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Revolutionizing Banking in Africa: Absa Bank’s Journey Towards Digital Excellence and Inclusive Growth

Studio Session 0163 - Global Banking | Finance

Revolutionizing Banking in Africa: Absa Bank’s Journey Towards Digital Excellence and Inclusive Growth

Absa Bank Limited is part of Absa Group, with a presence in 12 countries across the African continent. Absa’s ambition is to sustainably create shared value and play an integral role in the life journey of customers and clients, empowering them to achieve more and to recommend Absa family, friends, and business associates. Absa aspires to be a truly purpose-led organisation by making a positive contribution to the wider world, putting its purpose at the core of everything it does. Absa is at the forefront of modern banking technology with state-of-the-art digital integration, as well as being established as a key part of South African society with branches across the nation.

Absa Bank Limited received numerous honours at the 2024 Global Banking & Finance Awards for South Africa, including Best Bank Management Team, Best Digital Bank, Best Digital Wallet, Digital Banking Customer Satisfaction & Happiness, Excellence in Innovation – Digital Colleague Onboarding, and Best Use of Biometrics by a Bank in South Africa. Also, Absa IdeaLab was awarded for Excellence in Innovation – Digital Engagement Platform. Absa IdeaLab, designed, developed, and hosted by Absa’s Digital Product team, is an internal idea submission platform, as well as a knowledge transfer tool.

To find out more about the bank’s continuing success story, Global Banking & Finance Review’s Philip Fothergill spoke to Mr. Subash Sharma, Chief Digital Officer at Absa, Everyday Banking, and congratulated him on Absa’s extensive roster of awards.

“We’re really proud of this particular achievement,” said Mr. Sharma. “It’s a testament to all the colleagues who work within Absa, coming together and producing the goods to be able to earn these esteemed awards.”

With a solid background in mechanical engineering as well as business leadership, Mr. Sharma’s experience and expertise lend themselves to a strategic vision that drives digital innovation. “Our innovation is always commercially led; we look for commercial outcomes and we put the objectives that we are trying to meet ahead of everything else,” he explained. “We don’t believe in doing innovation for the sake of innovation. Rather, it’s about how we use innovation to create results. I guess my technical background is an enabler to this, but as a leader, what I focus on is creating a culture of innovation that is not just one-dimensional, but an entire environment of colleagues coming together to be able to produce these commercial outcomes.”

Absa has been on the front line of integrating biometric technologies for enhanced security, and Mr. Sharma went on to discuss the strategic importance of this technical innovation and its impact on customer trust and banking security.

“This has helped us in two ways. One, we provide the only Digital Fraud Warranty in our market. So, in other words, for any fraud that occurs for a customer while transacting digitally, we provide a money-back warranty. We would not be able to provide that warranty had we not had the confidence in our fraud and security capabilities, of which biometrics is one of the key components.

“Security has become a competitive advantage for Absa. We look at biometric security in particular, over and above all the different aspects of what we call a security layer,” he said. “This has helped us in two ways. One, we provide the only Digital Fraud Warranty in our market. So, in other words, for any fraud that occurs for a customer while transacting digitally, we provide a money-back warranty. We would not be able to provide that warranty had we not had the confidence in our fraud and security capabilities, of which biometrics is one of the key components.

“The second is when we look at onboarding a customer, verifying the customer, or operationally, doing things like PIN and password resets. Our vast biometric capabilities allow us to conduct these operations digitally, end-to-end, without the need for human intervention. So, in both aspects, biometrics plays a significant role in providing us with a competitive advantage in the marketplace.”

Among the innovations and services Absa provides is the Absa IdeaLab. “As I said before, creating a culture or environment where innovation thrives is critical, because we don’t believe innovation happens in the mind of one or two individuals,” Mr. Sharma asserted. “The IdeaLab was created as a platform that allows colleagues from across the bank, even across the continent, to be able to log their ideas and have project teams build on those ideas, have other people vote on them and build them up into something that can be taken to market. The IdeaLab also provides employees and colleagues with access to learning materials, innovation materials, innovation techniques, presentation skills, pitch skills, the ability to create business cases. So, it fosters an environment of always-on innovation, and this culminates in various hackathons that we hold throughout the year where we take the best ideas, build on them, and then take them to market.”

