Digital transformation in the financial sector is no longer an option as banks today strive to reflect the lifestyle of their customers. Consumers of financial services are today seeking for easy, effortless and on-demand control over their finances. In Nigeria, there is a growing number of people adopting mobile and digital technology in going about their lives and their business and the huge number of the unbanked population provides more opportunities for financial institutions.
Owing to this, after leading Diamond Bank into a successful merger with Access Bank Plc, Uzoma Dozie will today unveil Sparkle, a lifestyle digital financial services company. In this interview, Dozie describes Sparkle as a digital tribe that brings together individuals and businesses to enable their financial business and lifestyle activities. He believes that digital financial services and makes things easier and allows people to save more. He also speaks about the benefit of Sparkle to businesses. He says leveraging on technology and his experience in a traditional bank that used technology to scale and provided millions of Nigerians with services regardless of where they were, Sparkle will contribute significantly to the growth on Nigeria’s banking system. Obinna Chima brings the excerpts:
The question that comes to the mind of any one that hears about the new brand you are promoting in the financial sector will be, what actually happened to Diamond Bank?
For Diamond Bank, what we did was that we created one of the best retail banks that provided services to millions of customers and the opportunity came in terms of how do we move forward; in terms of how do we create more value for our stakeholders. These were three key stakeholders: the customers, staff and the shareholders. Now, by merging our strong retail capabilities with that of Access Bank’s strong corporate banking, not only did we create the largest financial power house, we created a platform with over 28 million customers and the largest in Africa. This is a platform that also gave customers an ecosystem that also connects businesses and individuals to the largest commerce platforms in Africa and they now belong to a larger customer platform with wider opportunities locally and internationally. Access Bank has locations in key African, Asian and European markets. And for the owners, that is the shareholders, what did they get? They got three times the market value they have gotten in the last three years and they now own shares formerly in a tier 2 bank, to a tier 1 bank and creating a platform of 28 million customers means that they are going to share in the upside, especially in the dividend pay-out that Access Bank is known for over the years. So, that was what happened to Diamond Bank. Basically, what happened was that the key stakeholders took the bank into a merger that created the benefit of helping the bank to grow into the future.
But considering what you just said and all the investment and efforts that were put in to grow Diamond Bank to the level it was then and even emerged as one of the leading retail banks in the country, people would be wondering if it was a deliberate strategy to grow the financial institution to a particular level and merge it with another bank, because till today? some customers of the bank are yet to come to terms with the whole process?
Like any enterprise, you start off organically, but if you want to get bigger, sometimes you have to look at the available options. This includes: should I merge? Should I raise fresh capital? Can I do it by myself? I think in today’s market where there is blurred line in banking, where global organisations such as Amazon are beginning to go into the financial space, this is important. This is also important in Nigeria where it is the tier 1 banks that are dominating that market. There is a saying that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together and that was exactly what we did with Access Bank. We saw that opportunity and we saw the benefits it would provide for our customers, staff and stakeholders and even the regulators, because that was the first merger that was done by two willing parties that saw the opportunity it would provide to the market place.
An important factor in banking is trust and it is essential for the survival of any financial institution. Considering what happened with Diamond Bank, do you think potential customers of the new organisation you have established would trust you?
Trust is certainly a key component, not just in banking, but in any successful venture. It was this trust that contributed to the successful collaboration between Diamond Bank and MTN to create MTN Y’ello, which brought in 10 million customers over a space of two years into the bank. It is that same trust that enabled us to create over three million mobile app users, which was one of the largest in Africa. We also had our Beta proposition, where we took banking to the business women in the market place, because the existing banking model was not good for them. Now, this was the value that Access Bank saw in Diamond Bank and paid over three times that price. And today, those customers are still with Access Bank, because the trust is still there. The fact that we made the right decision to go with Access Bank and those customers are enjoying the services that we created and much more, from the collaboration with Access Bank shows that the customers have trust in what we did.
What is Sparkle, what did you see that led you to launch this new organisation and what gap in the market do you intend to fill?
