Saturday, July 20, 2024

Malak Alsaffar : Transforming Digital Payments in Bahrain

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Malak Alsaffar : Transforming Digital Payments in Bahrain

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Malak AlSaffar
Country Manager – Bahrain, Visa

Malak Alsaffar currently serves as the Country Manager – Bahrain at Visa. Malak works closely with Visa partners to introduce new payment innovations that benefit Bahraini consumers and businesses, and ensuring Visa’s contribution to the growth and diversification of Bahrain’s economy.

Malak has a strong history with Visa, where she started her career in 2014 first as a member of the Central Europe Middle Easy & Africa (CEMEA) Legal team, before moving into the UAE Business Development in 2018.

Prior to joining Visa, Malak was working with some of the largest law firms in the world. She is passionate about payments, driving the shift to digital, whereby everyone everywhere has safe and secure access. Malak is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and leads the Women Leadership 
Network for Visa in CEMEA and is a recognized a global youth mentor. 

Malak holds a Bachelors of Law (LLB) and a Post Graduate in Corporate Finance Law.

 

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Can you tell us about your journey at Visa, from starting in the Legal team to now being appointed as the Country Manager for Bahrain? How have these experiences prepared you for this new role?

Malak Alsaffar: I joined Visa in the legal department – ambitious and keen to learn new things. Being at Visa helped me discover another career path – that of business development, which I really enjoyed and still do. At the time, very few women were at the forefront of business development. As an account manager in the Dubai office, I became the first female country manager in the MENA region, which has transformed my career. Today when I look around, I am thrilled to see that we have so many women in our organization leading the regional business including Dr. Saeeda Jaffar who heads the GCC, and it is very inspiring! 

Having a legal background has given me a different perspective on business development. In my previous role in legal and compliance, I gained valuable insights that allowed me to address client concerns more efficiently, as I could often anticipate challenges and provide solutions swiftly. For instance, one of my key milestones was successfully negotiating a complex contract with a major client, which required meticulous attention to detail and strategic problem-solving—skills that are fundamental to legal work. Additionally, I played a crucial role in ensuring regulatory compliance for various projects, which involved collaborating with multiple departments to align their objectives with legal requirements.

 These experiences have been instrumental in my seamless transition into the new role. The ability to foresee potential issues and negotiate effectively has enabled me to build stronger relationships with clients, fostering trust and confidence. Moreover, my background in legal has enhanced my analytical skills, allowing me to identify business opportunities that align with both our interests and those of our clients, creating win-win scenarios. This seamless integration of my legal expertise into business development exemplifies how each experience at Visa shapes us for collective success, equipping me with the necessary skills to navigate and balance the support and development sides of the business.

As a Bahraini yourself, how do you see the digital payment landscape evolving in Bahrain, and what role do you envision Visa playing in shaping this evolution?

Malak Alsaffar: Bahrain has always been an advanced financial market in the GCC. The total transaction value of digital payments in Bahrain is expected to reach US$2.68m in 2024, with digital payments expected to grow by a projected amount of US$3.4m by 2028. Bahrain was the financial capital of the GCC years ago. The Bahraini government, the Central Bank of Bahrain, and the forward-thinking leadership at the helm of the country from our King His Highness Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to the Crown Prince His Highness Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, have really propelled the digital roadmap of the country. They have envisioned the country as a digital catalyst for fintech specifically. This has promoted Bahrain fintech considerably, bringing recognition in fintech hubs such as Singapore and Jordan. Bahrain has also been the most progressive in terms of setting up regulations for new technologies including open banking, cryptocurrency, and others to really build and flourish an ecosystem for fintech and payment providers.

