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Are Banks Necessary? And other Questions

03.04.2018Tokunboh Ishmael, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Alitheia Identity

This blog was originally published on the Medium Website.

Asking this question will no doubt raise eyebrows and much consternation, especially in Nigeria where Alitheia Identity invests in financial services and financial technology aka Fintech. The question is meant to shock banks to get off the fence and into action.

Bill Gates is famously reported by the Economist to have said ‘Banking is necessary, banks are not.’ This quote resonates with my vision of retail banking in a ‘future’ that seems to have already arrived. The retail bank of the future will be ubiquitous, contextual, social and invisible. It will provide personalised services seamlessly/invisibly, much in the same seamless way that Uber receives payments from customers today. Invisible payments will become the norm where customers will walk into certain locations (off and on-line) select or be prompted to enjoy offers on products and services, and have payments automatically deducted. In this regard, the retail banks will be entities that provide non-banking services with embedded banking services. It will be wherever and whenever. Providing payment, savings and credit services in context with the customers’ needs, wants, behaviour and footprint in the driving seat. Amazon has led the foray into this ‘future’ by opening its first checkout-free store.

Currently, entities that are at the vanguard of developing these invisible payments are not traditional banks. They are technology companies such as Amazon and Google. It is widely believed that banks have not been quick to push these technologies for fear of cannibalising their credit and debit card products. Although, this may seem to spell doom for incumbent banks as these seamless technologies enjoy wide adoption, in my view it is unlikely that entities like Google and Amazon will want to completely take over the business of banking, and its attendant regulatory and compliance headaches. Instead they may wish to partner and offer their technologies within a financial services ecosystem. Such an ecosystem would have the retail bank of the future as a platform with incumbent banks at the core providing banking ‘plumbing’ as a service and partnering with Fintech or technology challengers to provide the personalised and contextual experience that customers have come to expect.

Question: Are Nigerian banks ready or preparing for this new reality — a shift from the traditional integrated end-to-end model to a modular plug-and-play model?

It is no surprise that technology shifts will be at the heart of retail banking’s transformation over the next ten years just as it has been over the past ten when the word and concept of digital banking began to gain prominence. However, to date, the use of digital technologies has been majorly focused on automating mundane tasks, and providing shiny new interfaces on old dated banking legacy systems. The retail bank of the future will not merely layer digital interfaces on to existing systems, it will have a digital core upon which it will provide a rich customer experience. To achieve this, software developers, data scientists and design professionals will play a larger role in the management teams and boards of the banks of the future. Their skills will be essential to shift from the emphasis on automating processes to outcomes that delight with a greater focus on customer needs based on insights from treasure troves of customer data.

Question: Have banks started broadening their employee engagement strategies to attract/keep the purveyors of these new skills?

Banks that are still focused on shiny new interfaces and lacking the requisite design/data skills are not at the start line let alone in the race for retail customer growth and stickiness.

The main technologies that will play a key role in the development of the retail bank of the future are Deep Learning and Artificial Intelligence, which will enable the mining of customer data (from both non-financial and financial entities) to set rules based on insights from customer preferences and behaviours. This in turn will enable providers to make informed recommendations for products and services and take pre-determined actions with customer permissions. The winning ‘banks’ in this new world will intelligently use all the information that they have about customers to ‘make life possible and easier’…possible to employ financial services to live life to its full potential, in whatever way the customer chooses to define ‘full’. Smart banks will leverage this data and a customer’s social capital to determine its risk appetite for that customer and how best to use the customer’s social network to market its services. In other words, demand and supply for financial services will emanate from and be fuelled by a customer’s relationship with a non-financial entity and the customer’s social interactions.

On the customer side, the pervasive use of ‘wearable technologies’ and the ‘Internet of Things’ will literally turn the customer and his environment into the ‘branch’ for a personalised and contextual service. The implication of this will be a re-imagining of bank branches and their function. This is already playing out with the reduction of bank branches globally. That said, bank branches will not be completely eliminated but redesigned as places that attract customers to experience their ‘bank’ in a new and modern way.

