Episode 191 – Fanning the Flames: A Year in Travel – Jordan

Yvette Bohanan

February 15, 2023

POF Podcast

We’ve reached our final destination on Glenbrook’s 2022 tour of local payment methods around the world. Joanna Wisniecka joins Yvette Bohanan on this episode of Fanning the Flames to chat about her recent trip to Jordan.

Joanna walks us through her experience opening an account and and making payments with ZainCash, and also provides insights into JoPACC (Jordan Payments & Clearing Company) initiatives throughout the country.

Yvette Bohanan:

Welcome to Payments On Fire, a podcast from Glenbrook Partners about the payments industry, how it works, and trends in its evolution. I’m Yvette Bohanan and a partner at Glenbrook and host of Payments on Fire. And today, on this podcast episode, we are wrapping up a Fanning the Flames travel log series that we have been doing to ring in the new year, 2023. And we’ve been talking with our team members who racked up miles all around the world in 2022 to hear firsthand their experiences and observations with local payment networks, how people prefer to pay as we think about this across the globe. And today’s guest is very own, the one and only Joanna Wisniecka. Joanna, welcome to Payments on Fire.

Joanna Wisniecka:

Thanks, Yvette. So happy to be here with you.

Yvette Bohanan:

Joanna, where are you taking us today?

Joanna Wisniecka:

I will be taking you to Jordan today, which was a truly memorable experience.

Yvette Bohanan:

Okay, and I know a little bit about this from your post that went on LinkedIn, some of the things we’ve talked about and I just have to start because food is universal and my understanding is you had some amazing, amazing meals while you were visiting Jordan. What’s one or two specific dishes that just come to mind as, “Wow, I’m never going to forget this”?

Joanna Wisniecka:

Wait, so how much time do we have for this podcast?

Yvette Bohanan:

Yeah, really exactly. Maybe we need a new podcast series on food around the globe, but …

Joanna Wisniecka:

All right, I will try to narrow it in. I mean, really, the food was just incredible, as was the amount of the food that we were served and we got to share with our colleagues, with our Jordanian colleagues. One dish that truly stands out to me was during a walking tour that we did of Amman and we went to this place that specializes in just one dish and it’s this dessert which is essentially fried cheese on the bottom. It’s I think a goat cheese, and it has this crusty kind of wheat, little pieces of wheat on top of it, and it’s drizzled with honey and pistachio and it’s just baked in these giant containers and it’s just absolutely phenomenal and I want to have some right now.

Yvette Bohanan:

The minute you said “goat cheese,” I was like, “The next word’s going to be ‘honey,'” because it’s like this combination that is just so decadent. Oh wow, okay.

Joanna Wisniecka:

It was amazing.

Yvette Bohanan:

Excellent. Excellent. Well, you could start a blog on this, but anyway, we are here to talk about payments and paying for all this wonderful food and events, activities, things you had to do. So how difficult was it coming in from the US? Did you adapt to local payment methods? What was it like once you hit the ground in country?

Joanna Wisniecka:

So it wasn’t too difficult actually, but perhaps it’s because I started off in a sort of business international hotel area and so I was able to use my credit card there as well as at large merchants. Over time, over the week there for smaller vendors, it was clear that cash was preferred. It was really easy to exchange the dollars that I brought for Jordanian dinars. I did it actually at a post office that was just down the street. I also did experiment with a local e-wallet. That’s always a fun thing to do as we travel to new places. And I do talk about that in a little more detail on a LinkedIn post that just recently went up, but just maybe highlighting kind of quickly here. So I got an e-wallet from Zain. It’s one of the several telecom providers of wallets.

It was really easy to open it. I just needed my passport. I got a local SIM card from Zain with a local phone number, downloaded the wallet and just put a few Jordanian dinars into it. What was interesting at that stage is that I was told that to actually pay merchants at point of sale that I should get a card, which ended up being this ZainCash Mastercard, that it would be easier. So in the moment I thought, “Okay, well that sounds like a good idea.” And I got that. The card was linked to the wallet, so the funds that I had in there and I set up a PIN for the wallet and also separately for the card. And then I tried to use it. So I went to a couple of merchants. Specifically I was looking for a coffee, the jet lag was certainly hitting me.

Yvette Bohanan:

Right, right.

Joanna Wisniecka:

So I went to a couple of coffee shops and kind of looked around for QR codes and then asked if I could actually use the wallet itself. And both of the places that I went to, they said they didn’t accept, I couldn’t actually pay with the wallet and there were no QR codes, but they were happy to accept the ZainCash Mastercard. So essentially I used that, put it in the PIN and I was able to get my delicious coffee.

Yvette Bohanan:

So just out of curiosity, a couple things. So you said you put a few Jordanian dinars on deposit in the Zain wallet. Was that a cash in, cash out agent? Did you have to go to an ATM and get local currency and then go to an agent to load the wallet? [inaudible 00:06:06] go through.

