Natalie Jabangwe: Delivering Bespoke Fintech Solutions

Natalie Jabangwe | Group Chief Digital Officer | Sanlam
Natalie Jabangwe | Group Chief Digital Officer | Sanlam

There is something to be said about the confidence that comes with having a healthy financial profile. The strut of having decent wealth and the ability to plan your financial life and not having to worry about life’s daily and long-term obligations is different. Money may not buy happiness, but it definitely buys more opportunities and the confidence to grab them.

Sanlam’s promise is to help all Africans live with confidence. The organisation’s purpose is to empower future generations to be financially confident, secure and prosperous. Sanlam has been empowering Africans for more than a century and is a trusted adviser to retail and institutional clients across the continent. It is focused on helping to preserve, manage and grow its clients’ wealth.

Group Digital Executive Officer, Natalie Jabangwe, is in charge of the company’s group-wide digital transformation across 33 African countries, as well as India and Malaysia. She is the former Chief Executive Officer of EcoCash, a mass banking operation and mobile financial service, the second largest mobile financial service in Africa, and the largest financial service operation for the leading Telecoms corporate in Zimbabwe.

Natalie has more than a decade of global experience in financial services and technology, spanning Europe, the US, ME & Africa. She has held positions at top-tier global investment and retail banks and Fortune 500 Fintech firms. She holds a specialization in hi-tech strategy and corporate turnaround from Imperial College London, EMBA. As a part of the program, Natalie innovated an NFC-centric mobile wallet proposition, which was featured at the London Olympics Business program in 2012.

In an exclusive interview with CIOLook, Natalie Jabangwe shares her journey of disrupting the fintech space with her global and intersectional expertise.

Below are the highlights of the interview:

Natalie, enlighten our readers about your professional tenure so far in the fintech sector and shed some light on your novelties that are empowering advancements in the niche.

I started my career in financial technology for investment banks in London in 2005, shortly after completing my undergraduate studies in computer science, which was followed by an MBA specializing in corporate turnaround and hi-tech strategy. I worked with a top software development house that created trading platform solutions for blue-chip investment banks in the city. I spent time setting this up for the likes of JP Morgan, HSBC, BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse, and Lehman when instant deal automation and notification were topical and a significant differentiator in trading platforms– this was before the 2008 financial markets crash.

After the 2008 crash, our bespoke software firm was acquired by NCR Corporation, a Fortune 500 firm and the world’s largest provider of IT retail banking solutions.

Unwittingly, I wound up in financial technology for retail banks and was part of the software architecture team that set up Metro Bank, the UK’s first high-street challenger bank in 150 years. At the same time, I was heading up NCR’s innovation and digital financial services strategy for emerging markets covering over 50 countries.

Subsequently, I was headhunted by the largest telco in Zimbabwe, which was setting up a mobile money operation at that time. I joined as the scale CEO and ran the business for seven years until April 2021.

We grew to 12 million customers accounting for 70% of the country’s GDP by the value of transactions processed. During the last two years of my tenure, I doubled up as CEO of EcoSure, an Insurtech built on the mobile money platform. In 2017, we received a global GSMA Global Mobile (GLOMO) award for the best mobile payments solution.

I’m now serving as Sanlam’s Group Chief Digital Officer, responsible for the firm’s digital business transformation with a focus on setting up of some new fintech ventures. Sanlam is Africa’s largest non-bank financial services firm, with $9bn in annual revenue, with a presence in 33 African countries, and a niche presence in India, Malaysia and selected developed countries.

Tell us more about yourself, highlighting the exceptional skillset that makes you one of the most influential leaders in the Fintech industry that are transforming the fintech niche.

My experience ranges from working at global, blue-chip investment houses and financial firms to building one of the fastest growing fintech companies in Africa. My international experience has allowed me to marry my knowledge of advanced global financial technologies with the opportunity to provide relevant solutions for the unbanked segments in emerging markets. This skill has set me apart.

From a personal perspective, as a global African with diverse experience, I am adept at delivering environmentally relevant solutions while employing the best-in-class experience. In addition, my background in liberal arts, coupled with my high technical proficiency, ensures creative problem-solving alongside my scientific and analytical acumen. I opportunely became successful in the information technology field, and today I count on my ingrained ability to lead by bringing the best out of others.

Looking at the recent developments in technology, share your valuable opinion on how emerging technologies are playing a crucial role in empowering reliability in modern-day financial operations.

