The ARB Apex Bank with a vision to remain the most effective and efficient service provider to the RCBs with a mission to provide banking and non-banking services to the satisfaction of the RCBs as well as other stakeholders, has chalked a remarkable success in its operations as a mini central bank providing support services to RCBs for efficiency. B&FT’s SETH KRAMPAH caught up with the Managing Director, KOJO MATTAH at his office and engaged him in the following conversation.
B&FT: Good evening Mr Mattah,
Apex MD: Good evening Setho, how do you do?
B&FT: How do you Sir.
B&FT: Now first of all please clarify this; the public is always confused with the core responsibilities and mandate of the Apex Bank in the business of rural banks, people believe Apex Bank regulates the RCBs, others also think it offers technical support services to the RCBs, what exactly are the functions of ARB Apex Bank as far as rural banks are concerned?
Apex MD: Ok good, the ARB Apex Bank has the responsibility of undertaking the following activities for the RCBs, let enumerate them:
- We keep accounts and maintain primary cash reserves,
- We onitor, inspect, supervise and ensure compliance of members to laws and regulations,
- We also lend to banks for temporary liquidity support,
- We handle cheque clearing activities,
- We provide specie management services,
- Apex bank also supplies cash and receive excess cash from banks,
- We provide both foreign and domestic remittance services,
- We guarantee payment instruments to third parties,
- We provide audit and inspection services,
- We pevelop credit assessment procedures and monitor loans and advances,
- We develop mechanisms to support the RCBs in financial difficulties as well as providing training for directors and employees.
B&FT: Ok good, now tell B&FT at least three main support services that ARB Apex Bank is mandated by law to offer RCBs.
Apex MD: The three main support services to the RCBs are include, ICT infrastructure and electronic banking services, inspection and auditing of RCBs to ensure compliance with regulation and procedures, marketing of the RCBs to position them as a strong brand to provide contemporary banking services.
B&FT: Since its establishment by the Bank of Ghana in I think 2002 as a mini central bank to RCBs, which area has Apex Bank achieved its objectives significantly?
Apex MD: Since its establishment in 2001, the bank has seen significant growth in all key areas of operations of the RCB sector. The following key interventions contributed significantly to the performance of the RCB sector.
Apexlink Domestic Funds Transfer
This is a domestic instant money transfer product that provides the platform to transfer money to all parts of the country through RCBs dotted all over Ghana. It provides a safe, reliable and convenient way to transfer money to traders, businessmen, farmers, artisans. Remitters and recipients do not necessarily need to have an account with an RCB to enjoy this service.
Mobile Money Business
The Apex Bank collaborates with MTN Mobile Money, Airtel-Tigo cash and Vodafone Cash on behalf of the RCBs.
Computerization of all RCBs and the creation of a data centre to host and process the data of all RCBs. Data and communications inter-connectivity between RCBs via satellite, radio or fibre connectivity
Collaboration in Foreign Funds Remittances
Inward foreign remittances are channeled to the RCBs for payment to beneficiaries in the rural areas. This collaboration has brought much relief to beneficiaries who hitherto had to travel long distances to the big towns to receive such funds. Some of the remittance collaborators include:
- Western Union Money Transfer
- Unity Link
- Xpress Money
- World remit
Correspondent Banking Services Collaboration with other Financial Institutions
The Apex Bank collaborates with other commercial banks to enable the RCBs to provide quality banking services to their clients on their behalf at the various outlets where these commercial banks are not represented. These correspondent services are in the form of cash payments and collections from commercial bank’s corporate clients.
Treasury Management Services
The ARB Apex Bank Limited offers the following treasury management services to the RCBs:
- Brokerage services for the purchase of Government of Ghana (GoG) Treasury Bills and Bonds.
- Maintenance of the Central Securities Depository.
- Secondary Trading of securities which includes rediscounting and discounting of bills and bonds.
- Apex certificate of deposit (ACOA) for short term investments.
