Business Profiles

Ecobank: Reaching further

Ecobank Transnational Inc. (ETI) is a pan-African banking conglomerate with operations throughout the continent. In fact, with a presence in 36 countries, it is the leading pan-African bank. In particular, it is the leading independent regional banking group in West and Central Africa, but it also operates in the East and South. On top of this the bank also has representative offices in China, Dubai, France, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

Ecobank serves both wholesale and retail customers, who it caters to through three customer-focused business divisions: Consumer Banking, Commercial Banking and Corporate & Investment Banking. We spoke with Lusungu Mkandawire, Malawi Country Head for Ecobank’s Information Security, about the banking group’s current strategy, and what it is that sets them apart both in Africa and in Lusungu’s country of operations, Malawi.

“The bank’s focus is on providing solutions-oriented, high quality products and services to our customers, comprising of individuals, small and medium scale companies, large local corporates, parastatals, non-governmental organisations and multi-national companies. The aim is to consistently offer customers efficient, reliable and excellent service.”

In addition to the traditional products and services, Ecobank offers innovative extras such as Mobile Banking, Remittance, Internet Banking, and the Pan-African Card payment gateway.

To ensure this high quality of service, the bank has invested in state-of-the-art technology, which is combined with a reliable telecommunication system and, most importantly, a focus on training staff to assist customers in as polite and helpful a manner as possible. Both sides to the equation are essential; you cannot have effective customer service without well-organised systems and technology, but at the same time, all of the data-handling in the world can only take you so far without the personal touch from a customer service team.

In the name of efficiency, the Group operates a ‘’One Bank” system. This means that the entire organisation aims to streamline its processes and procedures within itself, no matter the geographical location or language differences between banks. Instead of entities in 36 locations, it is one machine, aiming to operate with smooth reliability that should continue no matter how far the bank’s reach continues to expand. Once a system works, it can work no matter the growth.

However, whilst Ecobank’s ambitions have always been and remain high, growth is currently slower in some areas than the Group would like. For example, Lusungu told us about the current situation in Malawi:

“The banking industry is growing at a very slow pace in Malawi as compared to our regional neighbours in SADC. That’s due to the economic performance of the country, where most of government programs funded are by donors. Also, we are more of an importing nation, and thus the economy is not well balanced.“

Malawi has a population of only 17 million, and yet there are seven different banks and MNOs competing with each other to provide financial services in the country. This would already create high competition, but raising the stakes even higher, 60% of the population is currently unbanked. Not only does this mean that these seven groups are currently only splitting around 6.8 million people between them, but they are competing to secure the remaining 60%. Many of these potential customers live rurally, and so, Lusungu feels, the richest frontier for securing their custom is mobile banking. This is an area where Ecobank is investing and innovating carefully, with a view to securing not only these unbanked customers, but easing the banking experience of those already with them:

“Our mobile app offers convenience for our customers. You can do all banking and payments services from the app without leaving your home. Utilities, money transfers and payments can be done from the App. We were the first in Malawi to offer this.” As well as leading in this area, Ecobank responded to the competition coming from MNOs by working with them. “Ecobank integrated with all MNOs that are providing Mobile Money services. These enable our customers from remote areas to access all our banking services.” These services make a huge difference to customers who live far from towns or cities, and they just got even easier to use. Not only did Ecobank first offer this service in Malawi, it has recently improved it: “We have just added the ability to load cash in your debit/credit card using the mobile App. In the past, for our customers to load cash in the card they were required to physically visit the branch. Now this can be done on our mobile app.” The bank even offers online support to customers who don’t bank with them: “We have the Express Prepaid card that customers who don’t have accounts with us can quickly acquire and pay for services online.”

