There are plenty of defining years in the history books, and as 2020 draws to a close, it’s almost certain that the global pandemic will ensure that this year is featured prominently. With events cancelled, launches delayed, and country-wide lockdowns, the way we work has changed forever. Still, for financial technology and surrounding industries, this was also a year of challenge and opportunity.
This December, The Fintech Times is asking industry leaders for their ‘View from the Top’ to gain an insight into the decisions behind the last 12-months. Today, we’re looking at fintech in the Middle East and Africa (MEA), hearing from Hanan Harhara Al Yafei, Dalal Buhejji, and Al Lukies on their 2020 thoughts, plus a look ahead to 2021. Will there be a Happy New Year? Read on…
The Middle East and Africa hosts a thriving fintech scene, with some countries housing some of the major fintech hubs of the world. Though the ecosystem is still emerging in dome countries, Dubai and Bahrain are some of the most advanced landscapes, helped by DIFC Fintech Hive and Bahrain Fintech Bay respectively. In this View from the Top, companies Hub71, Bahrain EDB and Pollinate outline their own 2020 experience.
Hanan Harhara Al Yafei is the CEO of the Abu Dhabi based global tech ecosystem Hub71, where she is responsible for driving its vision through strategy development and strengthening ties between the public and private sector, multinational corporates, government agencies and strategic partners. In her opinion, this year has been particularly significant for the digitalisation of businesses.
“The economy is going through a rapid digital transformation as the Abu Dhabi government has prioritised shifting to a knowledge-based economy. This has created opportunities for entrepreneurship and tech startups, which have become fundamental to driving this transformation. This is where Hub71 comes in. We are a global tech ecosystem designed to ensure that we can attract top entrepreneurs from around the world who are seeking to grow their businesses in all tech sectors from Abu Dhabi. As such, we are bringing together government entities with world-leading tech companies, investors and business enablers to cultivate innovation and business opportunities in a dynamic community.
“The pandemic really shed light on the importance of digitalisation for business continuity. Heading into 2021, startups will continue to play a key role in achieving the government’s mission and helping corporates advance their industries.
“Finance and technology have been on a collision course for years and the digitalisation of the financial services sector has been distinct in the UAE. Last year, the MENA region saw $77 million invested in fintech, and being home to 46% of the region’s fintech companies, the UAE saw the most fintech deals and funding. With the effects of the pandemic still being felt, it will create more opportunities for fintech companies to capitalise on the UAE’s youthful, tech-savvy population. The UAE Central Bank recognised this at the end of 2019 by introducing an office dedicated to fintech to effectively regulate the sector. This reflects the emphasis being placed on harnessing technology and ensures the sector can respond to consumer demand in a responsible way. But major banks, payment providers and financial regulators can’t transform alone. This is where fintech start-ups have a key role to play in shaping the future of the industry. Ultimately, 2021 will see a lot more collaboration between major corporates looking to digitalise their services and startups that will help them get there.”
Dalal Buhejji is Director of Financial Services at the Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB). She is charged with supporting Bahrain’s financial industries with a particular focus on international outreach to attract new inward investment opportunities to the Kingdom and growing the local financial industry. She also thinks that the digital transformation due to the pandemic has been significant this year.
“The fintech space in Bahrain has been growing steadily more collaborative, open, and innovative in recent years – a trend we’ve seen catalysed by the digitalising influence of the pandemic. Bahrain’s population was already one of the region’s youngest and most-tech savvy, and with social distancing encouraging consumers to go online like never before, we can expect this trend to continue well into the New Year and beyond. Today there are around 30 innovative fintechs from all over the world testing their solutions in our fintech Regulatory Sandbox (the very first nationwide sandbox in the region), many of which are operating in emerging fields like open banking and tokenisation for which the Central Bank of Bahrain offers often pioneering yet comprehensive regulation. Recent national developments include the launch of FinHub 973, a first of its kind fintech platform that provides traditional banks and fintechs with a virtual space to partner and collaborate; and the Bahrain Open Banking Framework (BOBF), which provides detailed guidelines ensuring the holistic implementation of Open Banking by the entire industry – the first in the world to incorporate Islamic Finance. Fintech innovation in Bahrain has been picking up pace and shows no sign of slowing in the New Year.”
Al Lukies CBE is Founder & CEO of Pollinate International, a company that works with banks and their legacy platforms to help launch new services in the payments and financial services sector. He believes that SMEs have been the backbone of economies this year.
“2020 has been a year of uncertainty and disruption. Uncertainty creates the opportunity for disruption but it is fair to say that no one in the financial services industry predicted Covid-19 and the consequences of it.
“Personally I am very proud of the number of tools and services fintechs and banks have rolled out to support specifically small and medium-size businesses during this time. SME’s are the backbone of our own and many economies and it’s been fantastic to be a part of helping so many of them stay afloat this year.
“Aside from the current uncertainty, disruption will continue apace. We’re already seeing a number of well-established tech companies moving into payments and banking, and I expect that will continue. It’s a huge opportunity for banks to push back and one they shouldn’t ignore. One of the great advantages banks have is the plethora of data points they can access so as to enhance a user experience. As more consumers and businesses give consent to trusted and restricted data usage, we’re going to see a far more efficient and personalised journey in financial services – allowing business owners, consumers and society to focus on the priorities in their world.”