50 shades of a bank

I grew up loathing banking and its bankers. My father had no kind words for banks. Greedy and mean, was the lexicon he regularly deployed to describe the smart men and women who worked for banks. “Show me a man who keeps everything, including the money to himself. That’s a banker. Very mean, and unforgiving,” he would say, as if disparaging about his own net worth at the end of every month when it looked certain that he had visited the bank to cash out his wherewithal.

During college years in Lusaka, I had no choice but begrudgingly open my own bank account. It confirmed my own fears as well as vindicate my dad. I soon found out that for every pen the bank offered, a thin but very tight string was tied to it and the wall. It made me bitter to realise that my own boyhood ingenuity with picking small things to keep for myself and earn bragging rights amongst peers, had met its match. Tying pens to the wall is a long enduring tradition of the banks. Show me one that does not tie its pens and papers to strings, and I will bet you on my hard-earned cash. In a nutshell, my own experience solidified my father’s judgement of banks as mean, greedy and unforgiving.

This week, Standard Bank marks its 50th anniversary of founding in Malawi. I received news of their birthday celebrations with mixed feelings. The occasion calls for popping some Champaigne and Glenfiddich whiskey, as well as sobering scrutiny in equal measure. I paused a little to think about the 50 years of the opportunities that have been missed with Standard Bank, and at the same time the 50 years of the progress with the bank.

In 50 years, Standard Bank should be given credit for playing a part in lubricating the country’s financial wheels. Back in 1969, and just about 100 months after Malawi gained self-rule from Britain, we were a rudimentary economy that celebrated and cried Eureka for discovering hoe-aided agriculture while our neighbors were chancing on the real thing; gold, diamonds and platinum that continue to fetch more than our “green gold” and maize can fetch put together. Standard Bank as Malawi’s first bank had faith in an invariably agriculturally oriented customer base. Their first branch in Limbe was surrounded by tea, coffee and tobacco estates. Little else was happening around Malawi.

Fast-forward to five decades later. Malawi’s agriculture is almost moribund and crying out for fresh air. At the first glance, the reasons for agriculture’s downfall may seem detached from the ivory towers of banks like Standard. But on second thought, banks are a major accomplice in the vice. Instead of investing in agriculture mechanisation and high-tech, irrigation, solar and other forms of ecologically-friendly farming, banks like Standard have abandoned their moral obligation in the communities they are domiciled to serve. Instead they have opted to join the gravy train by backing the bubble that hard cash from government securities has to offer. Banks prefer to invest most of their customers’ assets in treasury bills, which in a way promotes the government’s extravagance, at the expense of private growth and the real sector. If Capital Hill should be held to account for its extravagance, I dare say banks like Standard share in the ignominy for their greed and dash for the hard, cold cash. If agriculture should be the country’s downfall, then the irony of the adage that “we live together and die together” should stare banks in the face.

On abandoning its role, Standard Bank can also not be spared for glossing over pertinent needs of the small man selling zibwente and Chinese wares and accessories on the streets of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu. Undoubtedly, the SME sector is Africa’s largest employer due to the continent’s lack of industrial sophistication. Yet, at one point or another, the bank has been seen shrieking on its responsibility. Here is the bank that closed its branch at Lunzu Trading Centre in Blantyre, where immediately, Malawi Savings Bank now FDH Bank came to fill the void. Standard Bank also tends to shun many rural and semi-urban areas where the SMEs are robust and could strive together with it as a lender. The bank’s philosophy to run only profitable ventures may not auger well in a setting like Malawi, where people grow their fortunes largely organically. There should be other more creative and legitimate means of making a buck, for the bank.

Banking has now gone digital worldwide and Malawi is slowly catching up on the fad. However, Standard Bank seems too rigid to automate herself, and is a very slow mover in the race. Try as it is to go “viral” or digital as it were, the bank’s own 247 platform needs more plumbing. The hefty fees charged for cash transfers on my phone leave a lot to be desired when I think about the actual experience with the service, which is mostly jumpy.  Therein lie some of the lost opportunities for the bank in its first 50 years.

But not all has been bad about Standard Bank in its 50 years. Granted, and when all is taken into account, they are in their own right the magnus of banking in Africa. Being a subsidiary of Africa’s largest bank by assets-Standard Bank Group-part owned by one of the world’s largest banking corporations, China’s ICBC, gives any partner of the bank great leverage and access to the global markets. In Malawi, the bank has been an incubator of some of the best minds in banking ever. We are proud of Dr Margaret Chaika, the young, pretty dashing face of the bank back in my early days as a cocky business reporter, and now a big shot in the industry in Africa. We are proud of Kondwani Mlilima, the economist whose collaborations with Group Head Goollam Balim help us generate big headlines. There is also Frank Chantaya, the consummate treasury man and dealer, who now heads the bank’s most profitable business segment, CIB.

We salute you for your 50 years, but think about these things too and let’s move forward together.

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