Who is Bank of Africa?

Bank of Africa started its operations in Uganda in January 1985 as small deposit-taking private company within a family conglomerate. In July 1991, it evolved into an investment bank. By November 1996, it was granted a commercial banking license as Sembule Commercial Bank. In October 1997, the shareholders of the Bank successfully secured co-investors in the form of Banque Belgolaise of Belgium (the part of Fortis Group), and the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO) who recapitalized the Bank and re-branded it Allied Bank International. It was run under this arrangement until December 2006 when Banque Belgolaise divested its ownership to Bank of Africa Group SA, an international banking consortium. The change in ownership was accompanied by a change in name to Bank of Africa – Uganda Ltd. With acquisition of a controlling stake in Bank of Africa Group SA by BMCE Bank in 2010, BMCE Bank of Africa became the ultimate holding company of the Bank.

BMCE Bank of Africa is present on four continents in 32 countries, 21 of which are in Africa, 8 in Europe, 1 in North America, and 2 in Asia. It operates with a total asset base of USD 30 billion and over 15,000 employees. In East Africa, the Group is present in Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, and DRC.  We also have a representative office in Ethiopia.

In Uganda, we operate 34 branches that are well spread across the country. Over the last 5 years, we have enjoyed a healthy growth – roughly a cumulative annual growth rate of about 17% in total assets, customer deposits, and credit.  

What in your view do you think differentiates BANK OF AFRICA from the rest?

First, our heritage allows us to have multi-cultural DNA which allows us to fuse local market knowhow with international best practice Group strengths as we deliver effective financial solutions to our clientele.

Arthur Isiko has been at the centre of driving the bank’s cumulative annual growth rate of about 17% over the last 5 years. This is more than three times the 5% per annum economic growth rate and above the 10% average banking industry annual growth rate.

Second, we have been successful in significantly contributing to Uganda’s economic development through major interventions especially in the education, construction and trade sectors. Today, BOA in Uganda finances roughly 10% of the total credit to the education, construction and trade sectors, which is above the equilibrium 4% market share in a 24 bank market.

We are the go to financial solutions provider of many of the largest and medium-sized construction companies in Uganda and we are helping them grow and be able to finance many of the large contracts that you see in Uganda.

We are extremely passionate about the education sector in Uganda. Financing quality hard and soft infrastructure in the education sector and supporting the players in the sector to run their institutions more efficiently and profitably, to us, is much more than just business, it is about contributing to the growth of our economy. Quality education raises our young population’s productivity, improves innovation and creativity and boosts entrepreneurship, all of which are key drivers of economic growth and eventually development. 

What would you say are some of the bank’s biggest milestones in the last 5 years?

Being able to transform ourselves from a bank that was struggling with profitability to a highly profitable bank, with a cumulative annual growth rate of about 17% over the last 5 years is probably our biggest achievement. This is especially important in light of the growth rate of the Ugandan economy that has averaged 5% per annum and the average banking industry annual growth rate of 10% in the same period. Tripling the average economic growth rate and almost doubling banking industry growth is a significant achievement for us.

Secondly, we were the first bank to introduce the Mobile Wallet into this market. Obviously, mobile banking has now been adopted by many other financial institutions but I am proud to say that we were the first movers in that channel and our mobile banking solution today still provides a very significant competitive advantage in the market. When you compare what our wallet offers versus what other wallets offer, we still have a compelling solution.

PERFORMANCE WITH A PURPOSE: Isiko says that BOA has successfully and significantly contributed to Uganda’s economic development through major interventions especially in the education, construction and trade sectors. Today, BOA in Uganda finances roughly 10% of the total credit to the education, construction and trade sectors, which is above the equilibrium 4% market share in a 24 bank market.

Thirdly, we have grown our footprint. 15 years ago we only had 3 branches while today we have 34 branches and a growing number of agent locations across the country. Though we have expanded our brick and mortar channels we have also introduced a considerable number of alternative channels, thus providing improved access and flexibility to banking service.

You mentioned that BOA is passionate about the growth of the Ugandan economy. SMEs are a critical building block of this economy and yet are starved of credit. What solutions does BOA have for SMEs?

SMEs are an integral part of our business strategy. I did mention earlier that as a business, we are passionate about construction, education and trade sectors and many players in these sectors are SMEs. Today we have over 70,000 SMEs that we bank and SMEs contribute roughly 20% to our assets, liabilities and revenue. In fact, for the next 3 years, our primary focus will be to further increase our intervention in this segment. We anticipate that the SME contribution to our business will exceed 30% in two years.  

