Inside the new US. First National Bank of Africa

“When we first moved to England in 1958 I was just 15 years old,” said Flora Wamukwa, Zambia’s minister of industry, commerce and investment, and the deputy managing director of US. First National Bank of Africa.

When she first moved to England in 1958, she was just 15 years old. These days, she is a member of the Zambian government’s Brexit advisory committee, a sensitive time for any bank grappling with the questions of what to do and how to say it when it comes to its operations in Europe.

A decade after World War II, U.S. First National Bank was already keen to branch out: “We always kept maps,” a fellow executive remembers, “and would chase Zambia for locations.” There was a lot of competition, and “some of our competitors really pursued Zambia like it was a chocolate bar,” Wamukwa recalled. “I would drive a different route.”

In 1967, the first branch in Zambia was opened at the new Barclays Bank, whose UK headquarters was at the nearby University of Zambia campus. Although both banks had to start from scratch, Wamukwa remembers that the finance guys at First National liked what they saw, telling local managers that they would always be welcome to expand.

Like most other banks at the time, a Zambian branch was a major step forward. “So we opened our first branch,” Wamukwa recalled, with a laugh. “We had a hundred customers in the first year.”

When it came to helping entrepreneurs start their own businesses, “there was no support then,” she said. “We weren’t open for SMEs. We didn’t have the market development program. We didn’t have microfinance and micro-enterprise development.” The government was not organized around the task — business was growing slowly after so much post-independence “losing” — but Wamukwa and her team discovered the impact of business developments at Barclays on women. There was a long-standing concern about human trafficking, and many companies, including Barclays, got involved.

Wamukwa recalled a client, Rose Mwanyepa, who had joined Barclays in her thirties and had a tough time at work. “She was very interested in the infrastructure,” Wamukwa said. Mwanyepa wanted to use a customer point of sale (POS) machine at her fishmonger business — they didn’t yet exist.

Barclays went to work, training “the traditional type of security guard” on how to use an ATM, instead of a uniformed guard, and recommended that Mwanyepa rent a second bathroom. The bank also recommended she make sure there was a large stall to help the clients who were long queues, and lent her three scanners, in case one wasn’t working. As a small result, Mwanyepa was able to buy one machine, and the hope was that a loan for the scanner would bring another one. Mwanyepa had to pay Barclays for its help, but Barclays “took us into its heart,” Wamukwa said.

To make sure Barclays got a better reward for its return investment, in the 1980s Wamukwa and her team were creative — and helped encourage gender equality.

“We worked with a bank for eight years to make sure women had a 50-50 share in the business,” Wamukwa said. Barclays lent money to the project, hired an ambassador and gave the ambassador a few thousand pounds to go to the Zambian Women’s Equity Network to give as gifts to managers at the banks.

Another client, a woman who was getting help with new seedlings to plant, went to the bank to ask for more money. “When the women from the bank came to the people growing the seedlings they saw the need to go to the women to get them because women were more likely to have expertise to understand those kinds of [sales],” Wamukwa said. “It was a circle, and that’s what you have to have. You have to go to them and speak to them because they’re going to be part of the implementation.”

Read the rest at The Africa Report.


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