Joanna Wisniecka:

Yeah, so I got the currency at the post office, so I exchanged a few dollars earlier in the day and then went to an actual Zain outlet. So that’s where you can set up kind of a new telecom plan, but then also you can open the wallet. So it was really easy for them. They made it really easy setting all of that up. And I know the agents … they have agents kind of located throughout the country, so you can do the cash in, cash out at the agents and there is some support for being able to actually use the card at ATMs as well for cash in, cash out.

Yvette Bohanan:

Interesting. So you had a lot of options actually when you stop and think about it. You could have just used international card. It sounds like cards are accepted. If they’re accepting the Mastercard debit card associated with the Zain wallet. Cards are pretty predominant.

Joanna Wisniecka:

I would say at the larger merchants. I certainly, again, keeping with the food theme, I explored some kind of smaller kind of food vendors and at those, you have to pay with cash. So certainly cards accepted at the larger merchants. We also spent a little bit of time in a souk, in a kind of marketplace. I say veggies and fruit, cash was the way to go in those places as well.

Yvette Bohanan:

And was it always Jordanian currency or … We’ve talked with a few people on this series and you go to Tahiti, French Polynesia, we were talking with Chris and he was like, “Euros and dollars were okay too.”

Joanna Wisniecka:

Oh, interesting.

Yvette Bohanan:

I talked with Nikhat about her experiences in Turkey, Istanbul, Cappadocia and she said there was almost a preference. Because of the macroeconomic climate right now, a preference towards dollars and euros for payment. Both very cash focused. And you’re saying Jordan has some areas that are very cash focused, but was it always Jordanian dinar or was it …

Joanna Wisniecka:

Yeah, that’s a good question. I didn’t try to pay with dollars though it is possible that they would’ve been accepted, but I used the dinars that I had exchanged.

Joanna Wisniecka:

But I would imagine that probably that is possible.

Yvette Bohanan:

Possibly possible. Okay.

Joanna Wisniecka:

Possibly possible, yeah.

Yvette Bohanan:

But not something that was overt, not something-

Joanna Wisniecka:

Not something that I saw that was overt. Yeah, that’s right.

Yvette Bohanan:

And then how many times did you actually add value to the wallet? How many times did you do a sort of a cash in transaction?

Joanna Wisniecka:

Yeah, unfortunately I only got to do that once. It was a pretty busy week running around, so I didn’t get a chance to do that again.

Yvette Bohanan:

And then did you empty it out when you left? How did you deal with any … or did you just make sure you didn’t have any balance on anything by the time-

Joanna Wisniecka:

I think I still have five dinars left on it, which just means that I need to go back.

Yvette Bohanan:

That’s right, exactly. Clearly for the dessert alone.

Joanna Wisniecka:

That’s right.

Yvette Bohanan:

So is there anything that really sort of surprised you? Your expectations going in versus what you saw? Any preferences by merchants, by consumers when it came-

Joanna Wisniecka:

So each country I’ve visited professionally and personally has been unique, has had unique features in terms of its approaches and people’s preferences to payments. So I guess not that much surprises me anymore, but it is really fun. And in particular in this case, it was really fun to see how things worked in Jordan versus the last trip that I took abroad, which was Kenya. And so maybe kind of highlighting a couple of things that were different.

So unlike in Kenya, where M-PESA … it’s just by far the one dominant mobile money provider. Jordan has multiple providers and based on just a few days there, I didn’t really get the impression that any of them is hugely dominant. I definitely saw Zain, I saw Orange, Orange Money and then some others throughout. So it didn’t seem like there was one that was really the M-PESA equivalent. What seems to really work well in Jordan is that there was interoperability between the wallets and between the bank accounts. So going into the wallet, you can do P2P transfers really seamlessly between others with the same wallet, others with different wallets or even bank accounts. It was really easy.

There was maybe a little bit of a difference in pricing going from a wallet to a bank versus between wallets, but it wasn’t significant. Kenya was a very different story. Certainly very seamless to go between M-PESA accounts. More challenging to go to other mobile wallets. On the other hand, while there is end user choice in providers, as I kind of highlighted earlier, the e-wallet acceptance at merchants seemed to still be quite limited. So I don’t know if you recall one of the posts that we did about when Elizabeth and I went to Kenya, we were able to pay for corn from a vendor on the side of the road and we just basically sent him money to his M-PESA wallet. I didn’t have that experience in Jordan for the shawarma that I got, kind of, I don’t know, equivalent of the corn I guess from the little stand near the hotel. I had to pay in cash. There wasn’t another option to do that. So sort of benefits and maybe some challenges that were there in Jordan that looked different in Kenya.

Yvette Bohanan:

Yeah, those are great observations and there’s a lot of moving parts when it comes to the role of central bank authority, how centralized, decentralized things are, what other important items a country has on their agenda, how agencies are interacting and all that sort of thing. And you said that there was a really interesting organization particularly focused in Jordan on supporting the refugee population. Tell us a little bit about what they’re doing and how that ties into payments.

