Mumba Kalifungwa is the managing director of Absa Bank Uganda Limited, a commercial bank licensed by the Bank of Uganda, the central bank and national banking regulator. Absa Bank Uganda is a subsidiary of Absa Group Limited, a financial services conglomerate based in South Africa with banking subsidiaries in 12 African countries. Mumba has occupied the MD/CEO role since April 2020.
Wanda Rich, editor of Global Banking & Finance Review, recently spoke with Mumba to discuss, among other topics, the corporate social responsibility initiatives Absa Bank has been implementing, and the steps it is taking in order to keep the customer experience at the front and centre of its strategy. However, first on the agenda was the scope of its pandemic response.
“We understand the effect that the pandemic has had on Uganda’s socioeconomic environment,” Mumba began. “As a result, we have supported our clients operating in sectors directly or indirectly affected by the disruption to ease their financial burden and ensure the sustainability of their livelihoods. We implemented relief measures issued by the Bank of Uganda in addition to our own interventions which included repayment breaks, moratoriums on capital repayments and the waiver of fees on interbank transfers through internet banking and bank-to-wallet transactions, among others. As of December 2020, over 1,400 of our customers have benefitted from the relief measures and about Shs260bn in terms of loans has been restructured.
“The safety of our customers and staff remains a top priority for us,” he added. “This has necessitated strict adherence to Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) at our premises, changing operational times during this period, enabling our staff to work from home and providing mental health support to staff, among other initiatives.”
In supporting the social economic development in Uganda during this uncertain period, Absa acknowledges the significant role small and medium enterprises currently play in the Ugandan economy. “SMEs contribute 20 percent to the GDP and employ over 2.5 million people,” Mumba told Wanda. “Due to the negative impact of the pandemic, financial institutions have emerged to provide assistance through credit relief, lower interest rates and other forms of support. Absa has gone the extra mile through our SME Academy by providing capacity building, professional support and training. During its launch, 70 SMEs received scholarships to a three-month training programme for proprietors and directors.
“Additionally, Absa has provided business advisory support, bringing on board industry experts and public organisations towards discovering and creating favourable conditions for SMEs to thrive, despite the pandemic.”
Most importantly, he asserts, is the support financial institutions should provide in the economy’s key growth sectors. “The pandemic and response measures have had far-reaching socio-economic consequences, which include a slowdown in economic growth, increased government expenditure, major shortfalls in domestic revenues and increasing public debt, to mention but a few,” he said. “In light of all this, as financial institutions, it’s prudent for us to take a sector-led approach in supporting social economic development. Key sectors include trade, manufacturing, oil and gas, infrastructure and agriculture, among others.”
Access to financial services becomes a particularly hot-button issue when there is a disruption to the business environment such as that caused by the pandemic, and Absa Bank Uganda has remained proactive in keeping accessibility at its highest possible level. “The disruption created opportunities for unique digital solutions to assist recovery, growth and improve livelihoods,” Mumba explained. “Absa navigated these challenges through providing digital banking solutions, including increasing its agency banking outlets countrywide, rolling out accounts with low management fees, intelligent ATMs and unveiling the Chat Banking application. Additionally, we enhanced our online and mobile banking platforms to include self-service capabilities for debit card management, statements, proof of payments, travel advisories and passwords. All these advancements have ensured that customers have a flexible, speedy and accessible banking experience.”
The more typical challenges the bank’s clients tend to face include the high transaction and business costs when having to visit bank branches or money transfer branches, find favourable rates and make transactions across borders – a process Mumba describes as “tedious, frustrating and costly” for traders. Fortunately, Absa offers a solution in the form of an app. “In order to alleviate this challenge, Absa created the NovoFX application. With the popularity of mobile phones, customers can have a one-stop shop for all their transactional needs. The NovoFX application, available on the IOS App Store and Google Play Store, makes it possible to transact across different borders using multiple currencies at competitive forex rates. Furthermore, it allows transactions of up to Ugx 100 million a day.
“Additionally, Absa Bancassurance offers bespoke insurance solutions for both life and non-life insurance services. These include education plans, family protection insurance, travel insurance and executive motor comprehensive insurance. Testament to the success of our Bancassurance service is that Absa was one of the best performing banks in 2020, earning the highest commission within the life insurance business of about Shs671m.”
