For more than half a century, the U.S. was the leading innovator of financial technology (or FinTech) in the world.
Over the past decade, however, China has become the global leader: Powered by smartphones and social apps, China has used remote payments and the digitization of money management to build a steady vehicle of financial inclusion.
But it may not be the leader for long. Recently, African countries such as Nigeria and Kenya have emerged as FinTech hotbeds, and are using inexpensive, accessible tech to mobilize consumers in ways never seen before. To stay competitive, U.S. banks and FinTech companies need to study the factors enabling these successes abroad and figure out how they can keep pace.
Simply defined, FinTech is the application of technology and innovation to solve the needs of consumers and firms in the financial space think credit cards, online banking, and blockchain-powered cryptocurrencies.
While it’s arguably just the latest update to the millennia-old evolution of credit, contracts, and banking, FinTech was one of the most explosive fields of the past decade. Venture capitalists, traditional finance firms, governments, and even the average smartphone user each had a hand in the massive acceleration of its growth.
Advancements like remote payments, app-based stock trades, and automated insurance claims became commonplace. The IMF cited estimates of over $50 billion invested in the field during the first half of the 2010s, with triple-digit year-over-year growth being the norm.
The development of modern FinTech stretches back further than a few decades, however. There are three major waves of innovation, each centered in a major region at a particular time.
While the U.S. produced the first major wave of innovation in this sector, it has fallen behind as firms and consumers have reached the innovative doldrums of “good enough.” But by studying where FinTech has gone, and where it’s going, U.S. companies can still catch up.
The first wave of modern FinTech produced technologies that define how we use money today, and the bulk of that innovation happened in the U.S. The advent of contemporary credit in the U.S. via the Diners Club Card in the early 1950s was a major breakthrough:
It represented a much more efficient means of payment that also doubled as a seamless way to extend new credit to consumers. Innovation continued in the 1960s, with the Bankograph for the City Bank of New York: an automated envelope deposit machine and the first prototypical ATM. U.S. leadership in the FinTech space, led by the banking sector and other traditional financial institutions, continued through the 1990s with the proliferation of the internet and the birth of online banking.
While major banks still ran the show, these major stages of development were unified by a common theme: the expansion of banking and credit to the world outside of brick-and-mortar branches.
The second wave of modern FinTech, beginning in the 2000s and cresting now, came from Asia, and China in particular, which created a battery of widely-adopted innovations. With a massive population to whom physical banking had not previously been ubiquitous, the country’s strides came through smartphone apps.
In 2018, China’s $25.5 billion FinTech market accounted for 46% of all FinTech investments globally, making it the largest such market in the world. WeChat and Alipay are such high-performing payment platforms that even rural vendors and laborers flash personalized QR codes. Tencent and Alibaba frequently launch large-scale investments that cut out traditional finance firms.
Anything from wealth management (players such as Lufax dispatch their service entirely online) to credit scoring and provisioning (Bairong boasts 74,000 data labels on 800 million individuals to calculate their scores) have established strong footholds.
Now, though, the center of FinTech innovation seems to be shifting again, this time to Africa. United by mobile phone proliferation, and often in the absence of internet-capable phones, this wave is defined by its inclusive mobile banking services. Africa is host to 33 of the world’s 47 least developed countries by the U.N.’s categorization. Infrastructure for universal smartphone and Internet use, which took several decades to establish in the U.S. and China, is still in its early stages. Yet for FinTech, what would be a bane to other regions is instead a boon that could see it leapfrogging far ahead.
Unlike previous waves, which had relied on technologies at the forefront of their times, the African FinTech wave is being built on mobile phones, whose adoption in the continent accelerated around the turn of the millennium and are now pervasive. This launched a swell in economic growth: according to IMF estimates, four of the top five highest GDP growth rates in the world are in African countries benefitting from this boom. African countries that missed out on the older U.S. and Chinese FinTech waves’ outputs have already started to fly directly into hyper-efficient mobile infrastructure.
The definitive exemplar is Kenya. The country has seen skyrocketing mobile penetration rates, with subscriptions surpassing the total population amount by 12%, and FinTech innovations have followed. For example, the telecommunications giant Safaricom, which contributes 5% of the county’s GDP, led the push in 2007 with its M-Pesa money transfer service, which functions much like a limited mobile bank but without the need for an Internet connection. M-Pesa combines Safaricom’s mobile infrastructure with an agent model; Safaricom stores their balance and customers can go to one of 110,000 agents throughout the country to conduct transactions in person. The whole system runs on technology similar to text messaging, and has expanded to seven countries.
Equitel, a mobile virtual network operator competing with Safaricom’s M-Pesa, is pushing boundaries for financial inclusion even further by offering a full suite of banking services on mobile devices. Conceived equally through ingenuity and necessity, Equitel is a new type of hybrid firm: a telecommunications company born of a bank. Parent company Equity Bank collaborated with international telco Airtel to give users a product coming from two longstanding companies. It sent agents throughout the country, even to remote areas where other banks and telcos had not ventured, to demonstrate usage. Equitel grew to capture 22% of the mobile money market in just five years through this locally-focused strategy.