Our SME strategy lies in understanding the challenges that they face and customising solutions for the sector while eventually ushering them into the formal sector. For example many SMEs face challenges with being able to put up sufficient collateral. But today BOA has products and services that do not necessarily require collateral. 

It is also true that many SMEs do not keep formal or audited financial records, but we have evolved solutions that allow us to work with the SMEs to understand their cash flows, so we can be able to support their needs while providing affordable financing and operational solutions necessary for their growth. 

Are you looking at the budding oil and gas sector as well?

The oil and gas sector is going to be a very significant sector in Uganda over the next many decades, so we cannot avoid it. But again much of our contribution is going to be around supporting SMEs that are already involved in or want to be involved in the sector.

Digital banking is upon us, how prepared is BANK OF AFRICA? 

The future of banking is in mobility. Consumer preferences and industry innovations are all increasingly moving towards bank-as-you-go or 24/7 banking. Customers are increasingly opting for financial service availability whenever and wherever they want.

As a bank, it is critical and it is part of our focus and vision to anticipate these needs and be the bank that responds to them. We started the bank-led Mobile Wallet proposition in Uganda and today the industry has wallets, agent banking, and internet banking all channels aimed at driving convenience for the customer. There will be multiple options, for the public out there and obviously with those options comes the flexibility that the client is looking for.

PASSIONATE ABOUT SMES: Isiko says that SMEs are an integral part of BOA’ business strategy. The bank, currently banks over 70,000 SMEs which form about 20% of the bank’s business portfolio. His desire is to accelerate this to over 30% over the next 2-3 years. He says that the bank’s SME strategy, lies in understanding the challenges that they face and customising solutions for the sector with a view to eventually transform them into the formal sector.   

That said, brick and mortar banking is not entirely going away, but rather its use will change. In the future, as the premium on mobility increases, we hope to see a transformation in the use of banking halls from simply transactional locations to service centres, where customers come to obtain financial advice and discuss growth prospects of their businesses and plans, rather than undertake basic transactions.

Can you tell me roughly how cheaper an agent is compared to a brick & mortar branch?

Over the last five years the cost of operation in the banking sector has averaged anywhere between 7% to 9% per annum of bank total assets. Half of that cost is apportioned to payroll related costs. As more and more basic transactions go to the agent network and electronic channels, eventually these payroll costs will significantly reduce. If you consider other brick and mortar related costs such as branch rent and utilities, the cost savings arising from alternate channels such as agent banking becomes quite significant. These savings are expected to be passed on to the customer.

So can we say that as agent banking and other forms of digital banking take root, we should warm up to affordable lending?

I think yes.

We need to understand why lending rates are as high as they are and I can offer two basic reasons; the first is the expected return from those investing in offering financial services and the other is the cost of providing the service.

Starting with the expectations of those investing in financial services, today an investor in financial services has two options to generate returns, lend to the private sector and get a return at a certain risk or lend to government the biggest borrower in our markets today through participation in government paper auctions.

THE KINGFISHER OIL & DEVELOPMENT PROJECT IN THE ALBERTINE GRABEN: Isiko says that much as the oil and gas sector is going to be a very significant sector in Uganda over the next many decades- much of BOA’s sector interventions will be focused on supporting that are already involved in or want to be involved in the sector.  

In fact if you closely examine private sector financing many African countries, private sector credit comprises just about 20% of GDP, compared to developed countries such as the US where it is 180% of GDP or UK and China where it is 140%.  There is just a handful of African countries where private sector credit is above 50% of GDP such as Morocco (80%) and South Africa (about 65%).

So for example today in Uganda, the interest rate on a three to five year bond averages at about 14%. An offshore investor would consider such pricing and account for potential foreign currency fluctuations, typically, a potential Shilling annual devaluation of 5% based on long term Shilling past behaviour. Logically therefore, such an investor should expect a typical Ugandan investment return of 19%.   Consequently, it would be illogical for such an investor to consider lending to the private sector at less than 19%. 

On the operating cost argument, as I have mentioned to you, the average cost of operation in any financial institution ranges roughly between 7% to 9% of a bank’s total assets. So if a cost of operation of 9% is taken together with an average cost of funds in the market of between 3% to 5% and another 2% to 3% as cost of risk, even before accounting for investment profit margins, you have a minimum funding cost of 17%. So hoping for average lending rates below this is a stretch, unless something is done about the cost of operation.