Payment of Pensions and Government Salaries
The Bank serves as a conduit for payment to government and non-government salary workers through the RCBs. SSNIT pensions and Government workers’ salaries are, therefore, paid by the Accountant-General through the intermediation of the RCBs.
Microfinance and Fund Management Services
This service allows the Apex Bank to collaborate with the Government of Ghana, corporate institutions and other collaborating and development partners that are interested in providing microfinance support to the poor and low-income earners in order to help them take advantage of economic opportunities within their environment.
The main objective of the collaboration is for the Apex Bank and the rural banks to assist in the reduction of poverty through the management and disbursement of these funds.
E-Zwich and EMV Gh-Link Cards
All the 146 RCBs, together with over 900 agencies / branches across the country operate e-zwich. The Apex Bank and rural banking network control 30% of the e-zwich volumes in the country. The network is considered the market leader in terms of e-zwich card issuance. This achievement has been duly acknowledged by the Ghana Interbank Payment and Settlement Systems Limited (GhIPSS).
The Apex Bank and the rural banking fraternity was the first to issue a local EMV Gh-Link compliant automated teller machine (ATM) cards. The Apex Bank has so far deployed more than 70 ATMs, with the number expected to grow to more than 100 before the end of 2019. As part of the Apex Bank’s enhanced service delivery channels, some RCBs issue ATM cards to their customers to use on other universal banks’ ATMs. This offers a huge advantage of convenience to the RCB customers.
This is a World Bank-sponsored project to sign up over 1,000 agents (or Agency Bankers) across the country. With secure point of sale (POS) devices, customers can access a number of banking services without necessarily walking into a banking hall. The ARB Apex Bank-RCB Agency Banking Business Suite is expected to further deepen rural financial inclusion and intermediation in the country. The Agency Banking would again lead to the creation of many jobs in the rural economy of the country as many small and medium-sized businesses and individual shop owners with secure business locations can sign up to become Bank Agents.
B&FT: The COVID-19 Pandemic has sent shivers down the spine of many economies globally and industries are being compelled to adopt to change to be relevant in a disrupted economy. Does the Apex Bank have any change strategy for the RCBs to implement?
Apex MD: We have engaged the RCBs in various fora to build their capacity to adopt to the changes of the new normal. The survival and business continuity plans have been evoked and RCBs have been taken through implementing their Business Recovery Plans. In addition, other business strategies to raise deposits and position RCBs as strong have been shared with RCBs with ARB Apex leading the front in the marketing efforts.
B&FT: After the financial sector clean up exercise the Bank of Ghana in a press statement did indicate that it was going to collaborate with the Apex Bank to reposition the RCBs to be more efficient in its operations, can you update Business & Financial Times on this statement?
Apex MD: Yes Seth, indeed, there has been discussions on the way forward on the strategy to be deployed. The BoG is finalizing the document, but essentially, the BoG wants to support the RCB sector having recognised the significant role they play in the rural economy. Details of the repositioning plan will be shared when it is finalized by the BoG.
However, with cooperation from the RCBs, we have implemented policies and strategies that have projected a positive image of the RCBs. We have sought to enhance the image of the rural banking community by projecting an image that conveys modernity and customer centricity in our approach to doing business in the rural communities in which we operate.
In addition, we keep developing products, services and brands that assure our customers that despite our banks being referred to as Rural and Community Banks, our banks provide the same services and even more than some other banks do.
B&FT: Is there a new policy direction to make the RCBs more efficient in administering credit to support MSMEs particularly in a pandemic? I am asking this question because the external business environment has been badly hit by the pandemic and doing business the same way may not yield an anticipated positive result.
Apex MD: Some credit administration improvement initiatives has even started before the advent of COVID-19. It has become more important now to intensify some the education and capacity building of RCBs on credit administration. The use of credit administration software to improve on credit administration has been embarked upon.
