The Libra Wake-Up Call

The global remittance market is ripe for disruption and Facebook is angling for entry. It is time for regional players to make a move.

By Xische Editorial, June 28, 2019

Source: Zilverlight/ Shutterstock

Source: Zilverlight/Shutterstock

Facebook is taking the financial world by storm with its proposed new currency, Libra. Regulators already have their doubts and some have threatened an outright ban of the digital currency before it gets off the ground. For all the hype and misinformation about what exactly Libra is and how it fits into Facebook’s long-term business strategy, the news has focused attention on a market ripe for disruption. The global remittance market is stuck in the last century and Facebook’s leadership have identified untapped potential. But can a social media company really improve the lives of those in emerging markets? 

The global remittance market hit an all-time high in 2018. The World Bank estimates that annual remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries reached $529bn in 2018, an increase of 9.6% over the previous record high of $483bn in 2017. The bulk of these remittances are subject to exorbitant transfer fees and use ancient technology. 

With the explosion of cheap smartphones and growing internet coverage in the emerging world, an entirely new class of customers have entered the market. This is particularly noticeable across Africa, where poorer Africans now have access to WhatsApp and digital payment services that have transformed communication, shopping, and how people are able to secure money while planning for the future. 

This development has also transformed how the remittance service functions. In South Africa, for example, digital applications proliferate for Zimbabwean migrant workers. Sending money home was once subject to levies as high as 18%, and cash is an insecure way of storing value. With digital options, levies hover around 5% and money is not as easy to steal. 

Trust is the most important component of the remittance trade, as people want to ensure their money will securely arrive at its destination. Despite recent controversies over its handling of user data, Facebook is widely trusted in emerging markets. Through communication applications like WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014, the social media giant is a daily fixture of our lives. If you trust WhatsApp or Instagram (another Facebook-owned application with more than a billion users), why not Libra?  

While Facebook might have found a market ripe for disruption, Libra’s rollout is going to be anything but easy. Regulators around the world have expressed fears about Facebook controlling what could be one of the world’s largest currencies. There is also the problem of bank accounts in many key markets. According to Facebook’s own research, half of all adults in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Pakistan don’t have bank accounts. Getting these people into formal financial services is going to be an enormous challenge. 

Digital payment services in Africa have found ways around the bank account issue by relying on field agents to receive cash for transfers. It is unlikely that Facebook will be able to operate an international team of agents to help users move their Libra around. 

Then there is the issue of cryptocurrency. While Facebook refers to Libra as a cryptocurrency (it is built on a blockchain!), the coin is certainly not the next Bitcoin. While the code is open source, it is not a permissionless blockchain like Bitcoin. Instead, it will be managed by a handful of major companies including Uber and Spotify from a base in Switzerland. Facebook clearly wants to build on the hype of cryptocurrencies but that might end up hurting Libra’s prospects in key markets. In India, Pakistan, China, and Bangladesh cryptocurrencies are either illegal or in the process of being banned. 

Regardless of whether Libra is a success, Facebook has revealed the untapped potential of the remittance market. The social media company is banking on its trust profile and global footprint to bring users and retain them. But Facebook is not the only potential player in this new market. Consider countries in the Arabian Gulf. The UAE has long had a major stake in the international remittance trade because of the nature of its workforce.

Home to 200 nationalities, the country has an established and trusted remittance sector. As the capital of the emerging world, where the new global middle class converges for travel, trade, and commerce, Dubai is perfectly suited to further disrupt the remittance market. Not only can local venture capitalists invest in payment solutions throughout the emerging world but the country can also leverage its trusted name to back a similar type of product to Libra. 

Libra should be a wake-up call for local technology companies and governments. With the right digital innovation like a government-backed blockchain specifically designed for remittances, the UAE could command one of the most lucrative and overlooked spaces in the global economy.