KIERAN ANDREW KHAN
The outlook for new technology investment in the Caribbean banking sector are at best bleak. According to the White Paper “New Model to Transform the Caribbean Financial Landscape” prepared by Global Integrated Fintech Solutions (GIFTS), the major three Caribbean banks have collectively written off over US$1 billion in debt since 2008 and are carrying more than US$3 billion in impaired loans at present. Simultaneously, these banks are being urged by their counterparts in the First World to reduce overall risk, so the likelihood of these institutions making new, major investments are slim to none. The result is a dynamic region fighting for sustainable and easily-accessible banking and payment options while there is nominal investment in these areas to assist that growth. Business Day spoke with Peter Edwards, director (CMO) and Dave Sahadath, director of Global Business Development at the company behind this White Paper and a proposed One Caribbean Card.
“GIFTS is a fintech company that was established to cater to the payments needs of the indigenous people of the Caribbean,” Edwards explained. “We cover the entire core-banking and payments landscape from EMV-chip based card processing, to e-commerce solutions, fraud management, mobile payments and electronic gateways,” Sahadath added. “In researching the region, we discovered that a lot of the challenges in the banking and finance sector were not limited to one country – but across the region.” GIFTS, based in Barbados but with operational capacities across several other islands, is actively engaged in the process of making banking better. Their change agent will be the One Caribbean Card, first conceived by Dave Sahadath in 2006 which, in the spirit of CSME, would help to bring the region closer as a single economic unit by facilitating cross-border transactions in local currencies (with local regulatory approval) using best in class-EMV chip technology. “It’s a home-grown alternative to say VISA or MasterCard; making it more affordable for financial institutions to issue EMV cards here and across the region using our own GIFTS payment Switch. The card is built to the same security and compliance standards of Visa and MasterCard. We are offering the technological ability to send and receive payments which will serve to empower a whole new generation of micro-entrepreneurs too,” Sahadath rationalised. In short, the benefits of such a card and payment processing system will redound to the financial institutions and the consumers alike.
The potential impact of their grand vision goes far beyond being able to scan a code and pay your doubles man on the spot via the GIFTS mobile payment solution, however, though Edwards admits that’s all part of it too. Those implications can change the way we interact with our democratically-elected governments as well as how we spend and use our time, “How we relate to payments for say land tax can also change. Rather than standing in line, we hope in time that these types of payments can be made electronically. Standing in line in the 21st century is a huge loss of productivity and cash is immeasurably inefficient too – requiring as much as five times the resources to manage versus electronic options,” Edwards pointed out. Most importantly, this effort, while being pioneered within the region by those with an understanding of the needs of the Caribbean Basin, has the input of the relevant international subject matter experts and partners such as Quatrro Processing. Sahadath explained, “Quattro, which helped to launch AmEx cards in India is a partner; and Dave Cole, our CEO, is an international smart card and payments expert with a wealth of experience in this area too.”
“Of the six digital maturity stages, the Caribbean is still primarily at stage one – cash centric. With our common language, high literacy rates and relatively small population, we have the important pre-requisites to climb the digital ladder. We cannot wait for investment decisions by financial institutions whose spending budgets are dictated by an offshore parent,” Edwards cautioned. Sahadath also noted that the needs of the banking base have changed, “If banking systems do not evolve to reflect the needs and wants of the millennial generation then they will surely face extinction.” One Caribbean Card aims to benefit the user base and connect the region in a way that governments, organisations and existing financial institutions have been unable to,” he pointed out. Overall, the card is just one offering from GIFTS with more on the way, albeit with transparency and guidance from the local regulatory bodies, as they roll-out their solution suite to the Caribbean.