Digital banking in Nepal: Focus on infrastructure, security

For a country like Nepal, with a literacy rate of 64% and 60% of the population still without a bank account, it is a challenge for the regulators and market players to promote digital banking

A banking service involves a customer’s presence at an outlet to perform a transaction. This has compelled the banks and financial institutions (BFIs) to open large numbers of branches across different geographical areas. They are now opening branches across the 753 local levels, as directed by the regulatory authority.

Winning over customers traditionally meant extension of the bank network and offering suitable products and services at a competitive rate. However, with the advent of modern alternative channels of banking, the concept of physical outlets has started to look less relevant. As Bill Gates said in 2008, “banking is essential, banks are not”. The use of internet technology to provide bank services has changed the way banking is done, and will change the banking industry as a whole in the days to come. As such, digital banking refers to the process of facilitating various banking activities using electronic channels, like Automatic Teller Machines (ATM), Point of Sales (POS), telephone, mobile phone, the internet and SWIFT transfers.

It was as early as 1990 that Nepali banks started adopting means of digital banking. The medium of digital banking for the payment of retail transactions in Nepal are cards, internet banking, mobile banking, e-wallets, POS machines and Point of Transactions (POT) machines. Similarly digital banking tools that the users are availing for the transaction of large volumes are Electronic Cheque Clearance (ECC), Interbank Payment System (IPS) and SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication). From mobile top to utility bill payment; from ticket booking to money transfer – banking users are gradually adapting themselves to digital banking in both remote as well as urban areas.

The number of cash-based transactions has been decreasing every year. NRB has been discouraging cash-based transactions by reducing the limit to such transactions. For instance, a banking transaction is now limited to Rs 1 million from Rs 3 million. Similarly the volume of Electronic Cheque Transactions has been increasing through the NRB-promoted Nepal Clearing House Limited (NCHL). Similarly, an increase in the number of ATM outlets (2791 in 2074/75) along with POS machines has enhanced the popularity of debit cards.

However, going digital is no piece of cake. The SWIFT hacking of NIC Asia Bank the previous year, thefts in a number of ATMs and the recent theft from Esewa have increased concerns about the reliability of digital banking in Nepal. Despite the internet’s access to 63% of the total population, access to digital banking among the same mass is really low. This is because people still regard digital banking a complicated procedure. And although they know that a wide range of transactions can be done through their mobile phones, people hesitate to make use of them. A regulating system is being developed, which has created confusion for the service providers. Time and again update on the threshold for mobile payment is another confusion.

Inability to maintain robust infrastructure has been a hindrance to the development of digital banking in the country. We lack standard IT tools, a dearth of skilled manpower, poor infrastructure and the use of pirated software is high. Security is a big concern. The National Cyber Security Index 2018 ranks Nepal 92th out of 100. This means that Nepal’s ability to prevent cyber threats and manage unintended cyber incidents is poor.

Though an increasing number of people are using digital banking services, most people still prefer traditional banking practices. For a country like Nepal, with a literacy rate of 64% and 60% of the population still without a bank account, it is a challenge for the regulators and market players to promote digital banking.

So as to promote digital banking in Nepal, the central regulatory authority, Nepal Rastra Bank, established a Payment Systems Department on July 2, 2015, with the sole authority of regulation, supervision and oversight of the entire payment system in the country, including licensed non-bank financial institutions. At present NRB has been providing license to non-banking financial institutions as Payment Service Provider (PSP) and Payment Systems Operator (PSO).

Nepal Rastra Bank has formulated and implemented a number of acts and laws and by-laws and issued directives to guide payment systems-related activities in Nepal. A Payment System Act is under review in the federal parliament. NRB has also focussed on tools to reduce the cost of using such tools and also to make it convenient. The overall ambience is conducive for igniting a take-off phase of payment systems in Nepal. The internet penetration is 63% of the total population as of 2017. Similarly the number of mobile phone users in the country is 34% higher than the total estimated population of the country. Likewise, the development of Payment Switch has also been topmost priority of both the government and the NRB.

The era of digitalisation has already entered Nepal as it can be seen in every sector – from local governance to transportation and Inland Revenue Department. The future looks optimistic about moving towards a cashless economy.

Dhungel is Assistant Director at NRB and Regmi Assistant Manager at Rastriya Banijya Bank