Although Nigeria boasts about its digital currency launch, there are contradictory opinions about eNaira’s subsequent adoption. The eNaira has the potential to impact Nigeria’s economy positively, however, it is not possible without its widespread acceptance.
CBDC – A global picture
Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) is virtual currency or money issued and controlled by a country’s central bank. According to the Atlantic Council, a leading US-based think tank, 130 countries were considering a CBDC as of September 2023, while only 35 countries were exploring a CBDC as of May 2020. This steep rise in the number of countries considering CBDC in a span of just over three years shows an increasing interest in CBDC across the globe. Even more so, some 64 countries are already in an advanced phase of exploration of the currency (development, pilot, or launch phase).
Among the G20 countries, 19 are in the advanced stage of developing CBDC, and 9 out of these 19 G20 countries are in the pilot phase. There are some 11 countries that have launched a CBDC. China’s CBDC is in the pilot stage and is presently reaching 260 million people taking part in this pilot while being tested in more than 200 scenarios, including e-commerce, public transit, and stimulus payments. In Europe, the European Central Bank is currently on course to start its pilot for CBDC, the digital euro.
More than 20 other countries are stepping towards piloting their digital currency in 2023. Countries such as Australia, Thailand, and Russia plan on continuing pilot testing. Brazil and India intend to launch their CBDC in 2024.
eNaira – A choice or compulsion?
eNaira is Nigeria’s digital currency, issued and regulated by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for retail use. It is a liability of the CBN, similar to coins and cash.
Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum are similar to eNaira in terms of the underlying Bitcoin technology. Apart from this, both cryptocurrencies and eNaira are stored in digital wallets and can be used for payments and digital transfers across the globe to anyone with an eNaira account at no cost.
However, what makes eNaira different from Bitcoin or Ethereum is that the CBN has access rights controls over the Nigerian digital currency. Secondly, the eNaira is not a financial asset but rather a digital form of the physical naira, to which it is pegged at parity.
With the release of eNaira in October 2021, Nigeria became the first country in the African continent and second in the world after the Bahamas to launch a CBDC. Major motivations behind launching CBDC in Nigeria included encouraging financial inclusion, improving cross-border transactions, complementing the current payment systems, and enabling diaspora remittances. However, the adoption of eNaira has been low, with only 0.5% of the Nigerian population using CBDC within a year of its launch.
In a rather desperate move to compel its people to adopt eNaira, the government caused cash shortages in the country. This resulted in protests, riots, and unrest among Nigerians. As a result of the currency shortages in early 2022, Nigeria witnessed a 12-fold increase in the number of e-Naira wallets to 13 million since October 2021.
As of July 2023, the value of transactions had also seen a 63% rise to N22 billion (US$48 million) since its launch in October 2021. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), 98.5% of the eNaira wallets were inactive one year after the launch of the CBDC, meaning 98.5% of eNaira wallets have not been used even once during any given week. These low levels of activity mirror the low public adoption of eNaira.
Motivations to launch eNaira: Strong enough to sustain adoption?
CBN conceived multiple advantages of adopting eNaira, such as fostering financial inclusion, facilitating remittances, and minimizing informality in the economy. These serve as motivations for launching eNaira and are expected to take shape with the eNaira becoming more widespread along with strong support of the regulatory system.
Fostering financial inclusion
Currently, eNaira can be used by people with bank accounts, but the idea is to expand the coverage to anyone with a mobile phone, even if they do not have a bank account. Around 38% of the adult population in Nigeria do not have bank accounts. If this section of the adult population could be provided with access to eNaira through mobile phones, Nigeria could potentially achieve 90% financial inclusion.
Nigeria is one of the Sub-Saharan African countries that receives considerable remittances. In 2019, Nigeria received US$24 billion in remittances, which are usually made through international money transfer operators. These operators charge around 1-5% of the value of the transaction as their fee. One of the motivations for launching eNaira is to reduce the costs associated with remittance transfers.
Minimizing informality in the economy
With more than half of the economy being informal, it becomes imperative for the Nigerian government to introduce a digital currency across the country to reduce the informality in the economy and increase the country’s tax revenues. Therefore, eNaira was launched in Nigeria to strengthen the tax base along with obtaining higher transparency in informal payments.
Can Nigeria overcome implementation challenges to spur eNaira adoption?
