Afrikan Post Newspaper and TheAfricanDream.net had the opportunity of interacting with Aida Diarra; Regional Vice President (Africa) of Western Union (WU), a leader in global payment services as it celebrates 20 years of business with Africa.
At a meeting in WU’s Washington DC offices in the USA, Aida gave a thorough insight into WU Operations in Africa as she spoke to George Bright-Abu of the Afrikan Post and Oral Ofori of TheAfricanDream.net; respective news organizations targeting African audiences in the US.
Below is the Question (Q) and Answer (A) session that transpired:
Q: You have been with WU since 1999; starting as Assistant Marketing Manager in charge of US Outbound to Africa operations, give us a background to your rise up the ranks?
A: I look at my career as the fantastic opportunity that it is which allowed me to be on both sides of the transactions when it comes to sending and receiving money to and from Africa. So I was fortunate to be in charge of our operations from the US servicing the African corridors. A few years later I decided to join our team in Africa because that is where everything is happening. I was assigned the marketing responsibility for all Africa and my role evolved into a regional role which ended up with me being in that role for Africa.
Q: Where in Africa are you currently based?
A: We are based in Morocco; the headquarters for Africa, though we also have regional offices – one in South Africa and the other one in Lagos Nigeria – on the continent.
Q: Your Decision to go to Africa might be borne out of your study of the demographics and the huge financial potential. Can you give us some insight into the financial aspects of your study?
A: What is important to know is that the financial flows in Africa is driven mainly due to the migration patterns of Africans, as you know Africans move a lot. It is believed that about 30 million Africans live outside of their countries of origin. A lot of this migration is happening also in the United States, Europe, as well as within Africa itself. All this is to say that there is a lot of movement that is fostering a lot of the remittance that we see in the region.
In terms of total flows: the varying numbers depend on the respective organizations monitoring the industry, it is believed that there is as much as $60B US sent to Africa through WU, but again it varies from different sources.
Q: Which Country can you single out as the highest inflow destination?
A: The way I would like to look at remittance is more from the aspect of the impact on a given country. In some 15 countries in Africa, the remittance flow contributes to more than 10 percent of their GDP so that is how impactful it is. We therefore make sure we offer relevant services in every single country we serve, making sure we offer better options to consumers by enabling them to receive and send transactions as much as possible and with optimum flexibility.
Q: We all know Western union as being involved in sending and receiving money. Are there any other activities you are involved in that impact Africa?
A: We are certainly involved in sending and receiving money but I believe I would like people to relate to us more as a company specializing in payments services. One of the things that we do is serving of small and medium scale businesses through our business solutions entity where we also enable consumer-to-business and business-to-consumer payments. This is probably more relevant to markets in areas like the UK and other countries in Europe but definitely an opportunity for Africa moving forward.
Q: How are you embracing emerging technologies with your work in Africa?
A: You know you will be amazed by our capability in Africa to adopt to new technology. When you look at the total numbers of small wallet that exist in the world it will surprise you how many of such are in Africa. So when you see the impact that mobile has today in enabling financial inclusion and enabling consumers to have access to financial services you realize this is also an indication that technology is going to continue to play an increasing role in the remittance industry in Africa. The way we embrace technology is evidenced through some of the important milestones accomplished in Africa. For instance, in selected countries today you can receive money directly from your electronic device or mobile wallet. One has the option to choose whether to go to a location to pick up their cash or have the funds deposited into their electronic or mobile wallet, we also do that with regular bank accounts. We now have the capability to draw funds from 50 million accounts in Nigeria, for example a customer that owns an account that wants to collect funds without going to a location can collect from a platform and pull funds directly to accounts. This function is going to develop further as most of the industry regulators are pushing to have financial inclusion that have come through new technologies and digital platforms.
Q: So in this case are moneys collected in the local currency at the receiving end or in the currency of the sending country?
A: We respect the regulations in place for individual countries. If the regulator allows payment in hard currency we provide the option, if the regulator however has clear mandate and directions that the payments should take place in local currency then we abide by such regulation.
Q: Do you use the national bank rates or you set your own exchange rates?
A: It is critical to know that as we operate in any given country we do that within the guidelines of that country, so typically there are clear guidelines in terms of what rates can be applied and what flexibility operators have within that framework. Here at WU we are very keen on making sure that whatever rates we apply is in line with the guidelines. Nigeria for example is a place where the regulator indicates clearly the rates to be applied by all the industry players, in a case like this we of course have no option but to comply.
Q: You might be aware that Nigeria has the biggest economy in West Africa. You mentioned that you have an office in Nigeria, so how are you impacting its economy?
