Okunowo: Lots of Nigerians Financially Excluded

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Arike Okunowo

General Manager, Sales and Distribution, Paga, Arike Okunowo, in this interview says the company which is licensed to undertake mobile money operations has made it possible for payments in urban and rural areas in Nigeria. Chinedu Eze provides the excerpts:

You know the lockdown has been hard on everybody and businesses apart from the network providers and perhaps pharmaceutical companies. So what has been the impact of this COVID-19 lockdown on your company?
The service that we provide is an essential service and people will want to do one financial transaction or the other. Yes, I would say it had a little impact, but most importantly Paga was able to provide solution even in the communities. With the lockdown we had our agents who were in their communities being able to perform transactions, help their community members to send money to their loved ones. And also those of them that require people to send money to them were also able to receive money. So it was more like helping to move around the palliatives at least in cash form. And also people needed to pay for their bills, PHCN, pay TV subscription, Paga agents are on ground to actually help solve problems for people. So, while you are you are on lockdown you still had access to live life a little bit and not allow COVID-19 just takeover everything. So we were just on ground and in place to help people still continue to make their lives possible even with all of the issues on ground.

With mobile agents being an essential service, what efforts have Paga put in place to reduce the risk of cash handling at agents’ outlets?
You know the COVID-19 has made people to be even more aware and hygiene has become very important. So the first thing we did was to sensitise our agents and teach them how to sell safely. All of the things that the government has been trying to pass on, we just took the message and helped to pass it on to our agents, teaching them that selling at a safe distance is very key and making sure that their hands are clean by sanitising them after counting money and using their facemask and all of that. So, we did a lot of training, even did short videos and sent to them so that we could sensitise them. And in going forward, it wasn’t just sensitising alone, we provided facemasks for them and sanitisers that they can use while doing their transactions. And we keep educating them on that.

So how did you manage those agents who were unable to open their outlets? How was the coordination and communication with them?
The interesting thing and the good thing about Paga agent business is that your customers do not always have to come to your outlet. So, our agents have another product where their customers are registered with them and those customers can transact on their own. And while those customers are transacting on their own, our agents are still working. So, most of them that couldn’t open probably because their outlets are far from where they leave, or communities where they leave, as long as they can earn a little business in their community, the customer that they had registered, they are also reaching to them to transact on their own. So as those customers are transacting on their own, the agents are also earning money. So, our agents were not totally off earning money, they were still earning a living even with all of the COVID issue.

As the economy reopens what is Paga doing to empower its agents to return to normal business?
As the economy is reopening gradually, we are also sending out messages to our agents, just like we have been doing during the COVID-19. So, we haven’t stopped, we keep sending out messages sensitising them on how to sell safely, on how to maintain safe distancing with their customers. We are sending out short videos and picture on how to maintain safe distancing, and not allowing customers crowd their outlets. And we are also driving mass awareness around the customers and we also encourage our agents to reach out to their customers. Because they have access on their platform, they can send out mass messages to their customers as well while we are also doing that sensitisation. And then we are also reaching out to a lot of people, that had reached out during the lockdown that they also want to be agents. So we are also reaching out to them to finalise their onboarding process and just keep the business and everybody going.

You recently announced some strategic partnerships with Visa and Ping An Cohorts, what is this partnership about?

We all know Visa is worldwide, so this partnership is going to open a world of opportunities for our agents and even merchants that accept payments on Paga, such that anyone that banks with a bank that has Visa product on them will be able to transact at any of our merchant point. So, it is more like making our agents to be able to accept any kind of transaction. like anyone coming in, once you have a Visa able bank then you can transact with that. It is a bigger opportunity for our network. And for the Ping An Cohorts partnership, it will open the opportunity for us to interact with the subsidiaries of Ping An; it is one of the largest financial institutions in the world. So now that Paga has been chosen to be a part of that, it means we will be able to take a lot of learning from the success of Ping An, we will be able to work with some of their subsidiaries and in doing so we are able to even bring on more value added services to our agents, clients and customers. So it is like creating a world of opportunities for every customer of Paga.

