How to build a digital bank in South Africa: it starts with a team of 180 IT professionals

TymeBank has officially opened its digital doors to the public, following a soft-launch at the back end of 2018.

South Africa’s first fully digital bank has no branches, is being hosted securely in the cloud, and says it will extend beyond the current suite of products over the coming months.

By joining forces with Pick n Pay and Boxer stores TymeBank said it has access to a significant distribution footprint.

“By the time we complete our bank kiosk roll-out we will have 730 points of presence where customers can open accounts inside a Pick n Pay or Boxer store – we have over 500 bank-enabled kiosks in the market today,” said TymeBank chief executive officer, Sandile Shabalala.

Even in stores without a bank-enabled kiosk, customers can still do their everyday banking transactions, TymeBank said.

There are over 14,000 till points across the Pick n Pay and Boxer network, where customers can withdraw money free of charge and deposit money for just R4.

How it works

Currently, customers can open a FICA compliant bank account in under five minutes at over 500 kiosks in Pick n Pay and Boxer stores around the country, or they can open a reduced feature account on TymeBank’s website and then upgrade to a full featured account when they get to a kiosk in store.

The kiosks verify customers’ identity using biometrics and a range of other data and issue customers with a personalised Visa debit card, without requiring any supporting documents.

“When you pay or draw money with our yellow debit card, you need to know that it’s going to work – every single time. For us, this is crucial,” said chief information officer of TymeBank, Dieter Botha.

Botha said that his team of 180 IT professionals have been hard at work creating the secure digital platform that will earn customers’ trust.

Cloud – the big difference

While traditional banks have evolved around mainframe computers and on-site data centres, TymeBank said it makes heavy use of the cloud platform from Amazon Web Services (AWS).

From here it links up to its Software as a Service (SaaS) core banking system, Mambu, which provides a secure ledger for customers’ accounts, managing the debits and credits incurred by customers every day. With Mambu in the background, customers interface with TymeBank through its mobile friendly Internet Banking site and its Android app.

The iOS app is currently in development.

Internal service orchestration, payment flows, and backend services are developed in Java as microservices on the Netflix stack, it said.

According to Botha, TymeBank embraced Facebook’s React framework in developing the web-based customer channels, while the Android app was developed using Java.

He said that two key focus areas underpin everything the IT team does: Security and Availability.

TymeBank has invested significantly to ensure the security of customers’ personal and financial data.

“Conservatively we have 30-40 different tools to manage and maintain our cyber posture. This includes assurances for perimeter-,network-, application- and data security, plus all the monitoring and responses to that,” Botha said.

By using machine data platform Splunk’s cyber incident monitoring capabilities, the bank’s cyber-response team ‘listens’ to more than 40GB of network traffic a day. With algorithms checking for any anomalies, the team is ready to act twenty-four-seven, 365 days a year, and will scale this capability as the bank grows.

On the software side, Botha noted that the one thing that TymeBank has done particularly well is how it has embraced the world of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).

This can be seen in the way the bank connects and works with, for example, Pick n Pay’s Smart Shopper system.

“None of our systems are tightly coupled; all of the APIs are loosely coupled and are managed through an API gateway,” said Botha.

While the security of a client’s bank account is key, it won’t help much if it can’t be accessed due to availability problems.

“We do our best to ensure there’s no single point of failure, so this incorporates multiple-paths for networking, and three different availability zones within AWS,” Botha said, adding that TymeBank will move to AWS’s planned South African data centres when they become available.

Setting up the kiosks

The bank manufactures its own kiosks, of which there are now more than 500 deployed at Pick n Pay and Boxer stores countrywide, TymeBank said.

Typically, a kiosk consists of three main pieces of hardware:

  • An Android tablet through which the customer interfaces;
  • Apower and peripheral management unit connected to a small Raspberry Pi unit;
  • As well as the debit card printer and storage facility – all monitored remotely using Internet of Things (IoT).

The debit cards are stored according to strict specifications with the kiosk acting as a vault of sorts. The kiosks are kept connected via SIM cards to local cellular networks, with software able to auto select the network with the best signal to ensure constant availability.

Asked about the kiosks’ ability to provide free Wi-Fi to users in order to download the TymeBank app, Botha noted that due to security concerns, there’s actually no Wi-Fi connectivity provided via kiosks.

Rather, through an arrangement with Pick n Pay, customers can access a free TymeBank Wi-Fi hotspot through a dedicated network in the store.

Botha pointed out that considerable IT resource and effort is applied to make sure South Africans can trust this digitally smart bank.

“With the effort made to ensure both security and availability for users, TymeBank is set to revolutionise the local banking scene,” Botha said.

Read: South Africa’s first digital bank is live – here’s everything you need to know

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How to build a digital bank in South Africa: it starts with a team of 180 IT professionals