The Credit Unit has been able to put in place a forbearance structure for RCBs that need some form of restructuring on principal and interest payments. A few RCBs have taken advantage of the existing forbearance programme in order to improve their liquidity management processes.
B& FT: Talking about “The Speed of Change” as the theme for this year’s managers’ conference, what change do you anticipate in how the rural banks operate particularly in the area of technology considering the current disrupted business environment?
Apex MD: The RCBs have adjusted to reduce face-to-face programmes, shifted meetings to online platforms, socially and physically distance their employees, clean-up and sanitize surfaces often, have become the normal way of life.
They have adopted measures such as on-line banking, telephone calls, social media channels to take advantage firstly of, the opportunistic business avenues that the advent of COVID-19 has brought.
They have also strategised on how to harness their core business areas to generate more business.
B&FT: RCBs are required to have GH¢1million as minimum capital to operate as a rural bank. The deadline for RCBs to achieve this has elapsed, have all the banks made it? Kindly update Business & Financial Times on this.
Apex MD: OK Good, Seth, the last I checked I think a little over 90% of RCBs have met the GH¢1million minimum capital requirement as at June,2020.
B&FT: ARB Apex Bank is ISO certified. What does this mean to the public and business operations?
Apex MD: The Certification is a validation of the capacity of ARB Apex Bank to provide exceptional experience to our customers. It is a stamp of confidence in our people, systems and processes and a loud announcement to our partners and customers that the Bank and our member RCBs have come a long way and are poised to deliver superior service to customers. It is also a seal that customer data is doubly secured with ARB Apex Bank.
The implementation and certification of an Information Security Management Systems (ISMS) based on ISO standard, demonstrate the assurance that the Bank is meeting both regulatory requirements of the Bank of Ghana and validation of the security and confidentiality of financial information as well as customer and employee details.
Being ISO certified has improved the alignment of internal processes with customer requirement and overall management of the information systems.
We believe that the ISO management framework of policies and procedures will further assist the Bank in identifying and minimizing risks associated with information security thereby guaranteeing customer confidence in business with ARB Apex Bank.
B&FT: Tell us about the Apex Bank ICT infrastructure for RCBs and the progress made so far. How beneficial has it been and the convenient banking it has brought to the RCB customer?
Apex MD: The ARB Apex Bank has a Tier-3 Primary Data Centre and a Disaster Recovery Site which host all the banking and technology services for the 145 RCBs with over 800 branch networks. These sites have been ISO27001:2013 certified in accordance with the Bank of Ghana Cyber Directive. The Data Centre processed over 6.5 million accounts and ii equipped with the latest computer and storage equipments.
The Data Centre hosts core banking software (Temenos T24), cheque clearing software, ATM Switch, Call Centre software and other IT services being used by all the RCBs in Ghana. With this IT infrastructure, RCBs are able to serve clients using digitized solutions such mobile money inter operability, local and foreign inwards funds transfer, ATM services (GH-Link) which allows GH-Link cards from any financial institution in Ghana to be used on any of our 95 ATMs installed nationwide, eZwich Cards where ARB Apex Bank and the RCBs are the leaders in this front. We have issued over 1.2m eZwich cards since its inception. We also have mobile banking platform known as U-Connect which facilitates funds transfer, airtime purchase and deposit mobilization through the Susu Agents.
The mass introduction of digitization into the operations of the RCBs since 2003 to date has brought tremendous improvement in the operations of the banks making them competitive as we use the same IT technology and system (Core banking, ATM, Cheque Clearing, E-banking service) which are being used by the universal banks. In terms of customer convenience, our customers are able to use our ATM cards on any GH-Link ATM in Ghana, perform pull and push of funds from bank account to mobile wallet and vice versa and also through the U-connect mobile platform customers are able to transfer funds, airtime purchase and deposit funds through the Susu Agents.
B&FT: Have you been confronted with any ICT infrastructural challenges? How do you surmount these challenges?
