Nigerians are turning to virtual debit cards to beat restrictions on international e-commerce

Is cash the only option?
Is cash the only option?
Image: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde
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As a March deadline approaches to block Nigerian debit cards being used online on popular international sites like Netflix and Amazon, Nigerians have been scrambling for alternative payment platforms.

Nigerian cards could be blocked as part of international sanctions imposed by a global  group of financial intelligence agencies after Nigeria ran afoul of its rules.

Some consumers are turning to a locally designed virtual payment card service as an option for those unwilling to use the country’s risky online payment black market.

Flutterwave’s Barter allows users to create virtual US dollar debit cards within seconds for one-time or regular usage. While other platforms require identification details and approval waiting period that could reach several business days, Barter only asks for a working email address and phone number as the service relies on customer details already obtained by a user’s bank. It’s currently web-based but Flutterwave confirmed it is working on an app that would be released later this year.

Although Flutterwave said Barter only accounted for about 1% of the company’s $2 billion-worth transactions, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, Flutterwave’s co-founder, recently revealed the bulk of the company’s transactions was from its partnering banks.

Barter leverages the technology of Rave, another Flutterwave service that enables Barter users in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana to fund wallets in local currencies using their bank-issued cards.

Virtual credit card technology has long been in existence, at least since the very early days of e-commerce when consumers were reluctant to provide credit card details to fledgling website retailers.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Barter, there are still teething problems. Several customers online have noted issues with the platform including downtimes and card rejections by merchants including Netflix, Facebook, PayPal and Apple Music. In what appears to be an attempt to tackle the rejection issue, Barter says users will now be able to create Visa cards on its platform in addition to the Barter-issued MasterCards.

This isn’t the first time Nigerians will have their debit card services potentially interrupted. Late in 2015, at the peak of a foreign exchange crisis, Nigerian bank cards were interrupted for several weeks from international usage but resumed soon after in early 2016.

Last year, banks informed customers they won’t be able to use their cards outside Nigeria apparently in response to government actions aimed at strengthening the naira, growing foreign reserves and halting money laundering activities.

This time Nigeria has run into trouble with the Toronto-based Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units, of which Nigeria is a member. Egmont Group has warned of the unchecked interference of Nigeria’s anti-graft agency, EFCC, with the operations of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU). The group asked the Nigerian government to allow the NFIU to be independent, a request that had not been implemented, resulting in a suspension in 2017 and potential blockage next month.