Whilst much of their banking is now possible online, Ecobank still needs well-trained staff, both operating its IT and, of course, staffing its physical bank locations. The group as a whole employs around 20,000 members of staff; in Malawi, it has around 200. As a standard of accuracy and excellence is required in the banking industry, the Ecobank Group trains its many staff in a dedicated Academy in Togo. “We usually have specific training programmes for each function. We also have an e-learning virtual platform for mandatory and department specific trainings, and where we don’t have internal expertise, Ecobank looks for external experts in the field to train its staff.” Where possible, the bank seeks to promote from within, which calls for further internal training, and also serves as a strong incentive for staff seeking to build a career.

However, Lusungu came to Ecobank from elsewhere, building up his leadership skills and expertise with other companies before arriving with the banking group. “I have been with the Bank for almost one year. Before that I was with Airtel, the third biggest MNO in the word, and the first in Malawi.” This move again shows how closely Ecobank works with MNOs within the country.

“I started out my career in IT as a System Administrator with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), whilst there I got interested in IT Audit and Risk Management, which I started doing alongside the System Admin Job. Then I went fully into IT Audit when I joined KPMG as an IT Audit Supervisor, whilst doing IT audit for several clients I saw a gap in Cybersecurity skills and I started looking for an opportunity in the infosec field that’s where an opportunity came up at Airtel for the Information security Manager role which I took for 4 years before joining Ecobank last year for the Head of Information Security role.”

As well as relying on its staff, Ecobank has also benefited greatly from its various partnerships and suppliers. In particular, technology and business partners have provided crucial boosts to the bank’s “digital transformation journey”. Amongst these suppliers are Microsoft, who provide the Azure Cloud Platform that supports much of Ecobank’s IT, and Oracle, who provided Flexcube 12, the latest upgrade to their core banking system. As for business partners, the company is connected with the two biggest MNOs in Malawi: Airtel and TNM. “We partnered with them on the Mobile Money service and well as the GSM business. They have a big customer base which we are tapping into for our revenue growth.” In Payments, the bank is partnered with VISA, and as for Remittance Partners, the group has a long-standing relationship with Western Union.

Moving forwards, Ecobank will continue to invest in and develop the area that is giving them the strongest competitive advantage: digital services. “Our strategy is leaning towards digital products: we want our customers to be using our digital products, mobile app, and internet/online banking and mobile money. Ecobank wants to reduce the use of brick and mortar; this is the age of digital banking and that’s where our focus is.” As well as their recent improvements that have made online payments entirely remote, the Group has also made a series of other changes to improve this side of its business. For example, the upgrade to Flexcube 12 will, according to Lusungu, “enable us to automate most tasks that were done manually, and will enable us digitise most of our products.” The group has also moved its online features over to a new USSD platform, which will allow their products to be used more easily from mobiles other than smartphones. “Most users in Malawi use Feature phones. Its only 5% of the total population that owns smartphones. This USSD platform will enable us tap into the unbanked market.”

In seizing these opportunities and continuing to innovate, Ecobank must continue to listen to its team and create an environment where its staff can come forwards with ideas. This is an ideal that Lusungu holds in high esteem. “I subscribe to the Democratic Leadership Philosophy: I believe that everyone should have equal say within the team, I value participation, consultation and consideration, and I believe in empowering followers through increased responsibilities.” When asked his views on leadership, his answers could easily be broken down into two sections; the first, develop trust and communication:

“Earn respect – when you conduct yourself in an ethical way and model the traits you want to see in others, you earn the respect of those around you. Win trust – employees are more loyal and enthusiastic when they work in an environment run by people they trust. Be authentic – use your strengths and personality traits to develop your personal leadership style.”

Secondly, Lusungu believes in being able to move forwards: “Face challenges – great leaders are brave enough to face up to challenging situations and deal with them honestly. Finally, stay curious – good leaders remain intellectually curious and committed to learning. They’re inquisitive and always looking for new ideas, insights and information.” These final values, in particular, are ones that drive Ecobank on to new ideas and technologies, keeping them ahead in Malawi’s banking sector. They were the first to offer online banking services, the first to update them as they have, and they will undoubtedly have more ‘firsts’ under their belts in the coming years.