SoftBank-funded fintech challenger Ualá expands rapidly amid the pandemic. It has issued more than 1.9m debit cards and is signing up almost half a per cent of Argentina’s population every month.
“What we expected to happen over years is now happening over weeks,” said Pierpaolo Barbieri, the 32-year-old Harvard-educated founder of Ualá. “Since the beginning of the quarantine 35 days ago, we have issued almost 140,000 cards, which is double our regular monthly issuance.” In Ualá’s favour is Argentina’s large proportion of unbanked citizens. According to the 2017 World Bank global Findex study, only 49 per cent of Argentines have a bank account. Most cite excessive cost or onerous paperwork as the main deterrents. Argentina’s banks have also been slow to innovate and are not universally trusted after numerous financial crises in past decades. Argentines are unable to go out, withdraw cash and pay bills at a neighbourhood payment point as before. Ualá’s digital bill payments service, which uses Western Union as a partner, has had a 300 per cent increase in transactions during the past month. Challenges abound. Government regulations do not currently allow Ualá to receive salary, pension or state benefit payments directly into accounts, so these must still pass through an established bank.