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Diaspora banking: A niche category blossoming in the digital era

Diaspora banking: A niche category blossoming in the digital era
02 May 2022

Remittances from sub-Saharan African migrants to their origin countries accelerated 7% in 2021. As more expatriates send money or seek to invest back home, African banks, such as UBA and NCBA Group, have been overhauling their diaspora account offerings, betting the small segment will become a key category.

By Kingsley Kobo and Oliver Nieburg

Africa has a large diaspora. At least 30 million Africans live outside their country of origin, many of whom seek transactional accounts in their native countries to support friends and relatives or invest in local property.

According to the World Bank, COVID-19 sparked an estimated 7% surge in remittances to low-and middle-income countries in 2021 to $589 billion as migrants transferred funds to their home countries during periods of economic hardship. Remittances to these countries are set to rise again this year, by 3%.

Amid the uptick, diaspora accounts offering African migrants mobile and internet banking services are flourishing.

NCBA Group: ‘The future is bright’

Kenya’s third-biggest bank NCBA Group, saw customer numbers and revenues for its diaspora accounts double in 2021.

Ronah Kabue, Head of Diaspora Banking at NCBA Group, told the AFIS platform: “The future is bright for diaspora banking. We have witnessed tremendous growth in service requests, specifically new accounts, and property financing loans, as well as remittances.”

This came as Kenyans living abroad sent Sh34.3 billion ($297 million) back home in the 10 months to October 2021, according to the Central Bank of Kenya.

The current war in Russia-Ukraine is a great wakeup call on the need to own property back home and/or have some form of financial safety net…

Ronah Kabue, Head of Diaspora Banking, NCBA Group

NCBA Group – formed from a 2019 merger between NIC Group and the Commercial Bank of Africa Group (CBA) – expects to again double its diaspora banking customers by 2024.

The group’s internet and mobile banking offer allows Kenyan diaspora customers to save and invest back home, including through mortgages with up to 15-year maturities.

The bank predicts expatriates will turn to savings and investments in their origin countries amid higher living costs abroad due to COVID-19 disruptions and surging oil prices.

“The current war in Russia-Ukraine is a great wakeup call on the need to own property back home and/or have some form of financial safety net in case of global instability, both politically & economically,” said Kabue.

UBA: ‘Major revenue source’ going forward

Nigeria-headquartered United Bank for Africa (UBA) has also seen exponential growth for its online-only diaspora accounts and today boasts more than 45,000 diaspora customers.

Ogechi Altraide, Head of Personal Banking at UBA, said: “Before 2018, UBA offered only a Naira diaspora account [just in Nigeria]. But the diaspora offering was rebranded in 2019 to also offer foreign currency variants: Euro, US Dollar and Pound Sterling. This led to 8,500 new accounts in 2018 and 2019”

We really expect it to be a major revenue source

Ogechi Altraide, Head of Personal Banking, United Bank for Africa

The pan-African bank has since expanded its diaspora product to subsidiaries in 14 African countries, a move that helped it add 7,000 accounts in 2020 and 8,000 more in 2021.

Diaspora banking remains a small revenue business for UBA, but it has high hopes.

“We really expect it to be a major revenue source and we’re putting a lot in on advertising,” said Altraide.

Ecobank: ‘Underexploited potential’

Pan-African banking conglomerate Ecobank also has big expectations for the budding category.

“The African diaspora is an undervalued and underexploited potential,” Félix Njoume, Head of Diaspora Banking at the Group, told AFIS.

“For diaspora accounts, [revenue contribution at group level] is still low, but it should experience significant growth with the popularisation of offers and services already available, as well as the development of financial intermediation,” he said.

We are currently in the process of implementing a global value proposition at group level for the diaspora

Félix Njoume, Head of Diaspora Banking, Ecobank

One of the biggest revenue spinners in diaspora banking is fees collected during transfers. The World Bank estimates sub-Saharan Africa remittances grew 6% in 2021 to $45bn with Nigeria the largest recipient.

It forecasts sub-Saharan Africa remittances will rise again in 2022, growing 7% to $48bn, and +4% in Middle East & North Africa to $64bn, outstripping the +3% global growth trend in middle-to low-income countries.

The future: Innovation and USPs

Diaspora banking’s promise will mean stiff competition between the continent’s banks.

UBA’s Ogechi Altraide said: “I think our joker card will be the diaspora app.” The Nigerian-based bank is currently developing an app for diaspora clients with additional features and plans to expand diaspora accounts to six of its African subsidiaries yet to offer the product.

The bank, Nigeria’s fifth-largest by assets, is also hoping its presence in 20 African countries, and in the UK, US and France, will give it the edge to onboard customers.

Ecobank is equally hopeful its wide diaspora offering across 33 African countries will be advantageous to capture Africa’s resident diaspora – those living on the continent but outside their home country – who make up the majority of African migrants.

Growth projection for sub-Saharan Africa remittances in 2022
(World Bank)

An Ecobank online account can give these customers an account in their country of origin and another in the country in which they live. This includes a debit card, mobile app and internet banking allowing payment transactions, as well as mortgages in some countries.

“With a view to improving customer experience, we are currently in the process of implementing a global value proposition at group level for the diaspora,” added Ecobank’s Félix Njoume.

NCBA Group wagers a strong balance sheet will convey stability to customers. A 24/7 customer service with a dedicated relationship manager for each diaspora client will give it a further edge for migrants in different time zones, it says.

Informal market competition

All banks however are competing with highly popular informal remittance channels.

The World Bank found it is more expensive to send money to sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world (~8%) because 70% of migration is intra-regional and this segment favours informal channels where black-market exchange rates are common.

NCBA’s diaspora banking chief Ronah Kabue said that informal channels were used out of habit, particularly among older age groups.

“Informal channels are preferred due to high cost of using some remittance channels, to avoid tax and tracking of amounts sent,” she added.

Banks are hopeful though that they can convert these migrants to formal diaspora accounts through targeted marketing and word of mouth. Pan-African bank UBA for instance is branding its diaspora product at embassies and migrant community events in countries with a large African presence.

Digital onboarding: Are KYC rules a barrier?

Growth for this burgeoning category will however depend on an enabling regulatory environment.

Anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regulations remain strict and occasionally do not allow Know Your Customer (KYC) onboarding digitally.

NCBA’s Ronah Kabue said that even where e-KYC onboarding is allowed, some diaspora account requirements may be a deterrent for customers.

“For example, one of the requirements is to fill out a Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) form for US persons. Sentiments that come from this form specifically is they feel exposed to regulators like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), especially those who do not have legal status,” she said.

Yet the diaspora banking opportunity remains huge.  The numbers born in Africa and living outside the continent has more than doubled from 1990 to 2019, while remittances to Africa from 2017, the period before COVID-19, to 2021 have climbed 50%

“The figures speak for themselves,” said Ecobank’s Félix Njoume. “Banking services will have to undergo a significant transformation to support this dynamic,” he said.