As a pan-African bank with footprints across the continent, Ecobank Transnational Incorporated is reinforcing itself as an information technology-driven financial institution. The bank Group Chief Executive Officer, Ade Ayeyemi, speaks with Kunle Aderinokun about the institution’s new strategy for growth and latest addition to its bouquet of hi-tech services as well as its role in development continent-wide and pertinent issues in the banking sector
What is Ecobank’s new strategy?
When we were being formed, one of the bank’s founding fathers said he wanted us to be the bridge between the ambition of people on the African continent and realising those ambitions using financial services as the medium.
That has been our driving vision since then. From time to time, every period, people are called to answer what is required of their own people to drive this vision.
In this instance, ours is to create an Ecobank that is not only a leader in the market but a leader that ensures financial participation and inclusion. A leader that serves the community in which we operate in a way that actually creates value to all the stakeholders, whether it’s our shareholders or customers and our staff.
When we talk about leadership, we use the word in all these ramifications. And because we are present in 33 markets in Africa, we have 33 banking licenses and we have three other markets where we have representative offices. As a result, we believe we are best suited to solve the challenges on the continent.
We rapidly grew from six countries to 33 countries, and we think now is the time to consolidate and make sure we can actually bring all those platforms together in a way we can serve better. Somebody said we were launching an app in Nigeria, but we don’t just launch an app in one country, we are launching in 33 countries and that is very important for the continent. Therefore, when anybody in the continent tries to think about problems that are easily solved by financial services, we are the ones to go to.
This is because when we create a window, that window leads into all the countries where we are operational. So when we take a problem on and we put the whole force of the institution behind solving it, we think we have a reasonable chance of solving it.
Financial inclusion in the continent from our point of view is not just about being a ‘Good Samaritan’ for people, it is trying to encourage and include as many people as possible and that way, it becomes commercially viable.
If it is commercially viable, then it can be sustainable. We are making it a business model to include as many people as possible.
From all I have said, you can get a sense of what we are about. We currently have more than 10 million customers and we have said we want to have more than 100 million customers by 2020. Now that is not something we just talk about easily, we know it is difficult but it remains a problem that needs to be solved and we believe whoever solves it properly will become a profitable player. When people see challenges, we see opportunities.
We have become a pan-African bank, when you take the 54 countries in Africa and we are in so many countries that the easiest way to count where we are will be by counting where we are not present. We are in the whole of East Africa and some parts of Southern Africa. We are in all Central and West African states.
Talking about 100 million customers, what is Ecobank’s roadmap for achieving the target?
First of all, the population of the continent is about a billion, that means where we operate would have over a billion people by 2020. We understand that to have a credible proposition, we must find a way to go to that market.
Reaching that market does not have to be by brick and mortal or by building more branches, rather it is being able to connect with people at their point of need through a means that is convenient.
And that’s why we said we are going to use devices to connect with people, whether it is through their phone or any other internet enabled device.
As we go into the future we will start having internet of things not just a mobile device. As we look into the future, we believe that mobile connectivity is the best way to deliver services to people.
The decision to launch a mobile app today, should give you a sense of direction of how we want to get to those 100 million customers.
The question of who we are is defined by history and the question of who we want to become is determined by our vision and our readiness to move towards that vision.
The number of branches we are in is historical. The question now is how to make Ecobank a platform that has many people participating in it. For instance, we have many people using WhatsApp in Africa, yet WhatsApp has no physical offices in Africa. This tells you that the emphasis on physical buildings will fade eventually.
It will be by internet distribution rather than physical distribution. This way more people can participate and value can be created using the technology. A lot of people here use Paypal to make payments but Paypal has no office in the continent. Let us not think about why it cannot be done because there is sufficient technology to solve whatever challenges. We are not opening more branches because we achieve our target with the help of technology.
Let me give another example, by market capitalisation, one of the largest hotels in the world is Airbnb and they don’t have a room. Uber also has no taxi. If these companies can solve problems without physical presence, then let us not limit our vision because of physical constraints. Let us solve it with technology bearing in mind that our ability to solve them can only be limited by our imagination.
Nigeria’s financial inclusion strategy targets 80 per cent inclusion by 2020, how will the Ecobank app fast-track this timeline?
What we are trying to do is increase the utility of the phones in the hands of people. If we say, put your money in the phone, the first question you will ask is if you want to buy something, how do you buy? The essence of partnering with other people is to expand the point of acceptance to the ubiquitous around the continent.
