Financial inclusion forging ahead
Bangladesh has made significant progress in financial inclusion over the past eight years, with as much as 45 percent of the adult population now under the banking umbrella.
In 2013, only 20 percent of Bangladesh's adult population was under the umbrella of formal financial services.
Mobile financial services, which made fund transfer a child's play, had a big part to play. About Tk 1,000 crore is transacted through the platform each day on average, a figure that surprises many bankers.
After MFS came agent banking, which took the cause forward. Agent banking refers to providing limited scale banking and financial services to the underserved population through agents rather than tellers or cashiers.
Rural people can make deposits and borrow from the agents, a move that will expand banking services widely across the country.
“The central bank's nods to MFS and agent banking have changed the scenario of financial inclusion in Bangladesh,” said Ahmed Kamal Khan Chowdhury, managing director of Prime Bank.
In addition, the Bangladesh Bank has taken a number of moves, such as refinancing scheme for women and SME entrepreneurs and green funds, for equitable and sustainable economic growth.
Yet, there are many things to do as the majority of the population still remains out of any formal financial services.
Rural market and people are still out of major banking services, which bankers blamed on a lack of financial infrastructure.
Quoting a survey, Mashrur Arefin, additional managing director of City Bank, said there are at least 17 lakh shops across the country with turnover of at least Tk 5,000 a day that can be brought under the digital transaction process.
“It means there can be 17 lakh point-of-sales machines. But, in reality, there are less than one lakh machines.”
City Bank is working hard to tap into this huge market, he added.
Financial inclusion can be done through two ways -- opening of rural bank branches and the use of financial technologies, according to Chowdhury of Prime Bank.
But there is another way to deepen financial inclusion: agriculture financing through NGOs, which have presence across the country, he said.
The central bank can also relax its policies on agent banking to encourage more banks to launch the service.
“A bank has to invest a lot in infrastructure for doing agent banking. verification of KYC (know your customer) is a tough job. If we can verify KYC through national ID, it would help us a lot,” he said, while referring to India's Aadhar Card as a case in point.
Also, India has offered banks a rebate on digital transactions, a move that has encouraged banks to push for this channel.
He, however, said Bangladesh is on the right track to financial inclusion and the next two to three years will bring in many innovations.
Atiur Rahman, a former governor of the BB who is widely believed to be the architect of financial inclusion, said MFS and agent banking have built a strong financial connectivity.
“But a small mistake can derail you from the benefits,” he said.
For example, if the telecom regulator increases the charge for the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data that allows banking services from one's basic feature phone without the need for internet connection, it would cause a dent to the financial inclusion drive.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission has recently proposed a charge of Tk 0.85 for a 90-second session, which will include the cost for two text messages, from existing Tk 0.2.
“If the new pricing is introduced, it will ward off the five crore customers from the MFS platform,” Rahman added.