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Finance & Services

Moving traditional banking into the digital age

Ms Aissatou Djiba Diallo leads Ecobank’s fintech initiatives, advising and implementing the bank’s fintech strategy. Her mission is to raise Ecobank’s support for the fintech sector by growing the bank’s flagship annual Ecobank Fintech Challenge and Ecobank Fintech Fellowship, to effectively apply the bank’s overall strategy around fintech.

A technology and innovation enthusiast, she has more than 15 years’ experience in the ICT industry. She has a background in software development and is a graduate of Pierre and Marie Curie University (Paris 6), with a specialisation in industrial computing and embedded systems.

She spent 11 years at Microsoft gaining experience in Sales, Marketing, Channel & Distribution, as well as Developers and Startups Community management. 

Prior to joining the Ecobank Group, she was one of the Leaders of the Microsoft4Afrika initiative and implemented a strategic Geo-Coverage plan to identify and attract the most successful startups and optimise investments across Africa.

In July she met with us to answer our questions about the potential of fintech in African banking.

Are fintechs a threat to traditional African banks?

At Ecobank, we regard fintechs as potential partners, rather than as foes. They develop solutions that we can partner with to provide cutting-edge services to our customers. We know that to be the bank of the future requires a fundamental shift from a traditional banking mindset to a digital one.

Fintechs have many advantages: they are agile, can choose which markets or niches to target, have rapid speed-to-market and distribution through mobile/internet and are not encumbered by costs associated with traditional banking or legacy IT issues.

We actively encourage fintech entrepreneurs and startups through our annual Fintech Challenge. Successful finalists get the opportunity to benefit from mentoring and networking support, access to Ecobank’s Pan-African banking sandbox, cash prizes and potential partnership with Ecobank for multinational product roll-out.

Ecobank is also a pioneer in digital banking and we are constantly innovating with new products, services, solutions and enhanced functionalities.

We harness technology and leverage on partnerships with telcos and others to extend our marketing reach, distribution and expand our target markets 
for our borderless, scalable and low cost-to-serve 
offerings.

Fintechs are key partners in driving innovation and agility – and having spent the last three years working closely with them, the Ecobank Group is well on its journey to becoming the reference bank for partnerships and support for fintechs.

What role can fintech play in driving financial inclusion?

57% of Africans don’t have access to basic banking and that statistic also hides a gender gap – in sub-Saharan Africa, only 37% of women and 48% of men have a bank account. Historically, Africa has a low density per capita of bank branches and this is even more pronounced in rural areas.

The rapid take-up of mobile phones in Africa, coupled with digital banking/fintech, has been a game changer in tackling this.

At Ecobank our Mobile App is leveraging on our strategic partnerships with mobile telephone networks – such as Airtel, MTN and Vodacom – to provide KYC-lite Xpress account opening just using a mobile, simply by utilising the subscription details on the SIM card.

These partnerships extend our marketing and distribution reach and expand the usage of our essential banking products and services across our footprint.

The Ecobank Mobile App is the gateway to financial services for millions of unbanked/underbanked Africans.

It has also enabled us to successfully roll out our Xpress Save, Xpress Loan and EcobankPay products, thereby bringing previously unbanked MSMEs into the formal economy.

Ecobank remains committed to strengthening our relationships with our global, regional and local partners – including card schemes, international money transfer organisations, mobile network operators, fintech firms and others, as we seek to deliver value to our key stakeholders.

Tell us about Ecobank’s Fintech Challenge.

Our annual Ecobank Fintech Challenge is a great example of how banks can successfully traverse the digital divide.

Launched in 2017, the Ecobank Fintech Challenge and its Fellowship opportunities identifies and partners with fintechs that are ready to scale, providing them with mentoring, networking, support and opportunities to access Ecobank’s 33 African markets, as well as opportunities to integrate with existing Ecobank digital offerings.

Since its inception, 31 startups have successfully completed the Fintech Challenge, with significant results, and some of the success stories are as follows:

  • Invest Mobile entered the inaugural competition in 2016 and has since developed a platform for customers to access a smooth one-stop shop for investment products from their phones. The application enables a full digital experience for customers, from on-boarding to investing, allowing transactions from the debit cards of other banks, and via mobile money.
  • Data Integrated Limited in Kenya and in Rwanda (another 2017 Fellow) enables customers to collect payments using Ecobank services.
  • Ten new Fellows joined the 2020 programme and are gearing up to start their new project implementations.

How does that fit in with the Ecobank sandbox and what is Ecobank’s rationale for its sandbox?

The Ecobank Group’s pan-African Banking Sandbox is an extension of the Fintech Challenge. The sandbox was launched in August 2020, following a successful pilot with select fintechs.

