The changes happening in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) with respect to fintech and wider digital transformation have been noted. The Fintech Times sits down with Alexander Reviakin and Reda Maamari of the Arab Financial Inclusion Innovation Prize (AFIIP).
Reda Maamari is a pioneer in the field of financial innovation in the region. After working at the UNDP and Save the Children US, he founded Al Majmoua, Lebanon’s largest microfinance organisation and co-founded Sanabel, the Arab network of Micro-Finance organisations in 2002. Since then, Reda has focused his attention on innovation in the private sector across the fields of insurance and finance, overseeing the development of advanced artificial intelligence-based systems for the global investment industry alongside SME-focused innovation in Lebanon.
Alexander Reviakin, who goes by Sasha, launched into the world of digital financial services while living in Beirut after gaining an honors degree in Arabic. Sasha has focused his early career on economic empowerment and financial inclusion in the Arab world, working with the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) and the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance (CCAF) among other public and private sector organisations.
When Reda and Sasha met in 2018, they set up the Arab Financial Inclusion Innovation Prize (AFIIP) to identify and help scale up solutions that can make financial services more accessible, affordable and efficient in the Arab world. AFIIP is enabled by Spectrum Digital Holdings, SANAD TAF and FSD Africa funded by UK Aid from the UK government. This year AFIIP is providing up to $60K in cash and technical support for inclusive solutions that apply by 25 June 2021. Building on its strong foundation, AFIIP is launching a second stream of the prize this year, to provide additional resources for financial innovations that can generate green outcomes.
For our global audience, can you explain what the digital and fintech landscape in the region currently looks like?
Alexander Reviakin: I was lucky enough to be part of a CGAP landscaping study on fintechs which provides a great summary. Most of the fintech innovation we see is currently in the payments space, but solutions are now emerging across the financial services value chain. Investment is up but concentrated, and the bigger tickets fintechs need to scale are not yet materialising. Policy-makers are adapting but still need some convincing to be proactive and invest the necessary resources. Talent is there but more support is needed to foster employability and on-the-job skills in addition to theoretical training. Through AFIIP we are able to identify and highlight some of these solutions to a network of technical experts, investors and potential clients that can enable them to reach the next level.
What is the importance of financial inclusion in the Arab world specifically?
AR: When we talk about financial inclusion in the region, we often start with the problem statements: 60% of adults who don’t have an account, low access to finance for small businesses, high levels of unreliable and informal employment, high cost of services. When I see a problem statement, I want to find a solution. Putting financial inclusion first is a powerful tool rather than necessarily the ultimate goal. With better access to a wide and competitive range of financial services, individuals and businesses can save, support, gain and grow. In the region, this is especially important because the gap is so wide.
That’s where innovation comes in and where at AFIIP we look at all the potential in the region. A smart savings circle like Moneyfellows or CIWA can allow families to better manage their finances and put them to productive use. A digital identity solution like Valify means that those living in rural areas can access financial services painlessly. A salary advance mechanism like Solfeh’s can smooth employees’ daily financial demands and increase productivity. A financial literacy platform like Finllect can upskill the youth and boost their economic prospects. A back-office solution like Bluering can increase existing financial institutions’ capacity to provide essential services. There are oh-so-many more solutions that I’d love to talk about and that has come through the AFIIP pipeline. The ideas are there and the potential is realisable. They just need the right visibility and support to scale. That’s how we can create markets with more opportunities and build populations that are more resilient and empowered.
Does that make this an opportune moment for investors, regulators and the wider ecosystem?
AR: All the ecosystem have the chance to push this agenda forwards and make financial services work for everyone. And I’m happy to say that we are seeing the key players taking stock and recognising that this will benefit them too. Regulators are setting up sandboxes and innovation offices to provide a testing ground for fintechs to prove their potential. For investors, both regional and global, there’s a huge revenue potential to serving underserved populations- women and MSMEs for example- which should not be sniffed at.
For the technical experts and accelerators in the region, there’s an opportunity to help fintechs consciously hone their product design to be as effective as possible. I suppose I can’t go through a conversation these days without mentioning the C-word. Covid-19 has jolted the ecosystem. But such a time of change opens up opportunities left right and centre. We’ve just got to make sure that the burgeoning digitised financial ecosystem is designed and developed in a way that works for everyone, and provides pathways to economic resilience and opportunity. And there’s no time to waste.
What are future trends and predictions you see happening in the region as a whole (And specifically with your company?)
AR: More cross-border collaboration across the region for one. I’ve been excited by the likes of Fintech Galaxy and Tarabut Gateway who seem to be leading the way on open APIs in the region for example. In terms of the financial offerings themselves, I think we’ll see much more embedded finance emerging and (I hope) more post-series-A investment to scale up the solutions that are now starting to prove their mettle. And then what I really want to see are regional initiatives to provide more opportunities for tech talent in the region. Otherwise, they’ll leave and then how can we create the robust ecosystem we’re all working towards? More brains less drains!
Reda Maamari: Governments will open the way for disruptor products and companies because they see the required impact on the population as a whole. Some incumbents will adapt, while others will be too slow and the market will move away from them. This change will not be even and will not be painless. Cooperation and dialogue will be key to make this process work for all and to have a positive impact across socioeconomic strata. For this reason, actors such as AFIIP will become increasingly indispensable as they build linkages not only across the sector but as importantly across the region.
Any advice or recommendations you would give to other future fintech companies and entrepreneurs based in the MEA region?
AR: I mean, first of all, apply to AFIIP by 25 June! We’re one small part of the wider ecosystem but are lucky enough to be able to provide tailored scale-up support for the solutions that get through our judging process. That comes in the form of cash grants, technical assistance and introductions to potential clients, investors and knowledge networks. I’d also encourage future fintech companies and entrepreneurs to look at financial inclusion as a key-value proposition to bring to their innovation. Intentional design that tackles gaps in access to and usages of financial services – such as credit scoring, SME finance and the region’s gender gap – will succeed and open up new markets. Innovators who take note will reap the rewards and truly prove the impact of fintech on livelihoods and economic prosperity.