‘Africa has come of age,’ says top businessman James Mwangi

Dr. James Mwangi, Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012, has transformed Equity Bank into East and Central Africa’s largest bank.

James Mwangi

James Mwangi

I was born and brought up in a rural area of Kenya. I lost my father in the country’s struggle for independence, so my mother was left with the responsibility of educating me. To support her, I sold fruit, charcoal and milk from the family cow. I enjoyed the work, but the fact that my education depended on it was my real motivation. That said, it gave me great experience of selling a product and providing a service at a tender age.

When Equity Bank converted from a building society to a bank 15 years ago, only 5% of Kenyans had a bank account. That figure is now 40%, with Equity holding more than half of all bank accounts in Kenya.

The high level of poverty in this region makes the affordability of financial services a huge challenge. Traditional corporate banks had failed to address this, so we created a business model that did. The growth of technology and mobile has helped massively: about 75% of Africans now have mobile phones. And when you put banking software on someone’s phone, banking suddenly becomes affordable, accessible and convenient.

Our biggest challenge has been building capacity in the customer base. These people are mainly coming from the subsistence sector to a formalised, more commercial sector. They come without knowledge of financial services, and even without basic financial literacy. We addressed this by rolling out a financial literacy programme that targets a million customers over a period of three years.

We are present in five countries and have proven that our business model works. Now we want to grow throughout the continent – our goal is to increase regional coverage to 10 countries in the next 5 years. That is a huge focus for us.

Our growth has been due largely to public support, and we didn’t want to take this for granted. Four years ago, we set up the Equity Bank Foundation, which distributes 1% of the bank’s turnover to causes. We run one of the most effective corporate social responsibility programmes in the country and support initiatives in finance, agriculture, health, education, innovation and the environment.

It was humbling to be named Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year 2012. It seemed to vindicate what most people have seen in Equity Bank, which over the past 20 years has had a compound growth rate in excess of 100%, is a market leader in the quality of its loan book and is the third biggest company on the Nairobi Securities Exchange in terms of market capitalisation. It was a validation of a new business model that provides financial inclusion.

Africa has come of age and can now compete with the rest of the world. The reforms, whether political or economic, that are under way give us significant hope, and the fact that 16 of the wars that were raging on the continent have ended shows that we are now creating a peaceful continent. I hope that the sustained growth rate we have seen over the past decade will attract more private capital. I am very excited about Africa’s future.