Prime Minister Mia Mottley has stepped in to quell a potential standoff between the fintech (financial technology) company Bitt and some commercial banks by announcing a digital currency pilot project.
Mottley did not give details of the planned mobile wallet pilot project or when it would begin but gave the assurance that it would not be done in a reckless manner.
Her comments came on Tuesday as she responded to comments by Chief Executive Officer of Bitt Senator Rawdon Adams, during the company’s second annual blockchain conference at the Hilton Resort under the theme Central Bank Meets Blockchain: From the Ground Up.
Bitt utilizes blockchain and distributed ledger technology to facilitate secure peer-to-peer transactions through mobile money across a range of software and mobile applications.
But the CEO complained of the reluctance of some unnamed commercial banks to embrace Bitt’s proposal to partner with them in introducing this form of artificial intelligence in moving money between clients.
Insisting that the mobile wallet project, mMoney, was not a competitor but a complement to the financial services industry, Adams said there was a mix reaction from commercial banks with some being “sympathetic”, others not knowing what to make of the mobile wallet and others being “hostile”.
“We are seeking to demonstrate what hundreds of merchants and now thousands of users know already, that digital currency is ready to be used as a complement to existing payment methods both in Barbados and across the region,” he said.
At least one banker had referred to the mMoney wallet as a “potential danger to the financial system”, Senator Adams said, which represented a competitive stance.
But saying this “nonsense must stop”, the Prime Minister called for an end to “this unfortunate debate and discussion and tension between those who want to hold on to a status quo and those who want to move forward”.
“The nonsense must stop. The conflict that has permeated our environment with respect to who will speak to who and who will not speak to who and who will not do what with whom,” she said, suggesting that the only ones to suffer would be the population.
Giving the assurance that the approach to be taken with the mobile wallet pilot project would not be one-size-fits-all, Mottley promised that legitimate concerns of banks and regulators would be addressed.
Stating that she was not prepared to “hobble development and constrain progress by refusing to admit that the world continues to evolve”, the no-nonsense leader said there was need for an urgent face-to-face discussion to take place on the matter,
which she said she was prepared to take the lead on.
“Such that we can launch the Barbados Mmoney pilot, a pilot between Bitt, Central Bank and the FSC [Financial Service Commission] that facilitates electronic payments, digital payments for our people in Barbados,” Mottley said to sustained applause.
She said she was doing so not because it was easy but because there were “legitimate concerns on all sides” and it was a “complex” matter.
“I do so because this country cannot and will not be stuck at a moment in time,” Mottley added, while pointing out that fear was one of the most paralyzing of emotions.
“This country cannot be held by the fear of the unknown. We will not be reckless because that is not our nature but we will move forward from this day confident that the Barbados Mmoney pilot must take place and if the pilot says it is not good then so be it, but if the pilot says it is good then so be it as well,” said Mottley.
“We have a very large potential client in this country to sign a contract. They haven’t signed a contract yet because their bank refuses to accept any transfer of money from us to them,” he revealed, without naming the bank.
While Bitt had made three attempts to have an appointment with the bank in question, those requests have been shot down each time without good reason, Adams told the packed room of central bankers, commercial bankers, entrepreneurs, and executives from technology firms, tourism and multilateral organizations.
“All we are asking now is for a meeting so that we can understand what their objection is and they have said ‘our internal stakeholders are not supportive of the initiative at this time. We are not prepared to participate. Sorry, we will have to decline’,” said Adams.
He expressed disappointment that Bitt had a “deeper relationship” and was developing more partnerships in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica and the rest of the Eastern Caribbean than in Barbados – “the territory that arguably needs fintech the most”.
Pointing to the current pressures being put on commercial banks in relation to correspondent banking issues, Adams said it was better for fintech companies and banks to work together in order “to meet the breadth and depth of true market demand for financial services”.
Adding that Bitt was not asking commercial banks for a favour, Adams said “it was one thing to be competitive, but it is another thing to be obstructive and anticompetitive”.
The Prime Minister also gave the assurance that she would ensure that Barbados would remain compliant with anti-money laundering laws and know your customer guidelines, adding that nobody should be able to point a finger at Barbados or “use a fist against us”.