Question: Are Banks Fintech ready? Are we all ready for this new reality?

The move is inevitable, standing still is actually walking backwards and no one can afford to do that.

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About the Author

Tokunboh Ishmael is an accomplished and experienced private equity investor with a proven track record. She is Managing Director and co-founder of Alitheia Capital (www.thealitheia.com) In 2015, she co-founded Alitheia Identity (www.alitheiaidentity.com) a fund manager that invests in high growth small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with significant opportunity to grow profitably and deliver above-market returns. The firm does this through a proactive approach to funding businesses led by female founders and co-founders towards ensuring greater participation of women at at all levels from boardroom to factory floor. Tokunboh is a CFA Charterholder, corporate financier and M&A banker historically having worked on over $5.6 billion M&A deals across the US, UK and Africa.

Can you save money while repaying debt?

04.12.2017Stephen Davies, Financial Blogger

This blog was originally published on CAJ News Africa.

Economic recession can trigger some serious soul-searching when it comes to personal finance. With an economic downturn, everyday people can expect to experience rising costs of living and more uncertainty when it comes to employment. This means that it’s more important than ever to take stock and get a handle on finances in order to ensure your long-term financial survival. After a 0.3% drop in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Q4 2016, South Africa recorded a 0.7% GDP reduction in Q1 2017.

Two consecutive quarters of declining GDP are the criteria for a technical economic recession, leading to the official announcement of the country’s new troubling financial position in June 2017. Alongside economic recession, South Africa is also juggling a weak Rand, political instability, Government corruption allegations and a junk credit rating.

Building financial stability

With all this in mind, it’s little wonder that many South Africans are at long last confronting their personal finances head on. Financial nous has never been the Rainbow Nation’s strong suit, both at the national and individual level. With some of the highest levels of personal debt in the world and the lowest levels of financial literacy amongst developed nations, the population has long had a “spend don’t save” mentality. With woefully little financial education available (and schools consistently failing in mathematics), it’s difficult for many South Africans to recognise the danger of this mindset and harder still for them to implement effective changes to their approach to personal finance.

How to repay & save

However, with potential financial instability on the horizon, now it is time to get learning and start taking care of debt and nurturing an emergency fund. But is it possible to do both? Absolutely. These steps will help you to repay debts while saving money for the future…

1. Study up

If you’re not especially confident when it comes to money matters, taking some time to get educated on the subject will help you understand more about why making savings and reducing debt is so important. A thorough understanding of basic finance will motivate you to be smarter with money, while giving you the tools to deal with your finances in a more effective manner. Online resources like Money Academy (South Africa specific) and the UK-based Money Advice Service are good places to start.

2. Get budgeting

Budgeting is absolutely fundamental both to repaying debt and to saving money. With a tight and rigorous budget, you can find finance to both repay and save simultaneously. You might need to make some lifestyle changes, but in time, it will be more than worth it for greater financial stability. There are lots of apps which can help you build and manage a budget, this article recommends a few good options.

3. Repay ASAP

Repaying your debts sooner rather than later may, in effect, be a form of saving in itself. That’s because repaying debts early can save you from the interest which applies to debts paid off over a longer period. Before you make an early repayment, make sure that your creditor doesn’t charge early repayment fees which will cost more than the total interest of fulfilling the entire term. Has the latest recession make you confront your finances? What steps are you taking to get financially stable? Share your tips and thoughts with other readers.

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About the author

Stephen Davies is a freelance content writer specialized in Financial news. He writes about global issues, finance, technology and business. He is a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) specialist and has assisted several companies undertake SEO Copywriting Projects by providing reviews and search engine optimization tips to improve retention  of target audiences.

"I've got your back" - the role of mutualitées in the DRC

18.07.2017Jaco Weideman, Research Associate & Renée Hunter, Research Analyst - CENFRI

This post was originally published on the CENFRI website.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a country with a volatile history and topography that's tough to navigate. It's not the easiest place to live when you consider the risks that you are exposed to on a regular basis. These might include sickness, unemployment, and unexpected expenses, but also more specific and remarkable challenges, such as buffalos trampling your crops. Now consider that insurance is mostly inaccessible. How would you ensure that you and your family cope?