How are you relating with Remita, what is the partnership like?
With Remita, I would say one thing that comes to mind for me, it is more like Paga is now able to help the federal government to expand the payment points for their bills. Because Remita is where the federal government payments are made. So now with the partnership with Paga, with the 0ver 25,000 Paga agents that we have around, then people that needs to pay federal government bills now have a whole lot of places closer to them in their community where they can pay the federal government bills. It also reduces the burden for some people that already have the fear of digital payments. So, with the agent point, people can actually still go there and make their payments by themselves or make their payments on their Paga App by themselves. So it is like making life possible, simplifying federal government payments and just making it easy for people to access payment points and make their payments when it is needed and very quickly as well.

I know you have been expanding your network in Nigeria, with the COVID-19 impact, many people have lost jobs, will you be willing to take in more people or increase the agents you have in Nigeria?
Paga’s purpose in Nigeria is to allow people to have access and use their money. The economy is so large and the market is still so large that there is still a need for that. In the communities that we have had Paga, it has really made a lot of difference for them. There are communities that prior to when Paga agents were set up there, they had to travel lots of distances before they can have access to financial services. But once Paga was there it added to the economic activity of their community. This is because it is now easier for you to access and use your money. So we will keep growing and expanding the network because we want to keep allowing people that access and use of their money and also making life easy for people. It is what we are here for and we are not going to stop until we make sure that the impact is really felt and people happy, people have easy access and they are able to use their money the way they want to use it.

When you look at online banking in Nigeria, some people due to skepticism haven’t embraced it. Now during this lockdown did you see more patronage or how would you describe the situation in terms of patronage?

During the lockdown we saw patronage at the agent point, especially payment of bills because that was mostly what people were doing during lockdown. And some people also cashing out but cashing in wasn’t as much because economic activity was reduced. But then we saw over 300 per cent increase in the number of people that registered to use Paga on their own, like the online activities that you mentioned. So we saw a huge positive impact in the number of people who are now confident and comfortable to wanting to use online services and Paga services.

Would you say there is a huge potential in the market in Nigeria for Paga now?
There is a very huge potential, like I said before there are still so many people that are financially excluded both the mass and even the high-end people that per say. So the good thing about Paga is that we cater for every aspect of the population of Nigeria. In the mass market there are still a lot of potentials. There are lots of communities that still have to travel wide and far before they can access financial services. There are so many communities that they still keep their monies under their beds. These we can actually help to include in the financial state and even those that are already banked, there is a solution for them even on Paga. So, whether you are banked, whether you are unbanked, or whether you are under banked, Paga has a solution for you. So there is are lot of opportunities, there are lots of things that Paga can still do in the Nigerian space.

For you to increase your market share you have to sensitise the citizens in terms of campaign, how are you doing it?
In terms of campaign, we are doing a lot of marketing activities both digitally and currently we are already doing billboards all over the place. We are also always engaging with our customers, sending messages, newsletters, getting people to understand what Paga can do for them. At the agent level, we always have like what you call small meetings where we can sell the need for people to take on the agency business.

Because right now if anybody tells me that, ‘I lost my job and I don’t have anything to do’. I will tell him that Paga has got you covered; Paga agent business is there, where you can just plug in and start making life possible for your community. And as you are making life possible for your community you are also making life possible for yourself. So a lot of sensitization is going on and as the years goes on people will see more of Paga out there. This COVID situation kind of slowed everybody down but as we go in we will see more of Paga out there.

Going into the rural areas, how do you see the market in the rural community?
Just like I said, even during the COVID-19 lockdown we still had people being able to send money to their relatives from wherever and they will be able to cash it out at their own point. So people living in the cities are able to send money to any of their relatives with a phone number. You just need the person’s phone number, you send it to the phone number, the person walks up to an agent and uses a code to cash out at the agent’s point. You might think it is only from the city that money is sent to the rural, you may be surprised that a lot of money is flowing in the rural. A lot of them also come into the cities to buy product that they need to take back. They are able to send money via Paga, so it is both ways. So Paga is there to ensure that payments and money moves both ways, person to person payment and it is seamless. You can access your money at any time and then you can use it easily.