Okra, fintech in Africa, and open banking going global
Okra is a Nigerian open banking platform. Founded in 2019, Okra was one of the first of its kind in the African open banking space. The company aims to be a portal between financial service providers and consumers’ financial data.
“People like you and me want to use financial services on our phones. We don't want to go to a bank branch. And Okra is essentially the operating system for all the banks and fintechs that are looking to serve consumers [this way],” said David Peterside, co-founder and COO of Okra. “(...) So whether you call yourself a bank or a fintech, depending on the license you have, if you want to build any fintech feature or platform, you can essentially use Okra as a full stack solution.”
Okra’s services include fintech capabilities within payments, banking, lending, personal finance, and business finance.
For now, Okra’s focus is to serve companies in Nigeria. That may be a pretty natural starting point – according to Peterside, not only is Nigeria the largest market on the continent but it’s also predicted to be the third largest country in the world by 2050. Still, Okra’s goal is to eventually spread across Africa.
“Africa is the youngest and fastest growing market globally in terms of population. What’s super interesting is that these people are mostly digital natives and they all are demanding more convenient ways to live their lives,” said Peterside.
In terms of product expansion, Peterside said the fintech is looking more seriously at money movement:
“We’ve seen huge growth on the data side of the business used to power fintech platforms but we’re constantly seeing demand from customers for better ways to move money. We’re in a private beta with several partners on a product that fills this need and we’re super excited about it.”
In the last couple of years, Africa has seen a major boom in fintech.
- In 2020, over $700 million was invested in fintech in Africa – making up 31% of its total inflow.
- In 2021, interest in African fintechs boomed even more, with start-ups raising at least $3 billion in disclosed funding rounds. That accounted for over 60% of all investment inflows. Meanwhile, four African fintechs became unicorns in 2021.
And right now, open banking may be one of the fintech initiatives getting the most attention across the continent. One reason for the open banking success has to do with phones. Currently, mobile phone penetration in Africa is around 50%, though it is growing by 6% every year.
In an article published by IBS Intelligence, Manoj Mistry, managing director for IBOS Association, points out that right now a lot of people on the continent are either under-banked or unbanked. Opening up consumers’ financial data to third-party users has the potential to boost financial inclusion through improving access to financial services, better credit building tools, and financial literacy content.
“African legislators, therefore, need to recognise the enormous potential that open banking creates to facilitate financial inclusion, especially its beneficial impact on access and affordability,” he writes.
Some countries have already been taking steps in the direction of open banking. In 2020, Kenya’s Central Bank released its four-year strategy, with open infrastructure as one of its main goals. A few days ago, the Central Bank of Nigeria released a draft document outlining potential guidelines for open banking.
Peterside’s thoughts on the global effects of open banking in Africa
But the effects of open banking in Africa don’t end within the continent. Africa’s openness towards open banking could mean a shift among financial markets all over the world.
Here’s Peterside’s take on what open banking could mean for Africa, as well as the globe:
“The growth of open banking as a service has proven to be one of the most impactful technology breakthroughs in the history of the financial services industry. The impact is felt on the local and global stage.
Locally, it stimulates growth and prosperity within the local market through the democratization of data access and financial services. Globally, open banking makes it easier to connect Africa to the global economy, which serves as a catalyst for accelerated economic impact. In an increasingly populist world, a simple way to put it is that it increases the pie by an order of magnitude.
I think open banking is currently solved regionally due to the extreme high level of fragmentation and localization. But as markets consolidate globally through partnerships it will enable an even more unified global financial ecosystem.
Lastly, from an emerging markets growth perspective — as the global financial markets recover in their cyclical nature, capital will look for growth in new markets for higher returns. We saw this with the expansion to markets like China and India over the last two decades. Africa is ripe for this expansion not because of its past but its future.
Despite the obviously tough political environment — thanks to mobile and the internet we have more informed and educated Africans than ever before. A lot of them are young and will increasingly participate in the global economy over the next 5 to 10 years.”
Can finance be fun?
You can’t spell ‘finance’ without ‘fun’ – well, ok, you can. But consumers are more eager than ever to turn that ‘U’ into an ‘I’, as they continue to demand personalized services, rewards, and hey, maybe a metaphorical hug every once in a while. Over 50% of consumers reported not getting ‘fun’ from their banks, according to this Capgemini’s most recent World Retail Banking Report. Meanwhile, 49% said they didn’t feel their experience has been rewarding, and 48% said they didn’t feel emotionally connected to their banks.
It’s not news, of course, that consumers want personalized services from their FIs. But that word ‘fun’ is an interesting one to zero in on.
How do you make finances feel like an experience rather than a service? Finance is an inherently nerve-wrecking thing – it may be hard to picture financial management as something you rush to do. But Paul Clarkson, evp of global banking at cloud banking software provider nCino, begs to differ. According to him, there are a lot of fun threads connected to dealing with one’s finances:
“The irony here is that some of the most exciting experiences that you may be using your financial institution for should be fun,” said Clarkson. “Whether that’s buying your first house or opening your dream business or maybe you’re getting that pool put into your backyard to have some holiday barbecues, those are why we need our institutions.”
The road to financial fun may be paved in goals, then. Take the Swedish fintech Dreams, for example. The company uses behavioral science to motivate people to save – in other words do the not fun financy things. They do this by keeping customers’ goals and dreams front and center. Right now, a lot of Scandinavian banks are partnering with Dreams to offer their consumers this platform.
It may also come down to good old-fashioned branding and naming. Brian Reilly, a digital marketing strategist at financial marketing consultancy BankBound, points out that there tends to be a disconnect in the names and visuals companies apply to their products.
“A certificate of deposit is not likely a product someone new to personal finance would care to learn more about, but when positioned as a risk-free investment that guarantees a return even in today's volatile world, there's new relevance,” said Reilly.
Reilly also mentions gamification as a way for banks to create a sense of fun. Though that has yet to become a popular strategy among banks. One reason, he says, is that a lot of incumbents tend to rely on legacy platforms to build their digital solutions – and these often don’t offer a lot of customization. And building their own platforms, meanwhile, can be difficult.
“The investment required of banks to build their own online and mobile banking experience is a major roadblock, but I personally believe each bank's mobile app should be considered the primary communication channel and deserves the same investment that is traditionally afforded to retail branch networks,” said Reilly.
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