It was a project that was to revolutionize the banking industry in Sri Lanka. The very industry that had survived waves of disruption, unlike many others. Furthermore, this project was to be done by a government agency. Its critics were quick to point out that not only was it bold but it was ridiculous. And today, it looks like they might have been right. The National Payment Platform (NPP) started off as a grand promise in 2015.
Today, the project has been suspended and is under investigation. Furthermore, its chief ambassador Muhunthan Canagey – former CEO of ICTA, tendered his resignation. Needless, to say the project is in limbo and may become the latest example of incompetence by the Yahapalanaya government. Yet, behind the scenes work was being done to make the promise of the NPP a reality.
So where exactly did it all go wrong? How did the National Payment Platform become the latest controversy to hit the government? That’s what we aim to identify in this three-part series. But before delving into the journey of the project, it’s important to understand exactly what the NPP is.
What exactly is the National Payment Platform?
The National Payment Platform (NPP) is at its name suggests a platform that can be used to develop applications to facilitate digital payments. To understand how the NPP works, we need to take a look at how three systems work together: the core NPP platform, the payment gateways belonging to the banks, and digital payment applications.
When you’re making a transaction online, the digital payment applications would take your details like your name and credit card information. Once it has collected this data, it would utilize the NPP core platform to send it to the payment gateways belonging to the relevant bank. Once the bank has received this information, it’s systems would transfer the money between the relevant accounts accordingly.
But exactly who can build the digital payment applications that take your data? If the platform was built, then anyone be it a curious university student, a startup, or a conglomerate could build a digital payment application. All anyone interested would have to do is to connect to the NPP via it’s API’s, which means by only adding a few lines any application developer could create an application to accept payments online. Ultimately, the NPP acts as a messenger between digital payment applications and the banks.
How the National Payment Platform saga began
The National Payment Platform was conceptualized, designed, and developed by the ICTA. The initial steps to build the National Payment Platform were taken on the 4th of June 2015. But at the time it was known as LGPS 2.0. The Lankan Government Payment Service (LGPS) was developed and launched by the ICTA in 2011. The National Payment Platform is an upgrade of this system and as such was referred to as LGPS 2.0 in the conceptual stages.
On the 4th of June 2015, the initial stakeholder meeting was organized by the Ministry of Finance regarding the NPP. Chaired by R. Paskaralingam – Advisor to the Prime Minister, the meeting saw representatives from banking institutions, LankaClear, and ICTA. Following this initial meeting, another meeting was held to elaborate on the objective of the NPP Framework to key officials of the Central Bank. Additional meetings were then held to discuss it’s the technical details of the NPP.
After these meetings, on the 22nd of June 2015, an advertisement was published in the Daily News calling for expressions of interest from any party that was interested in becoming an digital infrastructure provider for the NPP. Prior to this, ICTA had prepared a document called Terms of Reference listing out what’s required from the digital infrastructure providers and a technical committee to review the proposals sent by the interested companies.
Once the advertisement in the Daily News was published, eight companies had responded with letters of interest. The ICTA then gave these companies a document known as the Request for Proposal. This document detailed the specifications of the NPP and how the interested companies could send their bids. These bids were then evaluated by the technical committee.
Understanding the Digital Infrastructure Providers
Finally, out of these eight companies, three companies were shortlisted to become digital infrastructure providers. These three companies were: Simato Solutions Pvt. Ltd, Saffron Solutions, and Transact Lanka Pvt. Ltd. However, it’s important to note that these three companies are NOT the developers of the National Payment Platform.
As we mentioned earlier, the digital infrastructure providers are the ones that build the applications, which merely collect your data such as your name and credit card number. Once it has this data, the application then sends it to the banks using the core NPP platform. Once the banks receive this information via the NPP, the bank’s systems then transfer the money between accounts accordingly.
In other words, TotalyPay, Saffron Solutions, and Transact Lanka are merely facilitators of the NPP. They are not it’s developers. Rather, they would build their own applications. These applications would connect to the NPP to help facilitate digital payments. The companies would also build these applications at their own cost.
Initially, these applications would be for testing purposes. But once the testing phase ends, the burden is on TotalPay, Saffron Solutions, and Transact Lanka. This burden would be to identify a suitable business model, which they can use to earn money from the applications they had built. Thus, it is the responsibility of the Digital Infrastructure Providers to recover their initial costs and identify how they can earn money through the applications they build.
The real developers of the NPP: 99X Technology
So which company is the developer of the NPP? The answer to that question is that 99X Technology is the developer of the National Payment Platform. In the same manner, as the Digital Infrastructure Providers, 99X Technology was selected to be the developer of the NPP.
This process began on the 28th of September 2016 when an advertisement was placed in the local newspapers. This advertisement called for companies interested in building the core NPP platform to submit Expressions of Interest. Afterwards, seven companies were shortlisted. These seven companies were: hSenid Business Solutions, Epic Lanka, Interblocks, 99X Technology, Virtusa, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Sanje Private Limited. The shortlisted companies were then asked to fill out a document called the Request for Proposal by the ICTA.
This document listed in detail what was expected from the developers. These responses were then evaluated by a technical committee. Ultimately, 99X Technology was awarded the tender to build the core National Payment Platform. Thus, an official contract was signed on the 2nd of January 2017 between the ICTA and 99X Technology.
The core NPP platform, which 99X Technology was building was to be a software platform that mediated financial transactions. Additionally, the platform would also be capable of connecting to external entities such as banks, merchants, and DIPs. However, the development of software components belonging to these external entities is not the responsibility of 99X Technology.
But who would control this platform once it was built? As the contract signed between ICTA and 99X Technology, the Intellectual Property Rights of the platform would lie with ICTA and the Government of Sri Lanka. Therefore, once built 99X must hand over the software code over to ICTA. Afterwards, 99X Technology will have no right to host or operate any of the NPP software modules.
This is where we see the one key difference between 99X Technology and the digital infrastructure providers. The ICTA has no legal agreement with the digital infrastructure providers. As such, none of the three companies were paid any amount of money by the ICTA. Rather, they were merely given the opportunity to be the beta testers of the NPP once the core platform had been built.
The saga continues
At this point, you now know exactly what the National Payment Platform is. You also know the difference between a DIP like TotalPay and its actual developer 99X Technology. Yet this only the start of the NPP Saga, for there were many other developments that occurred behind the scenes.
Update: The article has been updated with the names of the seven companies that were shortlisted to become the developers of the National Payment Platform.