Of course, the struggles of recent times are not fully behind us yet and the individual needs of customers continue to be taken into consideration. “Customers have been offered payment holidays of up to 6 months, with needs determined on a case-by-case basis, and solutions tailored to individual circumstances through proactive engagement with all concerned. With the help of our relationship managers, Absa has supported corporate and business banking clients through creating bespoke solutions tailored to their needs.
“Through our Enterprise and Supply Chain Development proposition, we have enabled the strengthening of value chains in the power infrastructure, petroleum distribution and telecommunications sectors. We partnered with anchor corporates in these sectors to provide financing to SMEs in their value chains for execution of large contracts and to drive sustainable business growth.”
The bank is enthusiastic about the role it has to play in corporate social responsibility in Uganda, a passion that is heavily supported by a number of CSR initiatives on its roster. “Absa Bank Uganda undertakes annual programmes such as the Ready to Work soft skills development programme, country scholarships and the Mandela Centennial fellowship programmes,” Mumba said. “This is in addition to the SME Academy which this year partnered with IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, to train over 300 Ugandan SMEs and help them navigate the difficult operating environment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, we have helped to improve employment youth outcomes through the provision of 265 internship and graduate placements to date.
“Education is at the heart of furthering the development of Uganda, and Absa Uganda participates through the Absa Scholarship Programme,” he went on. “Since its inception, the programme has supported 69 students, 26 of whom have so far graduated from university with another 14 set to graduate in 2021. We have also supported 139 teachers and school owners looking to recover from the effects of the pandemic by offering post-COVID resilience training support.”
In line with the bank’s commitment to be an active force for good in the community, it also supported the government in remedying the effects and fighting the spread of COVID-19. “We donated EpiTents and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to the Ministry of Health to support frontline workers, enabling us to play a positive role in strengthening the country’s healthcare services.
“Absa colleagues reached out to the vulnerable in their communities through the ‘Absa We Care’ initiative, where they procured PPE for Masaka Hospital and relief items for five organisations, including Katalemwa Cheshire and SOS Children’s Villages Uganda, among other upcountry organisations looking after vulnerable children and youth across the country.
“Absa is also committed to the development of sports in Uganda,” he added. “For example, in 2021, Absa Uganda sponsored the annual Captain’s Bell Golf Tournament, and is backing Team Uganda at the Tokyo Olympics.”
With regard to new products and services on the agenda, Mumba explained that Absa always stays abreast of new customer trends and needs in order to create solutions that meet them. “Prioritising customer needs has led the bank’s innovation towards being a digital bank that meets customer needs conveniently and cost-effectively,” he confirmed.
Exceptional service and long-term value have always been priorities for Absa Bank, and Mumba emphasised that “utilising big data to make informed decisions and doing more for customers” are among the key priorities as they focus on maximising the customer experience going forward. “Absa has and will continue to invest heavily in its big data capabilities. These investments will allow Absa to hyper-personalise experiences for each customer, using data, so that each individual customer becomes unique and a segment of one for us as a bank.
“Investment over the last two to three years has largely been allocated to technology upgrades, front-end solutions and organisation-wide automation. Our investments, amongst others, include state-of-the-art contactless debit cards (Absa Vertical Cards) and payments platforms, a front-end teller system and a new look mobile banking app with world class UI/UX, built on the Xamarin framework.
“Absa boasts a heritage of global best practice risk management protocols and standards,” he added. “It is now focusing on aligning this with building stronger remote and video banking capabilities.”
Finally, Wanda asked Mumba how he sees the upcoming year panning out for Absa Bank Uganda. “A recent Mastercard survey in the Middle East and Africa shows that more than 70% of respondents were, by March 2020, using some form of contactless payment,” he said. “Moving to a leaner model means less back office and more focus on sales and advisory, and branches will transform, but will not disappear entirely. The future is not physical or digital; rather, the future is bionic or ‘phygital,’ as is the new catch word these days. An ecosystem will emerge that will see digital experiences completely mimic what a customer would do in a branch, with the ultimate aim being a single-customer experience that is uniform and channel agnostic.
“Absa is taking advantage of this by driving towards becoming a customer focused and digitally led financial services provider through launching digital branches, revamping its application and adding the NovoFX application,” he concluded, “all to make the banking experience more convenient, affordable and flexible to customers’ needs.”