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Go slow on use of digital currencies, experts advise

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Investors are totally on their own, the Central of Kenya (CBK) governor Patrick Njoroge warned. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

To use or not to use? This is the question that many businesses are asking themselves regarding cryptocurrencies.

Despite this global ambivalence over the adoption of the digital currencies, the fact is that they gradually seeping into the business world as more traders embrace it. For the proponents of the currencies, they are an idea whose time has come and businesses that ignore them can only count losses.

In Kenya, the currencies are beginning to take root and there are now a number of outlets using them as a medium of exchange.

Among the places where you can trade on bitcoin include a lounge at the Kenyatta University, an automated teller machine (ATM) in Nairobi’s Westlands, an electronic shop located on Luthuli Avenue in Nairobi, a hotel in Nyeri, and most recently a supermarket in Mombasa.

“We have received tonnes of requests from our customers to pay using digital currencies,” said Boxlight Electronics chief executive Robinson Murage in an interview in July.

“As a company whose 90 per cent of customers are young, tech savvy and predominantly online, we choose to be all inclusive and adapt to the needs of those that prefer this type of currency.”

The ATM in Nairobi, which is a first in East Africa, makes it possible to buy bitcoins and litecoins instantly in cash. It allows traders to buy the cryptocurrencies in small tokens for as low as $5 (Sh500), and pay for them in dollars or Kenya shillings.

In Mombasa, a member of The Billion Coin (TBC) Kenya, Bernard Wambua who has traded with the currency for about two years, says the coastal town has over 2,000 people using the digital currency.

“You can do big transaction of millions of shillings using TBC. The population of people using the e-money in Mombasa is increasing at a very fast rate,” said Mr Wambua in a recent interview.

He said they are planning to integrate more businesses to use the currency.

In July, the Nyeri hotel — Betty Place Restaurant— proprietor said three customers had paid their bills using bitcoins,a transaction equivalent of Sh4,000.

“We convert the local currency equivalent using the value of the bitcoin. The bitcoin can go up to the eighth decimal place, for instance 0.00000001 of a bitcoin. You can pay a bill of anything from Sh100 upwards,” said Beatrice Wanjiru Wambugu, the hotel owner.

Despite this rising uptake, experts say the digital currencies still have a long way before they attain all the characteristics of an authentic currency. Cryptocurrencies, they say, have limited adoption and they are yet to be universally accepted in the intermediation space.

“Even though they are being used for purposes of making payments, we have not seen savings, loans and transactions of that nature being in this space of cryptocurrencies,” said Jared Osoro, director of research and policy at the Kenya Bankers Association (KBA), last week.

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“There is a long way to go for cryptocurrencies to actually make their way into intermediation space, meaning scaling beyond the payment space – what the bulk of financial technology (fintech) firms are helping.”

Financial sector experts aver that a genuine currency is not only a medium of exchange but also a unit of account, and store of value. Although the digital currencies, are a medium of exchange albeit in a limited way, they do not meet the other attributes as a unit of account and store of value.

Mr Osoro’s comments were echoed in a public forum held last week in Nairobi:

“A cryptocurrency does not meet all the characteristics of what a currency is”.

There is also the lingering question of volatility of cryptocurrencies, especially in Kenya where investment on them is no more than a speculative affair. Moreover, they are neither guaranteed by the central bank nor backed by government regulations.

Investors are totally on their own, the Central of Kenya (CBK) governor Patrick Njoroge warned.

The CBK in the latest bank supervision annual report says these emerging disruptive technologies bring with them various forms of risks.

Notably, the report says, among the new digital products is cryptocurrencies that is associated with anonymity, and commonly used by criminals.

“CBK reiterates that it does not recognize cryptocurrrencies as legal tender. CBK is of the opinion that despite the ubiquitous positive influence of technology, there lies a potential of great risk in the event that the technology fails or is misused by unscrupulous individuals. There is thus the need to ensure that robust controls are in place to ensure that the risks and opportunities associated with emerging technologies are balanced,” CBK says in the Bank Supervision Annual Report 2017.

Mr Osoro, however, says although a number of uncertainties surround adoption of cryptocurrencies, they nonetheless hold a promise of opportunities.

