Sierra Leone: Interview with Idriss A. Kamara

Idriss A. Kamara

Chief Executive Officer (Standard Chartered Bank)

Idriss A. Kamara

The banking sector is well established in this country. However, Sierra Leone has one of the lowest banking penetration rates in the world. Could you please give us an overview of the financial sector in this country?

Broadly at total of 13 banks, one international bank which is Standard Chartered Bank and then 8 Regional players mainly Nigerian Banks, and then we have 3 locals; Sierra Leone Commercial Bank, Rokel Commercial Bank and Union Trust Bank. Across the banking sector if you take standard chartered we are more envy on the cooperate side as far as financial intermediation is concern whilst if I look at the remaining 12 banks they cut across on what I will say some component of cooperate banking and some element of retail banking depending on which bank you talk to, you are likely to see more dimension on the retail side than the cooperate or maybe for some banks its 50/50. I had the opportunity to have spent 22 months as CEO of the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank and if I look at the bank as suppose to standard chartered they are more envy on the retail side of banking, so it depends to which bank you are having a conversation with but broadly if I look at the banking space not too many top nought cooperate institutions you can still realise that outside of mining the business base for top and cooperate institution is not that expanded. So you see more into what I will say the SMA base and our personal banking. At this stage that is where you might see the density in terms of financial participation. If you look at the employment rate not too many people are into the formal sector, I have noted that you see lot of players within the SMA space and these are mostly petty traders. So even though you see a lot of business activities they still believe in the traditional mentality with respect to how they manage their finances rather than getting it to the formal banking system. I know the central bank if you talk to them because I worked on a couple of programs to expand financial inclusion and get to see how we bank and the bankable population, but not withstanding over the couple of years the trend would have dictated; there are some gains even though it is not the best ideal for the country in terms of financial inclusion or participation but you might have seen some mileage over the period.

Mobile banking seems to be one of the targets of the Central Bank. In that regard, How do you position yourself as Standard Chartered?

As a global bank, the mobile banking space is not strange to us. If I look at the our franchise in East Africa and Southern Africa say Kenya in particular we have a very strong mobile banking platform, if I look at Tanzanian, Zambia we are very strong when it comes to the mobile and digital space when it comes to banking. Sierra Leone we are still on the loose side in terms of mobile banking but part of the strategy I am looking into in the next 3 or 5 years is I will leverage on the global capability and see whether we can expand that base into Sierra Leone.

Standard Chartered has been providing services in Sierra Leone for over 120 years; we are talking about 4 branches in 3 main cities – can you tell us more about your current operations.

It might interest you if you look at what I will say Sierra Leone roots pre-Ebola and then pre-global commodity down turn, you would have realise that between 2011 to 2013 the major growth sector that saw Sierra Leone being one of the most impressive in terms of GDP growth in the world is stimulated and mainly driven by the mining sector. Whether it was Africa Minerals then, London Mining or Koidu Holdings, you will see the stand chart using it massive off shore balance sheet. So in terms of our participation I will say no other bank in the local environment utilises it global outreach to support major projects in Sierra Leone. Our financing within the mining sector before crisis runs into significant investments (millions of dollars) because we had funded almost all the major mining outfit in Sierra Leone, so we are more into what I will say the upper end of the market. Sierra Leone today talks about agricultural transformation having a diversified economy as I see it the bank is in collaboration with the government of Sierra Leone to see how best we can attract credible and major global players within the agricultural space because for us as a bank it is easy to support and finance a known player out in the global space than possibly getting downstream. So we are more into supporting the mining sector, supporting the agricultural sector and supporting the major MNCs in Sierra Leone whether you talk about the Heineken Group, Coca-cola, the subsidiary  whether it is caterpillar. Most recently you will see our support projected into the infrastructure space, supporting caterpillar that is the private sector beholding the entire major infrastructures in Sierra Leone, the same again with the Chinese Corridor. We bank almost all the major Chinese players in the local market in terms of infrastructure. So we are more into upper end and ideally for what I will say the large local cooperate they are not even MNCs. The Shankerdas for instance, they have been with us possibly three generations. So over the long period, we supported them from a very small institution into one of the major local players and the same goes for the Milla Group. We are more into the top end cooperate MNCs, the large local cooperate and also supporting the key growth segment in the economy mainly; mining, agriculture and infrastructure.

