What can Nigeria learn from China’s digital economy?

Insights on big data, mobile payments, and what China’s model means for financial inclusion in Nigeria

QR Codes for locker storage and JD Headquarters

As I prepared for my first visit to China, I was curious about what I would discover and hoping that what I learned would help me in my work to build more inclusive financial systems in Africa. I would be joining a delegation of digital finance professionals in Africa, including Tunde Kehinde, co-founder of Accion Venture Lab portfolio company Lidya. The trip was organized by the Mastercard Foundation Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa (FiDA)  to learn about the ecosystem in China and bring insights and inspiration to our workplaces.

Tunde and I both live and work in Lagos, Nigeria, home to over 20 million people — one of the world’s megacities. We were fascinated to see how China has galvanized their government, businesses, and citizens to adopt financial products and services and how they’re creating a more seamless financial ecosystem for all. During the trip, we took note of everything we discovered and we’ve distilled our findings into lessons for inclusive finance in Nigeria.

From big data to bigger data

Tunde and I were both impressed by the tremendous amount of valuable data sources companies could tap into for lending decisions. As we met with business leaders from companies such as JD Finance, Ant Financial, and WeBank (the first Internet-only bank in China), we were surprised to learn that they leverage from 30,000  to 100,000 data points on consumers and merchants in their underwriting process. As a comparison, Lidya uses 100 data points, and that’s a pretty robust data set in a region where high-quality and consistent data can be hard to obtain. Despite their advances, one Ant Financial Executive we met claimed that they are “still in the small data age of big data”, and that in 50 years we will look back and laugh at the datasets we have at our disposal today.  

Payments as the underbelly of a rich dataset

During the trip, we saw how a strong payment infrastructure is crucial for collecting data to build successful customer profiles to lend to the underserved. China’s impressive data collection starts when customers make a payment. The QR code system has been widely adopted for transactions in China, making it extremely simple for consumers to scan and pay. The low cost of implementing QR code payment infrastructure at the merchant level has led to high adoption rates, rich data sets, and minimal fraud. In comparison, Nigeria has two primary approaches to payment facilitation: point-of-sale (POS) devices and USSD payments. Unfortunately, high costs, and inconsistent internet connectivity meant that POS devices are hard to come by or unreliable.

Collaboration for advancement

One thing that Tunde and I both found surprising was the high level of collaboration in the Chinese fintech sector. We expected companies to be highly competitive, secretive, and unwilling to work together in their race to the top. Surprisingly, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead what we learned is that many share potential customer pipelines. These companies have started to specialize in finance offerings for clients at various income levels and businesses of different sizes, and they found that it was more productive to share a pipeline so each customer segment gets the most valuable experience from the optimal provider for them.

Tunde and I have both traveled a significant amount, but we both walked away transformed by our time in China. It was a thought-provoking trip — one that allowed us to see the tangible progress of a market that has made significant strides in fintech and financial inclusion. At one point I started to panic, wondering if any African nation, let alone the entire continent, could ever catch up. However, what I came to accept was that our collective goal is not necessarily to imitate China’s model but to forge our own path, centered on the needs of African consumers and small businesses. That path may look entirely different from China’s. There is no one solution for building a financially inclusive future, and each region and country will have their own challenges and successes along the way. While our visit to China inspired us, Tunde and I returned home most excited for what’s to come here in Nigeria.

This article was written with support from Tunde Kehinde, co-founder of Accion Venture Lab portfolio company Lidya. It is also published on the Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa (FiDA) blog.

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