Network International leads cashless charge across Africa

The pandemic has concentrated minds on the urgent need to switch to digital transactions and for regional operators to ally themselves to world-class solutions. Hany Fekry, Regional President for Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa at Network International, tells us how the company is doing just that.

Conversation with

Network International, comprising a group of companies, is a leading enabler of digital commerce across the MEA region. It provides a full suite of technology-enabled payments solutions to merchants and financial institutions, including acquiring and processing services and a comprehensive ever-evolving range of value-added services.

Network’s purpose is to help businesses and economies prosper by simplifying commerce and payments. It aims to be the largest, fastest-growing and most innovative payments company in the region by 2025.   

Hany Fekry is the Regional President for Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, responsible for developing and implementing a comprehensive strategy to drive business growth in the region. 

He joined the company in 2016 and has more than 20 years’ senior-level experience in business development. Hany previously served as the Chief Commercial Officer of Emerging Markets Payments (EMP) Africa, which was acquired by Network International in March 2016. 

The pandemic has concentrated minds on the urgent need to switch to digital transactions and for regional operators to ally themselves to world-class solutions. Hany tells us how Network International is doing just that.

Although financial digital solutions technology has been progressing very rapidly, the switch from cash in Africa is still lagging far behind other regions. Why is this so in your opinion?

There are several factors behind the slower pace of cash-to-digital transformation in Africa. One is the limited digital payments infrastructure – which is why mobile phone-based money transfers are more popular in some markets than in others. 

We should also consider the different market dynamics influenced by facets such as income levels, population size and age, policies etc. in each of the 54 countries comprising the continent. 

And then there’s the strong foothold of cash, which has the well-established virtues of immediacy, ubiquity, and trust. 

Africa remains among the most underpenetrated digital payments markets in the world due to these challenges. 

Further digital adoption in the region ultimately rests on changing the perspectives of mostly cash-reliant citizens; expanding and modernising the payments ecosystem; and forging strategic partnerships to create reliable, secure, and agile payment platforms. 

The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) is determined to accelerate the cashless transformation – as well as increase financial inclusion. Is your company assisting in this vital initiative and if so, how?

We are proud to be actively supporting the Central Bank of Egypt’s efforts to accelerate financial inclusion and the digitisation of the financial sector. 

For example, we were one of the first companies to certify our platform for the ‘Meeza’ card scheme (issuing and acquiring), making it available for all our clients in Egypt. We also played a key role in the CBE’s 100K POS initiative with our acquiring banks. 

We’ve also pledged to waive up to $1m in fees over a multiple-year period for our eligible start-up clients. This first-of-its kind initiative in Egypt is intended to boost the cashless economy and support the Central Bank’s financial inclusion drive. 

Network will facilitate the issuance of local and international cards as well as enable APIs and integrations for Egyptian start-ups to accept digital payments. 

Among the benefits we offer to both new and existing clients are zero hosting fees, zero minimum charges, and an up-to-75% discount on joining and implementation fees.

We want to ease the financial burden of digital payments adoption amongst Egypt’s nascent ecosystem and support them with our local expertise, robust payment infrastructure, and extensive experience in issuing card solutions for eminent financial institutions across Africa and the Middle East.

Given how the pandemic has influenced the direction of African business and economic development, is Network International similarly adjusting its sails, so to speak, to navigate the changing landscape?

Network has just recently adopted a new strategic vision enabled by a business model transformation, both operationally and culturally. We’ve created a platform to accelerate growth through value-added-services driven by accelerated execution and innovation. 

We are already seeing results under this new vision in terms of market leadership, speed of innovation, customer-centricity, and improved execution. 

Our strategy refresh will ensure that we are better able to help businesses and economies prosper by simplifying commerce and payments through faster digital on-boarding, technology advancements to lower the cost of acceptance, expanding the range of value-added services and becoming the e-commerce champion in Africa and the Middle East. 

We are especially excited about the opportunities that will arise in Africa given our acquisition of DPO, a prominent payments player in the region. 

Staying in North Africa, you have entered into several strong partnerships with other service providers. What are the benefits of your relationship with Union Pay International and ALEXBANK?

The strategic relationships we’ve forged with UnionPay and ALEXBANK are intended to help accelerate digital payment acceptance and adoption in Egypt as part of our broader efforts to enable digital commerce across Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa. 

 Early this year, ALEXBANK signed an agreement with UnionPay International (UPI) and Network International to enable UPI cardholders to make electronic payments at retail outlets – a first in Egypt that supports both consumers and merchants. 

Egypt has become a popular destination for Chinese tourists over the past years – they used to visit mainly Cairo but are now exploring destinations such as Luxor and Aswan – so our collaboration with ALEXBANK and UPI will deliver convenient and familiar payment experiences to Chinese travellers, broaden the local payments ecosystem, and help boost the economy overall. 

Coming further south into Africa, what will your collaboration with Faisal Islamic Bank in Sudan mean to the business community in that country?

We’re happy to have helped Faisal Islamic Bank (FIB) in becoming the first indigenous Sudanese bank to obtain a card issuing and acquiring licence from Mastercard. 

