Why Equity Group CEO James Mwangi is betting on the DRC

Equity Group CEO James Mwangi speaking at the 2022 Africa CEO Forum in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has had its fair share of political turmoil and civil unrest over the past decades. Ranking 183rd from a total of 190 economies in the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business report, the country’s commercial environment is generally regarded as challenging. However, James Mwangi, CEO of Kenya-based banking outfit Equity Group Holdings, believes the DRC has the potential to “succeed big”.

Speaking at the recent Africa CEO Forum that took place in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, Mwangi highlighted the DRC’s large cobalt reserves, which is used in lithium-ion batteries to power everything from mobile phones to electric cars. It is estimated the DRC is home to 70% of the world’s cobalt deposits.

Mwangi also pointed to the nation’s large areas of uncultivated agricultural land and hinted that the country alone could solve much of the world’s current food inflation.

In addition, the DRC has immense hydro-power potential. The proposed Grand Inga project on the Congo River, which has been on the cards for many years, could generate around 40,000 megawatts of electricity. “DRC can light the whole of Africa with hydroelectricity,” Mwangi said.

With close to 100 million people, the DRC also has “consuming population that is significant”, the CEO added.

Under the leadership of Mwangi, Equity Bank was turned around from a technically insolvent Kenyan building society in 1993, to a leading commercial bank. It predominantly targeted the low-income and marginalised mass market. It has also gone beyond the comfort of the cities to provide loans and banking services to those living in rural areas – a segment neglected by many of its competitors. Equity embraced a model called ‘agency banking’, which comprises partnering with existing retail outlets – usually informal kiosks – to offer selected products and services on behalf of the bank. Kenyans living in remote areas often have to travel long distances to visit a bank branch, but with the agency banking model, Equity brought financial services closer to where people live.

Over the years the group has expanded across the region, and is currently the largest financial services conglomerate in East and Central Africa.

In 2015, Equity Group first entered the DRC when it acquired a majority stake in ProCredit Bank. Five years later, it bought Banque Commerciale Du Congo (BCDC). The entities have since been merged and trade as EquityBCDC.

Mwangi said his enthusiasm for the DRC is also linked to its recent inclusion in the East African Community common market. The DRC joined Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan in the economic bloc which now comprises an estimated 300 million people. “We took DRC in context of it joining the East African Community. So it is not DRC as standalone; it is DRC becoming part of a 300 million population market within the East African Community.”