Lambert Mbom

In the general class of banking, connoisseurs will attest to the fact that the Standard Chartered Bank belongs to the top-notch eschelon. Often its employees come from la crème de la crème. The question then becomes what is unique about the Standard Bank of South Africa?

My fascination with the Standard bank of South Africa stems from the fact that it is of African parentage. This is a very big deal. It sure is an overstatement to opine that financial institutions of African roots have an abbreviated lifespan. This is borne out by the many tales people recount of how they have lost money in different schemes that are excellent on paper and never as much as took off even though designed by the best brains with record level experience and outstanding expertise. In addition, these stories are many. Any financial institution then that has survived the momentous challenges so pervasive in the culture deserves a “red-feather”.

Three things the Standard bank of South Africa is proud of and gladly trumpets are its South African roots, its global reach and its age 148 years. These neatly sum up the bank’s “palmares”.  For many of us from Africa not exposed to the riches of our motherland aside from occasional ejaculations of success stories, such records make us proud. This bank born on African soil with a centenarian experience having patiently borne with equanimity the vicissitudes characteristic of such an enterprise – an unfortunate curse of the continent – is a force to reckon with. There is no denying it that many such institutions hardly survive for long. We must doff our hats to Standard Bank of South Africa for rising to the occasion and making its name in a trade that seemingly is the exclusive preserve of the West divinely willed to it.

The wisdom of old age is one that as Africans we prize very highly; hence if the Standard bank of South Africa has succeeded for all these years, it sure will continue to leave its mark.

Of equal weight and importance is also the blessing that this bank has British roots. There is no denying it that while it remains a moot point, the Anglo-Saxon culture bags a summa cum laude grade in accountability and transparency. Did I read somewhere that countries colonized by Her Majesty have fared pretty well than those of their French counterparts? Let us remember too that the US, the world’s premier super power has British or if you prefer English ancestry. Not that I have anything particular against the French and their francophone offspring even though given their malfeasance record in Africa and in Cameroon, such an aversion would just be in order. I am no Francophobe of any sort but it is not by sheer accident that in Cameroon for example more than 3/4s of those arrested and charged for fraud, corruption and mismanagement are francophones. One could make the case that if Anglophones had the same exposition to the power of the key and the purse under the same conditions, they would not have done any better. Yet this remains a mere hypothesis. One may need to question whether the problem is with the system or with the people or both. There is no gainsaying it that the success story of the Standard Bank of South Africa is inextricably bound up with the English culture that undergirds it.

What is more, The Standard Bank of South Africa has an impressive array of international connections. One reason why many people in the US will want to bank with Bank of America for example is undoubtedly its nationwide availability. In crisscrossing this country, Bank of America customers need not worry for they are sure to comfortably carry out transactions without fear of extra fees. Of its many strengths, one that stands out clearly is the Standard Bank of South Africa’s presence on four continents and 33 countries, 16 of which are in Africa. To have been able to survive in 16 African countries is undoubtedly a great feat within the characteristic ambient of the choking high-handed bureaucracy and disenabling banking culture. In this age of networking and globalization, such opportunities are golden.

In seeking to discover the secret to the success story of this financial juggernaut, I found the answer in its sustainable development program. First in its fourfold customer education initiative encompassing the following:

–         Winning Teams program – a school-based program that integrates practical banking formation into the school’s formal curriculum geared at empowering students with life skills in money management, banking, entrepreneurship and the economy.

–         Financial literacy campaign for high schoolers which equips young people with knowledge and skills to manage their personal finances

–         Teach a child to save which focuses on children in Grades 4 – 7 schooling them in the ABCs and importance of saving

–         Financial literacy Outreach that targets the wider community and is doubly pronged with one arm focusing on personal banking whereby people receive training in the rudiments of banking and saving and then the business scheme which targets businessmen training them in business management and even has an investment portfolio that provides loans to these trainees.

Any institution that invests in people especially young people is pitching its tent on solid foundation. This is always a win-win situation. I imagined what the multiplier effect would have been like, if a bank like Amity bank had invested in consumer education especially among the budding and burgeoning youth. I do not want to pretend that some of us are such a financial disaster because we did not benefit from such training. Yet it will also be highly disingenuous to discount the ripple effect such an education brings to the society. Engaging young people into such training is an investment yielding enormous dividends.

As kids in primary school, we learnt to keep small wooden boxes or tins where we saved our coins in preparation for 11 February and 20 May celebrations when we could buy some delicacies such as bread and sardine, with some long sugarcane and feed on the pepperish-skinned beef popularly known as kanda. During the long holidays, streets in Cameroon boom with holidaymakers all struggling to eke a living. If one of those banks could tap into these skills and build a banking culture into these at such tender ages, fiscal responsibility would become a stronger asset of the community.

In most boarding schools, parents leave their children with pocket-money. My parents often left me for example with 25.000fcfa every term while I was in Sacred heart College but paradoxically even before the term went halfway, I was already indebted to a number of other students. With hindsight now, I imagine that if a bank had put a savings’ scheme for students like us and drilled us in the importance of savings, we would have benefitted a great deal not just in terms of the accrual but more in terms of the habit for as they say old habits die hard. If only banks could launch such a customer education program from primary school to university level, there would be a better banking culture which will invariably spur development.

One may argue that people do not fail to bank because they do not want to but rather because they lack the financial liquidity. Hence it is akin to putting the cart before the horse. I agree but I think the greater point is that if one cannot be faithful in little things, it will be hard to become adroit overnight with managing greater things.

Two other areas where the Standard Bank of South Africa has left its imprint are with housing and agriculture two of man’s basic needs –shelter and food.

In its housing scheme for example, the bank provides not only finances but also expertise for decent and environmentally friendly homes. The bank has collaborated with different city administrations to provide affordable housing. The city provides the land needed for affordable housing while the bank provides the financing and the expertise.

For those in the Diaspora this is surely a solution to the nightmare of trying to build a home while out of the country. A friend of mine recounted to me how he spent over $30.000 to construct a home. His cousin was project director and was on an agreed salary just to “insure” a plain execution of the project. When he went home one year after engaging the project, he almost collapsed when he saw what $30.000 had succeeded to put up. It would need another similar amount to complete it. I imagine that if he had taken out a loan for example with the bank and then left the project to come to life through the bank he sure would have had a run for his money. The Standard Bank of South Africa provides such an opportunity.

The Standard bank of South Africa also has a housing loan scheme with credit facilities that cut across the economic strata. Low-income earners have the opportunity to “access finance to buy, build or renovate a home”

Agriculture is the mainstay of most African economies. Food shortages in 2008 ignited one of the worst demonstrations in modern history. The Standard bank of South Africa has understood clearly that global food security is a top priority in development and Africa can and in fact, should play a central role in guaranteeing this. Aside from providing funding solutions to small-scale farmers making “finance and direct inputs such as seeds and fertilizers more accessible”, one cannot fail to mention the bank’s engagement with the Alliance for a green revolution in Africa (AGRA) founded in 2006 with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as Board Chairman. Through this initiative and the Bank’s expansive network, new agricultural markets unquestionably emerge.

The overarching conclusion one comes to then is that the Standard bank of South Africa is a great force in sustainable development. How has the Union bank in Bamenda for example helped in the sustainable development of its locus operandi? Can the inhabitants of this locus claim a change in their modus vivendi because of the modus operandi of this financial institution? It is in this almost insignificant appendix to the work and mission of the Standard Bank of South Africa that I believe it deserves our accolades and we highly recommend it for a much more robust presence on the continent.