A: The size of remittance for Nigeria is estimated at about $21B US so of course as a key player we play a role in channeling these inflows into the country. When you do a ratio of the right size of the remittance compared to the GDP it is the equivalent of about 6%. You know the remittance industry contributes up to 6% of the GDP of Nigeria so we believe that it is significant and that we as a key player should continue to enable and make it easier for Nigerians to send and to receive money. One of the very interesting fact is that in 2015 the regulator allowed outdoor remittance within certain guidance, that was a rather phenomenal development enabling our customers to send money out of Nigeria. Parents were able to send money to their children in school. Looking at Nigeria as an important migration platform, this enables migrants there to send money back to their families in the neighboring countries. There are other interesting developments which make us want to make sure we continue to serve the African Consumer in the most efficient manner.
Q: In the midst of Competition for Business in Nigeria with several money transfer companies, can you give us one reason to use the services of WU?
A: The question about the service that we offer is based on our commitment to the community to start with. As I was saying we have been in Nigeria for 20 years now. It has been 20 years of amazing development, we are now looking at 5000 points of sale. 5000 touch points that people can actually go and collect money at. It is about the diversification of the portfolio of services that we make available. You can now chose to have the money deposited in your account, go to a point of sale, or you can use your mobile wallet. All these developments for me are essential to continue to better serve the customer. An aspect that one has to keep in mind is the compliance aspect link to our industry altogether. All regulators keep on ensuring that we know who the sender is, we know who the receiver is and there are follow ups and monitoring of transactions to ensure that the platform is used for the purpose it has been designed for – which is to support families back home – so these are important elements that we find ourselves implementing and that will continue to progressively evolve as we move forward.
Q: Talk about capturing the market, does WU offer promotional incentive to customers?
A: If you want to offer proper service it has to do with the quality of the service and offering a safe environment and platform for customers to use it. It is also about making sure that we offer promotions for much more activity during the back-to-school season for example; during which we give out to school children and support libraries among other things. In some countries for example we support education by training teachers. This is really part of our DNA and we are going to continue to do that. If you check the Africa Diaspora Market place, we enable the entrepreneur in the diaspora in Africa and those outside to invest back in their country of origins by creating or developing existing businesses through interactions with banks, financial support, or giving technical assistance so our community engagement in the diaspora goes beyond the service that we offer. We believe this is essential because of the role it plays in the economy. It’s also about being socially responsible.
Q: How does one get information about some of these things you’ve mentioned?
A: It is important to visit our website and read the story related to the African Diaspora Market Place at WesternUnion.com that provides a lot of information on activities that we are involved in and the commitments that we have with the community that highlights the efforts we have and the work that we do for the community.
Q: What is the future of WU in Africa?
A: I am particularly excited about our capability to offer the service from mobile apps. This is available here in the United States but we want to make sure we extend that service to outside the US as well. I also believe through the new technology that we have implemented at Western Union that, we will be able to connect and leverage our capability to tap into all those social media sites to continue to enable remittance through our systems. This is already happening but we are going to develop that to involve more countries in Africa and make it broader for the diaspora market.
Q: It appears the source of the inflows is the Diaspora, but how is WU engaging that community to let them know there are other resources available?
A: The discussion we are having is one example. But there are different outreaches through media that we do to inform the diaspora community. Our website is definitely one option to ensure that the diaspora is aware of the service offering made available to them and also the work that we do within the community to keep active.
Q: What are some of the Challenges facing WU in Africa?
A: I believe it has to do with leveraging the new technology we have while continuing to remain compliant with all the different regulations that we have to abide by. Sometimes the regulations in place does not cover technology goals faster than what the regulation have in place so one has to be extremely careful as we embrace these new opportunities.
Infrastructure also poses a risk when you want to expand a location, one such issue is with power fluctuations. For example if a bank wants to open a new location they have to ensure continuous power connectivity and these are realities to take into account as we develop the service offering. The continent is moving at a very fast pace. These issues are the priorities of many governments and organizations throughout the continent and we are very optimistic about our ability to capitalize on technology to diversity our options for consumers. But it is critical to know that there are so many support functions behind the scenes to ensure that the operations are ongoing and the transaction process is flawless.
Q: Which areas in Africa have you not covered yet?
A: In Africa we are pretty much everywhere except in Somalia and this is due to the availability of networks but we opened in Swaziland last year and we are very proud of the footprints we have in the region today.
We would therefore like to see Western Union’s continues engagement with the Diaspora Community to enable people keep up with these services. On this note I would like to Congratulate Western Union on their 20 years of Service to Africa.
Source: TheAfricanDream.net / AfrikanPost.com