“These are the realities that financial institutions must contend with as they embrace these new emerging technologies in a manner that is going to enable them tap opportunities,” said Mr Osoro.

Promoters of the digital currencies in the country, while admitting that insecurity episodes of hacking and stealing of bitcoins have occurred, they are becoming less frequent over time.

Another line of argument in favour of digital currencies is that they are cheaper than many conventional options for remittances or money transfers and can be very convenient for instance for smartphone payments , to the extent that transactions are settled quickly.

There are more than 700 so-called cryptocurrencies out there in the world, but bitcoin is the best known.

Bitcoin started trading in 2009 – exchange rate then, $0.0007 (Sh0.07) per bitcoin. In February 2011, it reached parity with the dollar.

In November 2013, the value of bitcoin peaked at $1,242 (Sh124,200), and it has been trading at about $900 (Sh90,000), rising to about $19,000 (Sh1.9 million) by December 2017, before declining to its current level of about $7,000 (Sh7,000).



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BCCI: The bank ‘that would bribe God’

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Bank of Credit and Commerce International. August 1991. [File, Standard]

“This bank would bribe God.” These words of a former employee of the disgraced Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) sum up one of the most rotten global financial institutions.

BCCI pitched itself as a top bank for the Third World, but its spectacular collapse would reveal a web of transnational corruption and a playground for dictators, drug lords and terrorists.

It was one of the largest banks cutting across 69 countries and its aftermath would cause despair to innocent depositors, including Kenyans.

BCCI, which had $20 billion (Sh2.1 trillion in today’s exchange rate) assets globally, was revealed to have lost more than its entire capital.

The bank was founded in 1972 by the crafty Pakistani banker Agha Hasan Abedi.

He was loved in his homeland for his charitable acts but would go on to break every rule known to God and man.

In 1991, the Bank of England (BoE) froze its assets, citing large-scale fraud running for several years. This would see the bank cease operations in multiple countries. The Luxembourg-based BCCI was 77 per cent owned by the Gulf Emirate of Abu Dhabi.  

BoE investigations had unearthed laundering of drugs money, terrorism financing and the bank boasted of having high-profile customers such as Panama’s former strongman Manual Noriega as customers.

The Standard, quoting “highly placed” sources reported that Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Zayed Sultan would act as guarantor to protect the savings of Kenyan depositors.

The bank had five branches countrywide and panic had gripped depositors on the state of their money.

Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) would then move to appoint a manager to oversee the operations of the BCCI operations in Kenya.

It sent statements assuring depositors that their money was safe.

The Standard reported that the Sheikh would be approaching the Kenyan and other regional subsidiaries of the bank to urge them to maintain operations and assure them of his personal support.

It was said that contact between CBK and Abu Dhabi was “likely.”

This came as the British Ambassador to the UAE Graham Burton implored the gulf state to help compensate Britons, and the Indian government also took similar steps.

The collapse of BCCI was, however, not expect to badly hit the Kenyan banking system. This was during the sleazy 1990s when Kenya’s banking system was badly tested. It was the era of high graft and “political banks,” where the institutions fraudulently lent to firms belonging or connected to politicians, who were sometimes also shareholders.

And even though the impact was expected to be minimal, it was projected that a significant number of depositors would transfer funds from Asian and Arab banks to other local institutions.

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“Confidence in Arab banking has taken a serious knock,” the “highly placed” source told The Standard.

BCCI didn’t go down without a fight. It accused the British government of a conspiracy to bring down the Pakistani-run bank.  The Sheikh was said to be furious and would later engage in a protracted legal battle with the British.

“It looks to us like a Western plot to eliminate a successful Muslim-run Third World Bank. We know that it often acted unethically. But that is no excuse for putting it out of business, especially as the Sultan of Abu Dhabi had agreed to a restructuring plan,” said a spokesperson for British Asians.

A CBK statement signed by then-Deputy Governor Wanjohi Murithi said it was keenly monitoring affairs of the mother bank and would go to lengths to protect Kenyan depositors.

“In this respect, the CBK has sought and obtained the assurance of the branch’s management that the interests of depositors are not put at risk by the difficulties facing the parent company and that the bank will meet any withdrawal instructions by depositors in the normal course of business,” said Mr Murithi.

