By Anver Versi
This month I would like to dedicate my editorial to pay homage to a group of people whose contribution to Africa’s economic evolution has been tremendous but whose achievements have often gone under the radar.
This very wide and very diverse collection of people are all those who are involved in the continent’s banking and finance sector. It is also an apposite time to do so. Last month, our sister publication African Banker held its 13th annual African Banker Awards in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea as part of the African Development Bank’s AGM activities.
I have been privileged to be the founding editor of that publication – which made its first appearance in May 2007 – for most of its life. During this time I have met and interacted with a host of fascinating men and women whose stories have sometimes seemed stranger than fiction.
They have come from an astonishing variety of backgrounds but they have all been driven by their passion and love for the sector, to which they have dedicated their working lives.
Looking back to when we first decided to publish a dedicated banking and finance magazine – and even further back to my experiences travelling around the continent – I am astonished that so much has been achieved over such a short period.
Today, when I contemplate the winners of this year’s Banker Awards – all world-class individuals and institutions – I can’t help marvelling at the fact that only three decades or so ago, African banking, banks for Africans and run by Africans – hardly existed.
Yes, there were banks but almost all were subsidiaries of foreign banks servicing mainly foreign companies and expatriates. African companies and individuals were not particularly welcomed. Opening an account or attempting to open an account was a very big deal and you had to furnish a whole raft of references, including personal ‘good character’ endorsements just to get past the door.
African companies, even some fairly sizeable ones, dealt exclusively in cash. I recall a very interesting interlude during the 1980s when on my travels in Nigeria, I fell in with a businessman and his guard on his trips to buy and sell goods in the northern part of the country.
He was a jovial man, about five foot tall and with a respectable paunch; his constant escort was a Senegalese giant who was seven foot tall if he was an inch and as wide as a small car. He carried a long staff with a metal tip at the end and the scars on his face gave him a ferocious aspect – although once I got to know him, he was as docile as a lamb.
The Nigerian businessman told me that the briefcase which was handcuffed to his hand contained a lot of cash, making him a “sweet morsel” for sundry thieves and robbers. But the sight of the hulking guard seemed to have, at least thus far, dissuaded even the most daring of bandits.
When we took to the streets, he increased his security by linking his free hand with that of his guard with a length of strong leather. “If they try to snatch [kidnap] me,” he explained, “they have to snatch Sulaiman as well.” No one tried. They would have been very foolish to attempt to do so.
In fact, it was the lack of banking services for African business people that inspired the establishment of Ecobank in the first place. Today, of course, it is a world-class institution, constantly pushing back the boundaries of technology and, like so many other institutions, casting its net far and wide to be as inclusive as possible.
Like the Wild West
But where there is a need, someone will rush in to meet it. This led to a mushrooming of banks of all sorts and descriptions. It was like the Wild West. Anybody with a bit of capital or who could raise it, set themselves up as CEOs of banks. Banks rose and fell with alarming regularity. Most people still placed their trust in cash.
Regulators up and down the continent tore their hair out as they tried a variety of means to ‘consolidate and discipline’ the industry. Meanwhile, a different breed was learning the trade, often working in major international banks and coming up with their own solutions.
This was the red hot crucible in which the new age of African banking was being forged. It had an uncanny resemblance to the birth of the industry in mercantile Europe and the early US.
From that crucible emerged a procession of outstanding talents who were to establish the foundations of the banking industry as we know it today. It was a largely unsung revolution but it swept the continent. Today, we take banking services for granted. But what was achieved in Africa over two or three decades had taken centuries to develop in other parts of the world.
So today, when I go to withdraw my money from an ATM in Nairobi or Lagos, or cash a cheque in Accra, I offer up a silent salute to the often unacknowledged heroes and heroines who have made it all possible. NA