The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been far reaching. Countries (large and small) have been forced to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of everyday life. Our learning, work, worship, socializing and shopping have all been enabled by digital technologies. Undoubtedly, one of the most enduring lessons of this pandemic, is the criticality of connectivity and digital tools.
By force of circumstances, some countries have done in ten weeks what they had threatened to do in ten years. Notwithstanding the increase in the use of card payments, in recent years, as shown in Figure 1 below, the pandemic has accelerated our process of digital transformation. There is no turning back.
Figure 1: Trends in Card Transactions
The Digital EC Dollar Pilot Project is a strategic initiative of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) aimed at advancing the socio-economic transformation of our region. It involves the development of a blockchain-based, digital version of our EC currency. The introduction of a digital version of the EC currency (DCash) offers a range of benefits to the citizens and residents of the ECCU. DCash is a faster, cheaper and safer payment option to physical cash and other payment channels.
A huge motivation and big benefit of DCash is the significant reduction in the cost of financial transactions. As Table 1 demonstrates, the cost of transacting, and by extension the cost of doing business, using existing payment channels is relatively high. This lived reality for individuals and especially small businesses acts as a disincentive and deterrent and often renders them financially excluded.
Table 1: Transaction Fees
Sources: ECCB and Caribbean Credit Card Corporation Ltd.
Not only is transacting in DCash cheaper, it is also faster. Those of us impatiently waiting on a cheque to clear, to take care of some business, truly understand the old adage: time is money. At present, the final settlement of cheques, card payments and wire transfers, can occur up to three (3) days. In contrast, the settlement of DCash payments and transfers is near instantaneous.
Another key benefit of DCash compared to physical cash is its enhanced security, which makes it safer. With DCash, the risk of loss of funds is almost eliminated. Why? Because unlike physical cash which can be stolen from a wallet/purse, pocket or some physical location, digital cash cannot be lost or stolen.
From a business perspective, less physical cash significantly reduces the risk of loss by robbery or theft, especially in ‘busy seasons’ when cash intake is high.
From the perspective of both financial institutions and businesses, reduced use of physical cash will translate into a reduction in the storage, security, insurance, transportation and handling costs associated with the movement, handling and securing of physical cash.
The ECCB remains committed to the safety, soundness and integrity of the financial system, even as it diversifies and seeks to build greater competiveness and resilience in the ECCU. In this regard, the Bank has been careful to observe and incorporate industry standards and best practices as it relates to cybersecurity. Due care and attention were also given to the data privacy concerns.
At the heart of the design and development of DCash are security features geared to provide comfort to users that their funds and data are adequately protected. Furthermore, careful attention has been paid to the underlying infrastructure which supports the DCash ecosystem. The use of IBM Hyper-ledger fabric is intentional and satisfies the need for a private permissioned-based solution where all participants must be registered and existing Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) protocols are strictly observed.
Digital cash (DCash) also helps with better financial management by individuals through the reporting functionality in the DCash app. This means that users of DCash can track all their expenditure. Users will no longer wonder where their money went or was spent.
The DCash promotes financial inclusion by offering a solution that does not require users to have an account at a financial institution such as a bank or credit union. Such persons will be able to obtain a value-based wallet (VBW) through an agent authorized by the ECCB. The availability of a VBW will also help customers in countries where their financial institution is not yet registered for the pilot. The initial threshold will be EC$2,700 per month.
Persons with accounts at participating financial institutions will have a registered-based wallet (RBW). For such customers, there is no fixed threshold. Instead, their financial institution will make that determination based on their existing profile.
Readers, there is a payments revolution underway globally. The ECCB is pellucidly clear that the retail payments system is a public good. On the basis of that clarity, the Bank has undertaken this strategic initiative.
As we contemplate the future of payments in the ECCU over the next five years, we see an emerging picture of less use of physical cash and more use of digital cash and other forms of electronic payments. Hereunder is a picture of what this future may look like in the ECCU.
In the context of the ongoing pandemic where physical and social distancing are required, DCash offers a contactless method of payment that would serve us well in our ‘new normal’.
Since the inception of the pilot in late March 2019, extensive work has been done towards the development and testing of the applications (apps) through which the DCash will be issued by the ECCB. These apps have benefitted from feedback provided through extensive collaborative engagements with various key stakeholders including financial institutions, merchants, government agencies and focus end-user groups.
The live pilot, scheduled to be launched publicly by the end of March 2021, will be initially rolled out in four (4) ECCU member countries, namely, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Saint Christopher (St Kitts) and Nevis and Saint Lucia. Later this year, it will be rolled out in the remaining four (4) member countries. With all member countries onboard, DCash users will have the ability to send funds to anyone, anywhere in the ECCU at a fraction of current costs.
In sum, the ECCU is on the cusp of the public rollout of DCash. Get ready. Get onboard.
I conclude this blog post with an oft-repeated saying of mine: “we cannot change our history and we cannot change our geography but we can elevate our development trajectory through collective action and the deployment of digital technologies”.
 IBM Hyper-ledger Fabric is a Blockchain protocol which has the following features/characteristics:
The ECCB acknowledges the significant contribution of Ms Sharmyn Powell, Chairperson of ECCB’s Fintech Working Group and Chief Risk Officer, Office of Corporate Strategy and Risk Management, ECCB in the preparation of content for this blog. The Bank also acknowledges the assistance provided by Dr Emefa Sewordor and Mrs Monique Franks of the Governor’s Immediate Office.
The Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) was established in October 1983. The ECCB is the Monetary Authority for: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Commonwealth of Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, Saint Christopher (St Kitts) and Nevis, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
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