Could banking sector in Uganda shrink to five?

Monday November 5 2018

 Stanbic Bank Uganda

A Stanbic Bank stand during a weeklong exhibition in Kampala to encourage customers to take up insurance. FILE PHOTO | NATION 

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A parliamentary probe, changes in executive suites and a rush to capture every inch of the market define a tense but stable banking sector in Uganda.

The Parliamentary Committee on Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises has started a probe into the activities of the Bank of Uganda especially over closures of some banks since the late 1990s.

This has coincided with changes in top executive posts in some of the country’s lenders. Also, some banks are seeking to expand into markets they once considered too small or below their description of the ideal client.

Rebranding has seen some top lenders suffer from a “crowded” field that has seen a renewed market offensive by Equity Bank Uganda, and consolidation moves by Bank of Baroda.

Brand confusion

Whereas Stanbic Bank Uganda and DFCU Bank have seemingly adopted a “cocktail” brand image that promises many products to customers, risks of brand confusion among clients, weak selling practices and lack of clarity regarding new products, have left some customers unsure.

Competition among the top ten banks has led to a stream of new products into the market targeting corporate clients, retail customers, small to medium enterprises and microfinance clients since the beginning of this year.

The lenders are all seeking to entrench themselves in the relatively small banking market of less than seven million clients.

Though Stanbic Bank Uganda’s market fragmentation strategy is about reorganising its personal and business banking unit after years of neglect, DFCU Bank, in contrast is counting on its acquisition of some Crane Bank assets and liabilities last year that saw its balance sheet grow threefold to more than Ush3 trillion ($789.9 million), observers say.

Airbus aeroplanes

Following the troublesome acquisition, DFCU Bank has since moved to expand its product portfolio, with credit limits for certain trade finance facilities being increased and more long term financing products.

DFCU Bank is one of the local lenders recently identified by government to provide at least $15.3 million towards a planned Ush300 billion ($78.9 million) down payment required for the purchase of three Airbus aeroplanes to be used by Uganda Airlines whose relaunch date is scheduled for April 2019.

Other banks selected for the mega financing deal are Stanbic Bank Uganda and the East African Development Bank, according to government sources.

On the other hand, Equity Bank Uganda, with total assets of Ush1 trillion ($263 million) by the end of 2017 and profit before tax of Ush38 billion ($10 million) in the same period, has shed its bias for corporates and is embracing a mass market, microfinance based business model.

This places it in Centenary Bank’s crosshairs. Under this strategic shift, Equity Bank Uganda now offers loans of between Ush10 million ($2,633) and Ush30 million ($7,899) to small business owners.

It also offers free account opening services with zero initial balance plus fairly low banking charges, industry sources say.

Recent improvements in its digital banking window are expected to grow transaction volumes significantly in the medium term but verified data on uptake is not available.

Centenary Bank, in comparison, holds the lion’s share of Uganda’s microfinance segment and a dominant share of the agricultural segment, with many of its clients borrowing less than Ush7 million ($1,843) on average for personal and business needs.

Its asset base has grown to Ush3 trillion ($789.9 million) while its customer numbers increased to more than 1.3 million, coupled with an Automated Teller Machine network in excess of 90 locations countrywide.

Catholic Church

However, Centenary Bank’s brand loyalty remains unique on account of the Catholic Church’s majority ownership. The Church collectively owns 70 per cent of the lender while 30 per cent is held by a Dutch private equity firm and some local individuals.

This alone has attracted several faithful in a country where the Church boasts of more than 10 million followers, according to government data.

The recent takeover of various Barclays Africa operations by Absa Group of South Africa is also likely to upset the local banking industry.

Investment analysts say that while Barclays Plc preferred a cherry picking strategy that focused on a few high value corporate and retail clients, Absa has signalled a new era of aggressive, deeper market penetration.

Absa seeks to maximise growth in the corporate, retail, SME and trade finance segments through upgraded products and retaining key sector clients across the continent. This promises to be bring excitement to the market.

“What the big banks promise to their customers and what they deliver these days are far apart. The best survival option for this industry is consolidation. This could see the Ugandan banking industry remain with only five big banks.

“Any bank that fails to exploit the growth of savings and credit co-operatives is also doomed to fail,” argued Oscar Ofumbi, a business owner.