Sparkle is a digital tribe that brings together individuals and businesses to enable their financial business and lifestyle activities. There is a growing number of people that are adopting mobile and digital technology in going about their lives and their business. If you look at all the new businesses that are starting today, they are starting with digital, just because it makes things easier. And I go back to the fact that over three million people still use Diamond mobile. Also, millions of people open Diamond Y’ello and are going about their business. They didn’t walk into branches to open the account, but did that through mobile. Even the market women who were collecting cash and paying cash in the ajo system, the success is in mobile alternatives because it makes things easier and allows them to save. And that is where the opportunity is. We believe there is so much more that can be done. On the business side, Sparkle is integrating business support and financial applications that helps in reducing transaction cost and operations for small businesses. Small businesses today have problems beyond financing. They have challenges in terms of challenges, invoicing, risk management, inventory management and many others, and those are the things that Sparkle is going to build for its customers. On the individual side, there are still better ways for people to save, there are still better ways for me to make payment and there are still better and more innovative ways for me to borrow. People are now moving from traditional to digital. We are also paying particular attention to women because they tend to be fast in adopting technology globally. Most women who are millennials, have to understand social media so that they can connect and engage with their children. That is one area we would be focusing on. So, Sparkle is a lifestyle and financial institution that is using technology to help customers improve their daily lives. Every organisation develops a strategy to meet the needs of its customers, so we are using technology to meet our customers’ needs. We believe that it is not just about providing financial solution, but also lifestyle solutions. Both of them go together and not in isolation. We are leveraging on technology and our experience in traditional banking and also the fact that we were in a traditional bank that used technology to scale and provided millions of Nigerians with services regardless of where they were.
What is your target market, I guess the millennials?
We are targeting the millennials at heart. My mother still uses mobile banking because it makes it easier for her, she uses WhatsApp to communicate with people in any part of the world, because that is the best way to do that today. We are also targeting digital aliens and the digital natives. The digital natives are the millennials. They are the ones that were born into technology, like my children who were born into the mobile era. Then, we have people who are the digital immigrants, those between ages 30 and 60, that have also adopted digital technology for convenience. So, we are for people who understand the value in digital and are willing to do more at a lower cost, with new market and new solution; and we have a growing base of businesses and individuals in Nigeria under this category. I believe today any new business that is starting, starts on the foundation of technology.
How are your products different from those we have in the conventional banks?
Sparkle is not about products; it is about helping you do what you want to do. Products are used to categorise people, but today, people are no longer interested in financial products, but they are interested in what they want to do. Through a digital platform, we would be able to provide our customers various choices. So, we are not about products. But our customers would have account and within that account you can do whatever you want to do at the click of a button. As I said earlier, product is about categorisation and the only thing we have categorised here are the individuals, based on what they do and what they want and digital allows us to do that effectively.
What milestones do you intend to achieve in your first five years of operations?
We are not at liberty right now to divulge those kind of numbers. But I can tell you that being a digital platform scale is very essential. We have brought together, partners with the relevant experience to ensure that we meet the expectations of millions of customers that would join Sparkle. We believe that we can do a lot with the partners that we have put together.
So, who are these partners you are working with?
Our success in Diamond Bank in terms of retail banking was because of strategic alliances that we had with various international organisations which enabled us to leverage technology to serve our customers betters, and it will not be different with Sparkle. We have forged strategic alliance with the likes of Microsoft, Visa, Pwc and a network of international companies who are very passionate about what Sparkle is trying to do and are interested about the good thing we are bringing to the market.
Don’t you see the conventional banks as threat?
The Nigerian financial market is still under developed and most Nigerians are still unbanked and all those that are in the banking system are still unbanked. We are focusing our energy on the customers and not other banks. As you know, the Central Bank is still licensing more financial institutions to promote lending, payment and saving. But we are just focusing on the best way to help customers grow, regardless of the competition. So, our focus to be customer-centric, which is why we are building our services around our customers. Regardless of the conventional banks or the non-conventional banks, we are determined to make our customers live a better and productive life. Competition is good and the threats would always be there like any other business, but there are massive opportunities for us in the market because as I said earlier, we still have a lot of unbanked people in the country. We are fully committed to providing digital banking services to people who want to live a good live and we believe that millions of Nigerians are looking forward to us. It is not just about being big, it is about being nimble and able to address customers’ needs and their changing lifestyles.