CBK added that it had maintained surveillance of the local branch and was satisfied with its solvency and liquidity.

This was meant to stop Kenyans from making panic withdrawals.

For instance, armed policemen would be deployed at the bank’s Nairobi branch on Koinange Street after the bank had announced it would shut its Kenyan operations.

In Britain, thousands of businesses owned by British Asians were on the verge of financial ruin following the closure of BCCI.

Their firms held almost half of the 120,000 bank accounts registered with BCCI in Britain. 

The African Development Bank was also not spared from this mess, with the bulk of its funds deposited and BCCI and stood to lose every coin.

Criminal culture

In Britain, local authorities from Scotland to the Channel Islands are said to have lost over £100 million (Sh15.2 billion in today’s exchange rate).

The biggest puzzle remained how BCCI was allowed by BoE and other monetary regulation authorities globally to reach such levels of fraudulence.

This was despite the bank being under tight watch owing to the conviction of some of its executives on narcotics laundering charges in the US.

Coast politician, the late Shariff Nassir, would claim that five primary schools in Mombasa lost nearly Sh1 million and appealed to then Education Minister George Saitoti to help recover the savings. Then BoE Governor Robin Leigh-Pemberton condemned it as so deeply immersed in fraud that rescue or recovery – at least in Britain – was out of the question.

“The culture of the bank is criminal,” he said. The bank was revealed to have targeted the Third World and had created several “institutional devices” to promote its operations in developing countries.

These included the Third World Foundation for Social and Economic Studies, a British-registered charity.

“It allowed it to cultivate high-level contacts among international statesmen,” reported The Observer, a British newspaper.

BCCI also arranged an annual Third World lecture and a Third World prize endowment fund of about $10 million (Sh1 billion in today’s exchange rate).

Winners of the annual prize had included Nelson Mandela (1985), sir Bob Geldof (1986) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1989).

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East Africa celebrates top women in banking and finance

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The Angaza Awards for Women to watch in Banking and Finance in East Africa took place Online via Zoom on 8th June 2021.

The event was set to celebrate the top 10 women shaping banking and finance across East Africa. The 2021 Angaza Awards, which will be a Pan-African Awards program, was also announced at the event.

Key speakers at this webinar were Dr Nancy Onyango, Director of Internal Audit and Inspection at the IMF; and Gail Evans, New York Times Best Selling Author of Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman and former White House Aide and CNN Executive Vice President.

Dr Nancy Onyango advised women to deep expertise in their fields, spend time in forums and link with key players in that sector.
“Gain exposure with other cultures by seeking for employment overseas and use customized CV for each job application,” said Dr Onyango.

According to Gail Evans, women should show up and be fully present in meetings and not be preoccupied with other issues.
“Be simple and avoid jargon. Multi-tasking only means that you are mediocre Smart people ask good questions in a business meeting. Most women face drawbacks due to perfectionism, procrastination and fear of failure, said Evans.

She advised women to play like a man and win like a woman, be strategic, and intentionally make their moves to get to the top.

“For us to pull up businesses that have been affected by effects of COVID-19 pandemic, we need to re-invent business models, change the product offering and make more use of digital platforms,” said Mary Wamae Equity Group Executive Director.

Mary Wamae emerged top at the inaugural Angaza awards( East Africa) ahead of other finalists.

While women continue to excel in banking and finance, the number of that occupies top executive positions is still less.

“There is a gap for women occupying C suite level and it continues to widen in the finance sector. At entry level, there is still an experience gap for women,” said Nkirote Mworia, Group Secretary for UAP-Old Mutual Group.

She said that at the Middle Management level, women do not express their ambition. For this reason, UAP-Old Mutual has developed an executive sponsorship program to help women get to the next level.

Mworia added that most women hold the notion that top positions in management have politics and pressure.
“One needs leadership skills and not technical expertise to get to the top,” said Mworia.

According to Catherine Karimi, Chief Executive Officer and Principal Officer of APA Life Assurance Company, women need to focus on the strengths and natural abilities that they already have.

“Take risks and raise your hand to get to the high table. Find mentors along the way and develop your own brand and not compare yourself with others Focus on your strengths because it will make you move faster in the career ladder,” said Karimi.