We’re supporting FIB in the domestic issuance of Mastercard-branded debit, credit and prepaid payment cards for use online, in-store and at ATMs. Our technology will also enable FIB to connect local businesses to the Mastercard network. 

I’d also like to add that we’re working on helping Sudanese banks acquire Visa associate licences by sponsoring them. Obtaining the licences will enable banks to issue all types of Visa-branded cards as well as accept Visa transactions online, in-store and at ATMs. 

These collaborations will enable bank customers to transact globally and bring more consumers and merchants into the payment ecosystem. 

You recently completed the acquisition of DPO, one of the largest online commerce platforms in Africa. What does this move mean to both organisations and customers across a large swathe of Africa?

The acquisition of DPO marks an important milestone in Network’s growth strategy and will create significant scale across our online payments business. We’ll be able to significantly expand our offerings by accessing DPO’s well-established merchant network of over 60,000 SME and global enterprises in 21 countries across Africa. 

We will benefit from the synergies of both companies – Network will incorporate DPO’s unique and innovative online payment solutions, while DPO will be bolstered by our face-to-face payments capabilities and our higher transaction authorisation rates. 

In 2020, the African online payment market was valued at more than $30bn and it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of circa 30% between 2021 and 2025.  

NI and DPO will work together to support the market’s sustained growth and deliver innovative value-added online payments capabilities that meet the unique needs of merchants on the continent. 

What is the rationale behind virtual cards and how important are these as more African countries transition away from cash? What is your input in this movement?

For banks, virtual card issuance promises to emerge as a major strategic asset. Customers, on the other hand, will experience the added convenience, flexibility, safety and security that cashless payments offer. 

Banks stand to enjoy greater returns from virtual card issuance through our provision of API integration connected to existing channels such as mobile, internet banking and ATMs. They’ll also have better opportunities to cross-sell their other products and services.

Covid-19 has had a profound effect on people, businesses, and society – including the way financial transactions are conducted. Network International is committed to fostering agile innovation by deploying our best-in-class technology to support the digital and financial inclusion of African consumers and businesses and help them make and receive payments in the ‘new normal’. 

Covid-19 finally brought home the message that cash is now outdated in Africa; but the transformation across the continent has been uneven. Which regions are in the fast lane and which are in the slow lane?

Cash will continue to be predominant in Africa despite Covid-19 for quite some time, due to the challenges I mentioned earlier. 

What the pandemic has done however, is to highlight the value of digital commerce amidst an exponentially and rapidly evolving global economy. The past year has shown us that widespread digital transformation will be essential, and imminent, post the pandemic.  

We’ve seen considerable uptake in cashless payments in places like Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa, but we may see these lanes converge sooner rather than later given the impact of Covid-19 and the growing momentum of financial inclusion efforts across African governments. 

A customer makes contactless payment in Nigeria.
A customer makes contactless payment in Nigeria. Digital commerce is on the rise in Nigeria, although the use of cash is likely to be predominant for some time. (Photo: GaudiLab / Shutterstock)

Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, has now woken up to the need to switch away from cash, and to do so rapidly. How is Network International helping this revolution?

Before Covid-19, as with many parts of Africa, cash comfortably remained king in Nigeria and there was no significant levelling up in financial services despite decades of efforts to shift away from paper money.

Amidst the pandemic, we’ve seen growing confidence and demand for digital banking across Nigeria – more consumers are seeking alternative ways to do transactions beyond physical banking and traditional card payments. This is partly out of concerns that paper currency can transmit the virus, the growing appeal of technology-enabled payments amongst Africa’s predominantly young population, and the intensifying pursuit of financial inclusion.  

Nigeria and the rest of the continent saw online deposit, mobile banking apps, cards and e-bills payment quickly become the norm in a short span of time, with card and virtual card payments emerging as preferred modes of non-cash transactions.

Network International is supporting this fundamental shift in digital banking in Nigeria by partnering with financial institutions and providing them with issuance solutions to meet the changing needs of their customers.

We’ve also been helping local banks benefit from our experience and expertise in creating virtual card solutions for emerging markets. Our advanced digital infrastructure and security protocols enable issuers to dodge investments in costly card management infrastructure. 

Overall, we’re empowering Nigerian banks to reinforce their issuance business to expand their contribution to digital commerce and position themselves for accelerated growth. 

Africa’s youth bulge can be a force for either tremendous growth or social upheaval. What can the various players in the financial system, including organisations such as yours, do to help the youth become more entrepreneurial and productive?

While many parts of the world have a predominantly mature population – the median age in Europe, for example, is 42, and in Japan, a third of its citizens are over the age of 65 – the median in Africa is just 19. 

The continent’s age demographics represent huge potential from a digital commerce perspective – younger people are more open and eager to engage in financial products in different ways, especially where technology is involved. Their familiarity and affinity with technology makes them ready and eager to embrace modern payment services.

And that’s one of the best ways for our industry to help Africa’s youths become more entrepreneurial and productive – letting technology lead the way in developing innovative and agile solutions that make the financial inclusion journey familiar, appealing and motivating for the younger generation.

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