Our world is truly entering the mobile era – by 2025, an estimated six in 10 people will surf the internet on handheld devices such as smartphones, a big jump from less than half the global population that had such access in 2018.
However, when it comes to mobile payments and other forms of digital finance, we’re still very much in the first innings of a long game. Or using a sports analogy more familiar to those on the other side of the Atlantic, we’ve just heard the whistle for kick-off.
While some countries, such as China and Sweden, have leapt ahead of the world in adoption of digital finance, huge parts of developing world still lack even the most basic of access to banking. According to a study by the World Bank in 2018, 1.7 billion adults globally remain unbanked, missing out on a crucial capability needed for them to escape a lifetime of poverty.
Helping underserved and unbanked individuals has long been part of our mission – from launching Alipay in 2004 to create trust between buyers and sellers in China’s nascent ecommerce industry, to the formation of Ant Financial in 2014 to expand beyond online payments with innovative technological solutions to meet the broader financial needs of our consumers.
Over the years, Alipay has grown from online payments to a digital lifestyle platform that provides users in China with over 100 kinds of services, from hailing cabs and paying utility bills, to making medical appointments and investing their spare cash.
As China’s consumers increase their wealth and raise their expectations for services, we’ve grown with them, accompanying them as they increasingly travel overseas. From catching the northern lights in Canada and paying for ice hockey tickets in the US, to shopping at Harrods and Selfridges in the UK, our aim is to connect merchants with Chinese tourists as they explore with the world together with their Alipay e-wallets.
But that’s not the only way that we are expanding overseas. A few years ago, we began forming partnerships with local digital wallet operators who share our vision, of using technology to help the underserved and unbanked.
By forming a strategic tie-up with India’s Paytm 2015, jointly developing Thailand’s TrueMoney in 2016, and a year later, investing in GCash in the Philippines and kakaopay in the Republic of Korea, we’ve began to create a global payments and digital finance partnership that now serves more than 1 billion users around the world.
So why do I say that our world is still in the very early stages of digital payments? That’s because I believe that many of the foundational use cases that will bring about truly globalised payments are still in the process of being developed.
One promising area is that of cross-border remittances. Today, much about traditional money transfers can be time-consuming and inefficient - but the application of new technology and the proliferation of e-wallets can change that.
For example, in June 2018, Alipay’s blockchain technology was applied to allow real-time, 24-hour cross-border remittances between users of Hong Kong’s AlipayHK and the Philippines’ Gcash e-wallets. A similar model was replicated in January 2019, enabling Pakistanis living in Malaysia to send money home, instantly and securely.
Speaking at the Money 2020 conference in Singapore earlier in 2019, I recounted the stories of two Filipino domestic helpers working in Hong Kong, who no longer queue for hours at remittance centres during their precious time off to send their earnings home. Now, that’s all done by tapping a few buttons on their mobile phones, and their families back in the Philippines can receive the money quickly and safely on their e-wallets.
Today, we continue to explore and capture the benefits and convenience that digital finance can bring for users. In China, for example, Alipay’s ‘Yu’e Bao,’ an investment platform for money market funds, has helped transform how more than half a billion Chinese manage their spare cash. Through a new mutual aid product called ‘Xiang Hu Bao, we’re also bringing health protection to the millions of Alipay users who’ve signed up.
And since March 2019, Hong Kong users of AlipayHK – a joint venture between CK Hutchison and Ant Financial – can also pay at merchants where Alipay is accepted in mainland Chinese cities within the Greater Bay Area, simply by displaying their AlipayHK QR codes. In late July 2019, Chinas central bank approved this service to be introduced throughout the rest of mainland China, bringing even more convenience to our users from Hong Kong.
In the near future, I expect more users of Alipay’s strategic partners will be able to use their e-wallets when travelling the world in much the same ways as they do at home. Together with our global partners around the world, we’re continuing to use digital technology to come up solutions that make the world a friendlier and more convenient place.
This editorial was first published in our Payment Methods Report 2019 – Innovations in the Way We Pay. The report presents the key trends and developments in global and regional payment methods by highlighting the innovation, challenges, and developments in the use of the most important payment methods across geographies and verticals.
Joined Ant Financial in June 2016 to spearhead its globalisation strategy and Alipay’s international businesses. He was previously senior partner at Goldman Sachs, with clients from sectors including banking and technology. He graduated University of Virginia in 1988, and received his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1994.