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Open letter to those thinking of applying for a new bank license in Africa

posted Mar 31, 2014, 11:41 PM by Ignacio Mas
 [From MFW4A´s Africa Finance Forum, 1 April 2014] 

Dear prospective banker,

You have the luxury of building the first bank of the 21st century in Africa. No doubt you are thinking hard about how differently one would build a bank today than one would have done only twenty years ago. We hope your intention is to build a bank that serves everyone: the mass market and the poor, because they are the same thing. If so, may we suggest ten points we think you ought to consider.

1. Technology. That's the biggest area of change since the last round of licenses were given out, surely you can't ignore that. Go mobile: take advantage of the sense of immediacy that mobile phones can deliver to your customers and the drastic reduction in credit risk that real-time payments involve. No sense in distributing an alternative costly payment infrastructure by default, though some may want more. Do beware, though, of building mobile solutions that are too dependent on telco negotiation and goodwill for access, at some point they'll get you.

2. Cash in/out. Your business is digitized financial services but you won't make cash go away from your clients' lives. Rather than fighting cash, you need to infiltrate it so that people feel entirely comfortable crossing the physical-digital divide. The cheapest way of doing this is through extensive cash agent networks. Do recognize that cash agent networks are hungry beasts, though: the economics only makes sense at substantial transaction volumes. Go ahead and share the agents with others if you haven't got the scale on your own; you can differentiate in more interesting ways than mere availability of cash points.

3. Offerings. People's needs and aspirations are quite diverse, but you are not likely to have the distributed marketing wherewithal to offer a broad portfolio of tailored solutions. The better approach is to offer your customers a limited number of money management tools which they can each use in their own way. Don't try to solve their problems; give them the tools and let them solve their own problems. Think more Google than a vertically integrated bank. And don't mind so much whose financial products your customers consume as long as it's done through your interfaces and with your knowledge. Perhaps it's more like Amazon than Google.

4. Messaging. Talk about those things that worry people: reducing risk and stress in their lives, helping them stretch budgets, helping them achieve the things they want, helping them imagine a better future. Again, your job is not to discipline people, but to give them the tools they need to discipline themselves. Don't talk so much about savings (sacrifices) but of future payments/purchases (rewards). No patronizing, no moralizing. Can you be sure that you'd manage their meager income better than they do, if you were in their shoes? Listen to them, and care about their life stories.

5. Channels. You must do everything to position the mobile user interface as a self-service channel of choice. But don't be a purist here: don't give your clients the impression that you have left them to their own devices (literally!). Let them deal with humans when they wish to do so. You'll need a multi-touchpoint strategy to promote, sell and service your suite of financial services. Why not have some (cashless!) flagship shops on main street, appointed agents around market square and the bus station, a friendly call center. Invest heavily in training and monitoring these channels. These sales/service agents are probably going to be distinct to your cash agents, which will need to be much more numerous.

6. Business case. We have no new ideas here: profitability will likely come from credit and payments, as elsewhere and always. But recognize that to prime both you'll need to be successful at capturing people's savings. Observing how people manage their money and discipline themselves is the best way to gain actionable insights for credit scoring. And people will have a natural tendency to pay for things electronically only if they hold their money electronically. Savings is the engine that turns the other financial product cogs. You won't make money on empty accounts, no matter what.

7. Pricing. Don't obsess about offering lowest prices, and certainly don't hammer poor people with this message. They want quality, reassurance, flexibility - just like anybody else. Deliver useful services conveniently and in relevant small sizes, and you'll see how willing they are to pay for things that help them address their basic concerns. You will be more successful in relating the value they derive from your services to its cost if you offer transactional rather than flat charges.

8. Brand. Ultimately, if I was your client I hope I would see your services as a better way of managing my money and my finances, my aspirations and my insecurities. The brand needs to be that mixture of aspiration and reassurance: as a client, I now have more upside and less downside in my life. It has to be more than the sum of the individual products you offer. Brand is the most important asset you'll build up.

9. Partnerships. There is much value to be harnessed from being the one who controls access to people's pockets, the one who has the trusted infrastructure connecting any business to millions of customer account. Grass-roots microfinance organizations have long known that. Seek out national and local partners who can add value to your customer base in financial and non-financial ways: through group purchases and discounting, special business development and education programs, livelihood development, community finance groups, etc.

10. Scale. Embrace scale, for big is the need in Africa. But also because scale may be essential for success on a mobile-led strategy: digital payment services are premised on network effects, and agent networks are premised on economies of density (distributed volume). So: systems need to perform robustly at scale, processes need to be streamlined to avoid future bottlenecks, organizational structures need to help rather than stand in the way of growth and innovation. Your key role as a CEO should be to build platforms that are perceived by your staff as their friend rather than their enemy. If you make sure you build good internal systems, more of your staff will feel they can afford to be more customer-centric more of the time.

There are technically and commercially savvy ways of doing all of this. The developing world needs to draw inspiration from the first successful, truly mass-market bank.

Wishing you all the best, sincerely,

Ignacio Mas