The Inclusive FinTech Forum takes place this week. While there are many conferences bringing together industry professionals in the burgeoning financial technology sector, this is the first with a truly international scope, to take place in Africa. It’s something that gets former financial journalists like myself very excited. I covered business and current affairs on the BBC and Bloomberg Television for a quarter of a century.
Africa is the next great frontier for FinTech growth. Already there are well-known successes such as M-PESA the mobile payments firm that has made real strides, as the continent’s many nations leapfrogged more traditional technologies to seek innovative solutions to infrastructure challenges.
Africa’s population, like many of those in the global south, has historically been excluded from formal banking services. FinTech platforms, through mobile money and digital wallets, provide affordable and convenient alternatives, enabling individuals to store, save, and transfer funds securely, something that’s had a transformative impact for millions who can finally be financially included. It has prompted consulting firm McKinsey to predict that Africa’s financial services markets could grow by a remarkable 10 percent per annum to hit 230 billion in revenue by 2025.
So, it’s not surprising that the Inclusive FinTech Forum has attracted heads of state of several African nations, policymakers, venture capitalists and other speakers who see great promise and growth for FinTech on the continent. Kigali plays host, and it won’t be for the first time Rwanda will be on the lips of the international community. Several major global conferences are due to take place this year alone in the Rwandan capital.
What’s also surprising is that this conference, while giving its organisers - the Kigali International Financial Centre - a chance to showcase the city’s infrastructure and efficiency, is also getting major help from an unexpected quarter. It’s an Asian partner, which is not, as many would expect, China, which has played an integral role in investing in African infrastructure through its Belt and Road initiatives. It’s a partner that’s much smaller but with an influential reach that belies its size: Singapore.
The company behind the Singaporean involvement are Elevandi, whom full disclosure, I’m also advising. It was set up by Singapore’s central bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore as a nonprofit to foster an “active and open dialogue between the public and private sectors, to advance FinTech in the global digital economy” says Pat Patel, Executive Director of Elevandi.
His team were instrumental in making Singapore’s own FinTech Festival, now in its eighth year, one of the largest in the world. Last year, it attracted 850 expert speakers and 62,000 participants from more than 134 countries. To gain such traction in less than a decade shows the commitment the city-state has to the sector and an innate optimism that FinTech will continue to grow in other parts of the world.
The Inclusive FinTech Forum is Elevandi’s first foray into Africa and it's motivated by “the need to address key challenges that emerging economies across the global south face in terms of financial inclusion and sustainable development of FinTech”, according to Patel, with the aim to address the ‘underlying issues that create financial exclusion’.
For a Singaporean like myself, who’s just about old enough to remember, my small nation too once made up part of the Global South a mere generation ago. But through pragmatic leadership and able governance, it overcame many of its early challenges to be among the wealthiest countries per capita in the world today.
Singapore’s success story resonates very much with Rwanda, a country that is undergoing its own economic emergence. According to the World Bank, Rwanda's growth averaged 7.2% a year over the decade to 2019, and was accompanied by substantial improvements in living standards.
It’s a nation on the cusp of an economic transformation, and FinTech is just one part of the journey enabling it to get there. Already South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, and Egypt have big FinTech markets with their larger economies, better tech infrastructure, and concentration of talent.
Policymakers and companies from these successful markets are also due to be at the Inclusive FinTech Forum which aims to put the spotlight on sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.
Rwanda, while comparatively small compared to Africa’s other markets, is playing a role that Singapore once did, acting as a gateway to the rest of the region. The country’s ambitious aims for a knowledge-based economy and investment in infrastructure make it a dynamic regional centre. The Kigali Innovation City is one such example of government investment in a hub that aims to draw investors and educational institutions alike.
And like Singapore which has always sought to host major international events, from the F1 race to a myriad of conferences earning it a global reputation as a hub for Asia, Kigali too aims to become a central location for Africa by hosting numerous events this year including the Inclusive FinTech Forum.
Ultimately this is a conference with aims to promote financial inclusion through what it calls ‘FinTech for Good’. Pat Patel explains: “Over the past few years the FinTech industry has taken a hit from high-profile scandals…In essence, FinTech for Good refers to the use of financial technology solutions to promote social impact, financial inclusion, and sustainable development. It recognises the potential of FinTech to drive positive change and address social and environmental challenges.”
Topics as diverse as payments and digital lending to ESG financing will be discussed with the aim of helping underserved communities across the global south. It’ll be a feat to pull it all together, but the partnership between Rwanda and Singapore, two countries with a great deal more in common than appearances first suggest, will be key to making the Inclusive FinTech Forum a success.