Mena Fintech Association hatches expansion plan following Abu Dhabi launch

Initiatives include sector-specific committees, government lobbying and talent exchange scheme

DIFC's FinTech Hive is designed to boost the UAE's standing as a financial innovation hub. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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A not-for-profit group, set up to represent the growing number of FinTech firms in the Middle East and North Africa, plans to expand its operations in the region with dedicated government lobby teams and a global talent exchange programme, among other initiatives, after launching in Abu Dhabi this week.

"We are focusing on what elements make up a complete FinTech ecosystem in the region, and what makes that conducive to growth," Nameer Khan, chairman and founding board member of Mena Fintech Association, told The National.

Some of those elements are an understanding of relevant laws and regulations among FinTech players, a diverse talent pool and connections with parties such as financial institutions, central banks, governments, law firms and educational bodies, he said.

The association this week struck deals aimed at broadening its activities and building global partnerships to attract FinTech investment to Mena. It signed alliances with German development finance bank Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (Giz) to explore how FinTech can boost financial inclusion, and with the American University in Dubai to help improve FinTech-related skills and education.

It also signed a partnership with Anghami, the Arab music streaming service, to launch a FinTech podcast available to Anghami’s 50 million-plus subscribers in Mena.

FinTech, or financial technology, is disrupting traditional financial services through the deployment of advanced technology to speed up transactions, cut costs and better serve customers at all times of day no matter where they are. Banks and others are looking to collaborate with FinTech operators to ‘future-proof’ their businesses, or risk becoming obsolete as tech-enabled rivals provide cheaper, faster services.

Arabian Gulf financial centres - including free zone Abu Dhabi Global Market, where Mena Fintech Association is registered - have responded by launching accelerator programmes to stimulate growth of FinTech start-ups, and by enacting regulatory frameworks to govern the fast-growing sector.

The FinTech sector in the Middle East and Africa is forecast to make up 8 per cent of financial services revenue by 2022, driven by customer demand and increased investment, according to a report last November by US technology company Accenture in partnership with Dubai accelerator FinTech Hive.

“As the FinTech ecosystem in the region grows, the community needs to collaborate more closely for a common effective voice to interact with the likes of regulators, policy makers and institutions,” said Richard Teng, chief executive of the Financial Services Regulatory Authority of ADGM, in a statement on Monday.

Mena Fintech Association began operating last September, although its official launch took place at ADGM on Sunday. It has 28 members so far, including nine FinTech start-ups and other financial services companies.

Its founding members include Mr Khan, a FinTech adviser who has worked with regional regulators and companies, and Nihal Abughattas, a former director at Swiss banking software firm Temenos, who is now a mentor at the Startupbootcamp FinTech accelerator in Dubai.

The other founding members are Kokila Alagh, a technology lawyer at Karm; Irina Heaver, general counsel at alternative investment group Bolton Holdings; Altaf Ahmed, director of digital payments at UAE state telecoms firm Etisalat, and Umair Hameed, a partner at KPMG.

As well as starting to set up registered outposts in other Mena markets, including Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and Lebanon, the association has established a 46-country alliance aimed at attracting FinTech start-ups and investors to the region.

"It's not just about stimulating growth of regional-born FinTechs – it's about encouraging overseas FinTechs to expand to the region, and further spread investment and expertise here," Mr Khan told The National.

To attract FinTech start-ups, the association launched a global talent exchange programme, through which aspiring entrepreneurs can intern at financial services firms outside Mena.

In addition, it is establishing committees representing different sectors of FinTech – from wealth management, payments, real estate, capital markets, blockchain and others. The committees, which will each have their own ‘chief executive’, will be responsible for gathering information and concerns from firms operating in that sector and feeding that back to the association which, in turn, will advocate to governments for what reforms are needed for the sector to flourish.

The payment-tech committee will be chaired by a representative from UAE Exchange, one of the largest remittance houses in the region, and Navin Gupta, Mena managing director of Ripple, will chair the blockchain committee, Mr Khan said.

Mena FinTech Association also published on Sunday the first in a planned series of regulatory guides for FinTech operators, which seeks to translate legislation into easy-to-understand booklets. The first is a guide to ADGM’s FinTech framework.