The Oasis Reporters
July 24, 2023
Nigeria was the first country in Africa to roll out a central bank digital currency. The eNaira was launched in October 2021.
The main reasons were to promote financial inclusion, increase cross-border transactions, facilitate diaspora remittances and complement existing payment systems.
Since October 2022, the number of e-Naira wallets has reportedly increased more than 12-fold to 13 million. There has also been a 63% increase to N22 billion (US$48 million) in the value of transactions so far in 2023, thanks to the currency crisis earlier in the year.
Still, a lot needs to be done to encourage the financially excluded to adopt the eNaira.
It’s important for Nigeria and other African economies to use central bank digital currencies because the widespread use of crypto-assets poses a real threat to their monetary sovereignty. If a globally accessible and transferable currency exists to settle transactions, particularly over the internet, domestic currencies become less relevant and won’t be used.
Another key reason for adoption is the global drive to tokenise assets – the representation of the ownership rights of real-world assets as digital tokens/assets on a blockchain. Central bank digital currencies are well placed to serve as the anchor for all forms of digital assets and digital currencies.
Projects to develop them are also happening at a frenetic pace.
The Bank for International Settlements – the bank of all central banks – has launched numerous projects through its Innovation Hub Centres, to test the uses of central bank digital currencies at the domestic and global levels. It does this in collaboration with Central Banks located in these Centres. BIS Innovation Hub Centres exist in Europe, North America and Asia; there is a need for one on the African continent.
The Central Bank of the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank have issued their own central bank digital currency. This is primarily to facilitate financial inclusion for remote island communities and to strengthen the payments system’s resilience to natural disasters and pandemics.
Adoption has been slow and accessing central bank digital currency has been a challenge. This is mostly the result of a weak awareness campaign and poor infrastructure.
The story is the same in China. It is piloting its central bank digital currency, called e-CNY, in 26 cities but still experiencing poor adoption. In response, the Chinese government recently announced its intention to broaden the use of the e-CNY in educational institutions. That includes areas like scholarship distribution, tax payment and school purchases.
I have researched and contributed to the policy discussions on the regulation of crypto-assets domestically and globally. I have also been involved in public consultations on central bank digital currency. I understand the role it can play for the future use of money and for international monetary and financial stability.
The eNaira, in my view, would need to get past certain challenges before it can be widely adopted domestically. These challenges include absence of technology infrastructure, lack of training for financial institution staff who have to manage the process, data privacy concerns, the electricity crisis and fear of financial crimes.
Barriers to adoption
Technology infrastructure: The Central Bank of Nigeria needs to ensure that a robust technology infrastructure is in place to manage the eNaira. This doesn’t appear to have been clearly thought out before the launch. In February 2023, it was announced that Nigeria was in talks with a new technology provider to develop a new system to run and manage the eNaira.
The original system was built by Bitt, a global financial technology company.
It is believed that the Central Bank of Nigeria wants to develop its own software for the digital currency. The new partner would help the central bank to control the underlying technology.
A change of the technology provider two years into the project suggests the country does not have the right programme for rolling out a robust system.
Training: The idea is that financial institutions would give users access to central bank digital currency wallets while the central bank oversees the ledger and manages the system. It is, however, reported that banks and financial institution staff do not appear well trained to get users on board. So the system is not fully ready for adoption.
Data privacy: Under the current design, the central bank will be able to see all transactions of users of the eNaira. Potential users are apprehensive about this and a solution is needed.
Prevention of financial crimes: A tiered mechanism is in place for the issuance of eNaira wallet, depending on the level of identification documentation users provide. Each tier has certain balance and transaction limits to prevent abuse of the system.
But this is likely to limit access for the people who need financial inclusion the most. This is so as they are likely to find it difficult fulfilling the more stringent identification requirements needed for a larger transaction limit. Also, the eNaira design uses the existing Bank Verification Number and National Identity Number regime. Poorer people are likely to be challenged getting the documentation needed for this and it can be an expensive and cumbersome process.
As this system is currently only accessible to those with bank accounts, it does not facilitate financial inclusion.
Nigeria’s electricity and internet crisis: The electricity crisis and lack of widespread access to internet connectivity across the country, especially in rural communities, is a challenge. There would be a need for offline access to the eNaira platform.
To drive the smooth and speedy adoption of the eNaira, it must be made accessible to everyone with a mobile phone. Users could also get incentives to use the digital currency, in the form of discounts when paying taxes and for other public services.
Another strategy is to embed mobile networks or payment apps into the central bank digital currency wallets, to make it possible to operate across different mobile network operators.
If these challenges can be surmounted and policy approaches to adoption implemented, adoption of the eNaira is likely to pick up.