It comes as no surprise that Nigeria is facing a range of adoption barriers on its journey to eNaira’s widespread implementation. Apart from perceptual barriers such as considering eNaira wallets as deposits at the central bank, which might decrease the demand for deposits in commercial banks, there are cybersecurity risks and operational barriers linked to eNaira. These adoption barriers to Nigeria’s CBDC include a combination of factors such as lack of required tech infrastructure, lack of training of bank personnel managing the process, trust issues, and electricity and internet issues.
Lack of tech infrastructure
The CBN is looking to revamp the technological platform used for eNaira and was in talks for that with a company called R3 in early 2023. CBN is contemplating having complete control over the platform, while eNaira was initially developed in collaboration with a fintech multinational called Bitt. The change of technology platform vendor in less than two years might suggest a lack of vision of CBN regarding the technological infrastructure necessary for the seamless adoption of eNaira.
Lack of training
The CBN is expected to oversee the ledger and manage the system, while other financial institutions, such as banks, are to provide users with access to CBDC wallets. The bank staff is required to onboard users to the eNaira platform. However, it is observed that the bank staff is not sufficiently trained to be able to seamlessly bring users on board. This, in turn, negatively impacts the adoption of CBDC.
Nigeria has been considered a country with high money laundering and terrorist organizations funding risk (ML/TF). In February 2023, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global money laundering and terrorism funding inspection organization, put Nigeria on its grey list owing to Nigeria not having adequate measures to curb such activities. Similarly, Basel Institute of Governance, a non-profit organization focused on improving governance and preventing corruption and other financial crimes, in its 2022 global ranking on ML/TF risks, placed Nigeria 17th out of 128 countries, a high spot indicating a significant risk of ML/TF.
In the current design of CBDC in Nigeria, the CBN is equipped to monitor all users’ transactions using eNaira, potentially allowing it to detect and curb ML/TF activities and improve Nigeria’s standing in the risk rankings. However, this has turned out to be a double-edged sword in implementing eNaira. The high level of supervision of all transactions has brought apprehension amongst potential users in Nigeria, most of whom believe that eNaira was developed by the government to monitor the monetary transactions, breaching their right to privacy and potentially giving the government a tool to control them. This lack of trust significantly hampers the adoption of the CBDC in Nigeria.
Electricity and internet issues
With around 92 million people not having access to power in a population of 200 million, Nigeria has one of the lowest electricity access rates globally, as per the Energy Progress Report 2022 published by Tracking SDG 7. At the same time, the internet penetration in Nigeria stands at 55.4% in 2023. Seamless internet connectivity and power access are some of the critical prerequisites for the smooth implementation of the eNaira in Nigeria.
What would give eNaira adoption a much-needed push?
As the challenges to widespread adoption of the eNaira are multipronged, finding solutions to overcome the implementation challenges is not easy or quick.
One of the main infrastructural challenges, inadequate power and internet access, should be among the first to be addressed. One way to approach it is to create offline access to the eNaira platform. To achieve this, the CBN launched the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) code for eNaira, meaning that Nigerians without internet-enabled phones can perform transactions with eNaira.
To facilitate rapid and seamless adoption of the eNaira, the CBN must make the CBDC available to everyone with a mobile phone. More and more people should be encouraged to use eNaira by incentivizing them through rebates while paying income tax. Another incentive example dates back to October 2022 when CBN offered discounts if people used eNaira to pay for cabs.
The eNaira has the potential to have a significant impact on the Nigerian economy. As transactions using eNaira are fully traceable, more widespread adoption of eNaira is expected to expand the country’s tax base by bringing higher transparency in payments, especially in informal markets. It will undoubtedly result in higher tax revenue, a development welcomed by the government.
With US$24 billion in remittance receipts in 2019, Nigeria is considered one of the key remittance destinations in Sub-Saharan Africa. As remittances are currently burdened with a 1-5% charge of the transaction value, removing these costs through the adoption of eNaira would bring more remittance income to the population and, indirectly, more capital to the Nigerian economy.
With the expanded tax base, cheaper and higher inflows of remittances, facilitated retail payments, welfare transfers, etc., the impact of the eNaira on the Nigerian economy is likely to be quite considerable. Indeed, at the time of launch, the CBN estimated that the eNaira should increase Nigeria’s GDP by US$29 billion over the first 10 years, contributing to the country’s economic growth and development. With the implementation challenges encountered so far, it is clear that these estimations were overly optimistic. Still, how well the CBN can do its homework and undertake well-directed steps to navigate the challenges remains to be seen.