The people of the DRC have come up with an innovative and complex solution that is very well-suited to their specific needs, in the form of mutualitées. While community-based financial groups such as savings and credit associations or burial societies are seen in many countries in Africa, mutualitées are unique in their design. They are set apart from other co-operative groups by their complexity and broad activity span across different financial services and social functions. In many ways, mutualitées fulfil the role of insurers, investment managers, contractors of public works and public service providers. They manage to meet an entire portfolio of financial needs in one product.

Mutualitées started in the cosmopolitan city of Kinshasa. The coming together of different cultures and ethnicities created a need for groups to preserve and celebrate their heritage. Associations were set up and, over time, their goal evolved from cultural preservation to mutual self-help: supporting their kinsmen within an unfamiliar, and sometimes overwhelming, city, far from home. Marriages were celebrated, deaths were mourned, and assistance was given in times of hardship.

Nowadays, mutualitées are complex and organised social groups where the common bond is no longer limited to a shared ancestry, and the benefits are more than financial.

"The advantages (of a mutualitée) are love and mutual support. We give assistance in case of an illness. In a case of a birth we also assist. We provide support in case of bereavement."

Head of a mutualitée, Kinshasa

The members of a mutualitée convene regularly. At those meetings members contribute a certain sum, with which the management team (made up of highly-esteemed individuals) are charged with fulfilling the mutualitée's numerous aims. Examples range from a small mutualitée of young men that clears stagnant water in a certain suburb to combat malaria, to a large mutualitée that lobbies government in order to reunify the two Congos.

From interviews with members of mutualitées, it emerged that their overarching aim is to assist members in times of need. A common way to do this is via risk pooling or pooled savings. In certain cases of misfortune (such as death or illness) or celebration (such as marriage or childbirth), as the interviewee describes above, members are eligible for a pay-out. A specific amount is set for particular events, such as US$300 for a funeral or US$100 for childbirth. Members therefore know exactly what to expect.

Some mutualitées also assist members through individual savings and credit. The management will guard members' savings for them or, in exceptional cases, based on a member's merit, will provide them with a loan. Moreover, many mutualitées grow their funds by investing in assets. For instance, there's a student mutualitée that invests in fridges from which cold drinks are sold and another buys cars to run a taxi service.

There are also mutualitées that builds infrastructure and conduct activities to generate positive externalities. Examples range from mutualitées funding road improvements, to mutualitées that organise after-school activities for children, such as soccer tournaments.

Thus mutualitees therefore fulfil an important social as well as financial assistance role.

"Firstly, I am proud because I am in an association with my brothers. I lost my son and I did not have enough financial means and the President of the association assisted me with $200 for the coffin."

Staff member of a mutualitée, Kinshasa

So what does this mean for policymakers and regulators?

Given the early stages of retail financial market development in the DRC, where financial access barriers are wide-spread and only the top end of the market is served in the formal financial sector, the mutualitée provides a uniquely tailored, local solution to many. This creates a policy imperative to acknowledge and protect the role that the mutualitée plays in serving those outside the reach of the formal financial sector. It also poses the question of whether formalisation of these financial services is desirable and, if so, what would this formalisation look like. The implementation of the 2015 Insurance Act, which states that all providers of insurance, including mutual associations, are subject to new and stringent requirements relating to market entry and minimum capital criteria, may be the first warning light for the future of mutualitées. If strictly enforced, this would place most in jeopardy.

Should mutualitées come under threat, it will mean not only the loss of a broad-reaching financial services, but also a valuable social support network. So, whilst some will merely lament the cancellation of a local kids' soccer tournament, a greater hardship will come for those that have nowhere to turn when they need money for a hospital bill or worse, a funeral.

We encountered the phenomenon of mutualitées during our in-country research work for the Making Access Possible (MAP) study. MAP draws insights from both qualitative and quantitative, demand and supply-side research, with inputs from stakeholders in both the public and private sector. This feeds into a financial inclusion roadmap. The diagnostic for MAP DRC is forthcoming and will be released soon.

