Forbes Middle East

Poised To Ride The MENA Wave

Adeeb Ahamed, Managing Director of LuLu Financial Holdings and Twenty14 Holdings, discusses how the pandemic has affected his two sectors—accelerati­ng the adoption of Fintech while slowing hospitalit­y.


Last year saw the widespread launch of the LuLu Money app across the GCC and APAC regions. What prompted you to expand your Fintech offering?

The cross-border payments industry has a huge responsibi­lity to shoulder in today’s challengin­g times. The industry plays a crucial role in interlinki­ng the global migrant economy and constantly needs to be on its toes to improve transfer speeds while keeping costs at a minimum. Since our inception in 2009, we have strived to deliver financial inclusion and last-mile remittance through customerfr­iendly services and technology.

If we look at it from the context of the GCC economy, cash-based transactio­ns have traditiona­lly dictated the pace of reforms in this sector. But we observed the shift in consumer preference to digital payments quite early on in our journey and launched LuLu Money in 2017 to serve important payment corridors from the U.A.E. When the pandemic struck and the need arose for both service providers and consumers to accelerate the shift to digital solutions, we were better positioned from a technical and operationa­l viewpoint to expand LuLu Money.

Another factor that worked to our advantage was the proactivit­y shown by government­s across the world, including those in the GCC region, to roll out industryfr­iendly regulation­s for an empowered and connected financial ecosystem.

More often than not, internal systems need to be in sync with advancemen­ts in a sector, if an emerging ecosystem is to bear fruit. The payments industry has been one of the biggest beneficiar­ies of such a renewed mindset, more so with remittance­s being classified as an essential services industry right from the early days of the pandemic.

These opportunit­ies were incentive enough for us to take the leap and establish LuLu Money in newer territorie­s. It further helped that we had already laid a good foundation for ourselves in the financial services industry, which allowed us to quickly lift the product off the ground.

In an increasing­ly connected world, digital solutions have come to define the reliable, seamless and invisible face of cross-border transactio­ns, and our expansion efforts are geared towards positionin­g LuLu Money as a worthy sector disruptor.

How is the LuLu Financial Group enabling financial inclusion, particular­ly in the Middle East?

We are based in five countries in the Middle East: the U.A.E., Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman. Together, we provide a gamut of financial services and products facilitati­ng easier cross-border transactio­ns, bank notes business and currency exchange to a cross-section of society. The rollout of LuLu Money in these countries reflects our commitment to provide affordable and instantane­ous payment services to the people of these countries.

We are continuall­y inching towards our larger goal of financial inclusion through the judicious applicatio­n of technology and by collaborat­ing with like-minded partners. For example, our existing and new partnershi­ps with several global payment networks allow our customers to send money to over 180 countries worldwide.

We are also re-purposing our 225+ global branches as customer engagement centers, to smoothen the transition of existing and new customers to our digital platform.

We have also rolled out our WPS payroll card as a payment option on LuLu Money, in countries where the regulation­s allow it, which allows a large section of the alternativ­ely banked population to conduct their transactio­ns online while simultaneo­usly taking advantage of the benefits of formal banking systems.

As the pandemic has laid bare, the sector is too stretched out to be serviced by a single operator. Having been in the industry for over a decade now, we value the scalable solutions and collaborat­ive potential that modern fintech startups offer financial service providers such as us, to plug gaps in product utility and consumer experience.

Does LuLu Financial Group plan to expand into the European market in the near future? Any other regions being looked at?

Yes, we are presently in the final stages of commencing our operations in Ireland and are scouting the possibilit­ies of establishi­ng a presence in other countries in Europe as well. We also recently commenced our operations in Singapore, as a part of our expansion strategy in the APAC region.

Your other company, Twenty14 Holdings, now owns five hotels across Europe, India, and the Middle East. What do you look for before acquiring a hotel?

At Twenty14 Holdings, we are inclined towards properties that are steeped in heritage while also located in global tourism destinatio­ns. We also evaluate a property for its potential to be aligned with our mission of offering well curated experience­s for guests and maximizing returns for investors.

This approach has given us the opportunit­y to restore iconic properties such as the Great Scotland Yard Hotel in London and the Waldorf Astoria-The Caledonian in Edinburgh, which define the cultural milieu of their respective cities. Our properties are a labor of love and in envisionin­g them as immersive hospitalit­y experience­s, we work with architects, artists and storytelle­rs who have a strong local connect and are deeply empathetic to our cause.

Has demand in the hospitalit­y sector now started picking up again after probably one of the worst years in its history?

The travel and tourism sector is undoubtedl­y one of the worst hit sectors globally. There was hope of an early revival with the announceme­nt of the vaccine, but administer­ing the vaccine is probably one of the best shots at slowing down the pandemic and not necessaril­y an end to it.

There is definitely pent-up demand in the market, and we did witness this to an extent in the relatively improved volume of bookings and enquiries which our properties received in early 2020 Q4. The subsequent resurgence of the pandemic has quelled any chances at a quick recovery, resulting once again in a slump in the hospitalit­y sector. We are positive that the sector will see an uptick once the global situation stabilizes and people feel safe about traveling again.

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