The move is something of a departure for Ekpe. While he has served as the CEO of two full-service pan-African banks – Ecobank and United Bank for Africa – and most recently proved instrumental to the inception of a third, Atlas Mara, Ekpe had never previously worked in microfinance.
In his first interview since the appointment was publicized, Ekpe tells Euromoney that he was eager to enter microfinance. He had been contemplating ways of moving into that area of finance for several years, and eventually set his sights on Microcred, a firm he says he first became aware of during his time at Ecobank, which he headed from 1996 to 2001 and again from 2005 to 2012.
Microcred – founded in 2005 by French entrepreneur Arnaud Ventura, with funding from microfinance backer Positive Planet and other institutional investors – is now active in nine African countries, including Nigeria and Senegal, as well as in China.
It offers financial services to the unbanked and underbanked, focusing primarily on micro, small and medium-sized firms.
Microcred has a little over 3,500 employees. It serves more than 600,000 clients through about 1,000 branches and correspondent banks. In its last published annual report, for the year 2015, Microcred said it had an outstanding loan portfolio of €312 million and a savings portfolio of €108 million.
Ekpe was attracted to Microcred because of its pan-African ambitions, which he says sets it apart from many of its rivals, which are more local.
“I’ve looked at quite a few microfinance institutions, but [Microcred] represented for me the most interesting of the pack,” he says.
Microcred’s primary interest in budding companies also appealed to Ekpe.
“The one sector in the financial services space in Africa that’s not been adequately addressed is the consumer and SME space, and that’s a space that Microcred was very keen on breaking into,” he says.
I’ve made enough mistakes in Africa to also help them to avoid those mistakes and hopefully do things a lot better and a lot faster, and a lot more profitable- Arnold Ekpe, Micrcred
Improved mobile penetration in Africa makes it easier than ever to address that space.
“The advent of mobile telephony in particular has made it a lot easier now than perhaps a decade ago to bring financial services to this much neglected sector,” Ekpe says.
The role of the supervisory board is to oversee the activities of Microcred. Ekpe says his experience of working in Africa – including of getting things wrong – makes him well suited to the task.
“I’ve made enough mistakes in Africa to also help them to avoid those mistakes and hopefully do things a lot better and a lot faster, and a lot more profitable,” he says.
“I’ve been to 50 African countries, I’ve done business in many of them. I do have a knowledge of Africa that I hope can contribute to the development of the group.”
Ekpe replaces Jacques Attali, a prolific author, the president of Positive Planet and a former adviser to French president François Mitterrand.
Of his predecessor, Ekpe says: “Jacques is a Renaissance man, I’m less so. I’m really more someone who’s trying to make a difference in areas where I think we can make a difference relative to Africa.”
At the same time as it announced the appointment of Ekpe, Microcred also announced the formation of an advisory board, led by Lionel Zinsou, the former prime minister of Benin and former chair of European private equity firm PAI Partners.
Of Zinsou’s arrival, Ekpe says: “He is an incredible chap, and he’s got both private sector and public sector experience.”
Asked about his tardy realization of the importance of funding small enterprises, and whether he regrets not focusing more on that portion of African business while heading some of the continent’s largest banks, Ekpe says: “I wish I’d spent more time [on backing SMEs], but it’s not a regret.
“When you’re running a group, you run it based on logic and based on strategy, and there was a lot of money to be made from non-microfinance type transactions. Logically we had to do what made sense for our shareholders and our stakeholders.”
Still, he is excited about the potential for microfinance, and especially for Microcred, to shake things up.
“Banking is becoming a little bit boring, in Africa at least,” he says. “Nothing very exciting is happening. The last exciting thing that happened was Atlas Mara. I think it’s about time that something exciting happened in banking and I’m hoping we’re part of that excitement.”
Of microfinance, he concludes: “That’s the future.”