When you want to pay for goods and services, we want you to be able to do that using your mobile device, whether it is with our visa platform or the Masterpass. We want to expand our point of acceptance and that’s why we have partnered with Visa and MasterCard. That way we can reach out to more people. We want to be the platform, that way other players can come into participation.
We provide financial services in places where you won’t visit because we believe in the future of the continent and there are so many places where we are the only ones on ground.
What is unique about the Ecobank mobile app?
We will be the only one launching in 33 countries at a go. Yesterday, I was in Kenya and a friend of mine needed me to pay money into Cameroon. I don’t have an account in Cameroon; I have in Togo and Nigeria. Yet I was able to transfer the money and it was done. Not many people can say that it could be more convenient to use Ecobank. We are able to deliver in seconds to all these African countries.
As you move across West Africa we are there. We are the only ones that have made a reality, the vision of the founding fathers of ECOWAS and we are the only one that connects all these places.
Some banks have suspended international card services, where does Ecobank stand?
The temporary responses of government to short term problems will always be there, but we won’t let that define what our future should be. Five years ago, Nigeria was not in the same position it is now and five years from now, it won’t be where it is today.
Nigeria allowed people use their cards anywhere then, today to the best of my understanding there is a temporary problem with FX and they are trying to sort it out. We won’t withdraw from our imagination of connecting every Africans to trade with one another because of a temporary problem now.
The country used to produce 2.2 million barrels per day but now it produces less than 1.5 mbpd.
We cannot operate outside the law; we have to operate within the law. I am sure the government of Nigeria will soon figure out the best way out. Our customers operate within the ambit of the law, just as we operate within the law. What we need to talk about is how to work with government to solve problems so that they don’t make policies that may harm the economy. There will be issues that government need to solve, but we will work with government in that aspect, and connecting ECOWAS people is a priority for us.
How is Ecobank working with the public sector and governments in the countries it operates to fast-track development?
When people have the ability to save, buy things, set up businesses and they get supported by the banking system, then those countries grow and that is what we do. Remember, we are in so many countries where others are afraid to go. Today, we bank in Burundi, Central Africa Republic, South Sudan; we provide financial services in places you will not even visit because we believe in the future of those countries. We work with governments; there are so many things we do in the countries where we are present that enable the economies of those countries to grow.
You talked about mobile banking as if it is excluded from the rest of the system; apart from South Africa, and a few other countries, majority of Africa have challenges with infrastructure. Even if we are going mobile banking, how do you plan to deal with this?
The first thing is: where are we now as country and the continent? And where are we going to be by 2020? Connectivity and the device are two issues here. Remember, I asked how many people use WhatsApp, you said a lot of people, that means a lot of people use smartphones. Imagine all the people who use WhatsApp in Africa, and if they begin to make payment with phones… We need to bring down the price of the handsets and that is why we are working with lots of financial institutions. There is so much money spent in trying to solve the African problem.
We are looking at how the African woman saves. She saves by buying a goat; keeping it for long time, and hoping that when the kids are about going to school, she will be able to sell the goat for profit, and use the money to pay school fees. That is, if the goat has not been stolen, died or there is a buyer readily available. Our savings are in livestock, whereas there are other ways she could have saved. Give her an opportunity to have an account that is in a phone. We need to start imagining how we can provide solutions.
When I was growing up, people used to go farming and they had associations whereby they contribute together. That was the economy at that time, but they were able to pool savings together.
But today, we don’t have that kind of economy anymore because we are now in the urban centres, where people don’t trust each other. We should not just think about the problem in isolation, we should think about the solutions and the power of imagination where problems are solved with technology.
What is Ecobank’s unique selling point?
Our unique selling point is that we belong to a continent; we have been in this continent for a very long time, we are in multiple locations and we want to use technology to solve problems.
What are the challenges Ecobank has faced over the years?
It is like the challenges all the banks and institutions in the country are facing. We are trying to deliver a world-class service in a third world country, where infrastructure is a key challenge. We are trying to do that within the little infrastructure and all of those things create challenges. It is however important to look beyond the problem.
Nigeria is still faced with the challenges occasioned by the global crisis and as it stands, there is a downturn in the economy. How does it affect you as a bank?
Anything that affects our customers affects us; therefore, we need to figure out how to work with our customers to solve problems.