When invisibility isn’t a superpower

April 28, 2020 | By Sue Kelsey

Ever since we were children and we picked up our first comic book, or watched a superhero movie, we’ve been taught that invisibility is a superpower — the key to secret knowledge, to hidden riches, to concealed treasure.

But the truth is, invisibility already exists, and it profits none of us. People who transact exclusively in cash are effectively invisible to the financial system. They lack access to credit beyond personal networks and informal lenders, who can charge exorbitant rates that trap people in cycles of poverty.

Digital payments allow people to get paid safely and securely, building a bridge toward growth and financial security for those who need it most. And the proliferation of digital technology over the last few decades has created new ways for people to connect to the networks they need to advance and grow. But the benefits of this economic and digital growth, while significant, have not been equally shared by everyone, and the COVID-19 crisis has underscored just how critical our connections to the digital economy are.

Invisibility contributes to inequality. That is not a developed- or developing-world problem alone. And it is not for either the public or the private sector to solve single-handedly.

Five years ago, we pledged to bring 500 million people into the digital economy. Through powerful partnerships and innovative technology, we’ve achieved that goal. Now we are doubling down, extending our commitment to bring in a total of 1 billion individuals by 2025, as well as 50 million micro and small businesses. We will achieve this by continuing to expand our partnerships and scale our initiatives across the globe.

We’ve used our technology, data and expertise to help governments around the world design and implement programs to enable inclusive growth and empower citizens, from social welfare and other essential disbursements to digital identity solutions.

In the private sector, partnerships in payments have the opportunity to dramatically improve cash-heavy supply chains, such as those we see in agriculture and the garment industry. Imagine, for example, if farmers were paid electronically instead of in cash. This would create a digital trail back to the farmer, which could create traceability in the supply chain. Switching from cash or checks to electronic payments is more efficient and lowers operational costs for the companies that buy and sell raw materials.

But it’s more than that. Many of the 125 million people around the globe who rely on coffee for their livelihood, for instance, are trapped in a cash economy, and this could open the door for them into the world’s formal financial system.

Citibanamex, Banco Azteca, Mastercard and Neumann Kaffee Gruppe (NKG), the world’s largest coffee merchant, are changing this. Smallholder farmers grow the bulk of coffee beans for the global market, but a middleman negotiating the prices takes as much as 25% of the market value of the harvest.

On the ground we’re partnering with Qiubo to help drive merchant acceptance in the communities where these farmers live, so they can pay for their daily needs electronically.

With the supply chain digitized, these farmers now have greater visibility into the market, quicker payments and access to financial services. NKG has more visibility and insight into its sourcing and a scalable, speedy, cost-efficient way to pay farmers. We’re duplicating this effort in other coffee-growing areas in Latin America, supplementing plastic cards with digital wallets.

While partnerships like this have made crucial inroads, there continues to be a gender gap in financial inclusion  women are 9% less likely than men to have a bank account in developing economies, according to the most recent Findex survey. A world that works better for women creates better possibilities for everyone, so our new commitment will focus on also reaching 25 million women entrepreneurs by 2025. We believe that supply chains have great potential to specifically lift up women by digitizing payroll in labor-intensive industries such as garment manufacturing, where 70% of workers are women. When they receive wages digitally, 21% of women workers on average begin saving regularly, and women feel more in control of their wages — represented by a 19% increase in the share of women saying they discuss matters with family members before making a joint decision on how to use their salary, according to a new study from BSR, the global nonprofit that helps make businesses more sustainable in strategy and operations.

Through partnerships with major fashion brands, including Levi’s and Marks & Spencer, we are helping garment factories in Egypt and Cambodia transition to digital payroll and give workers the tools and services that can help them thrive.

But we also know that 75% of female garment workers are lacking when it comes to financial literacy. So inside the factories, the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth partnered with BSR to implement the grassroots HERfinance Digital Wages education program. Peer-to-peer training about how to use an account, how to save and how to pay a bill by phone can shift the potential of digital payments from access to robust usage and propel entire communities into the digital world.

There isn’t enough public assistance, foreign aid or philanthropic money to solve the biggest social and economic issues. As we set our sights on our new goal, we are reimagining what it means to achieve inclusive growth for people, communities and economies around the world — for all of us.

Perhaps the real superpower is not invisibility, but the ability of billions of people across the world to be finally, indelibly visible.

Sue Kelsey, Executive Vice President, Global Prepaid and Financial Inclusion