Sonect: Unlocking the Latin American cash economy

Sonect, Switzerland's leading digital ATM network, targets Latin America's cash economy, aiming to serve Latin America's 70% unbanked, transforming venues into virtual ATMs and bridging cash reliance with digital convenience.

2 October 2023

Swiss company Sonect was only established in 2016, and yet by 2019 was already the largest digital ATM network in Switzerland with 1.5 million users and over 7500 virtual ATMs. In building this network, Sonect has not only significantly enhanced the utility of cash transactions in an economy in which they still account for nearly 40% of all consumer purchases, but also partnered with established banks and payment platforms.

Now, Sonect has its sights set on the untapped cash economy of Latin America, where its unique business model is primed to unlock the potential offered by the region’s preference for cash and lack of interoperable fintech services, which have seen most transactions digitised in other parts of the world.

How Sonect Works

Sonect has an app that links to a user’s bank account and provides a unique barcode which the user can then use to withdraw cash from any participating retail outlet. Sonect has also partnered with banks and payment platforms which embed its technology inside existing apps. This greatly increases user adoption as the functionality is pushed out in an app update.

Sonect and Latin America

In 2021, Sonect was awarded an IFPE license to commence operations in Mexico, a country that not only offers enormous opportunities for their service, but also acts as a gateway to the rest of Latin America.

A report by The Fletcher School’s Institute for Business in the Global Context, found that 90% of consumer transactions in Mexico are still performed in cash and account for more than 75% of the total value of consumer payments.

While most modern fintech companies that try to break into the Latin American market aim to reduce cash usage, digitise transactions and bring the informal economy into the fold, Sonect 's service leverages the region’s reliance on cash by turning any retail venue into a virtual ATM.

A store in Mexico that could become a virtual ATM thanks to Sonect.

Sonect's service facilitates the cash withdrawals Latin American consumers show little sign of abandoning. But it also provides value to banks, who see their customers offered a new, convenient service, and to retailers, who in becoming cash access venues, diversify their service offering which in turn drives increased footfall and can also significantly reduce the costs and inconvenience of handling and banking cash.

Sonect's app offers consumers a secure method of withdrawing cash from the tills of shops, petrol stations, and other retail outlets improving convenience and reducing their reliance on a shrinking population of expensive ATMs, or the time-consuming process of withdrawing cash from a bank.

Sonect is now targeting acquisitions across the region to build on its presence in Mexico to expand its merchant and customer network alongside the existing partnerships with banks and payment platforms.

However, Sonect’s plan to also offer its services to customers without bank accounts significantly widens its potential addressable market across Latin America where the percentage of the population without a bank account is far higher than in other parts of the world.

In Mexico, less than one-third of the population (around 27.9%) has a bank account, according to research by Tufts University, but across the entire region, according to Latin America Reports 7 in 10 Latin Americans are unbanked.

How Sonect addresses problems of an informal cash economy

The five main challenges of using cash in a typical Latin American economy are: fees, transit, queues, risks and opportunity costs.

Fees

Cash withdrawals in Latin America almost always incur a fee in part due to the lack of interoperability between financial services products. The average fee in Mexico, for example, is around $35 MXN pesos - or $2 USD per transaction.

By offering lower withdrawal fees – or, in the case of Mexico, a one-off joiner fee - Sonect opens the door to cheaper cash access in a region where the savings will be a major factor in winning favour among the potential customer base.

Transit

Another issue faced by those throughout Latin America is the scarcity of banks and ATMs, especially in more remote regions. The reality for many people wishing to withdraw money or access other financial services is the time,cost and inconvenience of travelling large distances to the nearest bank or ATM.

By turning existing infrastructure, such as petrol stations and retail outlets, into cash access points, Sonect unlocks the potential for these venues to provide a vital service to those living outside the range of traditional cash access points.

Queues

Waiting in long lines at traditional cash access points such as banks or ATMs is a common experience for many Latin Americans. Sonect’s product solves this issue by broadening the number of cash access points into the tens of thousands providing time saving convenience to consumers.

Risks

A lack of cash access points for many Latin Americans leads many to make long journeys to the nearest bank or ATM to withdraw sizeable sums that will last them weeks or even months. There are clearly many risks associated with this approach to cash management.

By adding such depth in numbers to the region’s cash access points, Sonect allows users an alternative to simply holding large sums of cash. With Sonect, users can withdraw less cash more often at various access points in their location and rely on the security of their bank to protect their accounts.

Opportunity Costs

Cash physically held in homes or in pockets is subject to loss of value through inflation. Savings retained in bank accounts can accrue income to protect against this loss of value. By enabling consumers to keep more of their savings invested, Sonect's service helps consumers to insulate themselves from this inflation problem.

Summary

Sonect’s technology delivers a cash access solution to consumers that effectively bridges the gap between digital transactions and traditional cash usage. Its innovative business model transforms local shops into virtual ATMs, driving footfall and negating the need for expensive and extensive physical bank ATM infrastructures. Since its launch in Switzerland in 2016, the company has displayed remarkable growth, building a presence not just in Europe, but also internationally in markets across Latin America and now in Africa.

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10 December 2023

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