassurance channels. Precise figures for online distribution aren’t available, but the channel did grow by 25% as compared to 2015.

One of the startups that’s trying to simplify the insurance acquisition process is Frank. It offers motorcycle, car, and travel insurance direct to consumers in Thailand via its website. Consumers apply for their insurance product of choice, receive an instant quote, and for certain products, can have the policy in a few seconds. It’s fairly hassle-free.

Frank’s co-founder Harprem Doowa admits they’re still a small player in a very “traditional industry” but he affirms their product is largely positioned towards millennials and future Thai generations who are far more comfortable transacting online and will continue to carry these preferences along with them.

“This will take time,” he adds, referring to overall adoption of Frank’s product.

Harprem ecommerceIQ

Harprem Doowa, Co-founder and MD of frank.co.th

Innovating the insurance value chain

Another key challenge for Frank is ensuring that all parties involved in the transaction are equally adept and comfortable with technology. At the end of the day, it’s another distribution channel and isn’t inherently marketing its own product.

Frank’s policies are underwritten by companies like Bangkok Insurance and AXA – large, unwieldy, and geriatric organizations resistant to systemic change and constant reinvention.

“Insurance companies themselves are still not ready with the backend to underwrite policies immediately. Most still require manual approvals,” explains Harprem.

Another problem is that many potential customers opt out of the process because they’re unfamiliar and uncomfortable with scanning and uploading documents. They require the support of an agent or customer support advisor to complete the transaction – driving up costs and somewhat negating Frank’s value proposition in the first place.

The third aspect hampering progress in insurtech are Thai regulations: Harprem explains that while they protect consumers, there’s a real bottleneck towards online conversions because of the multiple in-person verifications required.

Value-add Partnerships

The fledgling insurtech company has experimented with a number of ways to make it more visible and enticing to customers. One of these is partnerships with popular ecommerce players like Lazada, Grab, honestbee, and foodpanda.

ecommerceIQThis may seem like a contrasting list of partners – how does quick food delivery equate to online insurance? – but Harprem is upbeat about the benefits its brought to the table.

“Doing partnerships with many companies increases our exposure 30X and when [consumers] go and search online for insurance, they see Frank. It wouldn’t be the first time and therefore they are more likely to buy from us,” he explains.

That’s a critical takeaway – startups aren’t flush with the kind of cash that large organizations have, they have to stay lean. By leveraging relationships with online companies, even something unsexy like insurtech can be galvanized into a winning brand.

“The more customers see your brand, the more likely they are to buy insurance from you at a later stage,” exhorts Harprem.

Where do the opportunities and threats lie?

Of course, it’s possible that large insurance companies eventually sidestep players like Frank and start selling direct to consumers via web channels but this will involve channel conflict.

Specifically, it will alienate the vast number of brokers who currently provide the bulk of insurance revenues. Another complication is the sheer time insurance companies take to make decisions, hampered by bureaucracy and lengthy internal approvals processes.

Harprem says the team is completely aware of this but isn’t overly worried. Frank’s nimbleness means it can continue innovating and pivoting as and when the need arises.

“It took one of our partners two years to update their home page.”

There are two additional areas which, if done right, could provide considerable value in the coming years. One is ‘microinsurance’, or insurance for low-income households that provides protection for health risks, property damage, or other specific perils.

Harprem says there’s definitely a business case for it in Thailand but adds that it’s not a priority for Frank right now.

The other opportunity is changing fintech from just another distribution channel to overhauling the entire product in itself. That’s where technologies like blockchain have the greatest potential.

In Singapore, this is already becoming a reality. Electrify, which allows users to buy electricity on the blockchain, closed a $30 million ICO yesterday. Insurtech company PolicyPal, which is powered by blockchain technology, allows underbanked consumers to purchase products like agriculture, property, life, and personal insurance.

“This, in my humble opinion is true fintech,” says Harprem.

After superpower China announced earlier this week that it has banned Initial Coin Offerings (ICO), the value of bitcoin fell 11.4%immediately after. Circulating speculations claim the ban will impact the large amounts of capital raised from ICO, a total of more than $1.7 billion from January to early September 2017.

What is ICO and bitcoin? What impact does it have on businesses and why did China, one of the world’s most influential countries, ban something so lucrative?

What is bitcoin?

Invented by the then-unknown creator Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009, bitcoin is a ‘peer-to-peer’ electronic currency. It has no physical form so it does not require a central location to store.

In other words, bitcoin runs independently from banks and financial institutions and without any involvement from those institutions, bitcoin transactions are ‘free of charge’ but this also means if they get stolen or lost, there is no possible way to recover losses.

