To contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, many mobile financial services including bKash and on-demand digital platforms including Pathao are ensuring that customers can pay for goods and services digitally – with a tap of their fingers.
Sajid ordered groceries online.
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit Bangladesh, he has been avoiding going outside.
When the delivery man arrived at his building entrance, Sajid went downstairs, got the packages and paid him digitally – to avoid touching currency notes, as they might carry the virus.
From the bank to the consumer, money changes hands numerous times.
As coronavirus can live on surfaces for longer hours, experts have said that it can spread through currency notes and bank cards.
Hence, many people like Sajid are opting for digital payment to avoid contracting the virus.
In a bid to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, many mobile financial services including bKash and on-demand digital platforms including Pathao are ensuring that customers can pay for goods and services digitally – with a tap of their fingers.
The companies have always strived to enhance digital payment systems, and currently are upgrading their services and working with many banks so that customers do not have to handle cash.
Some Chinese banks were reportedly disinfecting their notes and coins to contain the spread of the virus.
But regularly sterilising money might not be a viable option right now.
It is rather easier to opt for digital or contactless payment, which is fast and also safeguards against the virus.
In the UK, some retail chains have put up screens in front of the cashier's desk so that customers can pay digitally. The government has also expanded the spending limits of contactless payment in the country.
The global demand for digital payments has been on the rise since the pandemic hit the world.
According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, when Italy went into lockdown, e-commerce transactions in the country went up by 81 percent. Experts hope to see similar trends in France and the US.
Bangladesh has also witnessed the trend.
Mobile financial services (MFS) bKash has over 37 million registered users and their number of daily transaction is approximately 7 million.
Ever since the pandemic hit the country, many people have been using the platform for making payments. As of April 12, bKash had a daily transaction between BDT 6.5 and 7 billion through the platform.
Shortly before the announcement of the shutdown, bKash announced a new service through which Visa card holders can transfer money to their bKash wallet from their bank account. The service was previously available only for Mastercard users.
In a press release, Kamal Quadir, chief executive officer of bKash said, "We believe our hard work for hassle free, secure and reliable payment solutions will create a cashless or less-cash society."
A source from the company said that currently, bKash is providing this money transfer service for 12 banks. Soon the company will be introducing more services so that payment can be made easier during this crisis.
Asked about accepting digital payments, Syeda Nabila Mahabub, director of marketing and public relations at Pathao, said "We are constantly training our riders about using digital payment. In addition, customers can ask our riders to leave the products at the door step. We have also introduced a new service called TONG in our app, which allows customers to order groceries from stores near their location."
"Customers can also make payment through their cards. We use a very secured gateway, so nobody should feel scared about giving away card credentials. As much as we would love every transaction to become cashless, it would take some time for us to reach that stage. For now, Pathao will continue to develop its payment services," she added.
Associate Professor and Director of EMBA Program at University of Liberal Arts (ULAB) Sajid Amit thinks that during the time of coronavirus, engaging in small-scale pivots may not be sufficient for business.
"Some of them are necessary to keep the brand recognition going. Pathao has brought back its parcel service, it has also introduced TONG, which allows its customers to have groceries delivered from supermarkets. There is also Pathao Pharma", he said.
"These are good initiatives, but I look forward to more large-scale pivots in post Covid-19 situation. For instance, because of this thing we now call contactless payment, there is a case for integrating payments into ridesharing and delivery apps. A fintech integrated service such as Uber Money or Grab Pay could come into play in Bangladesh," he said.
"I look forward to such larger pivots and hope Covid-19 encourages regulators to also think outside the box and believe such pivots will happen sooner or later. The virus will have accelerated adoption of digital payments and a digitisation of value chains across sectors," he added.
A source from the Bangladesh Bank told this correspondent that currently there are many options available for those seeking to avoid using physical money, as at least 22-24 banks are providing internet banking services.
Amid the pandemic, transaction limits have also increased.
For example, the daily limit of contactless debit and credit cards have been increased to Tk5,000, which was previously Tk3,000. Now MFS users (P2P) do not have to pay any charge for transaction for their urgent shopping.
Therefore, a user can send upto Tk2 lakh through bKash, which was previously set at Tk75,000. However, there are no limits for B2B (business to business) transactions.
There are areas of improvement because the mobile finance services are still not inter-institutional. The work is under progress.
On March 26, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a Tk5,000 crore stimulus package for export-oriented industries that have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The central bank official also said that the stimulus announced for RMG workers can be distributed via any MFS platforms.
As of April 10, 4 lakh 41 thousand users had registered to open MFS accounts and most of them were RMG workers, said economist Zubayer Hossen.
But would going cashless affect liquidity in the economy?
According to Research Economist at South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM) Zubayer Hossen a cashless transaction might actually help the economy to get out of the liquidity crunch through stimulating consumers to deposit money in banks.
On the short-run and long-run impacts of cashless payment, he said, "The immediate impacts of going cashless will be improvements in operational efficiency and lower operating cost. In the long run, it might contribute to raise consumption and produce positive economic growth."
"If the government takes necessary actions to ensure utmost security, contactless payment might also help to narrow the financial inclusion gap and become a great asset in fighting against corruption and bringing transparency to flows of money," he added.
Nonetheless, the economist believes that if rural residents are not technologically prepared for a cashless economy, they might get unbanked and there might be an upsurge in inequality.
Moreover, he also feels that for a rapid countrywide expansion of contactless payment, people must remain confident in the entire financial system and Bangladesh Bank has to play a key role in this regard.
By March 2023, Sweden might become world's first cashless economy.
Cash payments in the country are a mere 6 percent, compared to card payments of a staggering 58 percent.
With the outbreak, it is normal to assume that the latter has perhaps increased.
According to data from Bangladesh Bank, merchant payment via mobile financial services was Tk143.9 crore in January 2018.
The figure was Tk404.85 in 2019, indicating a 181.34 percent increase.
Other than some of our elderly citizens, who prefer carrying cash and have trouble adapting to new technology, this might be the best time for us to get more accustomed to contactless and digital payment.