Photo credit: GSMA
An Interview with Mohammad Mudassar Aqil, President & CEO, Easypaisa / Telenor Microfinance Bank, Pakistan
Q. What impact has the coronavirus had on Pakistan?
A. The situation that we, as a nation, are facing because of the Coronavirus is unprecedented. So far, the number of recorded cases has escalated to more than 3000 cases, which are unfortunately increasing by the passing day. The impacts which we are witnessing as a result of this pandemic are diverse, ranging from health and safety to societal and economic. With our entire nation under lockdown, most of the business activities are halted or slowed down. Naturally, the stagnancy in demand has resulted in an economic slowdown, which is anticipated to last for an extended period of time.
Our country is witnessing a surge in the number of recorded cases of patients which is leading to another unique challenge. In such trying times, hospitals, medical institutions and the administration are broadcasting relief packages for the citizens in need, creating effective isolation units and trying their level best on optimal resource allocation to cater to the rising number of citizens in need of treatment. These are just a few indicators which are not only alarming for Pakistan, but also for all the countries who have been a victim of the COVID-19. However, I believe that these are testing times and by working together smartly, cautiously and effectively, we can get through it stronger than ever.
Q. How is it affecting the clients of Telenor Bank?
A. Telenor Microfinance Bank, like all other microfinance institutions operating in the country, is a pivotal part of an industry which plays a crucial role in supporting the economy of Pakistan and its citizens and their day-to-day lives and especially in this precarious situation.
One of the most pressing concerns that our customers are facing these days is that with businesses closed, there is no revenue that can enable them to meet expenses and pay back the loans owed by them. It has given rise to a tough and stressful situation but health and safety of the community has to take precedence. However, in the wake of the COVID-19 situation, the State Bank of Pakistan has allowed banks and microfinance institutions to restructure loans providing customers for a period of up to a year’s worth of flexibility in repayment. At Telenor Microfinance Bank we are providing support to our customers so that they won’t have to worry about their debts when the economy has slowed down. Moreover, we are also educating them on health and sanitization for their safety and well-being.
Q. What is the bank doing to protect the safety of its staff and clients?
A. Being Pakistan’s premier microfinance organization, we have always strived to set high standards with everything we do and will continue to do so. We believe our employees and customers to be the greatest assets that we have and in such unfortunate circumstances, we are taking all measures in our capacity to ensure that they are provided with the most convenient solutions and a safe environment to work in.
In terms of operational staff, let me begin by reiterating that we have shifted to a skeleton staff and have cut physical presence to a bare minimum. Fulfilling the responsibility of being a financial institution providing essential services, we cannot entirely shutter branches and operations and have to maintain a small attendance on-ground. I take pride in saying that we are strictly adhering by stringent standards to provide the highest quality of hygiene and health safety to our dearest employees who are at the front line and are tirelessly performing their duties. In addition, our offices are being disinfected on a regular basis all personnel are instructed to maintain a safe distance between them. Similarly, sanitizers, safety masks and gloves are also being provided to everyone present in the offices and branches and it goes without saying that awareness regarding the risks is also being imparted through all mediums on a regular basis.
Moving towards the customers who have to visit our branches in order to perform their necessary transactions, we are creating a cocoon of safety. In addition to the distancing practices and hand sanitizers being provided to them, all currency notes at the bank are going through a mandatory quarantine and disinfection process. Most importantly, in order to promote a safer environment, we are encouraging customers to shift towards the widespread use of digital payment services like Easypaisa. Such mobile wallets and digital banking solutions provide almost all services required by a layman to conduct their daily transactions and more without visiting any bank branches.
Q. How does your digital channel allow you to continue operations?
A. Easypaisa which is Pakistan’s first mobile based branchless banking service has a history and a solid reputation. When platform was launched in 2009, it was the first of its kind fund transfer service and today, with a refreshed digital platform, it is one of the most effective tools available to consumers. Over the years, as technology has advanced, Easypaisa has aimed at becoming a complete digital payments solution and in such a difficult time where Coronavirus has halted movement and people are indoors, it provides almost every service that a user would need to conduct their daily financial activities remotely without the need of being physically present at a bank or public place.
With the help of our Easypaisa mobile application, the citizens of Pakistan can enjoy a variety of different services which include but are not limited to: maintaining accounts and wallet, transferring of money and conducting payments, recharging their mobile balances, paying utility bills, availing various discounts and topping up their wallets which are also integrated with various e-commerce platforms. As a whole, these services are enabling the users to carry out financial exchanges needed most in this time of crisis.
In such testing times, our team is dedicatedly and tirelessly working to come up with more innovative and convenient options for not only individuals but entire organizations and the Government as well. Companies can put up entire salary disbursement systems on Easypaisa. Similarly, the government can use our flagship application to disburse amounts to fellow citizens at large and incorporate it for charitable payments and/or collection of donations.
Q. Many microfinance providers are expecting to face a liquidity crunch in the next few weeks. Do you see that coming for your bank, and what are you doing in response?
A. We are in the midst of an unprecedented challenge mainly because the prospects of a global pandemic impacting economies and financial institutions at this magnitude had never been considered, on any level.
With businesses shut and markets closed, liquidity crunch is an acute problem for many non-bank microfinance institutions and the present circumstances pose a tough challenge for them. These institutions rely on repayments of existing loans for liquidity to then use those funds to provide new credit facilities to others. With us being a bank, we are funded through deposits, which are holding strong and steady therefore we do not have any liquidity concerns at the moment.
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Larry, Thanks for your wonderful work and getting the world out. Jeff