The Financial Alliance for Women recently welcomed Ecobank Group (Ecobank Transnational Incorporated) — headquartered in Togo — as a new member. Ecobank Group is the leading independent pan-African banking group, employing more than 15,000 people and serving about 20 million customers in the consumer, commercial and corporate banking sectors across 33 African countries. Ecobank Group has a banking license in France and representative offices in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Johannesburg, South Africa; Beijing, China; London, UK; and Dubai, UAE. In this interview, Josephine Anan-Ankomah, Group Executive–Commercial Banking, spoke with us about the financial inclusion of women, the bank’s strategy for supporting women in all of the Group’s markets and their decision to join the Alliance.
Financial Alliance for Women: For our global readership, can you help contextualize Ecobank’s market position in Togo and beyond, and the organization’s overall strategic vision?
Josephine Anan-Ankomah: Ecobank’s founders — the Federation of West African Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Economic Community of West African States — had a vision to bring the various African countries together to support each other and build our economies. So Ecobank was born as a pan-African bank dedicated to the continent and its people and headquartered in Togo. Thirty years later, we’ve extended our footprint into four key geographical regions: Nigeria; Francophone West Africa; Anglophone West Africa; and Central, Eastern and Southern Africa. Ecobank is the largest pan-African, full-service bank with a network spanning 33 countries — as well as offices beyond the continent in France, China, the UK and the UAE.
The Bank’s strategic purpose is to build a world-class pan-African bank and contribute to the economic development and financial integration of Africa while simultaneously steering ourselves toward growth and success. Our mission is to provide all of our customers with convenient and reliable financial products and services.
Alliance: As a group that operates in 33 African countries, many of which have a crowded banking market, how does Ecobank differentiate itself? Is an upcoming women-centered strategy a part of this differentiation?
Anan-Ankomah: We have always tried to be pacesetters who differentiate ourselves through innovation and our customer experience. We’re keenly aware of the impact that technology is having on the banking industry, and we’re differentiating ourselves with the digital products we’ve developed for all of our businesses.
Our award-winning Ecobank Mobile banking platform currently has more than 11 million users. Customers have the ability to do cross-border transfers to any of the African countries we serve via our proprietary money transfer service, Rapidtransfer. Our EcobankPay QR code that enables digital payments via Visa, Mastercard and select local payment schemes, and our Omni Lite online banking platform are tailor-made for small business owners, enabling them to track their collections and payments.
These services ensure that financial inclusion can be delivered to the underbanked and unbanked across our continent. We closed 2019 with 182,000 merchants accepting EcobankPay and collected US$59 million via this product.
We also have several products in our Xpress line, designed to expand financial inclusion by leveraging mobile and agency banking channels and building key partnerships for scale. Our customers can instantly open a KYC-friendly, no-fee, no-minimum Xpress Account that operates exclusively on mobile devices. In the first three years of launching we opened 10 million of these accounts across 31 African nations. Our digital-only Xpress Loan was launched in mid-2019 in Ghana in partnership with MTN, a mobile network operator. In the first six months of launching Xpress Loan, we approved three million microloans to more than one million MTN Mobile Money wallet holders worth $150 million.
Finally, our Xpress Point agency banking channel enables consumers to access financial services such as cash deposits and withdrawals in the neighborhoods where they work and live. In 2019, we increased the services offered to include bill payments, remittances and opening of simple bank accounts. We also expanded the network of agents significantly, closing the year with 39,312 locations.
I’m delighted to say that the development of a women’s program is part of our differentiation strategy. Women are the backbone of African economies, particularly in the agriculture sector. The African continent has the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs in the world, with nearly 26 percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa (“Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2016/17 Women’s Report”). Ecobank recognizes the strategic importance of this segment, and Group Commercial Banking’s initiative to focus on and bank women-owned SMEs is aimed at leveraging this vast potential. This focus on women will not only set us apart, but more importantly, will touch the lives of one of the most vulnerable groups in Africa by providing them with tailor-made and relevant solutions that will empower them to continue to effectively contribute to Africa’s development.