ICO Explained

Craig Wright, an Australian entrepreneur, who claimed in 2016 that he is Satoshi Nakamoto, creator of bitcoin. Source: The Economist.

Cryptocurrency is any currency associated with the internet that uses cryptography – the process of converting legible information into an almost uncrackable code, to track purchases and transfers.

Cryptography was created to cater to the need for secure communications in the Second World War. It has evolved in the digital era thanks to mathematical theory and computer science, to become a way to secure communications, information and money online.

Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency, other examples include Ethereum and Ether.

How does it work?

To buy or sell bitcoin, users need to have a bitcoin wallet installed on their desktop or mobile devices. The identity of users are kept anonymous but transactions are tracked with digital identification comprised of a bitcoin address and a private key.

Think of your bitcoin address as a transparent safety deposit box. Everyone knows what is inside but only the private key can access it. These “safety deposit boxes” are public logs called blockchain.

How do you get bitcoin in the first place? Users typically take part in mining.

Mining is the act of verifying bitcoin transactions by contributing computing power to match private key to bitcoin address. Whenever a new block of transactions is created, it is added to the chain of blocks, hence the name. Still with us?

For comparison’s sake, blockchain technology  is similar to Google Docs.

Before the arrival of Google Docs, users could only edit documents via Microsoft Word one person at a time because two users couldn’t edit a document simultaneously. With Google Docs, both parties have access to the same document at the same time if they are provided access.

Blockchain technology is like a shared document, but it is a shared ledger.

What is bitcoin used for?

Blockchain solves two challenging problems associated with digital transactions: securing information and avoiding duplication making the technology widely applicable to multiple use cases.

It also eliminates all the pain points with transferring money through traditional methods: crossing borders, rescheduling for bank holidays, high bank fees, failed/dropped transfers, etc.

“The blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value.” – Don & Alex Tabscott, Blockchain Revolution

Because bitcoin allows users to stay anonymous, it has raised concerns in its application to facilitate drug deals, money laundering and illegal purchases. But as with all crime, there is a price to pay if caught.

“But if you catch people using something like Silk Road [bitcoin market], you’ve uncovered their whole criminal history,” Sarah Meiklejohn, computer scientist at University College London, says. “It’s like discovering their books.”

In more positive applications, tech giants like IBM are utilizing blockchain technology for information storage in healthcare, government, and supply chain for its accuracy and transparency.

Estimated spending on blockchain technology by banks in 2019 can be as high as $400 million.

ICO Explained

The price of bitcoin has fluctuated aggressively since it became popular in 2013 when prices rose by almost 10,000% before the biggest online bitcoin exchange sent it crashing.

Telegraph recently reported that there are currently 15 million bitcoins in circulation, each of which is worth $4,231 (as of September 2017). A single bitcoin’s sharp increase in value has many sceptics believing that we are in a bubble.

ICO Explained

Back full circle, what’s the big deal with ICO?

Similar to an Initial Public Offering (IPO), an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) is when a company offers a chance to invest in a new cryptocurrency. Instead of trading shares, companies exchange their newly created cryptocurrencies, known as tokens in ICO…essentially, code.

An example would be OmiseGO ICO in August, when the payments company raised $25 million selling its OMG tokens. Since then, many news outlets are reporting millions of dollars raised in selling cryptocurrencies in a matter of a few hours.

China banned ICO because its legality is described as ‘undefined’ and it was only in July this year that US regulators began looking into it.

According to Sun Guofeng, director general of the Chinese Central Bank, banning ICO was a necessary move to stop illegal fund raising.

China-based ICOs raised about $400 million through 65 offerings with more than 100,000 investors. If it all came crashing down, China would be in hot water.

What is the future of ICO around the world and in Southeast Asia?

To clarify, holding cryptocurrencies in China by private parties is still legal. The People’s Bank of China only makes it illegal for financial institutions to hold or transact in them. It does not mean that there is no opportunity for Chinese developers and service providers in cryptocurrency.

While countries are slowly trying to control ICOs, the Southeast Asian market sees bitcoin as an opportunity to improve the financial maturity of its citizens, over 70% of whom are unbanked.

Singapore has been dubbed to be the next ICO hotbed given its a favorable location for startups, favorable regulatory standards, and supportive tax measures.

And developing markets like Vietnam are embracing digital currency as showcased by smart vending machine startup Dropfoods that announced its ICO this week and Myanmar’s SKYBIT that aims to open the country to a global market through bitcoin.

Bitcoin is not evil. Digital currency is not the bad guy. What has fueled the “ICO bubble” uproar is the excessive optimism that is outweighing rationality that usually comes with smart investing.

Tokens purchased by “investors” in an ICO can be used to transfer value within the new coin’s ecosystem, or to other cryptocurrencies’ ecosystems. The problem is that there is a high likelihood these ICO projects will fail. Why?

