Ecobank Transnational has a larger footprint in Africa than any other bank, covering 35 countries with a network of 1100+ branches, seven million customers and nearly 25,000 employees. It is also the first among its pan-African peers to have centralised enterprise-wide on a single core banking platform.

Ecobank HQ, Lomé, Togo

Ecobank HQ, Lomé, Togo

When a bank grows from 150 offices in twelve countries to over 1100 in 35 in five years, its technology and infrastructure has to be able to cope. But this was something that Ecobank’s legacy set-up could not deliver, says Arnold Ekpe, the bank’s CEO. In 2006, as the expansion strategy was initiated, it was decided to undergo a comprehensive review of IT architecture and identify systems ‘that would help turn Ecobank into a world-class bank’. There was a selection process, which involved major international suppliers, including Oracle FSS (I-flex Solutions at the time) and Temenos, the incumbent system provider. Temenos’ Globus/T24 system supported the majority of operations of Ecobank, with a few exceptions, such as Rwanda, which used the locally-developed Superbank system, and the Central African Republic and Chad, with the Delta-Bank offering from France-based vendor, Delta Informatique. Temenos’ system was deployed on a distributed basis, and this was an aspect that the project team wanted to address. Centralisation was seen as a key step towards aligning the bank’s practices with international best practices. ‘Staying with Temenos would have been the easiest option,’ says Ekpe, ‘but our task was to find the best option, not the easiest one.’

Quality and scalability of the software and its underlying technology were vital requirements, says Ekpe. Other criteria were the software resilience and level of support a supplier could provide in Africa, ‘which is very difficult terrain for technology’. A lot of emphasis was also placed on finding a supplier that would be a long-term IT partner for Ecobank, Ekpe adds. ‘We do not pursue a strategy of in-house system development,’ he explains. ‘We are bankers, not a software house. We rely on providers, hence the importance of a good relationship with a competent partner that can deliver the software and services to support our banking objectives and ambitions.’ I-flex’s offering, in his view, was ‘the most appropriate solution’ for Ecobank. In addition to the core system, Ecobank also took Flexcube Direct, comprising mobile and internet banking applications, and Oracle Financial Services Risk Analytics. A range of products from one supplier eases integration and offers consistency, observes Ekpe.

The first recipients of Flexcube and the auxiliary systems were Ecobank’s subsidiaries in Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and Togo. Flexcube was adapted to meet the regulatory requirements on a local and regional level, including those of The West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) and Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC). In other business and operational areas, customisation was kept to a minimum, as the bank wanted to align its operations with the international best practices that were incorporated in the new system. ‘Changing the software to the way we operate would have been a backwards step in our case,’ says Ekpe. By Q4 2011, 31 countries were running on the new centralised platform, located in the bank’s IT centre in Ghana (there is a back-up centre in London). The remaining four countries are to follow. The platform supports all main banking operations of the Ecobank Group. It is multi-currency and multi-lingual. Ecobank offers universal banking services including wholesale, retail, investment and transactional banking, and deals with governments, multinational, regional and local corporates and financial institutions, SMEs and individuals.

Milestones of the Flexcube journey

Throughout the project, I-flex/Oracle FSS has remained the main partner, although other third parties were recruited for some niche tasks. For example, GIEOM, an India-based business transformation specialist, was called in to help with the change management process. Oracle also participated in the processes of business standardisation and change management and in devising roll-out methodology. There was a central help desk function at the vendor that dealt with migration-related issues and queries. ‘We are satisfied with the quality of the specialists provided by Oracle. They’ve done a good job,’ he comments.

The biggest challenge was the continent’s under-developed infrastructure, both on pan-African and more regional/ local levels, says Ekpe. However, it is gradually improving, he adds. There are, for example, three submarine cables off the coast of West Africa now, compared to just one when the Flexcube roll-out started. And another two are works in progress.

Change management was also a challenge. Ecobank grew largely by acquisitions (14 or so in the last five years), and each new addition came with its own business process models, systems, products and corporate culture. The objective was to harmonise business, operations and technology across the group, and this required a lot of educational work, training and successful communication, says Ekpe. Specialist input from GIEOM was also very useful. ‘Change management is never easy, as you have to convince people to abandon old practices and learn new ones.’ Thus, it was very important to have enough trained people on the ground, to explain, assist and ease the pains of transition, he emphasises. Flexcube experts were also required on location to check the quality of the installed software.

Changes were made to the project team in the course of the five years, and depending on the roll-out stages and required tasks, people with specific skills were brought on-board. A small team from Oracle FSS is still onsite, but its numbers are decreasing as the bank gains knowledge and takes over.

Technology spend is also coming down, says Ekpe, and the bank is now devising a method to measure and assess the investment. He sees the venture as a success, citing improved control over IT and operations and their costs, efficiency, faster time-to-market and roll-out of new products and services as advantages. Ecobank is the first bank in Africa to have established a centralised IT hub on such a large scale, he claims.

But the implementation of a new core banking system ‘is not the end of the journey’ for Ecobank. It has also recently installed Fundtech’s Cashplus cash management solution, to offer an improved, standardised customer experience for corporate e-banking clients across the group (IBS, March 2011, Ecobank implements Cashplus), and is persevering with infrastructure development. ‘Technology is a journey that never ends,’ says Ekpe. ‘There is always continuous improvement.’

By Tanya Andreasyan

by IBS Intelligence