The dazzling fireworks display at Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) in Nairobi that marked the 35th anniversary celebrations.

By George Marenya

When others walk as if they own the road, they walked as if they did not care who owns the road.

It is in the mid 1980s; the Kenyan economy is doing well. The dreaded structural adjustment programmes unleashed unto the world by the World Bank are yet to bite.

In fact, the windfall from the coffee boom is still wafting in the air. But something is about to spoil the party. Local financial institutions are tumbling down like dominoes.

A younger banker, somewhere in Nairobi is watching all this with trepidation. He knows that this may spell doom for the local financial sector. His break will come soon.

As a matter of coincidence, he gets his big break when a fledging financial institution welcomes him on board. In 1993, he is appointed as the turnaround strategy and financial director of the perennially insolvent Equity Building Society.

Big break

He had a comfortable job elsewhere. His star was rising. So why enter this dark tunnel? Well, he felt, almost prophetically, that this was his moment in the sunshine. The word turnaround was not big those days, at least not in Kenya. Yet he believed Equity could be transformed into something big – a leading money house in Africa and a global trail-blazer.

In order to achieve this, he needed faithful converts. He started by indoctrinating the faithful cohort he found who formed the pioneer staff at Equity. They had to believe in themselves. Nobody was going to put money in an institution whose workers did not even trust. They had to hold up their chin while introducing themselves as Equity staff.

It was only a matter of time. Good tidings were on their way. First, the streak of loss-making had to be brought to a halt.

Then in 2005, it was transformed into a full-fledged bank. The big break had come. The rural people had come to urban centres, officially. But what was Equity worth? What was its market value? The market had to determine this. So they went to the then Nairobi Stock Exchange.

An entity which goes to the market proves it is not into crony capitalism; read state largesse. They have faith in the allocative function of the market.

Equity Group founding chairman, Dr. Peter Munga makes his address.

Only the market assigns goods their true exchange value. This is why Hernando De Soto has said that the third world will always remain poor because they do not have representational value for what they own.

Anybody will tell you that Equity stock is one of the most valuable today. In fact, what was one share fifteen years ago had to be split more than 600 times, making the original holders instant billionaires.

Big boys

It has been long since Dr. Mwangi stepped into those non-descript offices near Jeevanjee Gardens to take his place as the leader of a would be revolution. Like all revolutionaries, he knew there was no equality of arms with the big boys in town.

He did not insist on pushing or shoving them on the highway. He just minded his own business. Building a culture of trust and appealing to peoples’ dignity. This was a cloak and dagger warfare. It was a hard combat. No hit and run. People had to patiently believe in the cause.

At the core of this movement, this civilization, exists the acute understanding and needs of the Equity customer. Early scholars of Equity like Gehard Coetzee attribute the bank’s exponential growth to the fact that it avoided a product led culture and orientation in favour of a consumer centred or market-led approach.

The Equity choir performing during the 35th anniversary dinner.

Being acutely aware of the needs of the market of course came with considerable financial outlay. The heavy investment in information technology would soon pay off leading to less congested banking halls and quicker service.

Equity Group Managing Director and CEO Dr. James Mwangi gives his speech.

With Equitel and Eazzy Banking application, banking is done on the go. A bank is what you do not a place to go. You can apply for a loan of Kshs. 3 million from the comfort of your home!

Dr. Mwangi told Professor Mohammed Yunus ( the celebrated founder of Grameen Bank) in 2006 that the future was microfinance, not microcredit. It was crazy of him then. How dare you contradict a Nobel Prize winner? Well guess who is smarter now?

These days we take it for granted when we see the bank agent around the block. We don’t realize it took years of painstaking negotiations with the Central Bank of Kenya to make it a reality.

Then of course, there is Wings to Fly which Daktari tells us has overtaken the bank itself as a brand.

Wings to Fly aptly captures everything that Equity stands for. The transparency that occasions the selection of beneficiaries to the scholarships can’t be matched elsewhere. This in turn builds trust in the brand and makes continuous donor support easier.

Equity board members from Tanzania and South Sudan following the proceedings.

And you know a brand has arrived if you see it in unlikely places. Americans deliberately include Coca Cola visuals in their movies and comedies. I was pleasantly surprised to find that an Equity branch in DRC appears in the song Singuila by Kofi Olomide and another precisely at minute 2:04.

The beneficiaries who have gone through the programme and ended up at Ivy League universities continue to be Kenya’s valuable ambassadors out there.

The government for a long time grappled with how to bring about rural-urban balance. At the heart of their woes was how they would bring financial services closer to people. Yes, you guessed it: how to bring banks to the rural areas. But if banks did not go to Nairobi suburbs, how would they venture into the village? When Equity plugged into this dilemma, it must have been a sigh of relief to central

planners in Nairobi. The convenience of choice and power is something unmatched in human psychology.

As Wole Soyinka has said, power and fear are two sides of the same coin. Those who wield power or aspire for it, fear losing it. Those who are powerless fear and detest being kept in that position. In our case, the latter won.

The movement Dr. Mwangi created feared being under the thumb of those who treated them badly. That movement (members) created banking in its own image. They succeeded. These days, Equity is one of the leading banks in the world per return on investments (ROI). Its balance sheet is headed to the trillion mark.

Members of the board together with the Central Bank of Kenya deputy governor
Sheila M’Mbijjewe (3rd from right) cutting a cake to mark the 35 years celebrations.

But figures rarely tell the story of Equity. Equity Bank is a human story. Like the case of a living organism. The external order you see is as a result of hard work and organization.

Below this are transparency and a governance structure given to ethical practices. No director can ever take out an Equity loan as long as he or she is still serving on the board. This way, Equity has avoided the shame that recently dogged some fallen banks.

It has been a long way ever since Equity dared to imagine itself in Kangema, Karatina and Murarandia. Those were the days of sweat, mud and toil.

These sweaty crammed offices of course would give way to the air conditioned Equity Centre with its be-suited occupants smelling of fresh cologne and Limuru roses.

And when they spread out a party recently to mark 35 years, the fireworks were loud, beautiful and bold. The Kangema boys had come to town and toppled the table. Those who had always walked as if they own the road realized there are those who don’t care who owns the road.



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