Alliance: As per the “2018 Little Data Book on Financial Inclusion,” both women and men in Togo have access to financial services at higher rates than adults in the sub-Saharan region overall. However, they report fewer financial transactions when compared to the same region. How is Ecobank addressing financial inactivity, especially for women?
Anan-Ankomah: According to the African Development Bank (AFDB), female small business owners in the informal sector typically reinvest up to 90 percent of their income in the education, health and nutrition of their families and communities, compared to up to 40 percent for men. Clearly, we see that investing in women’s businesses can transform communities. The challenge is that these women will typically not approach a bank because of their lack of financial education. Second, they do not have the luxury of time to put all the ideas they have on paper and present them to a bank for financial support.
Unfortunately, banks also see women as high-risk borrowers, and for this reason demand collateral — which they usually are not able to provide. However, we have found that women are more likely to follow through on loan repayments, and we’ve used their cash flow cycle as a proxy, instead. We strongly believe that developing a product that matches women’s cash flow cycle will help boost financial activity.
Xpress Loan is a good example of a product that meets the needs of this target market. The MTN Mobile Money wallet holder requests the Xpress Loan from the menu, and credit scoring is immediately done by FinTech firm Jumo based on the transaction data in that mobile money wallet. If qualified, Ecobank grants a loan immediately and credits it into the customer’s wallet. We don’t request paperwork or a visit to the branch, and we only ask for a limited amount of information.
Another product we’re offering is the Merchant Cash Advance tied to EcobankPay. This allows us to track all collections made through EcobankPay and to lend a minimum of 30 percent of digital collections without collateral.
Recognizing the needs of consumer merchants (individuals trading under their personal names), we launched a digitally enabled transactional account that features a $10 minimum balance, a debit card, complimentary EcobankPay for digital collections and onboarding on Ecobank Mobile for easy transfers and bill payment. This Ecobank Evolution account can be opened at Ecobank Xpress Points near where these merchants live and work.
Our Xpress Save digital savings account is available via mobile devices and gives users the opportunity to save funds for a rainy day while earning interest. When offered in conjunction with Xpress Loan, the Xpress Save account may enhance consumers’ credit score and eligibility for loan access.
Alliance: Why did the bank decide to develop a strategy for women, and what stage are you at in your development?
Anan-Ankomah: It’s quite clear that investing in women provides a great boost to economic growth—what has been referred to as the “gender dividend.” However, it’s also known that women entrepreneurs face multiple challenges to accessing finance.According to the ADB, there’s an estimated US$42 billion financing gap for African women across business value chains. We intend to earmark about 10 percent of our total loan portfolio — more than US$100 million — across 33 affiliates to support women-owned businesses. Over the years some work has been done at the bank to develop a strategy for women, and we look forward to collaborating with the Alliance to further develop the women’s agenda in a more structured manner.
Alliance: How does the bank normally go about designing and implementing a new segment strategy? E.g., will there be a pilot country for your women-centered strategy or a group-level launch? If so, how will you define success for the pilot, and how will you decide to implement the initiative beyond a pilot?
Anan-Ankomah: As a group, we operate on the principle of central manufacturing and local distribution. Typically, the product houses and the businesses at the center manufacture products and services, which are distributed through our channels with our affiliates. We’ll use the same approach with the rollout of our women’s program. Working with input from all our regions, we’ll develop a framework and go-to-market strategy that’s relevant to each of our markets. We will then pilot this framework in select markets in each of our four primary regions and subsequently scale it across all of our markets.
Our plan for the women’s program is to roll it out simultaneously across the 33 affiliates. We’re convinced this will have the right impact, bring the program into sharp relief and generate interest among our target markets.
Alliance: How do you intend to segment the female economy?