(A fintech sandbox or an application programme interface (API) sandbox is an environment that innovators and testers can use to mimic the characteristics exhibited by the production environment on a real-time basis to help simulate responses from all the systems an application interfaces with.)

The Ecobank Sandbox enables fintechs to access Ecobank’s Application Programming Interface (API) for the development of innovative solutions. They can access and connect to the Ecobank Group Payments Services through Ecobank’s API, enabling:

  • Collections: connect to Ecobank’s collections APIs to begin receiving payments from customers.
  • Payments: connect to Ecobank’s payments APIs to begin to make payments through our single point of integration.
  • General Payments – connect directly to us to make all your corporate payments.
  • Xpress Point – APIs to connect your payments to our Agent network.
  • Partnering with us: get direct access to our APIs and support services to hit the ground running.

It is part of Ecobank’s Open Banking strategy and will accelerate our partnerships with fintechs and other associates across Africa.

We see our sandbox as a huge opportunity for fintechs to access the 33 markets where we operate in Africa, more so with the advent of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). This initiative will accelerate intra-African trade, and with our digital payments ecosystem, Ecobank is in the best position to facilitate financial transactions and boost that business opportunity across the continent.

We are now moving towards a ‘Bank as a Platform’, enabling the possibility for fintechs to open ‘light’ bank accounts for their customers.

This will be possible by leveraging our Xpress Account API that we are currently testing with several fintechs. It aims to become the next generation of NeoBanks for Africa. We will also enable cash withdrawal through our network of fintechs and Xpress Points by integrating the Ecobank Xpress cash API.

What are Ecobank’s recent initiatives to help digitally empower Africa’s SMEs?

Firstly, I’ll mention our existing EcobankPay solution. We now have over 250,000 merchants across Africa registered to accept payments for their goods and services through EcobankPay, which they can do any time and anywhere.

EcobankPay is a core part of Ecobank’s digital financial services ecosystem approach and delivers unified and instant self-service across a range of interconnected payment solutions.

It can be used by all businesses, from small informal micro merchants to large corporates as well as governments, allowing them to offer easy and convenient payment options to their customers in-store or online.

It provides merchants with a cost-effective and convenient digital payment solution, enabling instant settlement and credit, growth in sales and increased customer loyalty.

In partnership with Google, we offer our MSME customers free online presence through the Google My Business Platform. As a value add, it also comes with the development of a free website, which provides current and prospective customers with verifiable business information.

Another innovative way of extending credit by Ecobank is by tying it in with increased utilisation of digital platforms for collections. Customer accounts are linked seamlessly to the flows of EcobankPay and all digital collections, and the turnover of digital collections flows into an account are used to access an eligible amount for the customer.

Other recent Ecobank initiatives include:

  • Ellevate by Ecobank, providing women-owned/led/focused businesses with collateral-lite funding, smart cash management facilities, leadership skills training, mentoring and networking opportunities.
  • Launching the Omni Lite App to give business customers the ability to access this innovative payment platform whenever and wherever they are on their mobile phones.
  • Launch of the Ecobank Business Prepaid Cards in 14 countries in Q4 2020, providing customers with the opportunity to load funds for online business purchases and payments to suppliers.
  • Ecobank partnered with Microsoft’s Global Skilling Initiative to train, upskill and equip SMEs across sub-Saharan Africa. SMEs will be taught the vital skills and knowledge necessary to leverage digital tools for marketing, communications, servicing and sales to their customers, to help them achieve their business goals in this increasingly digital world.
  • During the Covid-19 pandemic, Ecobank partnered with Google to develop learning solutions for children and to help children access educational content online, thus alleviating the issue of the pandemic restricting children from attending physical classes.

Do you see Africa following the global trend towards greater e-commerce?

In response to our customers’ need for tools to make their products and services accessible online and to a wider audience, in December 2020 we launched Ecobank Marketplace.

This provides a ready-made and accessible e-commerce solution for MSMEs to grow their sales using established leading marketplaces such as Flutterwave, DPO and iPay and receive instant and secure online payments via EcobankPay QR, mobile money or card payment.

Launched in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Zambia, eCommerce Solutions provides an efficient and cost-effective way for MSMEs to advertise their goods and services and access new customers.

The consumer or business looking for goods or services uses the Ecobank affiliates’ e-commerce platform to find what they want, check out and at the point of payment will see the transparent shipment price, delivery time and consumer rating of the logistics delivery company, so that they can make an informed choice and have their purchase delivered directly to them. After delivery, the customer can also rate the logistic partner on the e-commerce platform.