Banking at the frontier – tales from Africa
As Africa becomes embedded in the global financial and banking system, our journalists have travelled to some of the most challenging local markets to highlight opportunities – but sometimes trips don’t go to plan.
South Sudan: Kanika Saigal
Juba, in South Sudan, doesn’t shout international financial hub, but when the opportunity came to travel to the capital of the newest country in the world, I grabbed the chance.
Setting up interviews was difficult, to say the least. Contacting anyone in advance was a particular challenge in a place where phone lines and internet connections were often down. Instead, I took a more cavalier approach: going from bank to bank on a motorcycle taxi and asking if I could speak with their chief executives.
On a visit to the Mountain Trade and Development Bank, one official took one look at my Euromoney business card, silenced the entire room and stared me dead in the eye. But instead of throwing me out of the institution – as I feared he might – he asked the audience to welcome me to South Sudan. He believed the purpose of my visit was to introduce the euro to the country.
This came as quite a shock, given that South Sudan is yet to establish a fully convertible currency, but I went along with the ruse so as not to upset the heavily armed guards at the entrance.
Libya: Chris Wright
I was in Tripoli writing about the Libyan Investment Authority and the role of Goldman Sachs and Société Générale in its problems. Early one morning as I tried to go back to the airport, I found all the taxis were inexplicably cancelled. Eventually a member of hotel staff took pity and drove me in a winded Volkswagen Polo.
On the way, the streets were strewn with bricks and oil drums bedecked in pro-Gaddafi banners. The driver went up on pavements to avoid them, but when we reached the airport road it was blocked by a huge earth barricade that had been built overnight, manned by men with guns.
The driver told me to get down and disappeared into side roads and eventually the desert in order to get me away from trouble and, ultimately, to the airport. It was a very empty flight.
When I landed at my destination I learned there had been a coup.
Zimbabwe: Eric Ellis
I was a hungry visiting correspondent on his last day in Harare at a burger bar. But common to many eateries in Zimbabwe’s capital, the bar’s credit card machine wasn’t working and I was out of cash.
I spied a Standard Chartered ATM across the street, watched over by a burly armed guard. But on my arrival the apparently functioning ATM was under lock and key. The guard solemnly shook his head and, waving his weapon, moved me on.
Necessity being the mother of invention, I dashed back to my hotel to desperately dig out any random notes leftover from previous assignments. My phone’s currency conversion app calculated that motley gathering to be around $50 equivalent – surely enough for a beer and the cab fare.
My patient cabbie, Prosper, drove me to Road Port, Harare’s international bus station where armies of women wielding wads of notes sense a kill. He emerged from the scrum with $25, claiming that was the best he could do with the little I had given him to work with.
Two hours later I was back at the burger bar. Prosper’s initial $5 cab fare is now $20 and so the burger and beer package I had fancied two hours earlier was out of reach. I settled for the chips.
Tanzania: Olivier Holmey
Tony’s Cafe, a greasy spoon in central London, was the unlikely starting point for this particular story. Over coffee my interviewee, Rupert Scofield, opened up about the difficulties his international microfinance firm, Finca, was facing. He described how Finca had become more vulnerable to fraud because of its haphazard adoption of new technology and revealed a case of embezzlement in Uganda, which the firm had until then managed to keep under wraps.
That conversation eventually led me to Tanzania, where I met the team working to improve these faulty systems, and travelled to rural areas around Dar es Salaam to interview the small businesses that might benefit from these efforts. Finca’s agents and clients recounted how they had grown their business thanks to the firm but also spoke of their grievances towards it, while Finca’s employees told me what new systems they were introducing to address these concerns.
It was a lesson in the new challenges the financial sector faces in Africa, and the work that can be done on the ground to mitigate these risks. Scofield’s comments were also a rare example of spontaneous corporate transparency. Other international businesspeople would be well advised to emulate such openness in their own dealings on the continent.
South Africa: Kanika Saigal
South Africa is probably the least ‘frontier’ of all the African countries, but there are some things that happen there that really do make you wonder how the country has functioned the way it has for so long.
Take load shedding for instance. These planned power cuts take the pressure off the country’s beleaguered grid and have been a regular occurrence for years, affecting the normal activities of banks, businesses and people every day. The wealthiest have generators to overcome shortages, but I had the pleasure of working with one company that didn’t have such luxuries a few years ago.
It happened to be a taxi company with one of the first fully electric cars as part of its fleet. And this electric car happened to be the one tasked with taking me to the airport that evening. Unfortunately, given the amount of load shedding that had been going on that day, the car didn’t have enough juice to make the short journey from Sandton to the airport, coming to a slow halt in the middle of the motorway in the middle of the night. Not the best time or place for a tech fail.
I made it to the airport, though – in a normal, ‘dirty’ car, with just a couple of minutes to spare.