Apex MD: We had three major ICT infrastructure challenges in a form of Data Centre infrastructure upgrade, upgrade of core banking software as well as renewal of wide area network contract for 5-year term.
The Data Centre infrastructure (servers and storage) was due for replacement in 2018 but we did not have funds to procure the latest equipment so we had to buy extended support for 2 years (2019 & 2020). In 2019 we managed to get funding from Government under the Ghana Financial Sector Development Project (GFSDP). The Project gave Apex Bank and Rural Bank USD8m to finance several projects including the data centre infrastructure upgrade (server & storage), core banking software upgrade to the latest release with additional modules to enhance regulatory compliance and online performance.
The wide area network was also due for renewal in 2017 and the major task was to get a cost-effective solution and introduce other forms of connectivities such as radio and fibre. This was achieved through competitive bidding and hard negotiation using our large client base of over 600 locations to arrive at a most competitive pricing in the market today.
B&FT: Now let’s get a bit personal. You took office approximately a little over three years ago, you had quite a number of objectives as set through your vision, would you say you are achieving or have achieved those objectives?
Apex MD: I took the helm as Managing Director of ARB Apex Bank on exactly June 1, 2017. That is about three-and-a-half years ago. It was indeed an honour. One of the key areas we set out to improve is the image and appeal of the ARB Apex Bank. This is because, we believe that every major feat to be chalked by the bank would be a direct consequence of the image we project to our esteemed customers and members of the public. We have therefore done the following, amongst others:
- Rebrandig and standardization of our branch ambience, we rebranded all 10 regional branches and gave a facelift to the Head Office building.
- We have developed and operationalized a customer service chatter for the Bank and our member RCBs.
- We have developed and operationalized a brand book, to guide our communications and interactions with our stakeholders.
- ARB Apex Bank and the RCBs are now enjoying an improved image and top-of-the-mind awareness hitherto, not witnessed in their history.
- The RCBs can now hold their own and feel proud about their self-concept, that they are a group of unique and unit banks, serving a valuable segment of the Ghanaian economy.
- The work is however in continuum, but what we are particularly proud of is that the RCBs and their customers are becoming prouder of their brands.
- We aspire to improve every time but we know that the customers would be proud of the work done so far.
B&FT: Ok good, now in your capacity as the Managing Director of ARB Apex Bank, what do you think should be the key regulatory actions that must be taken to boost the rural banking sector?
Apex MD: There mother Regulator is the Bank of Ghana (BoG) and I must say that they have been very supportive of ARB Apex Bank and the RCBs. It has been a healthy partnership between BoG and ARB Apex Bank and we know that our work would not be possible without collaboration with the Central Bank.
Overall, we are happy with how the Central Bank carefully resolved the banking sector crises, bringing back the much-needed confidence in the sector. We think that the Regulator must apply the rules fairly and without fear or favour.
If possible, the Rugulator should assist ARB Apex Bank and the RCBs with financial stimulus to help us invest in critical sectors of our operations.
Again, the Regulator can give special dispensations to RCBs which have not met the new Minimum Capital Requirement, while giving special packages to banks which have met the requirement.
Finally, the Regulator can work with Government to secure cheap funds for ARB Apex Bank for onlending to the RCBs.
B&FT: Ok Great. We are wrapping up, but is there anything you would want the public to know?
Apex MD: Thank you very much. The RCBs are here to stay and we have pledged to keep improving upon our service delivery to keep delighting our esteemed customers. The customer experience is expected move a notch higher.
I wish to use this opportunity to assure our customers that more is yet to come. They should watch the space.
B&FT: Well thank you very much MD for this engagement and I’m grateful for your time. On behalf of the editorial team of Business & Financial Times I wish you so well in your tenure as the MD of ARB Apex Bank Limited. It is our hope that you make very meaningful impact and bring a great change in the operations of rural banks in Ghana. I Thank you once again.
Apex MD: I’m grateful