Hemu Choonilal: from prototypes to digitally transforming the continent’s biggest bank

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As a youngster, Hemu Choonilal was quite inventive. Now he’s taking that spirit into growing and stabilising Access Bank South Africa through agile IT.

Hemu Choonilal is the CIO at Access Bank South Africa, a bank that is relatively new to the South African financial services market, but growing quite quickly. Access Bank plc, of which Access Bank South Africa is a subsidiary, is the largest bank on the African continent by customer numbers.

“Access Bank’s systems and processes were all inherited from the buy-out of Grobank (formerly known as Bank of Athens),” Hemu explains. “And back then, neither of the previous two entities had full banking capability, but that all started to change once they were acquired by Access Bank.

“It’s a small bank that’s competing in every way against the larger banks, with a fraction of the resources, and a smaller footprint. Access Bank’s vision is to be the world’s most respected African bank, and from an IT perspective, the strategy is to make Access Bank more digitally competitive,” he adds.

Hemu’s vision for the bank is to stabilise and grow from a business perspective, which will involve bringing on additional agility in terms of IT. He plans to achieve this by using IT as an energy source, but that’s only the short term, the next three years or so. The main goal is to achieve full-blown banking capability on digital platforms by 2027.

Hemu wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but instead of letting those circumstances discourage him, he allowed them to make him innovative at an early age.

As a youngster, Hemu tried everything from selling fragrances at the market, to fixing his friends’ broken Nintendo gaming devices to earn some extra cash. This led to his next and most notable innovation and entry into the technology world. Hemu began with a BSc at Wits, which he couldn’t complete due to financial constraints and dropped out. He then went on to study at a technical college to do his N5 in electrical engineering: light and heavy current.

“At that point in time, I built a four-level lift system at hardware level, and then programmed it using grey code – I actually sold the prototype to a company that was called Unidata at the time,” he says. “I sold the prototype for R800, not a lot of money today, but in that era, it was enough to pay for my next term of studies.”

Hemu’s appetite for innovation only grew from there. He later developed an automatic pilot system for a fixed wing plane. The prototype for that invention was also sold off at a later stage.

“The invention was basically an automatic pilot system based on a compass. Every degree on a compass, you then set your true north, and you navigate according to that,” he explains. “You key in your destination in your coordinates, then you place it onto autopilot, which is just the switch.”

That all happened in the early 1990s, but Hemu’s real stint in IT started in the mid-’90s when he was absorbed into one of the country’s large banks’ vehicle and asset finance divisions as a COBOL programmer and engineer. He later went into an analyst and systems design role in the early 2000s.

In his journey, Hemu worked with other notable IT leaders, such as Nedbank’s Ray Naicker, and Standard Bank’s CIO Jörg Fisher.

Jörg was Hemu’s sponsor, because Hemu formed part of a select group of people in the world that went to Germany to build the first core banking platform during his time with Standard Bank.

“When it comes to banking products and banking technology, that is my biggest strength – being able to architect, design, build and implement core banking systems,” he says.

Hemu says that solving very complex problems is what he enjoys the most about his job. “The problem needs to be ‘messy’ and complex – I get the biggest kick out of solving complex issues. If it’s messy, then I like it,” he says. “If it’s mundane, that means it’s too simple, and I get bored with it.

“I can’t say I always get it right, but 95 percent of the time we get it right. Some problems take a very long time to solve, and others are much quicker to turn around.”

According to Hemu, CIOs are different and approach problem-solving in different ways, either from a business, technical or a customer perspective. He tries to blend all of that.

“Most CIOs that I’ve met, those that are technical in nature, try to solve business problems with just technology – that’s not the way to solve the problem,” he says. “Other CIOs look at it from a financial and risk perspective: looking at the money factor, how much it’s going to cost, and how much risk it is to the business. I take all that into account when I’m trying to solve a problem, and that’s what differentiates me.”

Today, he holds an executive MBA with a specialisation in digital transformation from Henley Business School, and is currently studying towards a doctorate in technology and innovation.

In the little spare time he has, Hemu is a keen specimen fisherman. He says the sport is also quite technical in nature because you need to make several considerations while fishing: your hook size, your bait size, your distance, the depth of the water, and wind conditions.

“Throw in the right gear, some patience, and a bit of luck – then you’re good to go in landing a big fish,” he concludes.

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