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DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - Finance

Christopher Paniagua

CEO, Banco Popular Dominicano

Bio

Christopher Paniagua, executive president of Banco Popular Dominicano, is a modern banker with over 30 years of experience. Known for his financial expertise and social consciousness, he champions sustainability and supports vulnerable communities. Under his leadership, the bank signed the Principles for Responsible Banking, a first in the insular Caribbean. He has led public-private partnerships to revitalize public spaces and improve community well-being. Additionally, he has expanded support for Olympic athletes and diversified the bank’s sustainability efforts, encompassing economic, social, and environmental initiatives. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and an Advance Management Degree from Wharton Business School.

“The Dominican Republic benefits from a wide and diverse creative economy that has a remarkable effect along the value chain.”
TBY talks to Christopher Paniagua, CEO of Banco Popular Dominicano, about the “Orange Economy,” “green finance,” and his outlook for the year ahead.
The Orange Economy is a growing trend in the Dominican Republic and the wider region, having even been defined as “the next frontier” for the Caribbean. How is Banco Popular Dominicano supporting the development of the Orange Economy in the DR, and how important is this for the country’s growth?

The Dominican Republic benefits from a wide and diverse creative economy that has a remarkable effect along the value chain, from the creation of an idea to the production and distribution of content. It also has a spillover effect, creating formal jobs and opportunities in many non-traditional sectors like the creative and cultural industry. As of 2016, Orange Economy sectors represent 1.5% of the GDP, not including sectors such as software industry and audiovisual media that increase this impact. Banco Popular promotes families’ and businesses’ growth and development within a sustainable environment, and we know the creative economy’s tremendous potential to generate economic, social, and even environmental value. This is aligned with our vision as “El Banco de las Ideas” and in our 60th anniversary we feel proud of the support we give to many of Dominican Republic’s Orange Economy pioneers. In December 2021, we launched “Dominicana Creativa: Talent in the Orange Economy”, an institutional book that highlights and strengthens the cultural and creative industries that add value to the economy. This publication was complemented by the website www.economianaranja.com.do, created in partnership with the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and SMEs (MICM) and the Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo (INTEC). Additionally, in 2022, we launched the ‘Orange Entrepreneurs’ platform, which allows creative entrepreneurs to evolve their projects from original ideas to successful small- to medium-sized enterprises with access to training and start-up financing with preferential financial conditions. In 2023, we invested more than USD11 million in the cultural and creative industries, continuing to foster an essential economic sector for sustainable development. Additionally, we issued more than 10,000 loans to entrepreneurs and companies related to the Orange Economy.

Sustainability and the energy transition is another hot topic in the Dominican business scene. How do banks, and specifically Banco Popular Dominicano, play a role in making more green finance tools available and supporting a more sustainable economy?

Sustainability is part of our DNA, and the bank has continuously strengthened its sustainable vision. We we became the first bank in the insular Caribbean to join as a signatory partner to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Banking, an international alliance of banks launched in 2019 to align banking with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement, thus supporting social and sustainable development. We also joined the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF), which develops the Global Standard for Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Accounting and Reporting. To foster sustainable growth and clean energy, we are the leaders in green financing in the country, with over USD600 million in loans for various clean energy projects, including a recent loan for USD100 million to construct the biggest solar park in Central America and the Caribbean. Moreover, we offer retail customers and SMEs ‘Hazte Eco,’ the first green finance portfolio in the market, reaching more than USD40 million in loans with an annual growth rate above 20% and a green leasing portfolio of USD12 million with a 52% growth rate. Additionally, in 2024 we issued the first green bond in the Dominican Republic, which will be allocated to fund loans from our green portfolio to support the country’s transition to a low-emission economy. Internally, we aim to reduce our environmental impact with initiatives such as the installation of solar panels, efficient lighting, water control systems, and recycling programs for our employees and clients. We consume more than 8MW of clean energy, partially produced by solar panels installed at our branches.

Financial inclusion is a major focus in the Dominican Republic. How is Banco Popular working to make financial services more accessible to Dominicans?

