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'Africa needs to move faster,' says top banker

From Maggie Lake, CNN
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Ecobank's African success
  • Arnold Ekpe is head of Ecobank, Africa's largest independent regional banking group
  • The bank operates in 29 countries across the continent
  • Ekpe says Africa needs to understand that it should 'move a little bit faster'

CNN's Marketplace Africa offers viewers a unique window into African business on and off the continent. This week Maggie Lake speaks to Arnold Ekpe, group chief executive officer of African banking giant Ecobank.

(CNN) -- Africa must speed up its efforts to achieve economic growth and catch up with more developed markets, according to one of the continent's financial experts.

"The major challenge we have in Africa is to understand the need to move a little bit faster," said Arnold Ekpe, head of Africa's banking giant Ecobank.

"The rest of the world will not wait for Africa and the rest of the world does not owe Africa a favor -- Africa really has to make that extra effort," he added.

With more than three decades of banking experience, Ekpe was named African Business Leader of the Year in 2008. After returning to Ecobank in 2005 after a stint at United Bank for Africa, he has overseen its growth into the largest independent regional banking group in the continent, now operating in 29 African countries.

Ekpe spoke to CNN's Marketplace Africa about the challenges and successes of banking in Africa.

CNN: In terms of growth opportunities, what are the trends that are going to dominate in banking and how do they differ from what we see elsewhere?

Arnold Ekpe: The differences are very important and they're quite fundamental: In Europe and the more developed markets the key challenge is keeping costs down, whereas in Africa the key challenge for us is growing.

Africa is under-banked -- for example the banking penetration in most of our markets is less than 10%. If you look at the demographics, I think 50% of the population is 20 years or younger. The economy is one of the fastest-growing in the world, according to statistics.

So all the stories you see in Africa are about growth, and taking advantage of that growth, and that's what we're trying to do.

CNN: How do you capture this generation, many of whom may not have any bank account at all? Do you take the traditional measures or do you hop forward to spaces that some of the traditional Western banks are just getting around to, such as mobile banking?

All the stories you see in Africa are about growth and taking advantage of that growth and that's what we're trying to do.
--Arnold Ekpe, head of Ecobank

AE: We do both -- we have a 750-branch network because you've got to reach out to people on the ground. But we also have a mobile banking platform, as well as internet banking.

So our view is, make the channels available and provide confident banking to the consumer, so that the younger people are comfortable with it.

But the older folks, my generation for example, we're quite comfortable with the branch banking and talking to the teller across the desk. That's important to some people and we also cater to those needs.

CNN: What about the challenges of tapping into that growth potential?

AE: There are several challenges; one of course is that the infrastructure in Africa is still growing, it's not quite there. The issue about power, getting enough electricity to the branches -- many of our branches run on generators. But that's a challenge, it doesn't stop us from providing banking services.

When you look at the telecommunications for example, the fiber optics and all that, we don't have that in Africa. We have to use other means of connecting our branches.

It increases the cost of providing the service in the short term but we think we have to make an investment up front and over time the cost should come down. So you have to take a long-term view to banking in Africa.

CNN: What do you see in terms of the impact of Chinese investment coming into the continent?

AE: We have a very agnostic view: Africa needs capital, Africa needs to grow at an accelerated base. Whether that capital comes from the East, the West, or the center -- quite frankly, if it's good capital and it helps the growth of Africa, then it is something good for Africa.

China has suddenly shown a very strong interest, driven in part by its own self interests, in Africa and that has to be good for Africa. We're also trying to get more North American, more U.S. interest in also supporting the growth of Africa.

AE: You've talked a lot about the opportunities in Africa, what is one of the challenges that keeps you up at night?

CNN: The major challenge we have in Africa is to understand the need to move a little bit faster. That Africa needs to catch up a little bit more, that the rest of the world will not wait for Africa and the rest of the world does not owe Africa a favor -- Africa really has to make that extra effort.

On a philosophical level I think that to us this is the major challenge we have in Africa. We can go to the minor problems, infrastructure, all of that, but those can be fixed once the bigger problem is solved.