The Renaissance of African banking
In May, African Banker magazine will once again celebrate the achievements of African financial institutions and the men and women who go beyond the call of duty to accomplish the extraordinary. Our annual awards, established 16 years ago, have now become the most prestigious and sought-after prizes in the African financial world.
One winner at last year’s ceremony in Accra, fondly clutching her trophy, perhaps best summed up the reaction of most winners and nominees when she said: “An African Banker Award is the ultimate stamp of approval on your career in finance. It makes all the hard graft, the pain and sacrifice needed to succeed in this industry seem worthwhile. Your efforts have been noticed and publicly rewarded.”
Such sentiments as well as the smiles, the backslapping, the congratulatory handshakes, the commiserations for those who got so near but failed to make the final cut, and the excited chatter that fills the venue at each event naturally make our hearts swell with pride.
This May will also be an anniversary of a similar but different kind. It was in May 2007 that we launched African Banker magazine itself.
I was then editor of African Business magazine and while our coverage of the African business environment had expanded vastly in scope and depth, I can recall that the financial sector was the Cinderella story, sparkling with more promise than the rest.
Much of the news worth printing about this sector was, unfortunately, negative. Local banks were failing. Some CEOs and managing directors of banks were being hauled off to court to face embezzlement or fraud charges.
The traditional wisdom then was that the safe banks were the international foreign banks. A few locally-owned institutions like Ecobank, FirstBank and later, Kenya’s Equity Bank stood out like isolated rocks on a rolling meadow.
The international banks, with their headquarters in Europe or the US – or even India (Bank of Baroda) or Pakistan (Habib Bank) – rested on their processes and systems that had been calibrated, streamlined, grooved and refined, sometimes over centuries, to maintain a well-nigh impossible-to-emulate benchmark. They were solid and sound. They were never likely to fail or have even a whiff of scandal attached to them.
But they were too selective about who their customers were and what services they were prepared to provide. The majority of the population still had no chance of opening accounts with them.
Explosion of entrepreneurial energy
The post-independence era saw an explosion of entrepreneurial energy criss-crossing the continent. Trading was voluminous and brisk – and it was virtually all conducted in cash. Even foreign trade was transacted using dollars or sterling through an underground system called Hawala – which is still live-and-kicking, especially in Somalia and other Horn of Africa countries.
But as small businesses grew into medium ones and medium-sized businesses became large organisations, the need for a banking system that understood the African business culture and local requirements became urgent.
During the 1990s and well into the 2000s, a crop of young bankers who had cut their teeth within the standards and scope of international banks realised that a massive market lay at their door, but was being ignored. If they could marry the discipline and probity of international banking to the flair and flexibility of African business culture, they realised they could revolutionise African banking.
But they needed a rallying point, a publication dedicated to African banking and finance where they could observe, study, contemplate and follow the industry and their contemporaries. They wanted a platform where they could express themselves and explore and exchange ideas. They needed an African Banker magazine.
By good fortune – and not a little canny vision on the part of the publisher, Afif Ben Yedder – as well as encouragement from the likes of Nigeria’s then Central Bank Governor Charles Saludo and our friend Christian Udechukwu, who organised conferences and events and knew everything and everybody in Nigerian business circles, we took the plunge. Omar Ben Yedder, fresh from his own stints in the London corporate world, took the publication – and later, the Awards – under his wing.
I was privileged to become the Editor of this new addition to the pan-African stables and have loved every minute of it so far.
Today, when I look through the list of nominees and ponder on the size of the ‘big ticket’ deals (once the province only of foreign entities), the number of women who have risen through the ranks to head huge corporations and the expansion and sophistication of the industry – all accomplished within less than two decades – I can only feel a sense of great pride and achievement that we too have played our part in the Renaissance of African Banking. Long may it continue to prosper.