When we talk about online payments, perhaps one of the first images that comes to mind is that of the PSE payment button. Even before the pandemic, this service was one of the most used to make electronic payments in Colombia. The pandemic meant a change not only for consumers, but also for businesses, and much of this change was largely supported by the enablement of virtual payments.

Although the PSE button is one of the best known services, ACH – its parent company – has its sights set on reaching more and more Colombians and creating an interoperability ecosystem. With this in mind, in Impacto TIC We sat down to talk with Gustavo Vega Villamil, president of ACH, about how growth has been in the pandemic, what visions he has of the current market and, perhaps more importantly, what the country needs in terms of banking.

A lifelong goal that has come to the fore lately is that of financial inclusion. There are many people who do not have access to bank accounts or facilities, and one goal of the union has been to include them. ACH is not a bank, but it is a facilitator. How was this task?

Interesting how you put it. Indeed, we are not a financial entity, but what we intend with our service is interoperability. It is a word that we use a lot in our guild, and it is that everyone can connect with everyone. So technology is indeed a great enabler.

And what we are looking for with this is that many entities can connect so that we can reach more Colombians. At the beginning we only worked with banks, so it was a limited number. Today we work with banks, with digital wallets, we work with cooperatives, with finance companies, we work with trust companies. So, we expanded the portfolio of entities that can work with us.

The arrival of electronic deposit wallets has made it easier to reach more Colombians who today can open a Nequi, a Daviplata very quickly. If these are also interconnected as in our system, then obviously we give Colombians many more options so that they have an account and can access financial services.

Of course the pandemic helped us, even if there are certain industries that it didn't. But in the end I think that all things were given to more Colombians accessing financial services. Now that we are getting back to normal, the challenge is that. The challenge is that people do not return. That is a problem.

gustavo vega president ach
Gustavo Vega Villamil, President ACH. Image: ACH

Like users, SMEs have been a sector that has widely adopted the topic of online payments and the integration of technology in their processes. What is ACH's view on all of this?

Of course, when the pandemic happened, it happened to us as users, but it was worse for companies because they had to close their businesses, so they had to quickly, like everyone else, adjust to the new reality. I'll give you a number. We placed about 70 or 50 PSE buttons per month to new companies before the pandemic.

When the pandemic hits and everyone starts to migrate, obviously the list was blown up and we got to have up to 1.000 monthly buttons. Everyone had to find mechanisms and PSE became a solution for companies. We were fortunate as a sector that the pandemic helped us, and that because it was not only the user, but the companies had to find a way to sell their products and PSE was a solution for many companies and that began to grow.

We even had to reinforce the teams, include more people to be able to link all these companies, then undoubtedly that other end also benefited.

Now that the world and the country begin to emerge from the pandemic and we see that in general things are leveling out in terms of electronic and physical commerce, how has this new normality been for ACH?

That's the big challenge. The one who went to the digital world, is not returned. The challenge is as a country, because formalization, digital payments, the community, security; Those things are quality of life. So I think it's a challenge as a country.

I'm going to give you a figure and I'm going to focus on PSE. Indeed, in 2020 we grew more than 100%, and it is an absurd graph. Last year we grew 32%. And this first quarter, as far as we've seen, we've grown 34%. If you ask me what we budgeted for this year, we are going over what we had budgeted on the payments button. This tells us that we, the users, have gained more confidence.

And notice that even though we are getting back to normal, many of us are still at home. If I have to go out to queue and it's raining and if I can pay here, why do I make the effort to complicate my life? So fortunately I feel that Colombians have become more accustomed to digital payments. That's in the numbers.

One of the most prevalent realities in Colombia is the existence of neighborhood stores, where even after the pandemic, cash has continued to be the most used medium. Have you thought a little about how to integrate this sector?

Our team has made several field trips. We recently made an agreement with USAID and went to 9 municipalities to talk to people and tell them about Transfiya. There is a bit of everything really. People who like it say it's great because then they already imagine everything they can do and how comfortable it is. The traditional shopkeeper today of technology does not have much. And there is also the problem of informality, which is a country problem.

Transfer is a service that allows you to send and receive money immediately between different financial entities and only using the cell phone number to make the transfer. At the moment, Transfiya has an agreement with 14 financial entities in Colombia.

The handling of bills also brings a lot of informality. Let's say someone doesn't want to pay the 4 per 1.000, they don't want to pay taxes, they don't want the Dian to audit them. There is a very strong cultural problem. The Government is interested in all these inclusion and formalization programs, because to the extent that this is formal, there is growth in the country and the country grows.

And from ACH, what are you doing to remedy this?

I think that saying that all Colombian adults have a cell phone would be quite approximate, right? So we sought to create a service in which low-value resources could be transferred and the user experience would be simple. And that is why Transfiya was born.

You just have to know a cell phone number to make a transfer that arrives in seconds. We entered this niche very focused on competing with the use of cash in these day-to-day transactions. That is the dream, really, that wherever you go, instead of taking out your wallet, make a Transfiya.

We are realizing that many entrepreneurs, small businesses, the lady who sells the cake, the man who brings the eggs, the dog walker, the trainer, the manicurist... These people are using Transfiya as a mechanism to collect or provide their services and get paid electronically.

So what was thought to be person-to-person, we are already seeing great potential in person-to-business or person-to-commerce. We are seeing great potential in that small business, in that small entrepreneur, in the neighborhood store, in the hardware store, in the miscellaneous. That's where a lot of cash is handled.

When we talk about education, we often refer to user education. However, sometimes it is also necessary to accompany the government so that they better understand new technologies and the true scope they will have in the future. What role have you assumed in this case?

A good question. Well, look, we are very close to the Financial Superintendence, and we have always been willing to collaborate with them, to share information or training. The URF, which is the Financial Regulation Unit of the Ministry of Finance, is also close to them.

We rely heavily on the Banking Association, obviously, as a union. There are our users, the shareholders, the banks, so there are different mechanisms, but it is not easy. You have touched a point that is not easy.

Broken people in government. Sitting at a desk is not the same as having been on the street. That is missing from the government. Understand a little more, because finally they are the authority. We have always been willing, we have a good relationship and always trying to collaborate. But we do need greater proximity and that is why I say that the problem of inclusion, of formalization, is a country problem. Not only from the financial sector, but also from the Government.

Main Image: Blake wisz (Unsplash)