We do have focus on the SMA, it is something we are aggressively pursuing because in an environment of this nature you cannot discount the participation of the SMA sector, presently it is a sector but not that active, but part of the strategy because we realised that if even you want to bank the MNCs or the large cooperate then you will also have the base to mine what we call the Ecosystem. So if I am supporting Shandong Mining Company I should be able to support the supplier chain, so it is something we are looking at quite seriously and we expect the landscape to change in terms of our intervention in the next two to three years.

Do you also work with the government?

We do work with the government and presently we do not lend money to the government but if whether we have interest in respect to what the government is doing then yes. We initiated conversations with respect to how we support the government not only from a funding point of view but even improving government’s financial governance indicator. We are in conversation with the government to undertake a sovereign for the country because all that is geared towards improving financial governance in Sierra Leone.

The cooperate banking is very competitive in this country considering that there are 13 major banks and also you have other regional players as Eco Bank, GT Bank, Zenith Bank, that offer similar services – How do you differentiate from all these companies?

I will say three things; first, no other bank connects Asia and the Middle East other than standard chartered in this market. We are very big in the Middle East and today when you look at global trade, it is cantered around Asia and the Middle East and no bank is positioned in Sierra Leone to connect Asia, Middle East and Africa than standard chartered because we have very rich presence in all of the three imagined market. So that gives stand chart a unique advantage over the rest of the other banks. The second aspect is that we have expertise within our global outreach that no other bank can quite easily compete with in the local market whether it is putting together mega deals, it is easy for me on the local side to initiate the initial client coverage conversation but when it comes to putting mega finance and deals together bringing in the relevant expert team whether it is the China Corridor, or the public team in the UK, that global outreach and our deep reach with respect to an expert pool is something you do not see in this local market. 120 years we are a trusted brand. Our clients trust the bank and no other has that level of rich history and we are well respected by the government. So massive balance sheet, massive global outreach, no other bank connect Asia, Middle East and Africa and the fact that we can provide coverage expertise that cannot be marched in the local market.

You have done a lot of CSR projects – Are you planning to do something this year as well?

We are into what we consider more social value and cooperate social responsibility engagement in most recent times and I will just highlight what I consider the two critical and most important, during the height of the Ebola when there was business stress we had issues around foreign currency liquidity in the market through our partnership financing with CDC the Commonwealth Development Cooperation of the UK. We injected an Ebola funding into the private sector of 13 million dollars. We have just ruled out the second phase of that SCB, CDC risks participation agreement in 2016 were we injected an addition 32 million dollars into the market. So it is more shifting away from the traditional CSR into partnership that will tend to stimulate the economy post the Ebola process. Also, during the Ebola process stand chart was a member of the Ebola city task force that included other credible foreign institutions and in 2015 we launched something similar like what you are doing The Investor Guide for Sierra Leone in partnership with Prudential and in partnership with Albert Smith, so that is the new phase of what we consider as CSR but CSR with some high value impact to the economy and that can all help in stimulating economic growth for Sierra Leone. Recently, the government is saying to get serious with agriculture and they have reached out to us to see how best we can attract credible global players in the other markets we operate and today we are in conversation with the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture, and a couple of credible institutions out there with respect to getting them to generate some level of interest and invest in Sierra Leone.

Your resume is off the chartss you have been working for Standard chartered Bank for 10 years and you also worked for Sierra Leone Commercial Bank when needed the most, so how do you combine this private and public experience?

For me the move to Sierra Leone Commercial Bank was not a plan career move. There was a crisis and the lots falls on my head to go and fix and stabilise the bank, so that was the move then to the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank. But when I sit back 22 months at the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank another side of banking grew deeper into the retail piece, challenges with respect to having a sense of the way things work in the discipline environment like Standard Chartered Bank as against the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank. It was quite challenging but I will say it was very insightful with respect to my end to end leadership development. Also the second aspect was confidence on the side of the sovereign and that also expanded my network. Today it is easy to reach out to the first gentleman cutting right across and I will say with my 22 months tint at the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank that has broaden my network space. As a CEO of this bank you just need to remain relevant to the broader business and financial community over and above what you do as a CEO. I was the first Secretary to the British Chamber of Commerce; I worked with the British High Commission in setting the frame work for the British Chamber of Commerce. Today as I speak I have just being appointed as a member of the Financial Sector Advisory team by the Central Bank. So it projecting what we say is our year for good mantra as a bank for the good and the betterment of the country, quite demanding but also insightful and an opportunity to provide such leadership for the betterment of the country.