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About the Authors

Jaco Weideman is a research associate at Cenfri and has been part of the team since November 2014. Since joining the team, Jaco has been involved in several projects in Mozambique and South Africa. Jaco has been part of the team conducing MAP diagnostics in Mozambique, Madagascar and DRC, responsible for FinScope data analysis, and segmentation to identifying potential target groups for financial services providers in the country. Renée Hunter is a research analyst working within i2i's Client Insights team. Her research to date has mostly focused on client centricity and data protection. Before joining i2i, Renée worked as a junior researcher at Cenfri, and before that as a junior business developer for Divitel - an independent video systems integrator.

What we learned from the Regional Conference on Financial Sector Development in African States Facing Fragile Situations? - Part 6

08.11.2016Amadou Sy, Director of Africa Growth Initiative, Brookings Institution

In June 2016, leaders from the public and private sectors and development partners gathered in Abidjan to discuss the links between fragility, resilience and financial sector development in Africa. This event, a joint initiative created by the Making Finance Work for Africa Secretariat (MFW4A), the African Development Bank (through its Transition Support Department, Financial Sector Department and the Initiative for Risk Mitigation), FSD Africa and FIRST Initiative also provided an opportunity to explore prospects for partnerships, innovative policies and private sector-led solutions to accelerate financial sector development in fragile situations in Africa.

In this last instalment of a six-part series, Amadou Sy, Senior Fellow and Director of the African Growth Initiative, Brookings Institution, looks at the different innovative solutions, instruments and other opportunities to strengthen the capacity of financial institutions operating in fragile contexts in Africa.

In case you missed it, you can read parts One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.

Strengthening Capacity

Mr. Cedric Mousset of the World Bank stressed that capacity is a big constraint in fragile countries and there are no easy solutions. Capacity building should be done when there are incentives for financial institutions to reform such as incentives to leverage market opportunities and improve markets. The supervisory and regulatory framework is key as it allows for adequate competition, restructuring, and the adoption of international standards such as the Basel standards.

Mr. Paul Musoke of FSD Africa stressed the importance of developing scale and sustainability in the financial system in Africa. To do so, his institution favours a catalytic strategy. In particular, FSD's Market Building Approach assesses the environment, looks at the core where demand is meeting supply, assesses the market failures in the supply side and builds capacity within the supply side. Such an approach requires stakeholders to look at support functions such as information, infrastructure, and skills development. It also requires a good grasp of rules such as informal norms, standards, laws, and regulations. Its goal is to build a sustainable market that continues to operate once FSD exits and that crowds-in other players.

Instruments available from development partners

Ms. Kilonzo of the African Development Bank (AfDB) noted that the landscape of African finance is dominated by small and fragmented financial systems with limited access to basic financial services. The AfDB's priorities include not only broadening access to finance but also supporting "green" growth, infrastructure development, regional financial integration, governance, entrepreneurship and innovation, and financial skills development. These priorities can be articulated in the Bank's new "High Fives" areas-Light up and power Africa, Feed Africa, Integrate Africa, Industrialize Africa, and Improve quality of life for the people of Africa.

Finance is an integral part of the Bank's strategy and is based on two pillars: access to the underserved, youth and women (Pillar I) and broadening and deepening Africa's financial systems (Pillar II). The Bank's operations and products cater to a diverse set of financing priorities, including financial institutions, trade finance, and financial markets.

Mr. Nikolaos Milianitis of the European Investment Bank (EIB) shared that the EIB has EUR1 billion per year in new activity in Africa, covering both the public and private sectors through a range of instruments such as loans, equity, guarantees, and technical assistance. The EIB brings best practices from its worldwide operations and a particularity of its operations is that they all include a sectoral expert and a banking expert.

Mr. Musoke discussed FSD's Market Systems Approach which focuses on building services that are critically missing: (i) executive coaching so as to assess environment and respond to environment; (ii) e-learning as a cost effective education tool and as a way to tap experts, working with content providers and platform deliverers, and learning for financial institutions; (iii) data analytics so as to use information that is available e.g. financial diaries in Kenya. FSD tries to develop local supply so banks can tap into these services and hopefully think differently about their markets.

