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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 07:37 GMT 08:37 UK
Banking on the rich in Africa
By Jo Foster
reporting from Douala, Cameroon

The UK bank Standard Chartered has decided to turn its back on the mass market in Cameroon, with its new policy of serving only the wealthy.

"If we were an airline," says George Mortimer, managing director of the Standard Chartered bank in Cameroon, "we would only take first- and business-class passengers."

A Standard Chartered bank branch
Standard Chartered wants to go up-market
"If clients can afford to travel in first and business class then they have a right to quality service," he says, "and it's the same for a bank."

Unfortunately, for the British bank's existing "economy class" customers, this means they will have to deposit over 2,000 before the end of the year or have their account closed.

A glance into the Standard Chartered branch in the commercial capital, Douala, proves that the ambience is currently more economy class check-in hall than first class lounge.

On the face of it, this is at odds with their public image
Dr Malaika Culverwell, Royal Institute of International Affairs
Clammy people fan themselves with paying-in slips as they shuffle forward to deposit small cheques; harassed tellers fill hold-alls with grubby banknotes destined for a cocoa auction in the bush; while young men splayed across chairs beneath the air conditioning start to snore.

It is an image the managing director needs to shed. "Our target market is top end. That is, multinationals, embassies, big NGOs, the government," says George Mortimer.

"So we need to maintain service levels. Statements must arrive on time, staff mustn't get distracted, someone important needs to be dealt with efficiently."

New rules, new image

So Standard Chartered in Cameroon is effectively cutting off the mass market. Letters have gone out to all retail customers advising that the new minimum balance for personal accounts is 2,000,000 CFA (2,200) and for business accounts 5,000,000 CFA (5,500)

Seventy percent of Cameroon's economy is from the rural areas... It is our duty to help formalise this community - they need cash and they need know-how
Dr Simeon Numdem
Afriland First bank
For a vast majority of Cameroonians, that is an impossible figure. An accountant in a mid-sized firm, for example, might expect to take home 400,000 CFA per month (440), so the minimum balance itself would represent half a year's salary.

Mr Mortimer is not expecting many small clients to stay on board.

Part of the reason for dropping the mass-market business is because most of the current customers maintain a tiny balance but make many cash transactions - so generating high traffic but low revenue for the bank.

"On the face of it, this is at odds with their public image," says Dr Malaika Culverwell, a senior research fellow in Corporate Social Responsibility from the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"Standard Chartered wants to be perceived as being socially responsible," she says. "Their core values focus on emerging markets, ethics and being a friend to small business."

Serving or selling out?

The bank's website trumpets its reputation as a bank which serves the African people.

"At Standard Chartered, we are committed to the communities and environments in which we operate," it states.

Rural workers in Cameroon
Credit groups have been a lifeline for rural entrepreneurs
"Our operations are focused on the emerging markets... where we believe we can be a legitimate influence for good."

Dr Culverwell concludes that the bank may need to change its corporate image if it continues to cold-shoulder the majority of the Cameroonian market.

Even its philanthropic efforts - such as building a maternity hospital in the small Cameroonian town of Foumban earlier this year - may not save its reputation.

As Dr Culverwell points out, sustainable partnerships are preferable to one-off handouts when it comes to earning brownie points.

No tailored service

For many Cameroonians, the move will reaffirm a belief that European banks are not specialised enough to cater for the needs of the African market place.

"You have to look at it in the spirit of the local culture," says Dr Simeon Numdem, an economic development expert with Afriland First bank, which was established in Cameroon in the 1980s.

Most of Melong's inhabitants are subsistence farmers
"Seventy percent of Cameroon's economy is from the rural areas and 60% is in the informal sector. It is our duty to help formalise this community - they need cash and they need know-how."

In Cameroon cash is king, particularly in small business. A cocoa buyer, for example, has to leave Douala armed with millions of CFA in hard currency when he travels to farming villages.

It takes time getting the cash from his account, he has to second guess exactly how much is needed and he becomes an easy target for robbers.

Afriland has introduced a system called Flash-Cash which allows customers to carry travellers cheques which can be cashed at any branch and cancelled if they are stolen.

Dr Numdem claims this is a "revolution" for small businesses in Cameroon. "In rural areas you find many credit groups, often run by women, called 'tontines'. In the past there were many hold-ups but now they use Flash-cash and it is safer."

Network banking

These tontines, which have long been a lifeline for rural entrepreneurs, are growing into a more formalised network of credit unions and becoming a significant force in the growth of the economy.

MC2, or Mutuelle Communitaire de Croissance, has 45 community banks which allow locals to deposit cash, apply for low interest loans and make savings.

"It gets the money out from under the mattress," says Isabelle Moses from MC2 in Melong, a farming town 150 kilometres north of Douala.

"The minimum balance for an account is 5,000 CFA and many of our clients wouldn't be able to even open an account with an international bank."

Back in the commercial capital, personal account holders with Standard Chartered have until December to raise 2,200 or take their business elsewhere.

Those who intend to save up for the privilege of a first class service might want to consider aiming even higher - for just 3,000 they could carry a cheque book from Coutts, Queen Elizabeth's own bank in London.

Country profile: Cameroon
27 May 03  |  Country profiles
Cameroon opens for business
28 Apr 03  |  Business

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