DIGITAL BANKING & BIG DATA, THE NEXT BIG THING IN BANKING: Isiko believes that with consumer preferences and industry innovations, all increasingly moving towards bank-as-you-go or 24/7 banking, the future of banking is in mobility. He adds that the premium on mobility is going to continue defining almost everything that financial institutions do and deliver. He also says that the increasing shift to digital banking, presents countless opportunities for leveraging big data to segment, target and position solutions to address the needs of potential and existing customers and that BOA’s focus and vision was being invested in anticipating these customer needs and being the bank that responds to them.   

That is why as a banking industry, one of the approaches we have considered is to take a look at the biggest cost centre which is the cost of operation and introduce mechanisms to reduce this cost such as agent banking. If we can bring down the cost to about 4-5%, we will immediately see that translate into a similar reduction in the cost of borrowing. 

The Ugandan banking industry is top heavy; 5 out of 24 banks control 61% of bank assets and 74% of profitability. Don’t you think Uganda is overbanked? Do you believe there is a case for fewer banks that will benefit from economies of scale, lower their costs and pass on these benefits to customers in form of lower interest rates?

I do not think so.

Today, if I take our 24 banks which are now going to become 26 with the two new entrants, compared to our population, which is about 40 million people that would compute to roughly 1.4 million people per bank.

If I just take that as a statistic and compare with other countries, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and the UK are at about 1.6 million people per bank. So from that simple statistic, numerically we are not necessarily overbanked.

So the problem then is different, the problem is infrastructural and access to the under banked or unbanked. It is still difficult for financial service providers to deliver service to the informal sector in a cost-meaningful way. That is why you have a scenario where in a population of 40 million people, out of which 14 million is the labour force, there are only 9 million bank accounts but 22 million mobile money wallet subscribers.

That tells you that there is an under-banked population that still requires formal financial services.

Over the last 10 years, we have seen several Ugandan executives rise up to become CEOs of multinationals in various sectors including banks. In your assessment, do you feel we have arrived or are we still lacking in some areas?

Over the last couple of years, we have actually increased the executive expertise that we have as Ugandans. Our educational levels are higher and international industry exposure and experience for many of the executives in this market has also grown. So yes, the crop of people who are available to run institutions and entities in the country has increased, but that is not to say that we are at optimal capacity.

Arthur Isiko (centre) speaks at the April 2018 launch of the Shared Agent Baking System by Uganda Bankers Association (UBA). According to Isiko, the countrywide inter-operable agent network and agent banking platform that connects all Uganda Bankers Association member banks across the country is the industry real attempt at reducing the cost of operation, which will in due course translate into reduced cost of lending. He says if by reducing the overheads associated with brick and mortar banking the costs of operation can be brought down to about 4-5%, the market will immediately see that translate into a similar reduction in the cost of borrowing. 

It also does not in its entirety necessarily explain why there is an increase in local executives. There is another factor that is completely ultra vires of what is happening in Uganda and that is the growth of companies and the middle class in Asia. The explosion of the middle class and successful companies in China, India and in most of the Asian tigers is quite significant that the expatriate requirements there have actually increased and as such, a transfer of executive expatriate service to Asia has gradually resulted into reductions in supply in Africa.   

Furthermore, while there has been an exponential increase in the quality of talent, multinationals also realise that there are cultural issues that expatriate staff need to deal with coupled with the high costs related to managing expatriate staff. Typically if you do a comparison of local versus expatriate recruitment, typically a local resource would be 2 to 3 times cheaper than an expatriate resource. So that has been significant motivation for the multinationals to consider local talent.

When you look ahead in the next 5-10 years, what would you say are the major trends that are going to shape the financial services industry and how are you positioning BOA to exploit or be at the forefront of those trends?

As I mentioned earlier, the premium on mobility is going to continue defining what many financial institutions do. And it is not just what we are doing today but in almost everything that we deliver. It is going to be a requirement to deliver service in a way that is providing a lot of flexibility to the customer.

Today, financial institutions are blessed with big data. If there is any sector in Uganda that has opportunity to use big data, it is the financial services industry. I believe this data will shape how we segment, target and position solutions to address the needs of our potential and existing customer base.

Another trend is the growth of social media which has brought a serious public attention deficit. I will not call it a disorder yet but it is a serious attention problem. To get attention from the public, today is extremely hard, far much harder than it was 10 years ago, as focus tends towards what is more exciting and attention grabbing.

Knowledge sharing to create the kind of information symmetry that is required for financial services to be effective is going to require extremely directed communication that relies on big data and therefore financial institutions that are extremely savvy with the way they handle big data are going to really succeed.

Muhereza Kyamutetera is the Executive Editor of CEO East Africa Magazine; strategic communications consultant, social-economic analyst and travel enthusiast based in Kampala.

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