Smartphone boom driving jump in digital payments in the Philippines

A motorist pays toll at the North Luzon Expressway with a PayMaya-issued card. PayMaya offers a smartphone app that allows users to create a "virtual" credit card, without needing a bank account. PHOTO: PAYMAYA

MANILA - In the Philippines, cash is still king.

Just one in 10 Filipinos transact online via their bank accounts, although half the nation's population of 102 million are already using the internet.

Out of 2.5 billion bank payments worth US$74 billion (S$105 billion) each month, only 1 per cent, or about US$740 million, are electronic and most payments involve small amounts. This equates to roughly US$60 a month for the 11 million people who make online payments via their bank accounts. The vast majority of bank transactions, by value, are still by cash or cheque.

"It's more 'cashlite' than 'cashless' in the Philippines," said Ms Nick Wilwayco, head of communications at e-commerce firm PayMaya.

A boom in mobile phone use, though, could soon change things.

The Philippines is the fastest-growing smartphone market in South-east Asia. There are currently 40 million Filipinos with smartphones and that number is forecast to hit 90 million by 2021.

"Filipinos are more adept at mobile. It is easier for them to discover and to use it," said Ms Wilwayco.

Using Apple, Android and Facebook apps, as well as "digital wallets", mobile phone users can open credit and debit accounts that they can use to transact online, without needing a bank account or even an internet access; just the SIM card.

Voyager Innovations, a unit of telco Smart Communications, currently has over 11 million customers using its smartphone apps to pay for internet and in-store purchases, transfer money, and even secure loans. They declined to give exact growth figures, only saying they were in the "triple-digits".

For Ms Geraldine Rodriguez, 47, a freelance writer, going cashless has meant convenience and peace of mind, even though only a fraction of her daily transactions are online.

She pays about 1,650 pesos (S$46) worth of phone and internet bills each month online via her bank account, and uses a prepaid card when taking the MRT. Most of her bills she still has to pay at a centralised payment centre, though.

With less cash on her, there is less anxiety that she may get mugged or her wallet snatched.

"Is it convenient? Very," said Ms Rodriguez.

Banks have long been a hurdle to greater take-up of online payments. Only three in five Filipinos have bank accounts and among these are the 11 million who pay their bills, order takeout and buy plane tickets, gadgets, clothes, and fashion accessories online, using their ATM, credit and debit cards.

Many still worry about security and privacy.

In a report released in July last year (2016), internet security firm Trend Micro said the Philippines is the third most affected country when it comes to online banking fraud.

Which is why smartphone apps have proved so appealing because it frees up people from having to use bank accounts to make payments or indeed even having a bank account.

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