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Banks seek to boost digital offerings

Banks seek to boost digital offerings

Ecobank has long been one of Africa’s most innovative financial institutions.

Long before it became fashionable, the Lomé-based bank led the way in opening a network of branches across middle Africa to create the biggest banking footprint on the continent. Now it has the first-mover advantage of another trend; the adoption of a digital banking strategy across the 33 countries in Africa it serves.

Its proprietary Ecobank Mobile App – which can be downloaded onto any internet-enabled smartphone – facilitates this strategy. In short, this gives any customer a bank in their pocket.

For Ade Ayeyemi, the group chief executive officer of Ecobank, the app’s rationale is to deliver innovative, efficient and cost-effective services to those who have typically been excluded from the formal economy, “and therefore it goes far beyond the reach of the traditional branch and ATM networks in providing financial services.” In Africa, there are more than 300m adults that remain unbanked.

“Customers can enjoy 24/7 access every day of the year to avail themselves of financial services through the convenience of their mobile devices with the Ecobank Mobile App,” says Ayeyemi. “We have brought world-class functionality to consumers in the 33 countries in Africa where Ecobank operates.”

In April, two weeks before the Bank’s AGM, he was able to report that Ecobank had processed almost as many transactions on the Ecobank Mobile App in the first few months of this year as they did in the entire second half of 2017. The app won 1m customers in its first year of launch, but upgraded features have seen the rate of sign-ups treble in half of the time to 4m users. So far, in 2018, app usage has been growing at an average 700,000 new customers a month, and $1bn of transactions in Africa have been processed by this ground-breaking technology.

With that kind of growth, it would seem that Ayeyemi’s stated aspiration of building a bank with 100m accounts is well on course.

Functionality and convenience

Patrick Akinwuntan, Ecobank’s group executive, consumer banking, says that Ecobank is committed to providing all Africans with access to financial services, but doing so in a way that conjoins functionality with convenient, accessible and efficient banking channels.

“We want to be the digital bank of choice for all Africans,” he says. “The Ecobank Xpress agents that can now be found in your local neighbourhood enable you to deposit money into your app-based Ecobank Xpress Account and begin to make digital payments on the app using Ecobankpay.

“You can also withdraw funds in local currency that may have been sent to you from friends or relatives using our innovative instant transfer or Xpress Cash capabilities.” Ecobank and Africa’s biggest mobile operator, MTN, have also announced a partnership to grow financial inclusion, offering mobile money and digital banking to their respective users. They will leverage each other’s assets to offer more value to their respective customers across the continent.

“MTN’s large subscriber base, comprehensive distribution, innovative digital products and drive for mobile financial services are being linked with Ecobank’s trail-blazing digital banking products to provide instant bank accounts and remittances through Africa’s largest bank by network”, says Ayeyemi.

Financial revolution

Bringing the whole issue of Africa’s digital financial revolution into focus was the African Digital Money and Banking Forum that took place in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in March. One of the keynote speakers was Robert Ochola, director of strategy at the Cairo-based African Export and Import Bank (Afreximbank). Last year Afrexim­bank entered into a $500m trade finance agreement with Ecobank, described by Ayeyemi as a “win-win collaboration”.

Ochola’s presentation to the Abidjan conference highlighted the technological initiatives that were being designed by Afreximbank to stimulate intra-Africa trade. These are the African Due Diligence Repository Platform (which pools the data of African SMEs, corporates, banks, etc); a crossborder payment and settlement platform; and utilising the blockchain concept to facilitate intra-Africa trade.

These initiatives complement the Ecobank Mobile App in as much as while the app certainly does stimulate retail crossborder trading, Afreximbank is concentrating on improving formal wholesale intra-Africa trade.

Being in Abidjan for the inaugural Africa Digital Money and Banking Forum allowed African Business the opportunity to speak with Ecobank’s Paul-Harry Aithnard. He was involved with the early development of the bank’s digital strategy when from 2008 until September 2012 he was the bank’s head of research. Now based in Abidjan, he serves as Ecobank’s group head of securities and asset management.

The digital imperative

“The way I see it,” Aithnard says, “is that Ecobank had to digitalise itself; we need to digitalise our customers; and we want to digitalise Africa. Digitalising ourselves means automating the way that we work, the processes and the procedures. “By doing so we will improve productivity and have better profitability. So that is the first leg of digitalising ourself. Then we need to digitalise our customers. The key tool is Ecobank’s Mobile App.

“You can transfer money across Africa and make payments. I can send money to my parents in Togo, I can send money to my daughters, or my brother in Senegal. At home, when I need to pay my household staff, I pay them with the mobile app. They don’t even need to have the app. All I need to know is either their phone number or a bank account number. So it’s extremely practical.”

Aithnard was also very enthusiastic about the Ecobank Mobile App’s potential to encourage consumer savings.

Powerful lever

According to the African Development Bank’s vice-president, Pierre Guislain, “Africa is a pioneer in mobile banking and digital finance is a powerful lever we can use to deliver real change for the people at the bottom of the pyramid.

“Africa has benefited hugely from the cellular revolution,” says Guislain, speaking on digital finance in February, and noting that about half the world’s mobile money providers operate in sub-Saharan Africa, where as many as 80% of the people have access to mobile phones.

“Africa is a pioneer in the digital space and I firmly believe that there is huge potential that can be unlocked by leveraging innovative digital tools for inclusive growth in emerging economies. The digital revolution holds the same potential today as the cellular revolution 20 years ago. We need to unlock it.”

No doubt, Ecobank would quickly agree with that sentiment.

Stephen Williams

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Written by Stephen Williams

Stephen Williams is a freelance journalist, based in London. A specialist on Africa, his remit also includes the Middle East and North Africa. Williams currently works for a number of London-based print publications including New African magazine.

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