Emerging technologies play two roles: One, they are disruptive to almost all businesses as they create new value across the spectrum of industries, with an exponential speed over the time, so fast to even fully grasp the changes that have come to humanity.

And two, they also improve or eliminate old systems as these become digitally transformed, for example, the role of big data tech, the cloud, social networks, Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotic processes, data warehousing, dynamic service integrations, digital payments, digital solution platforms, web3, and blockchain, to name a few, are helping to modernize legacy system processes at businesses.

As an experienced non-banking financial services company, how is Sanlam overcoming technological disruption and ensuring seamless fiscal consistency for your clients?

Firstly, we are embracing the wave of technological disruption by executing on a fast-paced digital business transformation journey for our existing businesses.

Sanlam has been around for about 105 years and is very entrepreneurial at its core DNA. The firm’s ability to partner successfully for scale and success has ensured its ongoing success.

We are now focused on replicating this inherent DNA through technology to provide the best-in-class service, building diverse ecosystems and innovative products to serve our existing clients with differentiated value.

Technology also enables us to ensure low-cost delivery across large-scale geographies. The resultant effect is affordable offerings and unmatchable customer value while ultimately growing shareholder value. And secondly, we are setting a course of action for NEW market offerings through direct-to-customer business models in order to acquire millions of customers digitally, to ensure an inclusive offering across diverse customer segments, and enable the sustainable growth path of Sanlam’s future. Our ability to successfully leverage technology means that we will be a disruptor in our own business and the industry.

Enlighten us about Sanlam’s role in the fintech space and its solutions/services that make it stand out as one of the prominent companies in the fintech sector.

Sanlam Fintech is a dedicated business unit addressing customer’s financial needs across Sanlam markets. These include, among others, our digital life insurance business, Sanlam Indie; MiWay Life – a direct-to-customer business powered by technology – Sanlam Credit Solutions, which is one of South Africa’s fastest growing credit management businesses, Satrix, South Africa’s leading online indexation investment business, Africa’s fastest-growing micro-investments platforms as well as the continent’s largest insurtech platform, aYo, a joint venture between Sanlam and MTN with over 15m registered customers. In addition, we are focused on growing other new and innovative fintech businesses.

How is Sanlam pivoting the business to leverage technological advancements to enhance its operations and people in the niche?

Building dedicated fintech businesses means we are unequivocal about enhancing our operations for the future.

Firstly, we have invested in data capabilities to better understand our customers in our quest to deliver differentiated value. Our strides in digital data processing and management enable us to drive operational efficiencies and solve problems and opportunities in a very informed manner.

Secondly, digital upskilling and talent growth are essential to winning the digital innovation race. We have therefore partnered with the best global knowledge partners to sharpen our acumen and keep abreast of evolving trends. Through our digital leadership partnership with Harvard and Singularity University, we have enrolled 400 employees, from executives to senior leadership, in executive courses.

The program is sponsored by our GCEO and the digital transformation office and will continue to reach more employees. We are highly focused on ensuring that our people are market-ready and relevant.

What strides has Sanlam made to win in this space?

Sanlam is focused on delivering digital and large-scale financial services to underserved consumer segments, starting in South Africa and then expanding to the rest of our existing markets in Africa.

Our journey is also one of the partnerships – our joint venture with MTN has allowed us to be Africa’s largest InsurTech in over 20 markets. In contrast, our recent joint venture with Allianz will ensure the transformation of our current business operation in Africa to world-class standards. Sanlam Fintech aims to empower generations to be financially confident, secure, and prosperous through a neo-non-bank digital approach. As a group, our goal is to acquire 50-million customers by 2027.

Where do you see yourself in the long run, and how are you working towards achieving your future goals in this niche?

We are poised to become one of Africa’s leading fintech in the medium-to-long term. As Sanlam Group’s Chief Digital Executive Officer, my responsibility is to shape the future strategic direction of Sanlam’s digital business transformation. I’m very confident in this defined path, fully supported by our GCEO and EXCO team.

Sanlam has varying financial services businesses, which run autonomously, with dedicated CEOs and specialists. Sanlam Fintech’s high-performance entrepreneurial team will partner with these businesses to create disruptive technology solutions and digital business models to create new value and acquire new customers at speed across geographic markets.

I see myself as “third time lucky in my life” as I’ve been building challenger digital financial assets, firstly in the UK, then Zimbabwe, and now across Africa. This time it is a far bigger scale than anything I’ve done in the past. I’m grateful and excited about what lies ahead.