28 October 2020

Using digital delivery to inject more humanity into Africa’s banks Part 1

28 October 2020
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5 minutes

The traditional image of banks and bankers remains that of stuffy, older men who are only interested in turning profits for their shareholders. And, while the advancement of technology has certainly shaken up service delivery, a dynamic new force in African banking is using the power of digital services to turn up the dial on what is required to help humans.

In the first of a two-part series, Christine Wu, Managing Executive, RBB, a division of Absa Group, shares her considerable experience with Insight Circle, delving into some of the challenges and opportunities of banking in Africa, as well as her ideas about how the digital economy can change the lives of people on the continent.

A traditional start to an extraordinary journey

On the advice of her mom, Christine qualified as a Chartered Accountant. She went on to work with global analysts, McKinsey, as a management consultant where she honed her focus on financial services, making partner before she left the group in 2016 after 11 years.

Christine was unsurprisingly snapped up by Discovery Bank, where she applied her insight, working as GM: Client insight and Products. Just under three years later, Christine joined the Absa Group.

Despite the obvious downsides, Christine says the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it a certain amount of welcome challenge for banking teams, saying the pandemic restrictions have stretched the need for innovation and has been a real test of their abilities.

Ever the optimist, Christine says: “This time has really forced us to find our unique niche. There is not a single formula for success in this industry and so, when it comes to delivering both internally and to your customer, these entirely new circumstances can be seen as an opportunity.”

Looking at her role within Absa, Christine believes she is fortunate to work across a number of different, but complementary areas such as design, digital strategy and marketing, weaving them all together into an integrated digital offering.

Big picture thinking – business trends for banks

Banks are not usually associated with philosophical thinking, but Christine says the leadership group at Absa spends a good deal of time discussing what the bank’s responsibility to drive economic recovery should be.

“It’s easy to just think about protecting yourself in times like these. But we believe we have a role to play in helping South Africa grow and, in the process, we will grow. During the height of the lockdown this was debated a lot by the leadership team and I am hoping that as an industry, we will stand by this,” Christine says.

The second business trend on the banking industry radar is privacy and how clients’ personal data is protected. The third is how best to support customers as South Africa pulls out of the pandemic.

“We always have to keep our customers safe. This has physical implications during a pandemic, but we also have an obligation to help them make the right financial decisions. Going forward, this will become even more important,” Christine explains.

Putting national needs first will lead to protectionism

There is a big push within technology circles to promote open borders. However, Christine notes that in reality many countries are practicing isolationism to varying degrees. And this is causing her some concern around the future development of the continent.

“Because of Covid and because of other economic pressures, there is a growing move towards a more closed environment. The tension between these two opposing forces is making for an interesting and complex business environment.”

Unfortunately, Christine says that part of this growing need to protect national interests will start to affect cloud services.

“You just have to look at what is happening with TikTok. This will not be the last case like this that we will see. The trend to try and promote cloud service providers that are in-country will continue to grow. You will also see a lot more restrictions from various governments to keep locally developed IP in their country, as well as a move to restrict foreign players from scaling up within their borders. Six months ago this was not so prevalent, but looking at things as they stand, it is causing me a lot of concern, especially on the tech side of things. You really need scale to see the benefits of newer technologies, like cloud, and it will also affect costs because of barriers to entry,” she warns.

In the second part of the series, Christine peels back a few more layers of her vision of banking and Africa. She looks at some of the tech trends in the industry as well as sharing her predictions for the coming years. She also shares what she believes consumers will be asking of their banks in the coming years.

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