SA’s outdated banking regulations stifling innovation

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South Africa’s stringent financial regulations, while protecting consumers and the financial services sector from systemic risk, are creating high entry barriers for innovative entrepreneurs looking to improve the industry’s customer value proposition.

That is according to Nadir Khamissa, founder and chairman of the Hello Group, who says the current framework of the banking industry in South Africa is such that the oligopoly enjoyed by the bigger banks is extremely difficult to break.

“In the long-term, this could be detrimental to the banking industry, access to financial services by the previously unbanked population, innovation in the industry and the South African banking regulatory system,” he says.

While technological advances in the last 10 years have opened the door to new ways of carrying out banking transactions at far cheaper costs, Khamissa says a financial transaction today is nothing more than a database entry, and should therefore carry zero costs for the consumer.

“The future of banking globally is moving towards a system where consumers have transaction accounts that do not carry any charges. However, banks will still be able to maintain a successful business model by offering their customers value-added services or additional products such as mortgage loans, car finance, and savings products,” he says.

Though the idea of a free bank account might sound like a death toll for banks, it will actually drive volume growth as consumers increasingly look for safer ways to save and protect their money and opt into an electronic transaction lifestyle, according to Khamissa.

But because of the high barriers to entry in the local banking industry, the incumbent banks have very little incentive to truly transform their business models. One of these barriers is the large, upfront capital requirement of ZAR250 million (US$18.2 million) for a banking license.

“This appears fairly restrictive for an entry level player in the electronic money space, particularly when one considers that the UK equivalent works out to roughly ZAR5 million (US$364,000),” Khamissa says.

“More significant than the high cost of entry is the fact that we have a banking and regulatory framework in South Africa that is incentivised to maintain the dominance of the large banks and to exclude new entrants. There are a large number of bureaucratic rules and regulations which effectively turn incumbent banks into the gatekeepers of the industry.”

He says it is obviously not in the interest of incumbents to allow innovative entrepreneurs to introduce technologies that serve customers much better at a fraction of the cost.

“The result is a closed market where consumers pay more than they should for service that is not as good as it would have been if South Africa’s banking industry had a more level playing field for new entrants,” Khamissa says.

The South African banking industry faces the danger that by enforcing restrictive regulations on new players, it opens the industry up to competition from international, online competitors who are not regulated in South Africa.

“That means local innovators as well as the established banks will get shut out of the market as consumers turn to online applications that are easy to access and much cheaper to use,” says Khamissa.

“What stops South Africans from downloading a payment or banking app from abroad and using it now? Nothing whatsoever. The reality is that this is already happening with crypto-currencies. Once this trickle turns into a flood, it will be too late and the disruption of our rigid regulatory structure will be unstoppable.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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