Change management is critical for financial sector development and FSD Africa identifies banks that are ambitious about serving the under-banked and helps them assess existing constraints and solve them. To make the change, it offers funding, research, and technical assistance over a 4-5 years period. For instance, FSD is working on establishing a Financial Frontiers Challenge Funds to identify 23 financial institutions, including in fragile states, so as to support an analysis of the environment, help them develop proposals that can be funded for GBP 500,000.

Finally, Mr. Mousset flagged the Conflicted Affected States in Africa (CASA) initiative through which the IFC provides assistance to fragile African states to rebuild their financial sector and improve the business environment.

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You can download all presentations on the conference website.

You can view a selection of photos here.

You can watch the conference in our YouTube channel here.

Rethinking financial education for the extremely poor

16.11.2015Arnold Wentzel, Lecturer in Economics and Education, University of Johannesburg

Almost 1 billion people live on less than $1.90 per day. Most of them live in Africa, which means that more than 40% of the continent's citizens experience extreme poverty. What is wrongly assumed is that improved financial literacy and education will improve their financial situation.

The OECD measures financial literacy along four dimensions: financial control, financial planning, choosing financial products and financial knowledge. It is taken for granted that anyone who learns how to budget, knows how to maximise financial returns and borrow prudently will improve their financial position.

Unfortunately, the financial conditions under which the extremely poor live are so different from the conditions assumed by conventional financial literacy that education based on it is both impractical and harmful. It assumes that the poor have small but fairly predictable income flows and expenses and that appropriate financial products are mostly available.

But as Collins, Morduch, Rutherford and Ruthven find in their book Portfolios of the Poor, the income flows of the very poor are not only small, but also highly volatile, and available financial products are too inflexible or unreliable; and that makes all the difference. If you live on less than $2 a day and you have no idea if that $2 will even come in daily, and even minor expenses can wipe out your income on any day, you need to exhibit considerable financial sophistication just to survive.

It is this sophistication that conventional financial education does not recognise. The extremely poor cannot employ strategies to optimise financial gains, but instead have to use strategies to keep their financial options open, even at the expense of gains. This is because they live under conditions of radical uncertainty, where events are inherently unpredictable. Under such conditions it is irrational to optimise since that tends to close down options and thereby limits possible responses.

To survive, the poor employ what is called 'robust satisficing' by Schwartz, Ben-Haim and Dacso. This means sacrificing wealth in order to guarantee a satisfactory outcome (survival) under the greatest range of uncertain conditions. For example, conventionally, financially literate people would never pay to save, yet the poor do it regularly through money guards and informal group savings schemes. This is discouraged by conventional financial education even though it is most rational thing to do if you want to stay alive in poverty.

Radical uncertainty requires: (1) access to flexible cash inflows that keep your options open; and (2) structures that hinder the unpredictable forces that close down your options. Money guards may be paid to keep money, but the cash can be accessed within minutes of a life-threatening event. And interest may not be received in a group savings scheme, but members disallow withdrawals forcing commitment in the face of urgent demands on small savings. Few financial products are designed to get this delicate balance right, and this means the poor often have to develop their own range of informal solutions.

Financial educators need to understand the unpredictable and severe conditions of extreme poverty and recognise the shortcomings of their advice under such conditions. If they are to help the poor they must learn from the poor, especially their sophisticated strategies to keep cash flow options open for as long as possible.

This by no means renders financial education worthless. As cash flows increase and become more predictable, conventional ideas become progressively more relevant. Different kinds of financial literacies exist for different conditions, and instead of teaching just one kind, we should teach how to transition from one to the other as conditions change.

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This blog post is based on the study, Why Financial Education Fails the Extreme Poor, Social Science Research Network. 

About the Author

Arnold Wentzel is a lecturer in Economics and Education at the University of Johannesburg.

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What do renowned economists, financial sector practitioners, academics, and activists think about current issues of financial sector development in Africa? Find out on the blog - and share your point of view with us!

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