COVID-19: The digital banking tipping point in Pakistan

Ali Ashar Jaffri

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only impacted but rather transformed almost all aspects of our lives. The year 2020 witnessed countries being brought to the verge of collapsing health and economic systems, and with the beginning of the New Year, the problems are far from being solved. While most industrial sectors struggled to survive the pandemic induced challenges, the whole world witnessed a huge surge in the adoption of various technologies. The global banking sector was center stage in the pandemic-induced technological revolution, and the Pakistan banking industry was no exception. According to the SBP statistics, the number of registered online banking users in Pakistan increased by 36% to 13.22 million users between July and September 2020 compared with the same period last year. This translated into a 139% increase in the volume of mobile banking transactions and a growth of 55% in the volume of internet banking transactions in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s banking industry has played a pivotal role in continuing the country’s economic system through this pandemic, which can be mainly attributed to the digital banking revolution. As a nation, Pakistan witnessed the tipping point towards the adoption of digital banking during the past year. Whether it was the easy, timely, and secure transmission of monetary assistance to the underprivileged masses of the country through the Pakistan Government’s “Ehsaas” program, or the provision of loans to the pandemic struck industrial sectors; Pakistan banking industry played an instrumental role due to the successful and timely integration of digital solutions and platforms. Consumers were welcomed in the world of digital banking through e-banking transactions, ATM transactions, internet banking transactions, mobile banking transactions, e-commerce, and cashless Points-Of-Sale (POS) transactions through the use of credit or debit cards. The COVID-19 slogan of “Stay Home, Stay Safe” was only possible due to the digital banking solutions being provided to all the customers. Standing on the shoulders of the digitalised banking industry, many businesses were able to keep their operations running even during the days of the COVID-19 lockdown.

However, the journey towards a digitalised, resilient, and proactive financial system is by no means over. Instead, we are just at the beginning with a heavy cash-dependent economy caused by the majority of the consumers still using cash for daily transactions and avoiding digital banking solutions due to a lack of knowledge or security fears. Globally, the banking industry is leaps and bounds ahead of Pakistan’s banking industry in terms of technological advancements. Consumers are being offered financial services through Smart Bank branches offering 24/7 bank services through self-service machines, such as printing new ATM cards, cheque books, statements of accounts, etc. By adopting advanced technologies, the banking industry is integrating what it offers with various other sectors such as health care, Government departments, etc. on a real-time basis. Banks that are behind this trend will start to struggle due to structurally uncompetitive economics.

It is essential to understand that the new word for survival during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the post-COVID-19 scenario is “digital”. Technological advances in every aspect of our daily lives are a substantial part of this new age. This pandemic has pushed us past the digital revolution’s tipping point, which can create promising exponential impacts on the economic productivity and growth of Pakistan. However, without the proactive and efficient digitalisation of the country’s banking system, this transformation can be endangered. Pakistan’s banking industry needs to move forward and build upon the momentum generated due to the conditions imposed by this novel pandemic. A need exists to evaluate and reengineer the aging processes across all industries and harness partnerships based on real-time connectivity and information sharing. The banking sector also needs to work on pragmatic digital banking models and build a more dynamic digital presence across all stakeholders. Pakistan’s banking system should respond to the opportunities arising out of these challenging times and lead the country towards the era of true digitalisation.

(The writer is GM Supply Chain & Procurement and CIO at Bank AL Habib)