The Arab world is in need of financial innovation as large swathes of the population remain excluded from basic financial services. We picked the brains of Alexander Reviakin who is co-founder of the Arab Financial Inclusion Innovation Prize. The prize operates out of Beirut Lebanon and looks to fund new fintech start-ups from across the Arab world that can improve the often-troubled financial climate of the region.
Tell us about your journey in creating The Arab Financial Inclusion Innovation Prize?
There have been so many exciting things happening to further financial inclusion In the Arab World in the last fifteen to twenty years. We’re talking about 2.8 million active clients with a gross loan portfolio that exceeds $2 billion. But we live in a rapidly-changing digital world and sectors must evolve to adapt to these changing times. Access to financial services means that everyone has the chance to make their business a reality and to help that business grow. Serving the underbanked is essential for economic growth in our world.
Microfinance is an information-heavy sector, and there needs to be innovation to break down barriers. This is where the idea for the prize came from. We see so much potential for innovation from the world of fintech to make sure this sector doesn’t stop improving itself and the lives of the clients it helps.
That’s why we set up the prize. To get the business-minded, forward looking community to think about how they can make providing access to financial services more efficient and inclusive through technology. If we create a dialogue between the world of microfinance and the world of innovation for years to come, then we have achieved our aim.
Why choose the Arab world as a starting point for the Prize?
60 percent of the adult population in the region’s developing countries remain unbanked, according to the 2017 Findex data. There are ongoing social issues- inequality, unemployment, civil strife- but there is also an incredibly forward-thinking start-up scene, who have exciting ideas and the desire to change the world around them. My colleague and co-founder of the prize Reda Mamaari is a pioneer in the field of microfinance in the region. He is a founding member of Al Majmoua, the leading MFI in Lebanon, and of Sanabel, the Microfinance Network of Arab countries. When we started talking, we saw that there is a profusion of opportunities to improve financial inclusion in the region, and an abundance of creative talent to achieve this.
How do you see the space for Fintech in the Arab world changing?
I think that’s what is so exciting about Fintech- it has the endless possibilities. It can create new spaces of operation and improve existing ones. There is so much potential for growth in the Arab world and technology is the tool to achieve this. We want to see fintech coming from all sorts of sectors and being applied to the region to increase access to and reduce the costs of financial services. Moreover, the disruptive nature of many of the innovations in fintech is something that will be an important catalyst for often needed change in government regulations.