By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter

THE DEMOCRATIZATION of financial services in the Philippines continues to improve with the growing participation of communities through small businesses like sari-sari stores, a payments industry executive said Wednesday.

“Digital hubs in the communities (play) a key role. Beyond remittance, community hubs such as sari-sari stores serve as bridges to the digital world. They will soon become digital agents for banks, e-commerce, and so on, and we will see that happening in the next coming months,” according to Mar M. Lazaro, managing director and head of Enterprise Business and Sales at PayMaya Philippines, Inc., at the BusinessWorld Insights online forum.

“We are seeing democratization of access to financial payments especially at the grassroots level,” he added.

Fintech Alliance.Ph Chairman Lito M. Villanueva said the government’s efforts are further accelerating financial inclusion.

“The aim of the government is really to push for a sustainable digital economy,” he noted.

“The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ vision of a digital and financially inclusive Philippines has always been within the reach, especially with the current innovations and fintech innovations being implemented nationwide,” he added.

“What we are doing here is help shape the Filipinos’ consumer and financial behavior towards digital finance and cashless transactions.”

Kiranjit Singh, head of Strategy 3 Division at Ipsos, said there has been a lot of progress in terms of financial inclusion in the last three to four years.

“But what is important is not the statistics. We should have a meaningful financial inclusion [that] is beyond transactions by making it available to more Filipinos for them to utilize certain financial tools for personal growth and even for their businesses,” he added.

“We have made great strides in terms of getting them into the system, but now the next steps are making them become savvy, go beyond the basic financial inclusion and make the tools and the solutions available to them,” he explained.

Valenzuela City Mayor Rex T. Gatchalian emphasized the importance of good connectivity in achieving the financial inclusion goal.

“It’s not just the government that has to work double hard because the government’s eagerness is also there — the enabling laws and enabling programs are already there. You can spur excitement all you want, but if the basic infrastructure is not there, it’s like corralling a herd of sheep inside a small pen, which is not conducive to growth,” he said.

“As more people work from home and as more people study from home, the inefficiencies of the private sector, especially the data service providers, are actually showing up. If we can’t even provide basic connectivity, I think more than just pointing our fingers to the government, we have to look at the major players when it comes to data connectivity, and they have to really shape up,” Mr. Gatchalian added.

JF Darre, chief data officer and head of Financial Services at GCash, said financial inclusion and meeting the new needs of consumers in the “now normal” should be a collective effort.

“We each have an important role to play. We all have to focus on building up the infrastructure and giving out the national IDs so that people can get started on their digital journeys,” he said.

“Platforms like GCash need to leverage their access to millions of customers by sharing that access with as many partners as possible, partners who will in turn live with us and design and build products that are affordable, accessible, and understandable so that people can get started on their journeys,” Mr. Darre added.

Zayd Tolentino, chief technology officer at Singlife Philippines, said: “Before and beyond these technologies, the key to success in any initiative is having the right mindset. The first thing that any organization would need to do to achieve digital transformation is to reshape the culture.”

“Before even investing in any new technology, the first step is investing in the right people who believe in legitimate disruption. Having the right people with you can get you where you want to go, so let’s collaborate more closely to make financial inclusion more possible for Filipinos,” he added.

Rogie P. Niño, assistant vice-president and head of Business Project Management Office at InLife, said: “We continuously plan on how to cope with this pandemic by adopting the benefits of financial technology. With our partnership with Lazada, we immediately beefed up our InLife packages to remain ahead of our competitors who didn’t have similar offerings.”

“We continuously partner with fintech companies, provide suitable products and services, and expand our payment gateway in the midst of this pandemic. We embody the culture of being agile, customer-focused, constantly sharpening our skills, and being open to change,” he added.