Africa’s Banker of the Year explains his decision to open a bank in Mozambique

João Figueiredo was the CEO of International Mozambican Bank, Millennium bim, for just under 10 years when he decided it was time to take on a fresh challenge and introduce a new bank into the country.

João Figueiredo is the chairman and CEO of Único Bank.

João Figueiredo is the chairman and CEO of Único Bank.

“So, I had a conversation with some entrepreneurs – local entrepreneurs and foreign entrepreneurs – in order to create this new bank,” Figueiredo told How we made it in Africa. “This happened in the middle of 2010 when I, together with some people that I worked with in this financial system, created our management team in order to create this new bank in Mozambique.”

This new bank is Único Bank, a Mozambican universal services bank with a strong focus on retail services. Having only officially entered the market in August 2011, the bank has seen rapid growth and is now the sixth biggest bank in Mozambique. However, prior to launching Único, Figueiredo said he received a lot of scepticism from others in the industry over the decision to launch a new bank during a time of international economic crisis.

“Particularly in 2010, in the middle of the international crisis, a lot of people were quite confused with my decision. People [were] saying to me, ‘it is a little bit crazy to try to open a new bank in 2010’. But if you look at the market at the time; the four big banks in Mozambique, they got around 82% of the market share in the country.”

He added that this, alongside forecasted GDP growth and the fact that below 20% of the population was actually banked, meant that there was room for another banking institution in the industry.

“So if you put everything together, you would have seen that there was an opportunity here to create a new player in this market. The only thing that you should be able to create is a new institution that could address, in fact, the needs of the market. And that’s why we decided to create a different institution, an institution that comes to play in a different way.”

In less than two years, Único Bank has grown to 13 branches across the country, with further plans to expand its presence in all the Mozambican provinces. This rapid growth has led Figueiredo to be named this year’s African Banker of the Year at the African Banker Awards, which took place in Morocco at the end of last month.

Married to the job

Figueiredo said that the bank’s success has come with hours of hard work and enthusiasm for what he is doing. For example, he refuses to go to sleep until he has replied to all the emails he received that day, and he doesn’t just simply work the typical 9-5 working hours.

“Sometimes I leave my work at 6 or 7PM and then I go play some basketball or do some gym and then I come back to work and then I go to have dinner with my family and then I pick up again the work… You know, [with] lovers, they don’t think hours they just think about being together, and I really feel some passion for my job, I really like what I’m doing here.”

“This is a huge challenge for me,” he continued. “In the past, I did used to manage big banks, small banks, branches of banks abroad – I used to do everything in a bank but I never opened a bank from the zero ground. This is a start-up operation, this is a greenfield deal… So, I work the hours and hours that I need to work, I really don’t control how much time I spend on my job, really.”

Único’s performance has caught the attention of South Africa’s Nedbank which is in the process of finalising an acquisition of a 36.4% stake in Único for US$24.4 million. According to Figueiredo, once the bank has expanded its presence to cover all of Mozambique, they will consider expanding to other countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

“But not now,” he emphasised. “For the time being, in the short term, I would say that our main focus is to cover the whole country and in the future maybe we can go around to other countries around Mozambique.”

So what is his advice to foreign companies considering doing business in Mozambique? For starters, he believes that the country has a number of opportunities for international players, beyond the now blossoming mining and gas sectors. “There are opportunities in several sectors… agriculture, infrastructure, tourism, fishing, you know, any sector.”

However, Figueiredo said that the most important recommendation he can give to foreign players is to have a medium to long term vision for business success in the country.

“What we are looking for now, at this stage, is to find real investors that want reasonable rates of return, but they are thinking of giving some contribution to the economy in Mozambique; creating employment, contributing [to] the exports from this country and to try to work on this evolution of the growing of the economy in Mozambique. And for that, if you have skills, if you have the capacity to invest in the country, I would say you would have a very good [future] in this country to invest.”

“There are rules, there is political and social stability, and there is a very good economic environment, for people to invest in here,” concluded Figueiredo.