Financial inclusion and digital identity lessons from India, By Olu Akanmu


Reading Time: 9 mins read

India has 80 per cent formal financial inclusion, measured by the percentage of Indians with formal financial accounts, despite the vastness of its territory and a population of 1.4 billion people. The comparable statistics in Nigeria is 51 per cent, measured by those with formal financial accounts, from the most recent EFINA study in 2020. The percentage of the population with formal financial accounts is actually the more critical metric in financial inclusion programmes, with regards to making a real fundamental dent on financial exclusion and ensuring a larger social impact. It is those who have formal financial accounts who can borrow and access formal microcredit at scale because their payments and transaction behaviours are known, which can be used to profile them for credit services, to lift their trade and themselves out of poverty. India has six-and-a-half times the population, and three-and-a-half times the geographic size of Nigeria. If India could achieve having 80 per cent of its population with formal financial accounts, despite its vast geographic size, huge population, similar demographic structure with Nigeria and Africa, with regards to social inequalities and large informality, there should be very good lessons Nigeria and Africa could learn from India.

There is also the fierce urgency of now to tackle, even more head-on, the challenge of financial inclusion in Nigeria. This is critical to achieving the wider social consensus and support needed for current critical economic reforms. We are witnessing the inevitable pains of economic reforms, which have their biggest impacts on the masses and the most vulnerable in society. These pains are going to be with us for some time to come, given the depth of reforms needed and the time required for policy implementation to start bearing results and outcomes. Targeted cash transfer programmes that go directly into the accounts of those within the most vulnerable segments of society, and regularly so, are the most efficient ways of moderating the pains and the tendency for pushback from the masses of the urgent and critical economic reforms. The current palliative distribution method may not be very efficient, may not be well targeted, may be too broad in its reach, such that what effectively gets to the most vulnerable and extremely poor becomes too miniscule to be tangibly effective. This is apart from the risk of diversion of the palliatives, high logistic costs and challenge, which will make it difficult for the palliative distribution to continue on a regular basis, as needed.

The Indian financial inclusion system is based on the concept of Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) and Digital Public Good (DPG), an extension of the concept of the economic public good. DPIs are open source, coordinated and complementary networks of public infrastructure, which are open platforms that anyone or any player could use for the provision of digital services. The social benefits of DPIs and their positive externalities are far wider than what private markets could deliver. The Indian UPI (United Payment Interphase) is the core of the Digital Public Infrastructure of the Indian financial inclusion system, which is an open digital platform for account to account payments. It is also famously known as the Indian Stack.

It has three foundational DPIs, the Inclusive and Accessible Digital Identity or Unique ID (UID), also known as Aadhar, the Real Time Fast Payments (UPI) and the Account Aggregator based on the Data Empowerment Protection Architecture. Essentially, the digital identity layer is the foundation stack on which the payment system sits. Digital identity enables the digital payment system to know who is sending money and who is receiving it. Without this, the payment system would not function properly, credibly and trustworthily. The Indian UID, Aadhar, is the common national digital identity system used across the Indian digital ecosystem, from payments, finance, transportation, telecommunications, health, education to social services. In order to achieve inclusive payments, India ensured the delivery of an inclusive and accessible digital identity system that is described as the world’s biggest biometric platform, which has generated and delivered more than 1.3 billion biometric cards till date. An even more particular important lesson for Nigeria is that while different layers of the Indian Stack are owned by different agencies of government, they are coupled together through design and API integration, policy and programme coordination to work deliberately as a technology stack, with financial inclusion as a main digital public good to be delivered by the Indian Stack.

Every Indian adult registered with the Unique ID immediately has a simple, no-frill financial account. This is the heart of the major acceleration of formal financial inclusion in India. The Nigeria equivalent of the Indian United Payment Interphase (UPI) is the Nigeria Interbank Settlement System (NIBSS) platform, while our equivalent of the Indian UID is the Nigerian National Identity Number (NIN). A striking immediate observation, in terms of learning from the Indian Stack for Nigeria, is that our equivalents of the Indian UPI (NIBSS platform) and UID (NIN) are structurally decoupled and stand separate, unlike those of India. While every UID in India automatically has a no frill, simple financial account, given the coupling of the UPI and UID, it could be imagined what would happen with similar structures in Nigeria, if all our current 100 million NINs today could automatically open 100 million unique individual, simple, no frill financial accounts. Formal financial account numbers with digital identities would double overnight to more than 100 million, especially given the about 20 million annual incremental growth in NINs and identity registrations. Nigeria now has a jaw graph challenge, in which the rapid growth of the NIN over the last few years has not translated into similar massive growths in formal financial accounts and financial inclusion, suggesting the need for the tighter integration of identity and financial inclusion at the level of the different layers of digital public infrastructure.

