‘Like Rahul Dravid, defend and play is a motto we follow’

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Lulu International Exchange has unveiled innovations and adopted technologies that are driven by customer facing business strategies:

In just 8 months, the covid pandemic has brought about years of change in the way companies across sectors and regions conduct business. The focus has dramatically shifted towards digital with the integration of services, unveiling of newer apps, etc. Banks, financial institutions and NBFCs have also joined the bandwagon in the adoption of technology.

In the Middle East, retailers were the first to get affected by the pandemic as the delivery channels came to a standstill. That triggered the need to check the strength of their delivery channels. This also applied to the exchange houses and banks in the Middle East. The difference was that Middle East organizations knew that the brick-and-mortar model would not last long, and the financial institutions in the region heavily invested in digital in 2018-2019. But this was not just about being digitally ready, it was also about creating the best infrastructure to make the transactions seamless.

“The advantage was as we invested earlier, we had the choice to pick up the right technology and partners. We didn’t fall for the hype when the pandemic hit. Things were more realistic in 2018-2019. Working across the globe, we understood that it is not about identifying a technology or signing an agreement, but the work starts after that. Every business is unique, and customization is required,” says Joseph Cleetus, Head of Business Transformation, Lulu International Exchange.

Now, it is all about customer experience, he adds, maintaining that to formulate the right customer experience, the journey should start while identifying the technology partner. It is imperative to get the right partner who shares the customer experience mindset.


In the digital era, transformation is about constantly bringing improvements like bringing enhancements in remittances, upgrading the mobile app, and adding a number of payment channels, including debit cards. Lulu Exchange has introduced a system wherein, if a customer still wants to visit a branch, he/she can do the transfer on the mobile and walk into any of the branches within 4 hours and drop the cash. This is similar to online check-in and baggage drop at the airport counter. The money is credited within 30 seconds. Payments cannot be treated as a commodity, says Joseph Cleetus, and there is a realization that in this race of digitization, the essence of experience is lost.

To give more power to the transferee, Lulu obtained an EMI licence in the Philippines. This enabled the remitter in the Middle East to create an eWallet account in the Philippines that ensures the transferred money is used in the right way. It allows the customer to see both the transfers in the same app. In the eWallet, the money is split into multiple micro transfers. For the benefit of the customer, Lulu Exchange has waived charges on such micro transfers within 30 days. Seeing the social impact of this initiative, the firm is looking to replicate it in countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.


The general perception is that if it is online, it does not involve any cost. However, the fact is that there is a cost of maintaining the digital platform, and in reality, keeping it live is more expensive than traditional legacy systems. During covid, everyone realized that this is the only revenue stream and the misconception of it being free has slowly changed.

Cleetus adds: “Our own staff who were using some other apps which were free, are now turning to Lulu app, which certifies that the experience is better and faster.”

He says that while choosing a partner, the experience is that startups give better output than the established bigwigs. That is solely because 90% of the startups are ready to learn, serve and survive. Combining video and business is another possibility.

With the onset of the pandemic and during the months of March, April, May, and June, Lulu International Exchange saw 100-200% surge in online activities. For the benefit of customers, it has introduced 100% digital and zero cost acceptance of debit cards. And it was expected that the digital world sees more growth as people would continue to use 100% digital offerings. Cleetus says: “But I was wrong; when branches reopened, the customers walked in with their debit cards. Money transaction through exchanges is more of a weekend activity with a personal touch. You can’t deny it by just giving a mobile app and asking them to transact from home. As we advance, remote branches are going to take center stage.”


That also throws the challenge of AI integrated deep fakes. At the same time, the organization has to figure out ways to counter such challenges. That, for sure, requires huge investments.

The contactless model has made a huge leap in the payment segment. In terms of technology, blockchain has addressed many pertinent problems. Everyone is innovating, and there are some AI chatbots with quite smartly built solutions around.


Regulators in every country play a very active role in safeguarding the customer interest with compliances. Cleetus explains the impediments the organization faced while establishing Lulu International Exchange. “Tough questions were faced in a case of cybersecurity as Lulu as an exchange house, doesn’t hold the customers’ accounts. It has to be linked to either a payment gateway or a bank. Now, the question is who owns the security or who is liable if something goes wrong. Regulators understand technology very well. An open discussion with regulators always saw encouragements from their side.”

Observing how regulators work today, Cleetus explains further: “The good thing with regulators today is that they talk about policy, technology and relative business model, in one go, which is interesting. It is necessary to have that constant conversation going with the regulators. Interestingly these days, they are becoming solution providers rather than scrutinizing with a monitoring glass.”

For the faster implementations in the Middle East, Cleetus feels regulators should have consortiums in the region. He explains: “If one country has adopted one particular policy, the others can follow suit. We are present across 9 countries. So, if you get an APA banking license in Bahrain, for example, the same can be passports for other countries. This will allow us to develop into other countries in the Middle East region. A single common platform across the countries may actually be the right way to going forward.”


IT security and compliances are 2 strong pillars. To balance the requirements of both the business and the compliances, Lulu Exchange has created a roadmap. One of the approaches is by internally building a startup within the company for regtech. The purpose is to bring the compliance team very close to IT, says Cleetus, adding that if a company wants to sustain for the next 20 years, it needs to invest heavily in compliance. Innovations have to be built according to the regulatory compliance parameters. The team at Lulu Exchange, he says, now understands it better than the earlier years. Drawing an example, he adds: “Like Rahul Dravid, defend and play is a motto we follow.”

Joseph Cleetus signed off, saying: “In whatever position one holds, understanding the root level of a business is very important. As a leader, one needs to build mechanisms to micro-monitor than micromanage.”


E-commerce had a slow growth in the Middle East in comparison to the rest of the countries. The main reason, it is believed, is that the UAE, especially Dubai, has beautiful shopping malls. Joseph Cleetus explains further: “Our weekends are our leisure time, which is spent in the shopping malls. Now, given a choice, I would say the essentials will still be ordered online, but people will go back and do their direct shop visits. In simple words, it would be a combination of both, or the hybrid model which is going to be feasible. This is the same in the case of financial institutions.”


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