As a network that works for everyone, everywhere, Visa supports Bahrain to drive digital inclusion for the benefit of consumers, businesses, and the economy. So, we work closely with governments, regulators, banks and merchants to propel their capabilities. I am personally grateful to see many ‘firsts’ come out of our connections – the first arcade cards with Bahrain Islamic Bank, digital wallets for gamers, Tap to Phone solution for merchants, and even soft Point of Sale (POS) solutions. Visa recognizes the importance of fostering innovation at each touchpoint in the payment industry. Whether it’s contactless payments or low-cost acceptance solutions, we always aim to co-design tailored solutions with our partners to meet the needs and address the challenges of consumers and businesses in the Kingdom. A prime example is the She’s Next initiative in Bahrain, empowering women entrepreneurs like Aida Almudaifa. As the Founder and CEO of Early Riser, Aida leveraged her background as a certified Health Coach and her extensive experience in strategy, SME development, and exporting to build a thriving business. Her journey from working in business consultancy to becoming a successful entrepreneur exemplifies the opportunities Visa provides for women to expand their businesses. This not only contributes to their personal growth but also enhances the economic and digital landscape of Bahrain. By supporting initiatives like She’s Next, Visa aims to play a crucial role in shaping the payment landscape and promoting economic growth through digital inclusion.

Bahrain is increasingly seen as a fintech hub in the region. How do you plan to leverage this momentum to introduce new payment innovations that benefit Bahraini consumers and businesses?

Malak Alsaffar: Bahrain has taken the lead in establishing itself as the region’s foremost fintech hub. The Kingdom’s well-structured regulatory framework and open and competitive environment push companies to think outside the box and invest in and test platforms that power digital transaction transformation. The number of fintechs in Bahrain has increased by 100% since 2018, signifying the upward trajectory for fintech adoption in the country. 

As part of our overarching strategy for the market, we will continue to work with governments, regulators, local financial institution clients, merchants and fintech partners, to develop and deploy efficient, convenient, and secure processes for offline and online commerce. This enables more businesses and consumers to participate in the rapidly expanding digital economy, supporting the government’s digital commerce agenda.

Visa committed to offering expertise and technology to enable young professionals, women entrepreneurs, fintechs and startups in Bahrain earlier this year by forging a strategic partnership with Innovate for Bahrain, an innovation center led by the Supreme Council for Women and operated by Bahrain Fintech Bay. Under this partnership, Visa will train and empower 600 entrepreneurs and professionals, contributing to the development of a vibrant startup ecosystem in Bahrain. This partnership will include initiatives to promote financial literacy and develop innovative solutions for business challenges.Another way Visa has been driving fintech innovation in Bahrain is through the Visa Everywhere Initiative. The program offers a platform for fintech startups to showcase their innovative solutions, aimed at addressing current and future payment challenges. By competing for funding and mentorship opportunities, startups participating in Visa Everywhere Initiative contribute to the advancement of fintech in Bahrain Visa’s leadership in Bahrain extends to pioneering developments in AI, digital payments, and blockchain technologies. For instance, generative AI technologies such as ChatGPT are poised to revolutionize industries and create new job opportunities. Meanwhile, blockchain, initially surrounded by hype, is now seeing more focused applications with tangible objectives. These advancements, coupled with the growing adoption of digital banks and wallets, are reshaping the fintech landscape in Bahrain. The Visa Everywhere Initiative serves as a catalyst for collaboration and innovation in the fintech sector, empowering startups to drive meaningful change and advancements in the industry.

Could you share some insights into the specific challenges and opportunities you anticipate facing in your role as the Country Manager for Bahrain?

Malak Alsaffar: The Middle East is a unique and exciting region. Therefore, we try to bring market-specific solutions that work for our partners and make sense for them. As a world leader in digital payments, Visa has a responsibility within each market it operates in, to ensure that we partner with governments and other stakeholders within the payments ecosystem to solve challenges and find opportunities and solutions. 