Take it from the creator of a famous cryptocurrency.

“Many firms are issuing a coin not because it makes sense to do so, but because they have a product they can sell quickly.” – Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin

Thailand has been one of the countries that continues to reduce its dependency with cash. The government has been keen on driving the country towards a cashless society, from launching nationwide e-payment scheme PromptPay to recently announcing a campaign that offers a reward up to 1 million THB ($29,463) for users who adopt cashless transactions.

It may seem like a lot of money to reward people to try more convenient methods of payment but the Thai Bankers’ Association predicted that commercial banks could save $2.18 billion in the next 10 years with a digital payments system as the cost of transportation and insurance that came with the use of cash transactions lowered.

Market value for digital transactions is also expected to reach $23 billion in 2021, up from $11 billion this year so it’s no wonder fintech has become so popular.

A company that was an early adopter and saw Thailand’s potential for digital payments is AirPay, the pre-payments platform by Garena (now Sea), Southeast Asia’s most valuable internet company to date.

Serving the unbanked one internet cafe at a time

AirPay was initially launched in 2014 as an e-wallet to facilitate online transactions for users of Garena’s gaming service and since been downloaded 3.2 million times.

As one of the biggest market for Garena in the region, Thailand was chosen as the product’s launch pad. AirPay Thailand’s Country Product Manager, Supphavit Hongamornsin, shares another reason with eIQ.

“Compared to the other markets in emerging Southeast Asia, we find that Thai people are more open to trying new forms of payment,” said Hongamornsin.

To ensure AirPay was user friendly for the roughly 18.3 million gamers in Thailand – where 26% of are below the age of 20 and have low bank account ownership – the company ended up creating two platforms to complement one another, AirPay Counter and the AirPay app.

AirPay digital payments

Thai gamer demographic shows a population of digitally savvy young people. Source: Newzoo

“An app was created because urban millennials with digital nativity are used to completing all types of transactions directly through their phones,” explained Hongamornsin.

The AirPay Counter, on the other hand, is a more traditional payments option that allow users to top up their AirPay e-wallet through cash payment at an internet cafe, convenience store or regular  mom and pop shop.

“We started the counter service at internet cafes because of their wide network and familiarity – there are around 40,000 of them in Thailand,” said Hongamornsin. “They’ve been highly helpful for residents in rural regions without access to smartphones or bank accounts.”

To date, AirPay has around 100,000 AirPay Counters nationwide in every sub-district of Thailand and partnered with local chain stores like Supercheap and IT Shops like IT City to expand its reach.

“Only 10% of our counters are actually in Bangkok,” said Hongamornsin.

AirPay digital payments

Internet cafe with AirPay Counter facility

Supporting the country’s cashless agenda

Since its inception in 2014, AirPay has evolved from simply facilitating online transactions for the Garena gaming community to providing a wider range of payment services for both physical and digital goods including utility bills, phone credit, movie tickets, and ecommerce.

Hongamornsin said AirPay wants to empower people, especially the younger generation, through better financial capabilities and provide a solution to siloed bank accounts.  

“Right now, there is actually very little that you can do with your bank account. In Thailand, for example, not all debit cards can be used for online payments.”

To combat this, one of the new services provided in the AirPay app is a virtual prepaid card called AirPay Card in partnership with MasterCard.

AirPay digital payments

Setting up an AirPay Card in the AirPay App

“There’s a large population in Thailand that’s still underserved by traditional financial services and unable to complete online transactions. With the AirPay Card, customers can purchase from any merchant in the world that accepts MasterCard,” comments Hongamornsin.

AirPay’s foreseeable future

In 2016, AirPay reported an annualized gross transaction value of $510 million. Although gaming services contributed heavily to the company’s revenue, AirPay is expecting the tide to shift to ecommerce with a goal of one million AirPay Card owners in Thailand by the end of this year.

Hongamornsin, however, admits that there’s still a long way to go before the country can achieve a “majorly cashless” status.

“I think it would take at least five years for Thailand to reach this milestone [80% cashless],” said Hongamornsin.

And unlike Shopee and Garena that have made their marks at a regional level, AirPay’s story is still pretty localized to Thailand.

In other countries like Indonesia and Vietnam where AirPay is present, Hongamornsin says the population is much more underdeveloped when it comes to digital payments creating new challenges.

These markets have complex banking landscapes that make it difficult for AirPay to integrate.

“In Vietnam, there are more than 50 small banks used by the population. Compared to Thailand’s roughly 20 banks, we still need to understand how to connect them all through AirPay.”

“Expansion to another country is definitely in the pipeline, but we want to make sure we are strong in our existing markets first,” said Hongamornsin.