Banco Popular was founded 60 years ago with the main goal of financial inclusion, and this is still our mission today. We know that by enabling and encouraging people to access the financial system in the Dominican Republic, we not only eliminate obstacles but also improve their quality of life. Through financial education and inclusion, we aim to support the country’s socioeconomic development by enhancing knowledge, skills, and capabilities for financial management of the people. Banco Popular’s strategy involves various socially responsible initiatives that aim to make financial services more accessible to people who are unbanked or underbanked. These initiatives include products, channels, and financial education. We have products like ‘Cuenta Digital Libre,’ bancassurance options, and services like ‘Remesas Popular’ that meet the financial needs of this population effortlessly. Our channel offering has expanded with the goal of serving more people and their specific needs, incorporating several innovative initiatives. In that line, we created an app ecosystem (App Popular, Comerza, Biz, Gnial and Yavá) that promotes financial inclusion and financial education while assisting clients with their businesses and daily activities. Moreover, we have ‘Subagente Popular,’ a channel for financial inclusion where our customers can do their everyday transactions in a convenient, efficient, and straightforward way through platforms set up in hardware stores, pharmacies, and grocery stores, among others. Currently, the “Subagente Popular” network has about 2,000 affiliated stores. We also launched the Academy Finanzas con Propósito in 2021, a digital initiative that provides free courses, workshops, and tools that help users learn about personal finance. The Academy has reached more than 185,000 people with experts through our online platform and face-to-face meetings, offering tools, guides, templates, and capsules. This is another way we promote financial education.

Grupo Popular launched a Dominican Fintech success story, Qik. Can you tell us more about how you are embracing innovation and technology to stay ahead of the curve? How do you see the dynamic between banks and FinTechs evolving in the DR in the coming years?

Innovation is a core value within our institution. At Banco Popular we understand the significance of the digital economy, the changing needs of our clients, and the ways in which we can leverage innovation and technology to adapt our services to their requirements. We are at the forefront of digital channels and services, and we constantly pursue opportunities to improve our client experiences. We have been innovating in digital for the last few years, using Agile methods, and bringing to the market the most advanced financial services and products. This helped us in the construction and innovations in products, channels, and internal processes. One example is our new app ecosystem, which has four specialized mobile applications, enabling online customer onboarding and covering everything from personal financial management to corporate banking, remittance reception, and the renovation of the Popular App—the most downloaded mobile financial application in the market. Banco Popular is the leader of digital banking innovation in the Dominican Republic, with more than 1.4 million digital users who made nearly 100 million transactions, a 20% rise from 2022. In 2023, the Superintendencia de Bancos awarded Banco Popular as the most digital bank the Dominican Republic for the third year in a row. Our view is that Fintechs are strategic partners who enhance our capabilities. As we advance our digital capabilities, we see a great convergence with fintechs, which will help foster innovation in various ecosystems, offering a simple, secure, and intuitive client experience. We think the Fintech ecosystem has a positive dynamic. According to Adofintech, there are 113 fintechs operating in the country in different business segments, such as digital payments, digital loans, technology for financial institutions, insurtech, virtual assets, neobanks, and others. We anticipate this number to keep growing, based on the sector’s trend and the socioeconomic development of the Dominican market. In the latest Fintech Radar published by the Inter-American Development Bank with Finnovista, the Dominican Republic achieved a yearly growth of 129% from 2017 to 2021 in the sector, the highest among Central American and Caribbean countries. Banco Popular is prepared to collaborate with these new players to provide customers with innovations that improve their experience and meet their needs and expectations.

What are some of the emerging technologies that Banco Popular believes will have the greatest impact on the Dominican financial sector in the coming years?

At Banco Popular, we recognize that some technologies are transforming the financial sector and that they will have a major impact in the coming years, such as Digital, Advanced Analytics and Artificial Intelligence. Digital and Advance Analytics are essential for the services and products we offer. We imagine a future where our interactions, insights, and solutions for our clients will be influenced by these two disruptions. That is why we began to enhance our capabilities several years ago with the establishment of the Digital Center of Excellence and the Data and Analytics Center of Excellence. Today, we have a world-class team that keeps Banco Popular’s innovation at par with the most relevant players in the industry. Moreover, we are constantly learning, experimenting, and applying innovative technologies that benefit our clients. The financial industry has experienced a surge of artificial intelligence in recent years, and it will keep changing how we communicate with customers and how we operate internally. At Banco Popular, we have been applying artificial intelligence to solutions such as fraud prevention and cybersecurity. However, we think that artificial intelligence combined with our analytics skills will revolutionize how we engage and deliver value to our clients. Therefore, we are working on developing these internal skills and focusing on the initiatives that will make the biggest difference for our clients.

What are the challenges faced by the economy in 2024 and what is your economic outlook for the 12 months ahead?

The forecasts by analysts and multilateral organizations have confirmed our positive view of the economy. The country is enjoying a favorable economic environment that has boosted growth and attracted investments. The country has a dynamic and diverse economy, with thriving sectors such as tourism, logistics, free-trade zones, construction, financial services, agribusiness, and import-export activities. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently stated that our economy is projected to grow by 5.4% in 2024. Others like World Bank, Standard and Poor’s, and The Economist estimate that annual growth rates will stay above 4.5% from 2025 to 2029. At Banco Popular, we are optimistic about the country’s economic prospects. The first quarter of 2024 is reinforcing this positive outlook, as the economy is expanding with low inflation and a stable exchange rate. We are also seeing a robust demand for loans for various investment projects.

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