Bahrain is an emerging economy making considerable strides in its digitization journey. The vast expat and youth population are growing accustomed to leading digitally enabled lives. As of 2023, the country had 2.1 million mobile subscribers and the mobile penetration rate was 137%. The Government of Bahrain is a pioneer in deploying advanced technologies for the benefit of citizens, residents, and businesses. However, we still see a reliance on cash, and we believe contactless payments are making significant impact in reinforcing utilization of digital payments. Visa is also continuously bringing in best-in-class fraud and cybersecurity solutions to reduce the instances of fraudulent transactions, cyberattacks and hacking. For consumers, our Stay Secure campaign promotes awareness and education to reduce the instances of fraud and foster consumer confidence in making digital payments. Everyone is welcome tovisit our Visa Stay Secure page to access educational resources on fraud language and learn how to avoid becoming targets of scams.
Beyond the benefits of security, speed, and convenience, digital payments also provide invaluable data insights. Visa’s Value of Acceptance study found 86% of surveyed merchants accepting digital payments claimed acceptance of payment through card and mobile wallets is an essential investment significantly contributing to their business growth. With more Bahrainis turning to digital payments, local merchants can tailor client communication with relevant offers, implement loyalty programs, and enhance the overall customer experience. This is vital information that can increase business competitiveness, profitability, and efficiency.

Collaboration with local partners is crucial for Visa’s success in any market. How do you plan to deepen these partnerships in Bahrain to drive the expansion of electronic payments?

Malak Alsaffar: In Bahrain, domestic players are our partners, and we support the entire ecosystem of stakeholders. Together, we can capture opportunities faster and work together to solve challenges. We recently facilitated domestic and international money movement for individuals and businesses in Bahrain in partnership with EazyPay, implementing our cross-border account funding solution Visa Direct, making the transfer process faster, streamlined, and secure.

In many ways, Visa’s unique outreach and engagement capabilities are leveraged to support the payments ecosystem in Bahrain to promote innovation and shape the future of digital payments. Together we want to help and support the economy of Bahrain to thrive and flourish.

In what ways do you believe Visa can contribute to the growth and diversification of Bahrain’s economy, particularly in the context of digital commerce objectives?

Malak Alsaffar: As Bahrain forges ahead with its digital commerce strategy, consumers are seeking digital – especially contactless – payment experiences. Bahrain historically has been a cash-driven market, with many businesses still opting for cash payments. Our discussions with government and regulators also touch upon the existence of cash and strategies for digital payments. According to our Value of Acceptance study, digital payments and cash together account for over 95% of payments accepted among small businesses that accept both, with digital payments accounting for the larger portion.

While digital payment-accepting merchants surveyed are aware of the associated costs with digital payment acceptance, 63% believe that the value and benefits received from digital payment acceptance surpass associated costs. In fact, 86% of retailers that accept digital payments are convinced of the overall value of digital payment acceptance. 

Embracing digital transactions not only aligns with the Bahrain government’s cashless vision but also unlocks significant growth potential for small businesses as well as for the wider economy. SMEs are a very important focus of our strategic objectives, and we are working on the right partnerships to facilitate digital payments for businesses within this sector. Furthermore, our commitment to fostering inclusivity is evident in initiatives like She’s Next, which specifically supports women entrepreneurs in the GCC region.

Looking ahead, what are your strategic priorities for Visa in Bahrain, and how do you plan to execute them to ensure Visa remains at the forefront of the digital payment revolution in the country?

Malak Alsaffar: Our top priority has always been to support digital payments for the consumer and ensure that they are getting best-in-class solutions clubbed with utmost security. Together with our issuing and acquiring partners we are on track to creating an ecosystem for the future by providing a digital payment experience through many channels to address various segments of consumers. 

Our second priority would be to ensure acceptance for all merchants which will enable them to thrive and ultimately supporting market growth which leads to economic development. At Visa, we recognize the importance of advancing women in supporting economic development and curbing financial inclusion gaps. Through our initiatives like She’s Next, we aim to open doors for skilled women to become successful merchants, empowering them to contribute significantly to Bahrain’s economic growth and fostering gender equality in emerging markets.

Thirdly, as the fintech landscape continues to evolve, Visa remains dedicated to driving advancements and fostering innovation in digital payments, contributing to the growth and development of Bahrain’s financial ecosystem.

Recognizing the prevailing gaps in financial inclusion and the imperative need to address them, Visa is proactively engaging with innovative technologies and fostering strategic collaborations with governments, banks, merchants, and fintech entities to provide financial inclusion to numerous people across Bahrain.

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