Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 28 September 2020

FinTech unicorn TransferWise comes to the UAE

Exclusive: The global low-cost digital money transfer service received its ADGM licence in October and is ready for use by customers in the Emirates

Kristo Kaarmann, founder and chief executive of TransferWise, said the UAE is one of the most important remittance markets in the world. Photo courtesy TransferWise
Kristo Kaarmann, founder and chief executive of TransferWise, said the UAE is one of the most important remittance markets in the world. Photo courtesy TransferWise

TransferWise, a global low-cost digital money transfer service, is now operating in the UAE, six months after receiving its license from Abu Dhabi Global Market’s Financial Services Regulatory Authority, the company said on Tuesday.

“Now the big day has come and we’re actually launching,” Kristo Kaarmann, chief executive and co-founder of TransferWise told The National. “The UAE is one of the most important remittance markets in the world, and we’re delighted to be bringing the first fully online money transfers to the country”.

A total of Dh169.2 billion was sent from the UAE in 2018 out of total global remittances of $689bn (Dh2.5 trillion), according to Central Bank and World Bank figures, respectively. The Emirates and Saudi Arabia were the second and third top remittance countries after the US in 2017.

TransferWise, which was founded in the UK in 2011, has 14 global offices, 7 million customers worldwide and processes $5bn in customer payments every month. The platform enables people to send money online at the mid-market exchange rate – the midpoint between demand and supply for a currency – and charges an upfront, transparent fee.

The company’s goal is to make sending money abroad more convenient, cheaper and faster. After TransferWise received its ADGM license in October, 15,000 customers signed up to be notified about the availability of currency routes from the UAE.

“That just gives you a hint of the demand,” Mr Kaarmann said. In a beta trial with 3,000 customers, popular transfer destinations included the UK, the eurozone, the US, followed by Asian countries.

“People can now send money to over 80 countries without leaving their homes, and all at the real, mid-market exchange rate,” he said.

The company offers over 1,600 currency routes and 49 currencies. Customers in the UAE with a bank account can verify their identification and register for TransferWise online.

Globally, TransferWise claims to save users $1bn a year compared to making the same transaction with a bank. In the Emirates, the company cites research carried out by UAE-based Viva Consulting that found the cost of sending money abroad was “up to two times cheaper” with TransferWise compared to six banks and brokers.

The study compared the cost of sending remittances from the UAE between March 1 and 5 with Al Ansari Exchange, Al Fardan Exchange, Western Union, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank (ADCB), HSBC and Dubai Islamic Bank (DIB). The data points were for transfers from dirhams to US dollars, euros and British pounds, including upfront fees and exchange rate markups.

Al Ansari, Western Union and HSBC declined to comment. ADCB and DIB did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Osama Al Rahma, chief executive of Al Fardan, said the claim does not reflect “the facts and figures on the ground”. The “UAE is considered one of the cheapest in charges worldwide,” Mr Al Rahma said.

The global average cost to send $200 in the first quarter of this year was 6.79 per cent, according to the World Bank’s March 2020 Remittance Prices Worldwide report.

The cost of sending money from the UAE varies by destination and method. The World Bank publishes cost comparisons on its website, covering 12 corridors from the UAE, including top receivers India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

For example, from the UAE to India, the average cost to send Dh735 ($200) was 3.04 per cent as of February. The cheapest was Emirates NBD Direct Remit, which is only available to bank customers, but has no fee and an exchange rate margin of 0.82 per cent. Traditional money exchange operators, including Western Union, Al Ansari and Al Fardan, charged between Dh20 and Dh24, which is around 3 per cent. Noor Bank was the most expensive, charging over 9 per cent.

Sending Dh735 to India through TransferWise on Tuesday would have cost Dh12.63 in fees, which is 1.71 per cent.

TransferWise said the speed of transfers is another factor that sets it apart. “Globally we’re able to deliver 25 per cent of our payments in 20 seconds,” Mr Kaarmann said.

Abu Dhabi will serve as the company’s hub for expansion elsewhere in the Middle East, although Mr Kaarmann said it is “too soon for us to comment” on where they will go next.

Tim Harley, head of Middle East expansion for TransferWise, said the firm looks at the size of the opportunity, product differentiation and the maturity of the regulatory landscape. He pointed to the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, which in February released additional licensing guidelines for digital-only banks in the kingdom.

“These are great signs to us and that shows us that regulators are looking to each other in the region, as well as to other regions,” Mr Harley said.

Mr Kaarmann said TransferWise is “excited to be working with [ADGM] as a local partner”, bringing “innovation on the ground to the UAE”. In July last year, ADGM’s FSRA published regulatory frameworks for the establishment of digital banks and robo-advisers.

“We are pleased to welcome TransferWise to our portfolio of financial services entities,” said Steve Barnett, executive director of business development at ADGM, in a statement. “ADGM is committed to leveraging Abu Dhabi’s robust business environment to attract the world’s foremost enterprises, in an effort to facilitate further growth and development in the UAE and across the region.”

Tim Harley, head of Middle East expansion at TransferWise, said there are positive signs that the region's regulatory environment is maturing. Victor Besa / The National
Tim Harley, head of Middle East expansion at TransferWise, said there are positive signs that the region's regulatory environment is maturing. Victor Besa / The National

On a global level, TransferWise expanded to Malaysia at the end of last year and partnered with China's Alipay last month. In total it has raised $689 million in primary and secondary funding from investors, including private equity firm Index Ventures, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.

The company, which was valued at $3.5bn last year after BlackRock and other investment funds acquired a $292m stake in it, stopped fundraising as it became profitable, with £179m (Dh828m) in revenue and £10.3m in net profits in the fiscal year ending March 2019.

“We’re now raising every month a ton of money from our customers in the transparent fees that we charge, so that we can launch in new countries, we can improve the service, we can get faster … basically invest in a better product,” Mr Kaarmann said.

As for the prospect of going public, he said: “That possibility is there. We haven’t moved on that and don’t have immediate plans to move on that.”

“We always try to think of ‘does it matter for our customers?’ It doesn’t really,” Mr Kaarmann said. “I think our customers don’t really care if our shares are publicly traded or privately traded.”

TransferWise conducts secondary sales to bring on new shareholders and provide liquidity for earlier stage shareholders.

For now, a major focus is satisfying demand in the UAE before moving on the next plans. “We’re just getting going here, so we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves too much,” Mr Kaarmann said.

Updated: April 16, 2020 03:32 AM

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