By Matthew Dove
Along with some of the UK’s other most notable assets, TFT’s digital editor Matthew Dove hurriedly deserted the country this March. As he sat by the pool of the Movenpick Marrakech, our man in Morocco was surprised to discover the unexpected joys of leaving the European Union. The weather’s great for a start…
Having arrived at Gatwick wrapped in a rather unflattering cagoule, the newest addition to the Fintech Times’ foreign affairs desk now basked resplendent in the 30 degree North African sunshine. Whilst the glare from his pasty limbs startled hotel guests and staff alike, it mattered not. We Brits are no longer tethered to the drab confines of the EU, we’re positively international!
The reason for TFT’s visit to Morocco wasn’t simply to assist the Fantastic Mr (Liam) Fox in his heroic drive to re-establish Pax Britannia nor was it merely to return some much-needed colour to our greying complexion. Au contraire, we had a conference to cover, namely the HPS PowerCARD Users Meeting 2019.
Here’s how that went…
Whilst most outside of the Francophone world will probably be unfamiliar with Hi-tech Payments Solutions
(HPS), that may be set to change. If HPS was looking to make friends and influence people (and TFT suspects it was), then its conference was one hell of a sales pitch.
HPS is a payments provider clearly at home with hi-tech. Talks and panels took place in an auditorium Steve Jobs would’ve felt comfortable grandstanding in. No expense was spared on production; the stage was lit up with sweeping spot lights, swirling lasers and a pulsing soundtrack which even Hans Zimmer might consider “a bit much”. Each speaker was welcomed to the stage by the bombastic Ghela Boskovich whose formidable presence was supplemented by a digital assistant (think Alexa meets HAL 9000).
Whilst most outside of the Francophone world will probably be unfamiliar with Hi-tech Payments Solutions (HPS), that may be set to change.
Opening remarks were made by CEO Mohammed Horani who introduced himself to the 400 delegates from 50 nations with words that set the tone for what was to come;
“Our relationship with time is being disrupted in a digital age”, he declared.
Citing “deep, deep shifts” globally, both economic and societal, Horani listed the five main areas of innovation to watch in the coming months;
First, he mentioned artificial intelligence and the rise of autonomous devices, as well as AI’s ability to democratise the analysis of data and the writing of computer code. In the broad church of “Digital”, Horani housed tokenised assets, edge computing, VR/AR and the algorithmic detection of emotions.
Under the heading “Mesh”, Horani included the use of blockchain technology and the spread of “intelligent spaces” in the smart cities of the near future. He also covered the paramount importance of digital ethics and privacy before outlining his interest in the burgeoning study of quantum computing.
He concluded by identifying that, “our common enemy is cash” and that “omnichannel payment is a must.”
Rather encouragingly, Horani also championed financial inclusion and emphasised the push to achieve gender parity within his own organisation (HPS currently consists of 30% women with full parity scheduled by 2025).
Garry Ceaplen of HPS partner bank Al Ahli Bank (Kuwait) took to the stage next, alongside HPS’s Mohamed Abaddi. The pair extended Horani’s narrative to include the notion of family, an ideal intrinsic to the HPS user group operation.
With golden nuggets like “community is the child of a happy marriage” and an incentive structure comprised of PowerUsers/PowerInfluencers (and their Silver, Gold and Diamond bandings), TFT started to feel as though it had stumbled into a HerbaLife recruitment drive!
Anyhoo, the sales babble eventually gave way to some refreshingly candid insights. At a time when fintechs are acting now and thinking later, Ceaplen spoke of “going back to basics.” He was adamant that “our systems must work” before being released on to the market, a sentiment not always shared by the fintechs (see our Vendorcom coverage for more on that). Furthermore, Ceaplen considers “stability, stability, stability” a concept so important that he said it thrice!
Next up, conference chairman Abdeslam Alaoui Smaili took to the stage for the first of numerous appearances. Smaili dispensed with talk of community, clubs and “mutual satisfaction” and focused on the heart of the matter; utility.