The Indian UID was massively accessible and inclusive, even in the remotest parts of the country, and it had the massive backing of the Indian government. The historically excluded mases of India could see the immediate benefit of the Aadhar (UID) registration, as they immediately and automatically had financial accounts, which brought them into the digital payment rail.

As a result of the Indian UID, which enabled them to have no frill financial accounts, millions of informal MSMEs on the streets of India can now receive QR payments, which have become near ubiquitous all over the country. In addressing the needs of the informal MSME markets, the Indian fintech ecosystem has even introduced voice confirmation of payment receipt micro-machines, cheap smart speakers/sound boxes that read out the digital payments received by the micro-merchant in local languages, such that even not-too-literate MSME operators, from vegetable sellers to cart-pushers, can conveniently carry out transactions. The no frill simple financial account enabled by the India UID has also found immediate, effective and extensive use in government payments and conditional cash transfer programmes that reached millions of Indians, even in the remotest communities.

Another important feature and key lesson from the Indian financial inclusion programme was the entry of JIO into the mobile telecom space. JIO, owned by Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani, challenged the incumbent mobile telecom companies, brought into the market cheap and accessible smartphones, and crashed the prices of data. JIO drove massive smartphone adoption, along with its lower data prices. The incumbent telecos also had to crash their data prices in response to competition, such that millions of the historically excluded could then afford smartphones and related data services. Products like the QR can only work on smartphones. As such, the entry of JIO with its accessible smartphones and affordable data prices complemented and accelerated the adoption of QR and the payment apps that can only be delivered through smartphones. Would the Nigeria incumbent mobile telecom companies drive better smartphone accessibility and more affordable data prices? Or would we need our own Nigeria Ambanis who will challenge the mobile telecom incumbents, do what JIO did to make data prices more affordable and make smartphones more accessible particularly to the historically excluded in Nigeria? Data prices in Nigeria have been historically three to four times more expensive when compared to the prices in India. The key take out here is that there is a complementary nexus for coordination with regards to inclusive internet access, inclusive digital identity and financial inclusion. These areas need deliberate policy and programme coordination for sector complementarities, including public-private sector partnerships for amplified social and market returns.

The India UID, the Aadhar, is a single, unified, unique identity system that all sectors and ecosystem use, from finance, commerce, health, telecommunications, transportation, education, to agriculture, including social and government services. The cost of a non-unified digital identity system is very high in the opportunity cost of amplified social and market benefits forgone in financial inclusion. The opportunity cost of a non-unified digital identity system is also high in relation to the market benefits of inclusive/pervasive and embedded payment services in sectors like agriculture, education, and health, which an inclusive and unified digital identity would engender. Concerns have been expressed about the quality of Nigeria’s NIN database, the fact that it is not a four-fingered biometric system, unlike the Bank Verification Number (BVN) that is preferred in the banking sector. These issues will need to be fixed to give confidence for the massive adoption of NIN as a core digital identity system for the financial ecosystem. The strength of the Nigerian NIN in terms of its inclusiveness and pervasiveness, its extensive and accessible distribution model that leverages the telecommunications industry distribution channel, must however be acknowledged, kept and continuously amplified. That is what has made the NIN registration accelerate in four years to nearly 100 million Nigerians today. The strength of the BVN is in the quality of its database and its four-fingered biometric system. How can we bring the inclusive access and distribution of strength of NIN and the strength of the quality of the BVN together into a single, unified, unique digital identity system that is acceptable to all sectors and the ecosystem, working in an integral manner or coupled to the Nigerian equivalent of the United Payment Interphase?