With the pace that fintech is growing in Thailand thanks to the efforts by companies like AirPay, it won’t be long before the millennial becomes well accustomed to plastic over paper.

Mobile payment apps, widely known as mobile wallets, hold digital information about credit and debit cards for making payments, store coupons and loyalty programs.

And they’re projected to become a $300 billion industry by 2022 in the US. Market research firm Park Associates estimates that proximity payment transactions, which require users to tap their phone at a point-of-sale station, generated more than $30 billion in the US last year alone.

The following are a few examples of companies properly utilizing their own mobile payments apps:

One player that stands out is global coffee chain Starbucks.

Currently 2X as many consumers use Starbuck’s mobile app as Apple Pay, according to Park Associates.

Other brands such as New York based Fresh & Co, a grab and go cafe chain, have been using mobile wallets since 2014 and currently has 30,000 customers paying for their sandwiches via the company’s own mobile app.

US drugstore chain CVS also operates a successful mobile payments app by incorporating its ExtraCare rewards program. Users don’t have to produce a rewards card to earn points at the cash register, they’re transferred directly to the app.

Users can also manage multiple prescriptions and medication refills on the app.

But not all mobile wallets are providing a good return. Walmart’s mobile payment app, Walmart Pay, can serve as a cautionary tale for retailers looking to launch digital wallets. The app is reportedly underperforming, due to the absence of a loyalty rewards scheme for users.

Overall, there is a quick and widespread adoption of mobile payments in the US and has largely attributed to the rise of ecommerce – currently 11% of retail sales in the country.

Looking east, brands and retailers in Southeast Asia can also leverage mobile wallets, especially as the adoption of the smartphone among the population grows. A problem arises when considering approximately 74% of Thai shoppers prefer to pay for online shopping via cash or bank transfers and is also the case in Indonesia and the Philippines. This is because only 27% of the entire region has a bank account let alone a credit card to pair with a mobile wallet, but there are a few ways around this.  

Businesses can allow consumers to top-up their mobile wallets at the store counter using cash like Starbucks already offers as an option. Points collected in the app could also be used like a digital currency to purchase goods. All would nurture the adoption of digital payments in the developing region – a large obstacle in the growth of online retail.

Ecommerce giant Amazon is tackling the unbanked population in the US through its Amazon Cash initiative that allows users to top-up their Amazon cards with cash at selected brick and mortar stores, such as drug store CVS, across the country.

The appeal of mobile payment apps for consumers

Building a mobile payments app may be expensive, at least $20,000, but it will introduce customers to the built-in loyalty programs, which will incentivize them to return to collect more points through purchases in a positive feedback loop.

In some cases, it has been found that loyalty programs can work in tandem with increasing brand awareness i.e. if a consumer shares a product with 20 friends, they get 20% off their next purchase.

“Across the board, consumer satisfaction is about 80%for mobile wallets,” says Chris Tweedt, mobile-payments analyst at Parks Associates.

Marketing tactics like this would work in Southeast Asia as consumers are both mobile and social media driven.

In the US, merchants also see a 7-9% larger basket size when customers pay with a mobile wallet and businesses see an additional 9% spike in average sales when customers show up to redeem loyalty incentives. The added convenience makes on the whim-shopping much easier.

With a brand’s own payments wallet, they can dictate what payment types to accept, such as Alipay or Samsung Pay, but they need to be widespread and so far the region doesn’t have a dominant player yet, which becomes the greatest barrier to its adoption.

It’s also important to keep in mind that retailers using third party wallets such as Apple Pay or Alipay have to pay processing fees for each purchase, typically 2-3% for credit cards and less than 1% for debit cards according to Amittabh Malhotra, CMO of digital commerce platform OmnyPay.

Taking the next steps

Businesses in developing markets can start small as more payments players come onto the scene by opening a point program first to build engagement if a mobile wallet seems out of reach.

The long-awaited entry of China’s dominant payments platform Alipay in Southeast Asia through deals with Thailand’s TrueMoney and Indonesia’s Emtek, owner of Blackberry, should encourage the mobile wallet ecosystem as brands can then integrate more digital payment options into their platforms.

Another players to look out for is the Thai government’s online payment platform PromptPay that has signed millions so far and could be huge if advertised properly to the cautious Thai people.

Starbucks in Thailand is moving quickly in the game. The coffee chain already has a Starbucks Thailand app that allows users to scan and pay through collected loyalty rewards and locate the nearest branch. A mobile wallet is about convenience – it’s not only about payment – and only a few businesses are getting it right.

The $300 Billion Trend Your Company Needs to Get in on Now was originally published by Inc. Read the original article here.