We don’t need a digital bank account; we need our regular accounts​ to work digitally

I hate banks. Or, rather, I hate banking halls. (I know I’m not alone in this.) I had a number of bad bank experiences last year that made me begin praying to never again enter a banking hall as long as I live. Just to stick to mobile apps, USSD or the ATM. Even though I know this will probably not be possible in Nigeria.

Back to my story. I hate banking halls. Which is why I was ecstatic when the news broke on Radar that Wema Bank had launched a 100% fully digital (their words, not mine) bank. I quickly rushed to sign up. And, judging by the reactions around (such as this), I’m not the only one.

Next thing we know, another bank is announcing their own digital platform. Ah, Nigeria. Bankole Oluwafemi calls it the start of a fintech arms race.

Anyway, I shared the link to the digital bank thing in a Slack group and felt pretty fly about it till a certain someone (Ajeh Emeke) challenged me. At a point in our conversation, he made this statement…

My point is .... to fund my account digitally, I need an "analog" account. or how do you fund your digital account without having a credit card which must have been funded locally?

Initially, I thought he was just being annoying, but later on, I actually sat down to think about it.

What really do we benefit from this digital bank?

  • We can open accounts without going to the bank. Sure, that’s a real benefit. Right? But it’s only a benefit if you actually need a new account, not if you already have enough lying around.
  • You can order a debit card and get it delivered to you, again without going to the bank. Another plus, which is hinged on the above one.
  • Anything else?

I can’t find any more benefits. For real. Wema’s ALAT promises an inter-bank transfer rate of 40 naira, and 10% yearly interest, but those are side attractions.

I don’t want to be a killjoy, but when you take away the novelty, the digital bank thing (at least the way it’s currently implemented) pretty much falls apart. I need to get my ALAT funded? Someone has to transfer to it, money which likely came from a cash deposit sometime in the past. I need to withdraw or make a payment? I still have to go to the ATM or do a mobile transfer. All of which I can already do with my existing account.

Here’s what would really be awesome:

  • I can open a new account without going to the bank. The account isn’t a limited “digital” account, it’s a fully-featured "analogue” one.
  • I can resolve any issues with my account without going to the bank.

This second point is the real killer. Many Nigerian banks today have internet banking platforms that work at least 50% of the time (I’m guessing). But anything beyond that, 9 times out of 10, requires you to go to the bank (and waste unnecessary hours standing in line).

In the past six months, I’ve had to go to the bank to do things like changing my internet banking PIN, requesting a new debit card and picking it up, requesting to be refunded for a wrongful debit, and changing my registered email and phone number. The funny thing is, I tried to do all of them digitally, via their oft-advertised customer care/self-service platforms.

First, I emailed the banks. No luck. Long story short, the CS reps told me to go to the bank. One bank didn’t even read my mail, just sent me the standard list of commands (“SMS this to that”, “Dial this”) and told me to go to the bank for anything else.

I tried the SMS portals, but they didn’t work. I tried calling the customer care line, but the self-service refused to authenticate me, and I ended up spending nearly an hour listening to music intermittently interrupted by “All our customer service agents are busy. Please stay on the line”.

For the internet banking, I tried to use the Reset Password feature on the mobile app and website, but it didn’t work. No idea why. It would tell me the email had been sent, but I wouldn’t get any email.

I ended up having to go to the bank, fill a form for the change of email, and write a letter to the manager for the change of phone number. The worst part is, after changing my phone number, I stopped receiving SMS alerts on both new and old lines.

So thanks, but no thanks. I don’t need another bank account, albeit a “digital" one. I need my existing bank account to work digitally. The day I’ll rejoice is when I can resolve every issue relating to my already-existing, fully-featured accounts without having to enter that chamber of horrors known as a bank.

Edit: I don’t bank with Wema, so it’s possible that many of the issues I’ve had with my own banks are things Wema customers don’t face. In which case, all Wema needs to do is integrate the digital account opening + verification system and others into their existing regular accounts.

Edit 2: Haven’t checked out Stanbic’s implementation, but at first glance, it looks somewhat similar to what I’m proposing — regular bank accounts, but fully digitally manageable.

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