Electronic payments in Ethiopia are about to get a facelift following the approval of a $2.33 million grant by the African Development Bank (AfDB) for EthSwitch.

EthSwitch is the official backbone for e-payments providers and end-users in the country. It runs Ethiopay, the card scheme that helps Ethiopian banks issue payment cards. As the country’s national payment switch, EthSwitch also handles dispute resolution for financial institutions.

The National Bank of Ethiopia facilitated EthSwitch’s establishment in 2011 and owns a 46% stake in the company, while commercial banks (about 17 of them) in Ethiopia own the rest. The intention was to create a modern national payments system and accelerate financial inclusion in the country. 

Since then, EthSwitch has created a common network for ATMs and POS terminals operated by all Ethiopian banks. 

AfDB’s grant to EthSwitch comes from the Africa Digital Financial Inclusion Facility (ADFI), a fund launched in 2019 in partnership with the French Development Agency, the French Treasury, the Ministry of Finance of the Government of Luxembourg, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

ADFI aims to bring banking services to Africa’s 332 million unbanked people. The EthSwitch project is expected to simplify the distribution of social benefits, pensions and other government payments, as well as power e-commerce, transport systems, and utility bills payments.

Sheila Okiro, ADFI Fund’s coordinator, said the EthSwitch project has the potential to “change the digital payments landscape in Ethiopia.” The project is to be implemented over three years, according to AfDB’s statement.

The grant comes at a time of liberalization in Ethiopia’s technology industry. 

In February, the Ethiopian Communications Authority (ECA) announced that it had shortlisted six providers of telecommunications services for a private telecoms license. Ethiotel, the state-owned company, has been the sole provider of internet and telephone services pretty much since it was established in 1952.

Innovation in digital payments has proceeded gradually in Ethiopia. Until September 2020, Ethiopians could not use their cards to buy goods and services at POS terminals operated by any bank. 

That situation changed after the National Bank of Ethiopia commercialized the process of buying POS machines.

After achieving that interoperability milestone, EthSwitch is now reportedly trying to create a similar system for mobile and internet banking that could enable transactions between accounts, between wallets, and from an account to a wallet. 

Ultimately, the EthSwitch project could increase the overall involvement of private companies in Ethiopia. EthSwitch’s shareholding structure makes it possible for banks, microfinance institutions and non-banks to have a share and a say, subject to the National Bank of Ethiopia’s supervision.

Surroundings of the National Bank of Ethiopia. Source: Ezega.com

AfDB’s funding for EthSwitch is one of two ADFI grants for national technology infrastructure projects in Africa. The bank approved a $1 million grant for AI-based systems for processing customer complaints. The beneficiaries are the central banks of Ghana and Rwanda, and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission of Zambia. 

Last week, AfDB also granted $400,000 to Nigeria’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The grant is to strengthen SEC’s risk-based supervision framework and improve capacity for regulating derivatives, green bonds, and green finance.

Alexander Onukwue Author

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