A very important context for Nigeria and Africa compared to India with respect to Digital Public infrastructure (DPI) and Digital Public Goods(DPG) such as the national digital identity program is that that given very  acute resource and fiscal constrains in the African public sector, the state may not be able to fund the DPI and DPG investments alone. Bringing private sector and market structure to partner with the public sector will therefore be critical in rolling out massively available and accessible digital identity systems. Unique IDs or Biometric machines need to be available even in the remotest parts of Nigeria and Africa. Biometric machine prices are dropping internationally as a result of maturing technologies. Perhaps NIMC (National Identity Management Commission) and or NIBSS working together in a Unified ID system should focus on certification of standards of UID machines and allow private sector players to bring-in biometric machines and massively register more Nigerians into the national digital identity platform. Automatic account opening business opportunities in a coupled UID and UPI system should create the incentives for banks and fintechs to fund and purchase their low cost biometric machines which would further drive the penetration of digital identity and financial inclusion. It will be important that we use low cost biometric machines that are affordable, that can scale rapidly while meeting minimum prescribed quality standards. PayTm and PhonePe of India took massive advantage of the Indian Aadhar and the account opening opportunities to scale their business and build a large account base in few years making strong impact in the Indian financial inclusion program. The PayTm and PhonePe Indian story also shows the opportunities for focused financial inclusion play where there are large demographics of the historical excluded, where traditional players assumed there were no markets and the potential to unlock those opportunities with digital technology complemented by digital public infrastructure and deliver big social impact. While there have been concerns about market concentration in India, given that more than 50 per cent of UPI transactions are processed by PhonePe and PayTM, this should be balanced with the natural competitive evolution of the market, the fact that PayTMs and PhonePes focused resources on market segments historically excluded by traditional players and unlocked excluded market opportunities with big social impact in free entry and free exit market.  Innovative ecosystem players delivering large social impact outcomes , at very low affordable cost to users should not be disincentivized for their success.

Transactions that are typically low value on the Indian UPI are free which is also an attraction for its massive adoption for micro digital payments by consumers and micro-merchants. While the intention was to drive rapid adoption in India, the unforeseen consequence of that is that the Indian government has to finance and subsidise the Indian UPI by hundreds of million dollars annually. This free transaction model, subsidized by the state is not sustainable and certainly not a sustainable model for Africa where state fiscal resources are heavily constrained. The principle should however be kept which is to ensure low value micropayments are affordable to the low income and the historically excluded, to discourage the use of cash. Africa’s equivalents of the Indian UPI, where they exist should also explore the reduction of charges of low value transactions and micropayments to make digital payments more affordable for the previously historically excluded coming into the digital rail.

While there has been great progress in the Indian financial inclusion program, another key challenge that has been identified is the critical need for financial literacy and education to complement the financial inclusion programme. The previously historically excluded, as they get into the digital payment rail and they are enabled to access formal credit, also need to learn how to manage their money, manage their credit to keep sustainable, manage working capital as micro-merchants and many more. Financial literacy and education will amplify the social impact and positive externalities of financial inclusion. Africa’s financial inclusion program learning from the gaps identified in India should integrate financial education and literacy program early into their financial inclusion programs. Programs like the Sabi literacy program in Nigeria by the CBN as it scales rapidly are very commendable in this regards.


In the specific context of the Nigeria financial inclusion programme, some critical questions to ask among others would include, how do we ensure account opening happen at the point of NIN registration going forward to capture the financial inclusion opportunity right where the excluded come for NIN registration? What digital infrastructure coordination, would we need between NIMC and NIBSS and the broader ecosystem (financial and non -financial) to make this happen? Where significant numbers of digital identity NIN registration are happening outside the financial channels, how do we collaborate and integrate account opening by financial players into those non-financial channels to ensure financial inclusion opportunities are not missed? What regulatory supports would be needed to facilitate this? Given 100million NIN registration today and 90 per cent NIN adult coverage, and formal financial inclusion estimated to be less than 60 per cent, there would be at least 20 million people out there who have NIN and do not have formal financial account. How do we coordinate as an ecosystem -NIMC, NIBSS, financial and telecom players to find these 20 million in a targeted, deliberate and coordinated program to bring this 20 million into the digital financial rail in the shortest time?

Once again, there is a fierce urgency of now to tackle the Nigeria financial inclusion challenge. It is critical to achieving the social consensus needed for Nigeria`s much needed economic reforms through its potential to provide an effective and efficient digital financial rail for cash transfer programs that cushion the pains of economic reforms on the poor. Without this, the poor in their masses will push back against economic reforms with huge consequences to Nigeria economic viability and social stability. More extensive formal financial inclusion would also provide an effective mechanism for the amplification and diffusion of the benefits of economic reforms as more people get integrated into the digital economy creating more tightly coordinated efficient markets with low transaction costs with rapidly scaling access to microcredit , that would  lift millions of our MSMEs out of poverty into prosperity. India had the highest GDP growth rate of a non-oil economy in the world of 7 per cent in 2022 despite its size and global economic slowdown. The Indian Stack, the core enabler of India’s successful financial inclusion programme and digital economy, along with years of consistent economic reforms have been key factors in the new accelerating growth of India. Brazil, learning from India have also recently implemented the Brazilian Pix based on the Indian Stack model of a tightly coupled universal digital identity (UID)  and United Payment Interphase (UPI).  Nigeria can also learn from India and more deliberately tightly-couple its siloed and diverse Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) to have a true ‘Nigeria Stack’ as a catalyst for its accelerated financial inclusion intent, strong digital economy and inclusive economic growth.









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