Two years since launching in Uganda, United Bank for Africa –Uganda, has twisted itself out of the initial bumpy road of a starter business. CEO Margaret Mwanakatwe tells Business Power about the bank’s growing confidence:
United Bank for Africa will this February mark two years since you set up shop in Uganda. What is your assessment of today in terms of the expectations you had of the Ugandan market?
Actually it is now 18 months since we opened our doors to the public. It has been 18 months of steep learning, adjusting, and understanding of our customer needs. I may say the last 18 years have been our first phase of setting up the necessary infrastructure and the right human talent to run that infrastructure to take UBA to the next level. Thanks to this combination we have been able to meet almost all our targets especially on the customer base end we have witnessed tremendous growth.
When UBA opened shop, there was a big promise to revolutionalise the banking industry. Is this a dream you have achieved?
The dream is in the process of being achieved with more dreams coming on stream as others are being actualised. Customers have for a long time been looking for solutions that will ease their banking. UBA Uganda prides herself as a bank that offers a electronic platform which our all customers can enjoy. UBA remains the only bank that offers Short Messages Systems and email alerts to its customers, a feature that alerts you to any transaction on your account be it a debit or a credit. This gives our customers more control of their money. Our Bank Collect platform answers many of the collection and reconciliation challenges that corporate customers face. UBA has good E-Banking capability. As such we have invested and will continue to invest heavily to ensure that we can offer our customers increasingly easier banking. But I should add that in today’s changing world, the fulfilment of one dream leads to another dream and it’s this cyclical relationship that breeds innovation. We shall continue to evaluate our ambitions vis-a-vis the desires of this market. This is the only way we can remain relevant to this market.
What would you say have been your biggest challenges so far?
The banking sector in Uganda is highly competitive. The challenge and the lesson learnt from my perspective is that one needs to continuously self evaluate and reinvent oneself in order to withstand the competition and be responsive to customer needs and environmental changes. We are no longer a start up so we need to have the right skills within the bank to take it to the next level. Some skills are no longer relevant, new and more relevant skills have and will come up, which will require us to hire. We at UBA will rationalise accordingly to prepare ourselves for such transitions. This is why I called it a continuous self assessment and reinvention. The other challenge has been in trying to convince the big numbers of Ugandans, who still do not find a reason to keep their money in the bank. But as an industry, the onus is on us to give these people a good reason to bank their money. As UBA we continue to tackle this by way of creating reasonable products that can help these people enjoy our services at very minimal or sometimes no costs at all. But this is an uphill task that we need to take on as an industry.
Where do you see yourselves in five years?
UBA has a strategy with very clear plans for growth. In the past year, our deposit base has doubled from the end of 2008. Our customer base has grown three fold and risk assets, though low, have also grown by more than 100% with a lot of upside potential. We have had a good performance in our start up year but there is room for improvement. The Group has invested an additional $4 million (Shs7.8 billion). This will enable us grow our balance sheet and continue to become an increasingly efficient organisation through improved technology. This is the level of confidence the Group has in UBA Uganda and its potential. I also see us becoming increasingly more networked with our sister countries in the East African region and on the continent at large. UBA is now operational in 15 countries in Africa having opened in Kenya and Tanzania and recently Zambia. We want to see our customers benefit from these presences and be able to conduct business seamlessly.
The global credit crisis, much as it did not hit Africa severely has been deemed as a great lesson for many a leader, especially in the financial services industry world. As an institution how have you adopted to the changing environment, to ready yourselves for the challenges as well as opportunities ahead?
The biggest lesson for UBA and indeed for other African business leaders is that as a continent, our future belongs here in Africa. For example, when you look at Uganda, significant revenue was made from exporting to the Comesa market. While the European and American markets were crumbling, our regional markets provided a key lifeline for our exports.
The story has been the same in other African countries where cross-border trade plays a big role.
To us as UBA, this has been a great lesson; a lesson that has greatly informed our expansion in Africa. Africa has potential and it is upon us business leaders, to further harness this potential to make it more sustainable. We believe that with a diversified portfolio of assets across Africa we can cushion shocks in one country with an opportunity in another. Hence the reason for continuously re-evaluating our risk profile, our control framework to ensure it is robust, recruiting the right people and seizing opportunities where we see them.
The Nigerian banking industry recently came under a shake-up that saw a number of CEOs get shaken down. What are some of the key tenets learnt from the recent shak-eup in the Nigerian industry that can be shared with our local banking industry leaders?
For me it boils down to three things. First of all, you should always get the basics right whether it is in the way you advance credit or customer service, back office, everywhere in the bank. Secondly do not compromise on Corporate Governance, because if you do, the impact will be huge. Thirdly, integrity is not negotiable. These are applicable to any business be anywhere in the world whether in Nigeria or Uganda.