A cashless region? How E-commerce is supporting the thriving ecosystem of contactless payments

Ammar Afif is the Founder and CEO of Cashew Payments, a 360-degree instant payment and digital finance solution in the MENA region. Ammar’s inclination towards entrepreneurship dates back to 1999 when after a 5-year stint with the reputed global consultancy firm PWC in auditing and transactions, he moved to Silicon Valley to join a startup founded by his close friend. To date, he has successfully raised over $400M in equity and debt financing that has led to 12 mergers and acquisition (M&A) deals and five successful exits.

Connect with and message Ammar Afif on his MAGNiTT profile

Digital new-age payment solutions are thriving as more and more people shun cash and opt for online and contactless payment methods. The trend has seen amplification over the past few years, and the pandemic further propelled this growth. The future is digital, and this applies to the structure of payments as well. Looking at global numbers, digital payments are projected to grow to $8.26 trillion in 2024, up from $4.4 trillion in 2020.

The pandemic stimulated the adoption of digital payments to catch up to the soaring demand for contactless transactions, and the UAE is leading this march with a speed faster than anticipated. In a recent survey conducted by Standard Chartered, two-thirds of UAE residents expect the nation to become fully cashless by 2030.

The digital era has changed the way we regard payments, presenting underlying benefits beyond just easy payment. The merchants, for example, can enjoy enhanced financial solutions capable of boosting sales and spreading financial outlays.

Additionally, digital finance is also gaining traction as a new form of cashless solutions along with debit cards, credit cards, mobile wallet apps, point of sales (POS), mobile banking, and internet banking. The use of technologies, such as biometric identification and quick response (QR) codes, are fast evolving to change things on both the consumer and seller fronts.

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The regional perspective

The regional retail industry is currently undergoing a pivotal shift. As consumers move online, businesses are typically following suit, enabling a gradual shift in the digital ecosystem, including media and e-commerce.

Consumers in the region are mobile-first, with smartphones being the preferred screen for online research and shopping. In the UAE and the KSA, the mobile share of shopping-related search queries has reached 70%, with the majority of shoppers (55%) in the UAE, the KSA, and Egypt preferring to use smartphones to shop online.

Regional retailers and e-commerce players have also taken notice of the demand-supply imbalance and the significance of the e-commerce opportunity. The region is starting to see a step-change in the availability of products online.

Reinventing the path to purchase

The sector is reinventing the consumers’ path to purchase, disrupting business models, and creating growth opportunities for large and small retailers as well as for the new generation of e-commerce players. These global e-commerce players have been actively marketing to MENA consumers in the general merchandise category, with the fashion category particularly proving favourable for cross-border e-commerce.

It is estimated that less than 20% of top global fashion brands physically present in the MENA region have locally based e-commerce platforms that offer delivery to the regional consumer.

Increasing consumer confidence in the authenticity of underlying products, an area of focus for the main category players, has enabled growth in beauty. The introduction of Arabic beauty brands has also boosted the category further.

Accelerated digital transformation

It is true that there has been a push in digital and cashless payments. This demand is being pushed from the consumer, and, yes, COVID-19 has played a role in accelerating the adoption and solutions. Additionally, the governments of the KSA and the UAE are pushing for the drive towards a cashless future. 

In recent years, at cashew, we realised that those retailers are finding it more and more tedious to get payment gateways to approve their applications; especially smaller, independently run businesses. Therefore, we identified the problem and endeavoured to tackle the issue at its source. We want to give retailers viable options on our platform to encourage them to stay away from the traditional banking hassle.

The digital-first mentality 

Consumers are the most important part of this journey. Gen Z and millennials in the MENA region are taking inspiration from their global counterparts and adapting to fit their surroundings and culture, despite the challenges that may arise. This generation has a stronger digital-first mentality that dictates everything from socialising, shopping, and staying healthy. Millennials have learned to use digital tools and are susceptible to influence as they witnessed the transition of technology from ‘analogue’ to ‘digital’ and further heightened Gen X’s sense of self-actualization leading them to becoming the ‘me-generation’.

With the current credit offering, it's easy to fall into debt traps. At cashew, we are challenging the current traditional lending space by promoting a more responsible way to borrow.

The diverse range of financing options is broader than they have ever been, which means more opportunities are arising for startups and small businesses. As the criteria for banks have become increasingly stringent, alternative lenders have been able to take advantage of this situation by creating flexible solutions that cater to the circumstances and needs of a diverse group of businesses.

This shift is critical in terms of the industry’s future and gives renewed hope to people who aim to branch out on their own and create an empire, which in turn affects the growth of the national economy.

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