The coronavirus pandemic has proved a stroke of luck for mobile financial service providers as people are increasingly opting for digital payment in a bid to steer clear of the health risks the lethal pathogen poses, experts said.
The expansion of MFS in recent times will also help the government advance a step closer to a cashless society, they said at a virtual discussion on 'Digital Payment Solutions during Coronavirus Pandemic', organised by The Daily Star yesterday.
"The coronavirus pandemic has given a strong message to all that there remains scope to embrace the digital financial tools to run the economy under any circumstances," said Mustafa Jabbar, posts and telecommunication minister.
Banks hardly run their financial activities in rural backwaters, but the MFS providers have brought the underprivileged people of these territories to the formal financial sector, he said.
"A difficult situation would have been created if we had not taken adequate preparations to widen the base of the mobile financial services on time."
The strong foundation of MFS will now make the government's fight against coronavirus easier.
"We have already brought the workers of the garment sector under the MFS platform. The necessity of traditional banking has already diminished as we have entered a digital era."
The banks' cash counters will not be required soon due to the rapid expansion of digital banking and the strong base of the MFS, Jabbar added.
"Economic activities should remain vibrant during the ongoing shutdown such that the wheel of the economy keeps moving," said Tanvir A Mishuk, managing director of Nagad, an MFS provider of the Bangladesh Post Office and a private entity.
The benefits of the stimulus package offered by the government should reach the marginalised people, including farmers, and small entrepreneurs, he said.
Half the country's population has been benefitted by financial inclusion and efforts should remain underway to bring the rest on board, he said, adding that the ongoing measures taken by the MFS providers will deepen financial inclusion further.
The popularity of MFS has increased significantly in the last one month as the pandemic has forced people from all walks of life to take the service, said Kamal Quadir, chief executive officer of bKash, a leading MFS provider.
But the volume of transaction plunged 28 per cent at one point as the central bank reduced the extent of banking operations.
The Bangladesh Bank has recently increased the banking hours to four hours from two/three hours, which has helped boost MFS transactions gradually.
If the MFS agents cannot deposit or withdraw money from banks smoothly, they will be unable to run the service properly, Quadir added.
bKash, the country's largest MFS provider, has 225,000 agents and 60,000 digital e-KYC centres across the country.
MFS operators opened 30 lakh new accounts from April 6 to April 25 to help disburse funds from the government's stimulus package of Tk 5,000 crore for export-oriented industries, said Abul Kashem Md Shirin, managing director of Dutch-Bangla Bank.
Some 16 lakh MFS accountholders in the garment sector used to receive their wages through the digital platform earlier, but the pandemic has played a role in expanding the service further.
Clients usually withdraw Tk 7,000 crore via cash machines of DBBL per month, but Rocket, the bank's MFS platform, witnesses a total transaction of Tk 10,000 crore a month.
"This is a very good sign. But we should ensure that clients can also use the money to purchase goods and pay their house rents through the MFS platform."
The government should take measures to this end, Shirin added.
"Social distancing cannot be maintained among the economically vulnerable people if we fail to give them social protection," said Zahid Hussain, a former lead economist of the World Bank's Dhaka office.
The government should prepare a list of vulnerable people to offer them the required support with cash and food.
As distributing food among them will create a risk of virus infection, the government could start a programme to provide cash support to them during the ongoing lockdown, and MFS providers can offer support in this regard, Hussain added.
Previously, only 5 per cent of the electricity bills were paid through digital platforms, but the ratio has now reached 60 per cent, said Abul Kalam Azad, former principal coordinator for SDG affairs at the Prime Minister's Office.
"We have to play a bigger role in the post-coronavirus period. MFS cash-out should be brought down as part of our journey towards a cashless society."
Initiatives should be taken to offer trade licences to small businesses through the digital tools, Azad added.
The coronavirus pandemic is leaving a positive impact on widening the digital payment services as people now try to avoid cash transaction as a health precaution, said Rahel Ahmed, managing director of Prime Bank.
Nagad can open 1-2 million accounts a day, said Mohammad Aminul Haque, the MFS provider's chief financial officer.
"So, we can help disburse funds quickly from the government's stimulus package."
Nagad can also support in developing an eco-system for e-money to promote the country's digital financial programme as it has the adequate technical capability as well as the experience of handling a huge amount of transactions every day, Haque added.
Many workers in different sectors, as well as a good number of general people, have just started using MFS to settle their transactions as part of the social distancing measure to fight the coronavirus, said Sheikh Monirul Islam, chief operating officer of bKash.
"We are also taking awareness campaigns to protect our users from fraudulence."
As the owners of the export-oriented industrial units will soon start paying salaries from the government's stimulus package, the law enforcement agencies should help the MFS agents run their outlets in the areas put under lockdown.
If the owners of grocery shops, who are yet to manage trade licences, are allowed to use the point of sale (PoS) terminals, transaction through e-money will increase manifold.
"The authorities concerned should take measures to this end as getting trade licences is hard in our country," Islam added.
SSL Wireless had taken an initiative to deliver groceries to clients even before the lockdown was imposed, said its Chief Operating Officer Ashish Chakraborty.
"There has been a trust deficit for the settlement of e-commerce transactions. In most cases, clients make payments after receiving their products. This means delivery persons have to receive cash."
The MFS providers will play a big role in this regard such that clients can settle the transactions through their MFS accounts, which will help create a full-fledged cashless society, Chakraborty added.