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Absa Transforms IT and Fosters Tech Talent Using AWS

2020

Absa Group (Absa) provides banking services in Africa. The bank offers an integrated set of products and services across personal and business banking, insurance, and wealth and investment management. In 2005, Barclays bought a stake in Absa and later renamed the company Barclays Africa Group. After it reduced its stake in 2017, the bank rebranded as Absa.

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Open source and AWS services are the ingredients the bank needs to turn our techies into development chefs."

Craig Du Toit
Head of Technology, Absa Marketing and Legal

Driving Digital Transformation

The rebranding coincided with the transformation of the bank’s technology landscape. This included migrating away from existing data centers and building new service capabilities in the cloud for a more agile business and to optimize technology expenditure. The bank chose Amazon Web Services (AWS) to help deliver its aims and, by 2020, had launched more than 100 initiatives on the AWS Cloud. Andrew Baker, chief technology officer for Absa Group, says, “The opening of the new AWS Africa Region means we can now adopt even more AWS services as a result of the Region’s proximity and more AWS skilled talent, offer lower latency, and significantly reduce our technology cost base. Additionally, we can achieve our transformational journey with greater velocity, through simple self-service, automation, and skilled DevOps teams.”

Ebrahim Samodien, chief information officer for Absa Enterprise Functions, adds, “Our approach to cloud has been to solve real bank problems with an engineering mindset—this is why we work so well with AWS. Like us, AWS has engineering in its DNA and is not pushing products or sales. This partnership has been a key enabler for the culture of innovation and experimentation that we’ve been driving and embedding across our teams.”

Open Source Opens up Opportunities

As part of its innovation and experimentation goals, the bank looked to modernize services and adopt open source—allowing it to move away from expensive proprietary software. Historically, the bank relied on proprietary solutions as well as third-party vendors to support current services and develop new ones. Vendor support, however, created data security challenges. Owing to regulations, the bank was restricted on what data it could share with vendors, limiting development.

The bank has now replaced some of its proprietary software with open source at a fraction of the cost. Moving to open source has allowed the bank to cut reliance on vendors, which has improved data security and given it greater opportunity to design services. Using the non-proprietary software, the bank is building operating systems and databases as well as machine learning and artificial intelligence tooling. What’s more, marketing technology across the organization is receiving a major boost. Craig Du Toit, head of technology for Absa Marketing and Legal, explains, “Where previously our focus had to be on core marketing tools, today even non-core services are easily available to us. For example, we are able to quickly and cost-effectively stand up our own fully fledged hosting capability, developing and publishing our own websites on AWS, where we can integrate these with services and rich content management systems. Plus, we have developed our own brand management and marketing tools.”

Turning Techies into Chefs

The open-source initiative has allowed the software team to develop its skill sets thanks to the freedom that non-proprietary software brings for creativity. In addition, the team is furthering its skills by making use of the open-source community to deepen its knowledge and crowd source solutions. “Open source and AWS services are the ingredients the bank needs to turn our techies into development chefs,” says Du Toit. “We want to drive the development of software talent locally and give them the latest machine learning technologies. These services will be a game changer for Absa.”

Eight-Month Analysis Reduced to Three Hours Using Machine Learning

To date, the marketing technology software team has used AWS machine learning services to support the rebrand from Barclays to Absa. The team, working with Synthesis Software Technologies, an Advanced Consulting Partner in the AWS Partner Network (APN), combined Amazon SageMaker, a fully managed machine learning service, and Amazon Rekognition, which makes it easy to add image and video analysis to business applications. The exercise for the marketing department was removing the Barclays logo and other references from bank documents. Comments Du Toit, “This required the analysis of approximately 48,000 pieces of content to identify which ones needed to be redesigned and re-written.”

The bank estimated it would take eight months just to manually complete one review cycle of all the documents. Supported by Synthesis Software Technologies, Absa trained Amazon Rekognition using the Amazon SageMaker service to identify the Barclays logo and content. It took just three hours to complete an entire review cycle. Du Toit says, “We identified the documents that included the Barclays logo and copy references with 90 percent accuracy. Plus, the bank saved R7–8 million ($382,000–$437,000) on the rebrand exercise, while creating an inventory of brand information for marketing teams to use in campaigns.”

A Foundation for Innovation

The bank's open-source cloud strategy is now in full swing. The group’s technology team continues to support the marketing department’s cloud-first strategy and is building several cloud-based services to enhance operations. These include an agency collaboration platform, an online repository for brand guidelines tools, and a content management system. In addition, there is a digital distribution hub for bulk messaging that also offers templates for message creation. So far, the AWS initiatives for the marketing team have delivered projects with projected annual savings of R4.5 million ($246,000)—ensuring the department aligns with the company’s larger cost savings goal. Says Du Toit, “People can see the potential of open source on AWS. From here, we want to be bigger and better, building with the talent that exists in Africa.”

To learn more, visit aws.amazon.com/machine-learning.


About Absa Group

Absa Group provides financial services in Africa. Headquartered in South Africa, it offers an integrated set of products and services across personal and business banking, insurance, and wealth and investment management.

Benefits of AWS

  • Reduces IT infrastructure costs
  • Moves away from expensive software to open source
  • Accelerates development with in-house IT team
  • Reviews 48,000 documents in three hours as part of rebrand
  • Saves up to R7−8 million ($382,000−$437,000) on key initiatives

AWS Services Used

Amazon SageMaker

Amazon SageMaker is a fully managed service that provides every developer and data scientist with the ability to build, train, and deploy machine learning (ML) models quickly.

Learn more »

Amazon Rekognition

Amazon Rekognition makes it easy to add image and video analysis to your applications using proven, highly scalable, deep learning technology that requires no machine learning expertise to use.

Learn more »


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