How Mastercard Is Trying to Put Cash Out of Business

June 3, 2019, 10:58 PM UTC

Mastercard wants the world to stop paying with paper money—but that doesn’t necessarily mean paying with a plastic credit card.

Today, cash is used in roughly 85% of payment transactions globally, according to Shamina Singh, executive vice president of sustainability at Mastercard. While swiping a card or scanning a mobile app are more popular payment methods in the United States, cash still accounts for 30% of U.S. transactions.

“It really opens up from the business perspective a runway of opportunity, if cash is your competitor instead of any other payment company,” Singh says on the latest episode of Fortune’s “Balancing the Ledger.” “It starts to get you really thinking—if you started to disrupt cash with digital, what would that mean for more people in the world?”

That’s what drove Singh in 2013 to create Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth, of which she serves as president. The initiative aims to bring 500 million people without access to financial services—many of whom rely solely on cash—into the digital economy.

So far, for example, Mastercard has implemented QR codes in emerging markets such as India, so that all merchants need in order to accept payment is a mobile device or QR code reader. Singh herself got to test the technology on a recent trip to India, where for the first time she paid for a ride on a rickshaw (or small motor scooter) using just a QR code. “They allow the same level of technology that you would get from a $300 point of sale device that you might see at a grocery store or a big market,” she explains.

While Mastercard and Singh’s initial forays were focused on developing parts of the world, they are now bringing some of the lessons gleaned there back to the U.S., to help similarly underbanked communities. “We actually think of it sort of as reverse innovation,” Singh says.

For one, Mastercard partnered with a New York based non-profit, Grameen America, which provides small loans to low-income female entrepreneurs who wouldn’t otherwise qualify as borrowers. Often, the women—who run small mom-and-pop shops or stands—lacked bank accounts and could only accept the loans in cash. “You would think that we wouldn’t see that in the United States, but that’s actually more prevalent than you would think,” Singh adds.

Mastercard worked with Citi and Apple to provide the women with bank accounts, as well as equipment to conduct payment transactions digitally instead of in cash. “When you’re dealing in cash, you can only transact with people you can see, or people that you trust enough to carry your cash to another place. But you’re really constricted,” explains Singh. With the new technological upgrades, Grameen has been able to lend three times as much money—and the women have been better able to grow their businesses, she adds: “We’re seeing scale in a way that we hadn’t seen before.”