For the boss of a major bank, it might seem strange not to like cash. Yet that is the case for Alice Kilonzo-Zulu, managing director of Ecobank Rwanda, and it is therefore not surprising that she is rather excited about the company’s mobile phone app, which essentially brings the banking hall to your smartphone and also functions as a digital wallet.
“From a digital perspective, our signature product is the Ecobank mobile app,” she explains. “Ecobank is present in 33 countries in Africa – largely sub- Saharan Africa – and the same app can be used in all those countries.”
The Ecobank app allows you to do everything that can be done with a bank account and more since you can even open an Xpress account without the hassle of filling in forms. Other features are money transfers (to Ecobank accounts, to external accounts in Rwanda, abroad and to mobile money accounts), paying for goods and services by scanning a QR code, paying bills and buying Cashpower, stop a cheque that you have issued and even send a token number to someone which allows them to withdraw cash from an Ecobank ATM without a card.
And the best thing for Kilonzo-Zulu is that it’s all on your smartphone.
“It is the one gadget which you never leave behind; you can forget your chequebook, your credit card – but your phone, you look at it when you wake up to see what’s new,” she says. “So what we’re saying is: this phone which is so powerful, why not use it for banking? Now, when I leave home or I travel, I never have to worry whether I carry money or not, as long as I have my phone.”
That doesn’t mean that those without a smartphone are left in the cold. The option of paying for goods and services will soon also be available via the USSD codes used by feature phones.
The mobile app is part of the Ecobank Group’s wider strategy to promote electronic banking and go digital on many levels.
“The thinking behind digital is that, as we look at the future, if you want to meet the customer it is going to be digital; it is quick, simple, convenient and safe,” Kilonzo-Zulu explains. “Digital banking is the future because in the day-to-day interaction, it’s no longer about the premises but about how you can support the customer in the transactions they’re doing.” And it’s not limited to the customers.
“For us, digital is three levels: customer interaction, internally (if you’re not digital internally you can’t expect your partners outside to be digital) and the third level is our ecosystem – our suppliers, our vendors, … we’re also saying, you all need to be digital. So that the primary way to deal with Ecobank is digitally,” the MD explains.
“For a bank, dealing with cash is expensive. The cash has to be brought in, somebody has to count and separate it, you need a vault to keep it and there’s also security. So it’s actually more secure and critically less expensive when you take away the cash.”
As charity begins at home, she takes the internal part very seriously.
“The reason why we’re pushing digital is that we want to create value to the customer, not just convenience. So if we go digital internally, we spend more time looking for ways to create value for the customer,” she says. “But as the MD, I’m not relying just on my salespeople, I expect my entire staff to be talking to their family members so they are able to do things digitally. It’s going to be a way of life.”
And there are more advantages to going digital, in the first place that it makes it easier to reach the unbanked.
“The unbanked are living in rural places, and you can never take the physical bank really into the rural places – no matter how much you want to build a branch, really getting to the person in the village is very difficult,” Kilonzo-Zulu points out. “Because it might be a bit far, they may have to get a moto and may not have the money. So what we are saying is, bring the bank to the customer. And which better way than through the phone?”
“The unbanked, they are people who have a lot of payments: the moto guys, the market people, there’s a lot of exchange of money, and most of it is cash. So that’s what we are targeting to make sure that we can actually get that cash out of the system,” she adds.
The digital strategy also reduces costs for the bank, and not just by having to build fewer branches.
“For a bank, dealing with cash is expensive. The cash has to be brought in, somebody has to count and separate it, you need a vault to keep it and there’s also security. So it’s actually more secure and critically less expensive when you take away the cash,” the MD says.
Yet to make a cashless society a reality, promoting digital banking in itself isn’t enough.
“It’s a journey and I don’t think it can be done purely by the banks; you need the government to step in, it’s a combination of the players in the market that will have the ability to drive that change,” Kilonzo- Zulu says. “And I think here in Rwanda we’re extremely lucky that we have a government that is focused on making sure that we really reach a cashless economy, as digital as possible.”
But in the end, the crux is that the people get on board, and while Ecobank Rwanda has launched a vast campaign to promote e-banking, its boss realises that it will take time.
“We have a very strong campaign, but it’s not an overnight thing because it’s also about changing the mindset,” she points out. “A lot of people still believe that cash in their hand is better. So we also combine it with educating people about the value of going digital.”
Read this article and more in issue n° 80 of Hope Magazine.