By NJIRAINI MUCHIRA

Some aspirations are supposed to be nothing more than improbable dreams. This must have been the thought of James Mwangi, the Equity Bank Chief Executive, when he was invited at a dinner table of the world’s top entrepreneurs for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 award ceremony in Monte Carlo a fortnight ago.

For Mwangi — already a decorated chief executive making a finalist of 59 individuals for the award controlling a staggering $400 billion wealth in 51 countries was no mean feat.
To Mwangi, the imagination that he could emerge a winner was stretching a dream way too far.

“When I entered the contest, I never really understood what the award was all about,” said Mwangi. When he landed in Monte Carlo, a city in France famed for its casinos, he got a glimpse of what he was up against. Equity Bank, the mammoth financial institution that he has created after salvaging it from the jaws of insolvency about two decades ago, boasts of a turnover base of $200 million.

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Race against giants
Yet some of the entrepreneurs he was up against sat atop businesses with a turnover of $1 billion and over.

The Chinese finalist, for instance, is the owner of the largest ship building company in the world while the Canadian rep was from the largest pharmaceutical company globally.
The environment was intimidating to the extreme with 40 of the 59 finalists touching down in Monte Carlo in private jets.

Dr Mwangi holds trophy he won recently. His entrepreneurial spirit has won him many accolades in the financial circles.
However, it would take only a couple of hours before Mwangi — the most unlikely of candidates — would be crowned the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2012.
His win did not only put Kenya on the world map but it also echoed the fact many have refused to acknowledge — that Africa is changing and can today afford to stand toe to toe with the best in the world.

“At a personal level, this award recognises the Equity Bank model,” said Mwangi when he paid a courtesy call to Deputy Chairman and Chief Executive Paul Melly at the Standard Group Centre. “More critically, however, the award shows that Africa is on the rise and Kenya offers an environment for business success.”

In his congratulatory message, Melly said the award was not only meant for Mwangi as a person and the bank, but for the country in the sense that it amounts to a vote of confidence in as far as attracting foreign direct investment is concerned.
“Even those who did not want to look at Kenya before will look to see if there are opportunities for investment,” said Melly.

In winning the award, easily equated to the World Cup of entrepreneurs, Mwangi adds another more prestigious feather among his string of accolades as Equity Bank Chief Executive. His stint at Equity Bank began in 1994 when he joined the then struggling building society.

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Back then, the financial institution was literally in the throes of death. With only 27,000 customers and 24 employees, the loan book stood at Sh3 million while the losses stood at Sh33 million.

As Finance Director, Mwangi anchored his efforts to save and transform the anaemic institution on a model of financial inclusion for all Kenyans.
He saw an opportunity to invest in the Kenyan masses who for decades had been barred from participating in the financial sector due to crippling terms and barriers like ledger fees and minimum operating balance.

“From the onset, we recognised that financial access is a necessity for growth,” he explains, adding that the bank created a model that would enable Kenyans to participate in the economy. The model rotated around abolishing barriers to financial access, taking risk, being innovative, going close to the people and seeking to create a mass movement whose common denominator was to transform lives.

Lauding this model, Melly said the approach has been at the core of taking services to all and sundry in the economy.

“Equity Bank helped fill the void left by multinationals that were quitting rural areas and leaving the grassroots population unbanked,” Melly said. “It also helped expand banking services — ensuring that many Kenyans were able to access banking services and mobilise resources.”

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The results, in a period of less than two decades, are phenomenal. With a balance sheet of Sh220 billion, Equity Bank is the second biggest bank in asset base. In a show of confidence to its approach, the bank is the largest in profitability at Sh10 billion last year and also the largest in customer number with eight million customers.
The bank operates 200 branches and several agents across the country and has footprints in five African nations.

Financial transformation
“Equity has succeeded because I believe in the gospel of social and economic transformation of our people,” reckoned Mwangi.

This is something the panel of judges noted. “Not only has James Mwangi transformed people’s lives across Africa by offering them access to funding that they never had before, Equity Bank continues to grow quickly through a strong financial performance,” said Ruben Vardanian, President, Troika Dialog and Chair of the judging panel.

Equity Bank has also managed to tough the heart of many Kenyans through the Wings to Fly scholarship programme in collaboration with Mastercard.

Today, 10,000 orphans across the country are beneficiaries of the programme, which Mwangi believes is molding leaders of tomorrow.

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As Equity Bank matches on to the future, new challenges are emerging. One of these challenges is high interest rates that are making borrowing expensive.
According to Mwangi, the high interest regime is a result of external shocks like the Euro and the oil crisis. “The problem is that we import more than we export. This makes us vulnerable to global shocks,” he said.

According to Melly, the Central Bank of Kenya should rein in the high interest rates by adjusting the Central Bank Rate (CBR) downwards considering that inflation is on the decline.

“This is necessary so as not to undermine economic growth,” he stated, adding that this would also ensure stability within the banking sector by removing the risk of possible rise in bad debt portfolio.

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