Anan-Ankomah: We will be focusing on women business owners, largely drawing from the AFDB’s Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa definition: an ownership structure with 51 percent or more women, or where the business was founded by a woman or women. On the back of this definition, we will provide solutions that are relevant to SMEs run by women with turnovers below US$500,000 (i.e. mass market SMEs), US$500,000 to US$5 million (i.e. medium-sized businesses), and local enterprises owned by women with turnovers between US$5 million and US$20 million.
Alliance: As per the MSME Finance Gap Report by IFC, there are 14,892 MSMEs in Togo, with total financing of US$232 million and an MSME finance gap of US$389 million. Focusing specifically on very small enterprises, which tend to fall in between the SMEs that commercial banks normally serve and micro-enterprises that MFIs address, how is Ecobank innovating to provide solutions to this segment—and specifically to women?
Anan-Ankomah: We’ll continue to collaborate with telcos to offer these women microloans based on their mobile money wallet activity. Ecobank has signed groupwide agreements with Airtel and MTN that include the offering of microloans to mobile wallet holders in countries of mutual operation. We will be rolling out Xpress Loans to several other markets across Africa in the coming months. Additionally, we are working with select mobile network operators to include EcobankPay on their mobile money menus.
Alliance: What are your financial and non-financial services value propositions to each segment—current or planned?
Anan-Ankomah: Beyond the financial support already outlined, we intend to offer relevant business information, education, networking opportunities and recognition. The Ecobank Women’s Program will feature a women’s club, where women entrepreneurs can get information about in-person learning events and access online seminars and workshops on financial topics, share experiences and learn about other networking opportunities. We’ll also offer loyalty programs that will cover things like spa treatments, and beauty and fashion products. In addition, we’ll hold annual awards ceremonies to highlight successful women, and we’ll set up a business club exclusively for women SME owners—which we plan to call the Eve Emerald Club.
Alliance: We all know how crucial it is to capture sex-disaggregated data to establish a baseline for a women-centered strategy, as well as monitor its performance. Have you already started sex-disaggregating the data internally? Did you face any challenges?
Anan-Ankomah: First and foremost, we are taking a critical look at our data requirements to determine what information our data system is able to capture and what is available to us. The current data available on women in the bank covers individual accounts by geographical regions across the group. We’re taking deliberate steps to build a data requirement framework to help capture the needed data. We expect that this will offer better insight into the behavior and performance of our female customers.
Alliance: Can you tell us about your overall internal diversity and inclusion strategy? What’s your vision on that front going forward? Do you have initiatives to get more women into leadership positions?
Anan-Ankomah: The Ecobank Group promotes diversity and inclusion. We understand that the diversity of our workforce not only enriches our members’ work experience, but also contributes to the profitability of the bank. We at Ecobank promote the principle of equity over equality. By fostering an atmosphere of acceptance and support, we can begin to value and appreciate the strengths afforded by the differences in styles, ideas and organizational contributions of each employee. Our Equal Opportunities Policy applies to all employees, and compliance to this policy is mandatory.
As part of our broader Talent Management program, Ecobank is implementing a Women Development Program that aims to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions and build a strong pipeline of future female leaders.
Alliance: How did you first hear about the Financial Alliance for Women, and why did you decide to join the Alliance?
Anan-Ankomah: I first heard about the Financial Alliance for Women from the IFC, and we made the decision to join it to leverage its experience to help us design and implement a strong and vibrant Women’s Agenda for the Ecobank Group. Our goal is to create awareness around women-owned and managed businesses and the vast potential their success has for women, their families and the entire continent of Africa.
ECOBANK GROUP AT A GLANCE
Value of assets: US$22.58 million
Total credit portfolio: US$9.17 million
Total deposits: US$15.94 million
No. of full-service branches: 888
No. of ATMs & CDMs: 2700
No. of clients: about 20 million
No. of employees: 16,386