A Short History of Banking in Kenya

A lobbyist on his way home from Parliament after a Parliamentary Enquiry into Trading Practices by Britain’s leading bank executives is stuck in traffic. Several of the former Bank Executives and CEO’s have agreed to return their extravagant Pensions. Noticing a police officer, he winds down his window and asks: “What’s the hold up Officer?” The policeman replies: “The Chief Executive of the U.K.’s largest Bank has become so depressed he’s stopped his motorcade and is threatening to douse himself with petrol and set himself on fire because of the shame of what he has done.”
“Myself and all the other motorcade police officers are taking up a collection because we feel sorry for him.” The lobbyist asks: “How much have you got so far?” The Officer replies: “About 40 litres, but a lot of officers are still siphoning.”

It’s not that hard to find bad banker jokes these days, they are the most vilified professionals after tax collectors. But malign them as we will, the banking industry has been a key driver of the economy through provision of working capital facilities for businesses, unsecured loans for individuals and employment for many Kenyans, not to mention a safe place to keep our funds. The attached table demonstrates the phenomenal growth that has taken place in banking in the last thirteen years.

Kes Millions Dec 2002 Dec 2015
Government Securities 100,458 658,361
Net Advances 172,169 2,091,361
Deposits 360,642 2,485,920
Shareholder Funds 50,540 538,144
Interest Income 41,495 359,493
Non Interest Income 17,367 97,317

*Source: Central Bank of Kenya Banking Supervision Report 2002 and 2015

It’s evident that there has been exponential growth in banking, all driven by Kenyans contributing to economic growth and generating more capital. Deposits have grown by a factor of almost 7 while loans have grown by a factor of 12. Look at what the Central Bank (CBK) said in 2002 while reporting about the state of the industry: “Traditionally institutions in the local market have relied on interest income on loans and government securities as their major source of income. In the last few years, there has been a shift to government securities owing to lack of borrowers due to the depressed state of the economy. In the last one-year, the Treasury bill rates have been falling dramatically, thus compelling institutions to look for alternative sources of income to meet their operational costs and report profits for their shareholders. Some of these sources, especially increased fees and commissions have placed them on a collision course with the public. In an attempt to reduce their costs, some institutions have initiated restructuring programs that include staff retrenchment and rationalisation of their branch network. These measures have met resistance from the general public and trade unions.” A few years later CBK legislated that banks required their approval before introducing new fees in a bid to reduce the collision course so identified.
The result is that as the economy took an upswing following the Kibaki administration’s fairly successful macroeconomic policies, loans ended up being an easier way to grow the bottom line. In 2002, interest income of Kes 41.5 billion (which includes interest from loans, government securities and placement of funds with other institutions) made up 70% of the banking industry’s income. In 2015, the interest income of Kes 359.5 billion made up 78.7% of the banking industry’s income. Put it another way, innovation has been the furthest thing on the minds of bankers over the last decade. With the requirement to seek approval for new fees as well as the voracious appetite for loans, lending in this country has been a no-brainer for years.
But Kenyan banks are also responsible for a fairly broad financial access, at least compared to its neighbors. The CBK Banking Supervision Report 2015 reports as much by quoting a joint study with FSD Kenya and the World Bank titled “Bank Financing of SMEs in Kenya” that was published in September 2015: “A) Involvement of Kenyan banks in the SME segment has grown between 2009 and 2013. The total SME lending portfolio in December 2013 was estimated at KSh. 332 billion representing 23.4 % of the banks’ total loan portfolio while in 2009, this figure stood at Ksh. 133 billion representing 19.5% of the total loan portfolio.
B) The preferred source of financing for a large number of SMEs is overdrafts despite the fact that banks have introduced several trade finance and asset finance products designed for the SME market. C) The share of SME lending relative to total lending by commercial banks is higher in Kenya (23.4%) compared to other major markets in Sub Saharan Africa like Nigeria (5%) and South Africa (8%). According to a study quoted in the report, this ratio is at 17% in Rwanda and 14% in Tanzania placing Kenya as the leading country among the five countries referred to in the study.”
SMEs are the cogs that move the wheels of this and many emerging market economies. They cannot survive without bank funding and the interest rate regime change is very likely to upset the status quo and roll back the gains made by Kenya in deepening financial access to this critical sector of the economy. This is largely because SME lending has typically been collateralized to mitigate the risks. A reduction in the interest rate without a reduction in the corresponding credit risk of the SME borrower, together with no improvement in the legal framework for realizing collateral from defaulted borrowers is a recipe for reduced SME lending appetite.
However as a bank CEO said to me a few days ago, “I asked my staff today: is there no other way to make money apart from loans?” and all he got were blank stares in return. The ground is shifting under the feet of banks, not only legislatively but even technologically with the entry of Fintechs in the same lending space that banks have traditionally played in. We might very well be standing on the cusp of a financial innovation wave in Kenya.
Twitter: @carolmusyoka