At a time when fintechs are acting now and thinking later, Ceaplen spoke of “going back to basics.”
Under the PowerCard umbrella, which Smaili calls a “software factory”, HPS offers a truly holistic array of products to its users. They include, but aren’t limited to, PowerCard eCommerce, WebPublisher, Fraud, ATM, eSecure and Wallet. Smaili argues that HPS is an inclusive one-stop shop for all users, big or small. On the day, he pointed to some pretty impressive stats; Club HPS consists of 500,000 PoS modules, 1 million merchants and 20,000 ATMs as well as 150 million cards issued.
None of this appears lost on HPS’s plethora of partners. Capgemini’s Jeroen Hölscher used a simple metric for success when considering the use of HPS products; “conversion is King.” He went on to add that the audience should expect paytech adoption to grow fastest in the East where fintech is, in general, less burdened by legacy infrastructure.
Over at American Express, Jeb Million, pronounced that the HPS Users Club shared a “united desire to innovate across organisations” with the end-goal being “mutually beneficial outcomes.”
Under the PowerCard umbrella, which Smaili calls a “software factory”, HPS offers a truly holistic array of products to its users.
All this backslapping was unceremoniously interrupted by FTAlphaville’s Jemima Kelly, who first apologised for her scepticism before chucking cold water over proceedings. Kelly agreed with Hölscher that paytech is growing fastest in the East but thinks that the rationale is rather different.
Kelly believes that there’s a fundamental lack of utility in the West for cryptocurrencies, blockchains and even mobile payments. To this end, she noted that 30% of payments in the USA are still made with cash and that its mobile payments market is half the size of China’s.
All too often, Kelly argued, fintech is a “solution looking for a problem” with its true utility mostly being found in areas previously underserved by legacy systems. She calls this application of fintech “leapfrog technology”, a prime example being the rise of M-Pesa in East Africa.
Even in the case of M-Pesa – a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service – Kelly keenly offered the success story’s downside. Whilst the service has a whopping 30 million users, it’s tantamount to a monopoly. Outages, corruption and misuse, therefore, have far-reaching negative consequences.
A decent compromise was found in the preceding presentation given by Archie Hesse of GhIPSS. Backed by the Ghanaian government and using HPS tech, GhIPSS is modernising the nation’s payment infrastructure.
For Ghana’s millions of unbanked citizens, the system being implemented grants access to mobile payments without the need for a bank account. It also uses a “financial inclusion triangle” to link three separate mobile payment networks thus avoiding the kind of homogeneity inherent in the M-Pesa model.
Backed by the Ghanaian government and using HPS tech, GhIPSS is modernising the nation’s payment infrastructure.
If one heartwarming paytech tale wasn’t improbable enough, the conference’s star-turn Rachid Yazami offered a second to close out the conference in style.
Yazami helped develop the graphite anode of the lithium ion battery, an innocuous little innovation currently powering the vast majority of the world’s mobile devices.
The fact that the lithium ion battery is one of the few progressions in its field since the advent of the lead-acid battery in 1859 (still used in cars today) makes this unassuming gent’s achievements all the more staggering.
After deadpanning that he knows nothing about payments, Yazami joked that he expected members of the delegation to return next year with prototypes for a battery-powered smart card. The native of Fez ended his TED-style talk by lamenting the gaps he sees emerging in society whilst highlighting the role technology plays in sowing such divisions.
Using recent unrest in Paris to illustrate his point, the Draper prize winner noted the dangers of establishing an elite global technocracy to the detriment of the lesser-skilled masses.
Yazami opined that technology’s greatest utility is in the improvement of conditions for all humanity, not just a select few. With a rhetorical gravitas not commonly associated with chemical engineers, he noted that “the man should be served, not the system.” Hearteningly, this last remark drew the most enthusiastic round of applause of the whole conference.
Yazami’s address, whilst sunny and inspiring in Marrakech, rang bittersweet as TFT’s digital editor stepped off the plane in a rain sodden London. On the one hand, it shone a light on how far we’ve come but, on the other, it cast into stark relief the distance still left to travel.