The South African bank using Singapore to expand in Asia

TymeBank’s decision to establish headquarters in Singapore in 2021 could indicate a shift in future economic relations between Singaporean and African entities.


Image : Tyme Bank

As the markets of South Africa and the Philippines rapidly evolve, a compelling narrative of financial inclusion is being etched. Customers in South African supermarkets are enticed to TymeBank and GoTyme kiosks, where ambassadors on standby eagerly guide them through a digital account-opening journey in a few minutes.

This progression from high-tech kiosk to checkout underscores a growing wave of financial empowerment, transforming the often-tedious banking process into an engaging, real-time service.

“Regardless of whether you find yourself in South Africa or the Philippines, the essence of human behaviour is strikingly similar,” says Rachel Freeman, executive director and chief growth officer of Tyme Global. “For instance, no one wakes up in the morning with the express idea to open a bank account. So we’ve kept that in mind while designing our business model.”

Market observers suggest that the South African-founded firm’s strategic decision to establish headquarters in Singapore in 2021 after beginning operations in 2019 could indicate a shift in future economic relations between Singaporean and African entities.

An empowering financial tool

TymeBank, through its strategic alliances with corporations such as Pick n Pay – a South African consumer goods store brand – has positioned itself as a pioneer in providing digital and cost-effective banking solutions. It boasts a vast network of 15,000 retail touchpoints, 1,450 kiosks in partner stores, and 1,135 retail ambassadors. With a customer base of 7.2m in South Africa, it continues to expand its digital banking operations to the Philippines.

TymeBank’s ambassadors, predominantly women embarking on their careers, simplify the account-opening process, ensuring that shoppers walk away not just with groceries, but with a new financial tool – a bank card.

Singapore’s strategic positioning has allowed TymeBank to tap into the expansive Asian market. This move has attracted substantial investments from global entities such as China’s Tencent and British International Investment, opening doors for beneficial collaborations. “We realised that Singapore, being the centre of fintech and digital financial services in the region, was a better base for our operations. Also, Singapore hosts many key players we want to work with so Singapore seemed like the logical step forward,” says Freeman.

In nations with large populations and high banking costs, Tyme’s business model finds a natural home. Underserved communities are a major target for the company, which launched South Africa’s first bank account with no monthly fees.

A strategic move to Singapore

Making a strategic move to Singapore has allowed Tyme to secure a digital banking licence in the Philippines, aided in part by its partnership with that country’s influential Gokongwei family, have been the cornerstones of the Asian strategy. The company is also striving to secure a similar licence in a third market. It has established a technology hub in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a base for over 200 of its engineering and product staff.

“Being in Singapore provides comfort in terms of good governance and solid infrastructure. It demonstrates that we operate within a well-managed city-state with sound regulations. While we’re not directly regulated in Singapore, being part of its community brings a lot of comfort when we consider expansions into other countries. This indirect validation strengthens our standing globally,” says Freeman.

TymeBank’s recognition of the strategic advantages of a Singapore base is shared by other African businesses. WapiPay, a Kenyan fintech startup, maintains a base in Singapore while being headquartered in Kenya.

The startup recently secured $2.2m in pre-seed funding for a vision to streamline global payments and remittances between Africa and Asia. With offices in Nairobi, Singapore, and Tianjin in China, WapiPay aims to become a pan-African payment and transfer service, using the fresh capital injection to engage with regulators across the continent for licensing.

A recent report by Amit Jain and Rufus Mwanyasi of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University highlights that the appeal of the city-state is not limited to African businesses. Increasingly, African high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) are drawn to the city-state’s financial services sector.

In a global environment fraught with uncertainty, Singapore offers African HNWIs numerous opportunities for wealth preservation. Features such as the new variable capital company (VCC) corporate framework for investment funds and the Global Investor Programme serve as key attractions, offering risk mitigation, diversification, operational flexibility, and the prospect of permanent residency.

Connectivity yet to come

The budding Africa-Singapore relationship is not without its hurdles. A key hindrance is the paucity of direct air connections between Singapore and Africa, with only a single route currently in operation.

Today, this solitary direct air route is between South Africa and Singapore. Industry experts predict, however, the likely establishment of a new route between Kenya and Singapore in the future. This dearth of direct connectivity can throttle the pace of business and dampen the partnership’s potential, particularly when contrasted with locations like Dubai, which boasts extensive air links with numerous African capitals. Tackling these logistical impediments remains a top priority as Singapore cements its position as an indispensable partner for Africa.

TymeBank is already looking to that future of increased connectivity. After successfully establishing a solid presence in the Philippines, the bank is now preparing to expand its operations into another Asian country, leveraging the experience it has garnered. “Our business is a classic example of South-South investment in action,” added Freeman. “We’re taking something we do in Africa and bringing it to Asia.”

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Will McBain

Will is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist based between the UK and West Africa.