The rise of digital banks, especially within the retail space, is the modern-day gold rush, with an entrant growth of 150% in the last 5 years. Within the developed economies, the market is saturated with new entrants competing to grow their customer base through more enticing sign-up benefits or cash incentives. And the reason for this is simple: through digitising operations and reducing the necessity for physical assets, banks are able to lower their capital and operational expenditure while simultaneously scaling their customers – notable players here are Monzo, Revolut, and JP Morgan’s ‘Chase’ Digital Bank. 

One of the unique selling points (USPs) of these digital banks for new customers is their simplified and efficient onboarding process. Prospective customers are able to open a bank account in minutes by downloading an app to their smartphone and completing a few easy steps (i.e. ID document upload, liveliness face and voice tests) from the comfort of their home.

The benefits of this business case for both banks and customers are well-known, and ‘green-shoots’ are now appearing within developing economies. A good example of this is TymeBank in South Africa. Tyme have been able to grow their customer base exponentially, onboarding roughly 110,000 customers each month, by providing a more accessible platform for their customers to interface with.

TymeBank’s hybrid approach

What differentiates Tyme from other digital banking players is how they have been actively targeting large groups of individuals within the lower socio-economic demographics. Tyme’s customers are predominantly from the unbanked and underserved segments. South Africans earning less than $200 a month make up 48% of their active user base, with 65% of their overall customer-base constituting women within the low-income segment.

Tyme has tailored their offering to be relevant to these specific economic demographics by understanding the financial needs of their users and introducing unique products such as their “GoalSave” savings account and “MoreTyme” credit service. By following a customer-centric approach, they have been able to create inexpensive and practical solutions that assist their targeted clientele in their daily lives.

Tyme have been able to onboard large volumes of individuals from a previously financially excluded demographic through a creative and sophisticated hybrid onboarding process. This onboarding solution consists of building and implementing digital kiosks in the local communities within the grocery stores like Pick ‘n Pay and Boxer, and stationing ambassadors to promote their services and assist prospective clients.

A high level overview

The opportunity

The question that is often raised with initiatives that are targeted towards lower-income demographics is one of profitability. For the digital banking model this is derived through volume: the more customers, the more revenue generated through bank fees and other service charges. Importantly, the cost of bringing on new customers should not be greater than the projected revenue the customer’s fees and charges would accumulate.

Although Tyme’s onboarding solution is sophisticated and has been successful in scaling their target customer base, it still incurs large operational expenses due to the digital kiosks – roughly $281,000 a month. This is detrimental to a business’ profit margin, especially one that derives its revenue through onboarding large volumes of customers.

Currently the bank does have the ability to open an account and onboard via web channels (at 20% the cost of the digital kiosk), but this has a very low take-up rate with only 15% of its customers using that avenue. This could be attributed to a host of factors but primarily a lack of access to the digital infrastructure required.

However, there is an opportunity that would allow Tyme and digital banks alike to continue to scale their business with their targeted customer-base at far cheaper rates: a digital ‘plug-and-play’ risk scoring point solution.

In 2017, there was a change in Know Your Customer/Anti-Money Laundering (KYC/AML) regulations in South Africa. The purpose being more financial inclusivity for individuals who were previously excluded from the formal banking system by introducing a risk-based assessment (RBA) methodology. This created the opportunity for more sophisticated and creative risk scoring solutions to measure the perceived risk presented by an individual and capture the largely underserved market. This regulation change is coupled with a consumer base that has increased access to smart technology – 91% of South African adults own a mobile phone, with 51% owning a smartphone device. This number is only expected to grow in the coming years with large investments on the African continent from the likes of Huawei and the decreasing cost of smartphone ownership. 

Therefore, a purely digital onboarding point solution would complete the identification, verification and risk screening of the targeted demographic through a plug-in mobile application. It could utilise Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (ML/AI) data analytics to assess the perceived risk presented by prospective customers through the established Department of Home Affairs database and others like it. 

The ‘risk’ factor

Software like this has already been developed and implemented by digital banks within other geographies through companies such as Jumio, who supply the KYC/AML capabilities for the digital banks to continue to onboard large volumes at rapid rates. These risk solutions are much cheaper than the current physical kiosk costs and aren’t subject to external factors such as opening and closing times of the partner stores, or ambassador availability/location. In order to make this work, the risk algorithm would need to be tailored to the different customer personas and geographical regulation intricacies, but the inherent ‘foundations’ would remain the same. 

Ultimately, through this integration, customers could use their mobile devices to complete their account onboarding, digital banks could reduce their reliance on expensive infrastructure, and financial inclusion initiatives would be able to impact more individuals within these demographics. This would also lead to a movement away from money mobile providers and allow customers to have access to more sophisticated and bespoke financial products and services which could assist in generating more thorough financial records and even credit histories.

However, it’s not perhaps as simple as it seems, as any onboarding solution will always carry an element of risk whether it be physical, brick-and-mortar or completely digital. Through introducing this more digital approach, considerations would need to be made on the level of risk that could be invited while scaling larger volumes of previously unbanked individuals.

And that’s exactly what we’ll explore in part II, as we address the challenge of maintaining the ideal balance between an open and inclusive onboarding process and an accurate yet moderately risk-safe appetite.