Visiting Abidjan for the Africa Development Bank (AfDB) annual general meetings presented an opportunity for AfricaBriefing to meet with some of the major figures in the finance industry working in Cote d’Ivoire – but having interests that extend far wider than the country – extending across the region and indeed the continent.
With its famed ‘Middle Africa’ footprint, Ecobank has developed a unique financial service model across 36 countries. For management purposes, the bank conducts its Africa-wide business within six regional groupings or clusters.
Charles Daboiko is the managing director for Cote d’Ivoire, and also heads Ecobank’s Francophone West Africa region, a slight misnomer as the nine-country grouping includes both Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau that are technically Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) nations. The other anomaly that Daboiko pointed out was that Anglophone West Africa includes Guinea Conakry – a French speaking country, but outside the common CFA currency union.
Daboiko describes Ecobank as one of the leading banks in Cote d’Ivoire with 52 branches, represented in every region across the country. Société Générale CI, with some 70 branches, boasts the largest network, but Ecobank has ATMs in the country, having built out the cash machine network to service hotels, airports, fuel stations, major supermarkets and the like.
‘So we have the largest ATM network in the country,’ Daboiko says. ‘We employ roughly 700 people, and service about 270,000 accounts, out of which about 1,600 are corporate accounts, the rest being either SMEs or personal accounts.
‘Within the Francophone West Africa region Ecobank is, collectively, the number one player with about a 15 percent market share. The fact is that Société Générale tends to be big in selected countries like Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and so on, whereas Ecobank is a regional bank.’
Daboiko also explained the benefits, ‘the edge’ as he puts it, of having a multi-country presence. ‘When you talk to a customer in the country, and it is big ticket transaction, we tend to get together and each one will take a piece of it. Cote d’Ivoire will take a piece of it, Mali will take a piece, perhaps Niger or Benin and so forth.
I don’t play alone! I play as a region that I control as a cluster head.
‘Of course, they execute their own risk assessment and due diligence, and I would expect each country’s risk committee to look at the deal, but I would anticipate they could approve it. So that has given us a definite edge in the market. Collectively, Ecobank has a balance sheet of around $6bn, Cote d’Ivoire accounting for about $1.5bn, so that’s what we have to play with.’
But what also gives Ecobank an edge is the reputation the Bank earned during the years of turmoil and conflict that afflicted Cote d’Ivoire.
‘There was a time at the height of the crisis when all private banks closed for three months, including Ecobank,’ Daboiko says. ‘But the growth that we have experienced in the last few years took place during the crisis years. I came back to Cote d’Ivoire in 2007, but the crisis had been going since 2002. Since 2007 we have continued our momentum, lending within the economy.
‘While the other banks took the decision to retrench and close their branches in the country, we maintained the momentum. When collectively the decision was made by the banks and the central bank in Dakar to close the banks, we shut down our presence from February 2011 to April 2011. I was posted to Ghana, but we made sure that customers had access to the accounts because we operate centrally.
‘We told our customers “just to cross the border, go to Burkina, go to Mali, Senegal or Togo and then go into any Ecobank branch, and there you can be served”. And we maintained that for the three months we were closed in Cote d’Ivoire.’
However, as the central bank had closed down the interbank clearing system, that meant that payments could not be made into an account, but Ecobank customers in Cote d’Ivoire could still withdraw their funds in neighbouring countries. And for those customers with loans, after the April 2011 cessation of hostilities, Ecobank extended the maturities of loans taking the view that it was outside the customers powers and not their fault that defaults had occured.
‘We had to see virtually every single customer and work out the way to resolve their loan situations,’ Daboiko says. That worked well, and there is little doubt that Ecobank’s strategy during that difficult period, built a hugely positive customer loyalty.
Now the bank is entering a new era as a change to the top management takes place. Just weeks after this interview took place, the successor to the group chief executive Albert Essien, (who retires after 25 years with the bank) was named. He is Ade Ayeyemi, the former CEO of Citigroup’s sub-Saharan Africa division, who takes over in September 2015.