Vimal Kumar, Chief Executive for Retail and Business Banking, Digital & CX, at Absa Regional Operations, on the bank’s digital transformation journey across Africa and the technology driving financial access in the continent’s communities.
“THE 30cm BETWEEN YOUR EYE AND YOUR MOBILE device…that is the small, yet powerful space we want to own,” says Vimal Kumar, setting the tone for our interview on digital banking – and the future of self-service and DX.
As Chief Executive for Retail and Business Banking, Digital & CX, at Absa Regional Operations, Kumar has been part of the bank’s rebranding strategy in Africa since its separation from the British parent brand, Barclays Plc. He expands further on his “30cm” philosophy
“The young customers of today don’t have the time to look for a branch, stand in queues, and speak to banking staff. They want everything on their mobile that’s instant, fast, and agile. It’s ‘digital-first, mobile-first’,” Kumar continues.
From his upstairs study at home in Sandton, Johannesburg, he has a clear view of the African sky. The months of remote working enforced during South Africa’s Covid-19 shutdown have meant being away from these very skies. For a man relentlessly clocking air miles traveling into the rest of the continent, the pandemic has meant a period of quiet reflection and quick recalibration.
“In the last hundred days or so, I have reconciled with ‘the new normal’ but I do miss traveling into the heart of Africa. It’s a very vibrant continent, a very young continent. I learn a lot when I am with young people. This time has given me a very different perspective,” says Kumar.
Having worked for 25 years in retail banking across Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and now Africa, what Kumar sees as unique to the continent is its ease of adoption of new technology.
This is what charged him and his team into creating the bank’s digital transformation journey in Absa’s regional operations, “not entirely focused on being cool but solving customer needs”, providing “not just financial inclusion but financial access” to people in the remotest parts of the continent.
Doing so through partnerships with such entities as MTN (telco) and JUMO (fintech), the underbanked communities in Africa, who have never experienced banking in their lives, have been able to access financial services, says Kumar.
“Hyper-personalizing CX through a combination of digitalization and big data, and making it a segment of one…”
In the process, it also meant “hyper-personalizing” CX through a combination of digitalization and big data, and making it “a segment of one” where every customer is unique. “The experience we are trying to create on the mobile app and web platform will soon mirror the experience of one transacting at the bank’s branch. This means we have to constantly improve the functionality and user experience on these alternate channels so customers never feel the need to visit a branch.”
This aspect was one of the core pillars of the radical transformation that came shortly after Barclays announced in 2016 that it would be exiting Africa. The separation journey, as well as the digital one, took three years and involved entire teams. But Kumar notes the focus of their digital transformation philosophy has remained consistent – improving self-service to the customer. “So, technology is really driving financial access to the most underprivileged in our societies… this is important, because, as I said, we needed to come much closer to the real communities in Africa.”
The proximity with colleagues and clients during Covid-19 has been challenging and “psychologically, more difficult to accept”, however, life has to go on, says Kumar, and though it is not a preferred way to operate, the digital transformation journey must continue – for Africa’s sake.
2019: ‘Financial Innovator Of The Year’ award by Finnovex
2020: ‘Banking CEO Of The Year – Africa’ and ‘Business Transformation CEO Of The Year – Africa’ awards by Business Worldwide