Given the largely digital world we now live in and how digital banking is rapidly evolving, Mr. Sharma offered his perspective on how Absa maintains its competitive edge and the big upcoming trends in digital banking that it plans to accommodate.

“We see people moving away not only from cash, but also in some cases from cards,” he said. “The adoption of digital wallets is becoming quite prevalent. We see digital currency, the world of the metaverse, and AR and VR also becoming key trends. In our view, as digital becomes the centre of a wide variety of banking products and services, the use of AI and GenAI is becoming a significant trend, particularly in terms of conversations and chat. The way we believe we need to set ourselves up and be competitive going into the future is by not only focusing on creating technical skills or technical capabilities, what we call ‘table stakes.’ We also look at enhancing and creating new digital products that are born digital. An example of this is our ChatWallet, which we have recently launched and is the first of its kind in the world.”

On the digital transformation journey, improved customer relations and satisfaction go hand-in-hand with security. Mr. Sharma shared an example of digital innovation directly enhancing customer service that underscores the importance of earning customers’ trust.

“With the trend of digital migration, we believe that fraud security has become vital,” he said. “In the lives of our customers, there is nothing that creates more anxiety than that feeling of being defrauded, the feeling of not being secure, the feeling of losing your hard-earned money. What we have created in our digital capability, over and above the warranty that we provide our customers, is the assurance that should anything happen, we are the safety net to make sure that your money is protected”.

“We have created a security hub within our digital estates that allows customers to monitor whether they are being spoken about on the dark web, and whether their security credentials or personal data are being shared. They can be alerted should these activities be happening. We then provide them with the capability to secure themselves, not only from a banking perspective but in their daily lives. I think in helping our customers manage these things, we have found a better relationship between what the bank does and the needs of the customer.”

With sustainability being such a watchword these days, Mr. Sharma pointed out how increasingly important it has become for Absa to ensure that its digital growth is sustainable, both in terms of business and its impact on society and the environment.

“As a group, our ESG strategy is quite significant,” he said. “We have three main goals and areas that we’re focusing on. First and foremost, we want to promote financial inclusion; second, we want to make sure that we promote diversity and inclusion, and third, we need to make sure that we do this in a climate-sensitive and environmentally friendly way.”

Furthering the topic of inclusion, he went on to describe the ChatWallet platform, Absa’s all-in-one banking solution that allows customers to bank freely. “There are no recurring monthly charges associated with ChatWallet, and customers are able to get access to a bank colleague by simply having a conversation on WhatsApp. What this does is reduce the barrier to entry and promote significant financial inclusion amongst those who currently don’t have bank accounts. This is one particular example of how we, as digital innovators are providing opportunities for financial inclusion. And in all of the themes that we’ve spoken about in terms of our strategy, digital is a significant contributor.”

Studio Session 050 1 scaled - Global Banking | Finance

Suella Derman, Head of Risk, Digital and Mr. Subash Sharma, Chief Digital Officer, Absa, Everyday Banking

Mr. Sharma concluded by highlighting a number of key strategic initiatives that Absa is focusing on to further strengthen its position as a leader in digital banking.

“If we look at the trends, we see significant work being done in the adoption of wallets, and we through our API marketplace and our wallet products that we have launched in the market are at the forefront of these particular trends. We are also at the forefront of the security trends that we see playing a significantly more vital part in the digital landscape of financial services. With the combination of both our digital and business capabilities, what we are doing now is to ensure that we design products and services that are born digital, are fit for purpose, and meet the needs of our customers not only for today, but as part of the evolving landscape of our country and our continent.”

Global Banking & Finance Review


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