Joanna Wisniecka:

Just to lay the foundation for me, I personally pay a lot of attention both from a personal and professional perspective to how country supports financial inclusion and in particular kind of zooming into how it supports migrant communities and refugee population. Jordan is particularly interesting in this regard. It has a huge number of refugees from the Middle East, from the region, many from Syria, just north of Jordan, and also quite a big community of migrant workers from Egypt and Palestine and its neighbors. It’s really taken a proactive approach to identifying ways that these groups can access and benefit from digital financial services.

And so both the central bank has taken action and JoPACC, which is the Jordan Payments and Clearing Company, that operates a number of retail payment systems in the country, has also focused on enabling that. So for example, just to make it a little bit more tangible, it’s really easy for non Jordanians, and I experienced this myself, but this includes refugees and migrants, to get a mobile money wallet. Opening bank accounts requires typically official documentation and many refugees don’t have that, but they are able to use their IDs that are provided by some of the development organizations like UNHCR and others to actually open a wallet.

Opening the wallet is kind of one step, but then is it usable? Can it actually be something that supports their day-to-day needs for financial services? And one thing that the agencies do and also that the government does is distributes aid into the wallets, directly into the wallets. So any cash aid that’s provided or government payments that are distributed are actually distributed into the wallets directly. So that eliminates all the different costs and challenges of having to find agents and then deal with cash. And also once in the wallet, the funds can be used certainly to pay for some items. In the actual refugee camps, the individuals use that to pay each other, so to pay shopkeepers for purchases for food, for other needs. And then they can also do cash out at agents that are available. I think there are more opportunities still for the usability of the funds in the wallet, which is something that JoPACC again is really, really focused on and it’s something that’s included in a developing financial inclusion strategy as well. So really cool to see that, the focus on supporting those communities.

Yvette Bohanan:

Wow. So that’s a tremendous amount of infrastructure and payments playing a pretty significant role in getting people started out in a really difficult situation.

Joanna Wisniecka:

Absolutely.

Yvette Bohanan:

Wow. And so JoPACC, managing all of the retail systems for clearing and settlement in the country is actually quite evolved here.

Joanna Wisniecka:

Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. So we had a chance to interact with them, which was really great.

Yvette Bohanan:

Yeah. I was going to ask you, did you get a chance to talk with anyone from JoPACC? And if you did, from all these conversations and from your observations, what are one or two things that you’re watching in Jordan as we move into the new year? What are the watch items? If we were building one of our education, “What we’re watching slides, Jordan,” what bullets would you put on that list?

Joanna Wisniecka:

Yeah, so I certainly have at least a couple in mind, but before I go into that, I would just be really remiss in not giving a shout-out to particularly the women that we met at JoPACC. So we were really lucky to spend some time with the CEO of JoPACC, Maha Bahou, who is really just a tremendous leader. She’s been there from the start of JoPACC. And so a lot of what’s in the system currently, what’s supported, is really her vision. It’s really a result of her leadership and her vision and other ladies that we interacted with also just are real powerhouses, Liana and Mais, both in terms of their tremendous knowledge of the system, real passion about the potential for payments to have an impact, financial inclusion just more broadly for Jordanians. And also were just incredible, gracious hosts.

I just thought it’s super important to highlight that. So I’m excited with these ladies there in leadership position and certainly lots of wonderful men that are part of JoPACC as well. They’re not stopping where they’re at today. The two things that I’m particularly excited to see as it moves forward, one is their implementation. They’re planning for implementation of cross-border payments in the system. So JoPACC recently signed an MOU with Buna and Buna is the multi-country payment system that’s operated by the Arab Monetary Fund. And so the goal is to connect Jordan’s instant payment system called CliQ with Buna in order to enable instant cross-border payments. That will be really exciting to see. And the other thing really is to continue to watch the progress they make towards inspiring broader acceptance, digital payments in particular at point of sale. One very tangible step that they’re focused on is planning to implement a standardized QR code to make those payments easier.

And then there are thoughts around how pricing can incentivize broader merchant acceptance, but implementing that QR code I think will be a nice tangible step in that direction. So I’m looking forward to going back to Jordan to see what payments will look like at the end of next year, maybe while I’m there also taking another dip in the Dead Sea and eating even more food than this last time. Way, way too much, always but good stuff.

Yvette Bohanan:

Great, great, great. Well Joanna, thank you. As always, it’s such a pleasure talking with you on our podcast and I’ve really enjoyed hearing about your adventures and a little bit about the developing infrastructure. I think JoPACC is pretty exciting and the fact that they’re already in this mode of instant payment systems and cross-border with Buna, that’s a really interesting development to keep our eyes on. So thanks for bringing that to everyone’s attention and thanks for sharing. And thank you, our listeners, for participating with us in this travel log series as we kick off 2023. I am super excited to see where our team is headed as we get into this new year and what adventures we’re going to have in payments. I hope your adventures are off to a great start. And thank you for listening. We look forward to providing you with some really interesting guest speakers as we move into Q1 here. And until then, stay safe, travel well and do good work. Talk to you soon.

Joanna Wisniecka:

Thank you.

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