Lina Mukashyaka Higiro, a Rwandan businesswoman and chief executive officer of the NCBA Bank Rwanda since July 2018, has three lessons for women who want to excel in banking and finance.
“Always spend at least 20 minutes each day reading, seeking genuine feedback from other staff members and widen your network,” Higiro told the webinar.

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Women picked for Angaza awards

Mary Wamae, Executive Director, led this year’s Top 10 Women in Angaza Awards, Equity Group (Kenya)(2)Catherine Karimi, Chief Executive Officer, APA Life Insurance Company (Kenya)(3)Lina Higiro, Chief Executive Officer, NCBA Bank (Rwanda)(4)Elizabeth Wasunna Ochwa, Business Banking Director, Absa Bank (Kenya)(5)Joanita Jaggwe, Country Head of Risk and Compliance, KCB Group (South Sudan)(6) Millicent Omukaga, Technical Assistance Expert on Inclusive Finance, African Development Bank (Kenya)(7)Emmanuella Nzahabonimana, Head of Information Technology, KCB Group (Rwanda)(8)Judith Sidi Odhiambo, Group Head of Corporate Affairs, KCB Group (Kenya)(9)Rosemary Ngure, ESG & Impact Manager, Catalyst Principal Partners (Kenya) and(10)Pooja Bhatt, Co-Founder, QuantaRisk and QuantaInsure (Kenya).

The Kenyan Wallstreet, a financial media firm, partnered with Kaleidoscope Consultants to raise awareness of seasoned women shaping and influencing the sector through their organizations.

The Angaza Award criteria included assessing the applicants’ area of responsibility and contribution to firm performance. Professionals in Banking, Capital Markets, Insurance, Investment Banking, Fintech, Fund Management, Microfinance, and SACCOs were invited to submit their applications or nominations via the Kenyan Wallstreet Award Web page.

ALSO READ: Angaza Awards Top Finalist; Mary Wangari Wamae

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IFC in New Partnership to Develop Affordable Housing in Mombasa County

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NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 14 – International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, has signed a new deal in support of affordable housing in Kenya.

The corporation has partnered with Belco Realty LLP, to develop a mixed use affordable living complex that will consist of 1,379 residential units and over 4,500 square meters of retail and commercial spaces in Kongowea, Mombasa County.

Together with the Kenyan firm, IFC says the partnership will help meet surging demand for housing in Kenya.

Under the agreement, IFC will help identify suitable international strategic partners to invest equity of up to $12 million, or Sh1.3 billion in Belco and to provide the company with the necessary technical support to develop the project.

The development, known as Kongowea Village, will be developed to foster inclusive and affordable community living within the city.

Jumoke Jagun-Dokunmu, IFC’s Regional Director for Eastern Africa says the project, which will be located on eight acres within the heart of Mombasa city, will aim to be a catalyst for wider city regeneration.

The project will be developed to meet IFC EDGE certification requirements and will incorporate the latest technologies in passive cooling, energy efficiency and water conservation to support sustainable urbanization.

 Kongowea Village is expected to create 1,160 jobs and business opportunities during the three-year construction period and many more after completion of the project within the themed retail arcade.

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 “Access to quality housing is a growing problem in Kenya and across Africa,” said Jumoke Jagun-Dokunmu, IFC’s Regional Director for Eastern Africa.

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“Developers often target the high end of the market, but this project is aimed squarely at the lower-income bracket. Helping Belco identify the right partners for this project is expected to attract more developers to Kenya and other parts of Africa to help meet rising demand for housing.”

 IFC‘s engagement with Belco will help Kenya support its rapidly growing and urbanizing population by increasing access to affordable housing. The problem is similar across most of Africa, where population growth and demand for quality housing are combining to outstrip supply.  We are pleased to partner with a company such as Belco that is committed to contributing to solving this challenge,” said Emmanuel Nyirinkindi, IFC‘s Director for Transaction Advisory Services.

 IFC’s partnership with Belco is part of its broader strategy to support better access to affordable housing in Kenya.

In 2020, IFC invested $2 million in equity in the Kenya Mortgage Refinance Company (KMRC) to help increase access to affordable mortgages and support home ownership in the country.

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