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West Africa launches new payments digitization agenda

BY SEYIFUNMI LUMEKO

In Senegal, 8 out of 10 workers are paid in cash. Most are temporary workers and excluded from health insurance. A survey revealed that 77% of temporary workers would be willing to receive their wages digitally if this gave them access to health insurance. These are some of the major findings of the publication (https://bit.ly/3anLM71) that the Senegalese government has launched today, with support from the Better Than Cash Alliance (United Nations) (www.BetterThanCash.org), the World Bank and the National Agency of Statistics and Demography of Senegal. Combining digital payments with health insurance benefits offers an excellent opportunity for social inclusion, formalization, and financial innovation.

Digital payments stimulate domestic production and consumption. If 50% of temporary workers in  Senegal received payments digitally, 45 billion CFA francs would be added to GDP per year (around $80 million USD). Paying workers digitally, speeds up the financial inclusion for the population boosts business competitiveness and increases financial system liquidity. To tap into this potential, the SME Development Agency (ADEPME) plans to bolster its SME support fund with $20 million USD (around 11 billion CFA francs) from the World Bank. This will be used to strengthen SME digitization initiatives and support digital payment projects for workers.

High-level leadership speaks out in support of digital payments for workers

Senegalese President Macky Sall and H.M. Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, who serves as UN Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development (UNSGSA), have launched an appeal to fellow leaders, the private sector and civil society, inviting them to: “use this report to ensure digital payments are at the center of a sustainable and fair economic recovery. We look forward to jointly providing leadership on this agenda to achieve an inclusive and digitally-enabled recovery,” the two leaders added.

To set an example, the President of Burkina Faso, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, also decreed, in late 2020, the digitization of payments for workers in the administration of Burkina Faso. When the COVID crisis emerged, the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) and the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) took decisions (https://bit.ly/3mZVAcr) aimed at reducing the circulation of cash in the 8 countries. These actions have had tangible impacts which are beginning to change the lives of workers and companies.

Digitizing payments and advancing universal health care coverage

While receiving a salary is often linked to health care contributions, globally at least 61% of workers operate in the informal sector (https://bit.ly/3sxhSUd) without adequate coverage, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Indeed, in some countries, there is not always a legal obligation for employers to contribute to any kind of coverage for their informal/self-employed workers, which affects women more than men.

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To meet this challenge of inclusion, the National Agency for Universal Health Coverage in Senegal has launched an ambitious digital payments platform (https://bit.ly/3n0Rv83). It has partnered with fintech and private companies to link access to universal health coverage and digital payments – specifically targeting women. Flagship national enterprises such as the agricultural giant SODAGRI or SMEs such as QUALIOCEAN and Kossam SDE are setting an example by providing temporary workers with universal health coverage. More than 200,000 workers will now have access to quality, government-subsidized health care.

While 81% of national companies have fewer than 20 employees, on average hundreds or even thousands of temporary workers are employed in their supply chains. Employees are generally banked, but 93% of employees on temporary contracts are paid in cash. The latter are systematically excluded from the formal health system.

The successful transition towards digital payments

Three obstacles have limited the growth of payment digitization in Africa: the size of the informal sector, sometimes up to 90% of the economy; the historically low financial inclusion rate; and most importantly, 21% of African workers receive a wage keeping them below the poverty line.

This has all changed dramatically. Financial inclusion has surged since 2010 (https://bit.ly/3gmU0Aq) with the arrival of electronic money issuers and fintech.

The country’s largest employer, Compagnie Sucrière Sénégalaise, has successfully digitized payment for around 8,000 workers via a partnership with local fintech. “We wanted to digitize payments without using the banking system, which isn’t suited to some populations,” noted Claude Fizaine, the company’s Secretary-General, in an interview with an African media outlet (https://bit.ly/3x8hvmn). “For employers, the benefits of digitizing payments include avoiding the constraints of managing large amounts of cash, and all the risks that distribution can involve. It also makes it possible to offer employees tools tailored to their financial and family situations, which can only have a positive impact on their personal and professional lives,” he added.

WAEMU’s innovations should continue to inspire the rest of Africa. Since 2012, it has been the continent’s engine for economic growth and stability (https://bit.ly/3x23abr). The examples of Senegal and its neighbours reinforce the ILO’s global agenda (https://bit.ly/2Qe24IW) that could well make digital payments for workers a new global standard for promoting decent work.

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