By Thiago Paiva
Banks in Latin America have long dominated the market as oligopolies, becoming highly profitable but not serving well the population.
In the region, Brazil was the first market to have the banks’ oligopoly challenged by neobanks, with Nubank proving that it was possible to break them up. Providing a superior product and exceptional customer support, it was able to attract more than 15 million customers, valuing the company at an astonishing US$10 billion in its latest round.
Although Brazil has been the center of the neobanks’ emergence in Latin America, attention has been shifting toward another country in the region.
The Mexican opportunity
Mexico, the second-largest economy in the region, has become a relevant market for the fintechs in the region.
The reason is not exactly the most flattering; Mexico is a large country with almost 130 million population, but a large share are still unbanked. Indeed, 63% of the adult population still doesn’t have access to financial services, according to the Global Findex database, and banks haven’t been able (or are not interested) to serve them.
Furthermore, Mexicans are very suspicious of banks because of their lack of transparency, as well as recent financial crises.
Because of this skepticism toward banks, together with a cash-based economy, 90% of all consumer transactions are still made in cash, which prompts a rather peculiar situation — twice a month (quincena) there are long lines at ATMs all across the country with people withdrawing all their wages.
On the other hand, Mexico has a digitally engaged population (Mexico is the fifth largest market for Facebook, ninth for YouTube and the third for Uber), with high smartphone penetration (85.8% according to The Competitive Intelligence Unit).
All these elements put together create a rather attractive opportunity for the emergence of neobanks.
Mexico becomes the next battleground
Mexico had a few neobank pioneers in the past couple of years; Bankaool launched its services in 2015, but was too early in the market; later on came Broxel and Albo in 2016 followed by Flink in 2018.
However, the market started to garner more attention in April 2018 when the Iranian Matin Tamizi raised US$2 million from Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) and Kaszek Ventures to create a neobank in Mexico (Cuenca). It is interesting to note that Matin, at that time, had never been to Mexico and only had a slide deck to demonstrate the opportunity.
Neobanks aren’t the only ones trying to get a share of the Mexican wallets.
This event, together with the success of neobanks in Brazil, sparked attention for the potential of the market.
A couple of months after, Albo announced a Series A, raising US$7.4 million. It is currently the leading player in the market, with 150,000 customers and the third debit card issuer in Mexico.
Late in September, a new entrant closed a relevant round; Klar raised US$7.5 million in equity and US$50 million in debt financing with the goal to become the “Chime of Mexico.”
Vexi is another player in the market, though it is focused on providing credit cards to people at the base of the pyramid. It has issued, so far, more than 20,000 credit cards and, recently, raised US$2 million in equity and US$1 million in debt financing.
Regional and international players are also becoming interested in the opportunity. The Brazilian giant Nubank announced this year officially that it would be expanding there. From overseas, the leading Spanish neobank, Bnext, announced it would be entering the Mexican market, fueled by a fresh new round of €22.5 million. Different from other neobanks, Bnext partners with fintechs and financial institutions to provide services to its customers via a marketplace.
Nonetheless, there are rumors that other heavyweights, such as the Europeans Revolut and N26, are planning to enter the market, as well as the Argentinian Ualá.
Neobanks aren’t the only ones trying to get a share of the Mexican wallets. Many tech companies such as Cabify, Weex and Rappi are launching digital wallets and issuing debit cards, leveraging their large user base.
To add a final spice to the market, traditional banks are making a significant effort to improve their digital offers — some even going as far as launching digital branchless initiatives. The Spanish Banco Sabadell entered the Mexican market with a full digital strategy, while Banregio (a local medium-sized bank) launched Hey Banco, a new digital account.
On the sidelines, there also are a few neobanks focusing on a different segment. Oyster and Evva are targeting the unattended market of freelancers, startups and SMEs, long neglected by the incumbents.
The stage is set for an upcoming battle
Although the market is still in its early stage with just a handful of neobanks with running services, the stage is set for an amusing upcoming battle. Most players will be launching in the next couple of months, which will trigger a race for acquiring customers and raising more money.
This competition will definitely change the landscape of the financial industry in Mexico, bringing better and more affordable services to its population.
It will be indubitably interesting to watch how the market will unfold in the following years, and the prize for the winners can be quite attractive, as Nubank proved in Brazil.