SMEP MICROFINANCE BANK: REAPING THE FRUITS OF A LOYAL CLIENTELE

Symon Kamore, CEO, SMEP Microfinance Bank.
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With a strong Christian foundation, microfinance bank’s deposits grow despite the disruption caused by Covid-19

By George Gichuki

Driven by Christian values, SMEP Microfinance Bank has steadily grown over the years since its inception in 1975 as a relief arm of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK).  It is regulated by the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK).  Like many lenders in the country, SMEP has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.  “We only did normal business in the first quarter of this year,” says Mr. Symon Kamore, the chief executive officer. “The number of our non-performing loans has risen in the recent past due to the slowdown in the economy,” he adds.

To address this challenge, SMEP has restructured the loans of the customers who have been bit hit hard by the pandemic, besides granting them moratoriums.  Some of these customers include traders who have been relocated from their markets by various county governments and employees of flower companies based in Naivasha. Despite many businesses being adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Kamore points out that SMEP’s deposits have continued to grow during this challenging period.  “We are happy that many customers are showing a lot of confidence in SMEP by trusting us with their savings,” he says.

Business continuity plan

In order to address the disruption that has been caused by the pandemic, SMEP has put in place a business continuity plan.

To start with, staff members have taken precautionary measures that are aimed at checking the spread of coronavirus.

Before getting into their offices, their body temperature is being checked using thermal guns. They are also required to wear face masks and to wash or sanitize their hands regularly as per the Ministry of Health guidelines and protocols. These measures are also applicable to those visiting the lender’s premises.  “In all our banking halls, we are facilitating our customers to sanitize their hands, besides taking their body temperature using thermal guns,” Mr. Kamore emphasizes.

Secondly, SMEP has devised a working arrangement whereby there are staff members on standby   to perform   the critical functions in management and operations in any of its branches that might be hit by coronavirus.   Thirdly, the microfinance bank has invested heavily in digital platforms and customers can therefore conveniently access its services using their mobile phones.  In addition, customers can withdraw money from the microfinance bank using Visa branded automated teller machine (ATM) cards through a partnership with the Co-operative Bank.  Moreover, it has partnered with third party agents in various parts of the country through which its customers can deposit or withdraw money.

By the same token, formal   meetings among the staff members have been temporarily stopped in order to check the spread of coronavirus.  Consequently, they are holding virtual meetings in order to review their performance as they strive to meet targets. “We are also offering various training programmes and motivational   talks   to our staff members virtually, hence strengthening our bond and enhancing our productivity,” says Mr. Kamore.  Once a month for two hours, SMEP is holding a virtual meeting with two hundred and seventy management   staff members in all its forty business outlets throughout the country.

Assurance

Customers are the pillars of business.  Consequently, when Covid-19 hit Kenya putting many citizens in a panic mood, SMEP moved fast to reassure its customers by communicating with them via emails and text messaging.  In April and early May, the microfinance bank rolled out a campaign dubbed customer tracing. Its objective was to establish the fate of its customers after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country. “This is an ongoing campaign and through it, we are engaging our customers directly and assisting them to overcome the financial difficulties that they might be experiencing during this challenging period,” says Mr. Kamore.  In that respect, SMEP is restructuring the loan repayment schedules   of the customers who are experiencing difficulties in meeting their obligations.  By the same token, it is refinancing the customers in need of jump starting their businesses after being disrupted by the pandemic.

Ordinarily, SMEP would not disburse a loan to a group whose members are having arrears.  

However, in the current circumstances, it is doing so. “This has given such members a lot of assurance and comfort that we are willing and able to assist them during times of need,” Mr. Kamore avers.  Customers are also accessing loans digitally hence saving the time and money that they would have otherwise spent on visiting banking halls. Moreover, the microfinance bank is focusing on advancing short term loans to its customers and once they are settled, there is a window for further engagement.  “For the businesses which have not yet resumed their operations, we are restructuring their facilities,” Mr. Kamore reassures.

Internally, SMEP has put in place several cost cutting measures. “Currently, we have put on hold projects requiring huge capital investments until the situation normalizes,” Mr. Kamore says.

Strong brand

Despite a slowdown in the economy due to the Covid- 19 pandemic, SMEP’s deposits have been growing. Mr. Kamore attributes this to the strength of their brand’s equity.

“We have a strong corporate governance structure and a very stable management and this has enabled us to attract deposits,” he observes.  NCCK, the major shareholder of the microfinance bank is a highly recognizable brand and this has also enabled SMEP to mobilize more deposits.

“As a business, we keep our word and this has earned us a lot of repeat business,” says Mr. Kamore adding that the staff members are also highly trained in customer care and service.

Lessons

SMEP has over the years been investing heavily in information technology. In 2019 for instance, it upgraded its core banking system installing two huge servers with high speeds.  According to Mr. Kamore, information technology is breaking most of the barriers traditionally associated with banking and hence the need to be continuously innovative.

Generally, in times of crisis, most organizations   manage their costs by laying off their staff members.  Nevertheless, this is not easy in the microfinance sector where a lot of business is based on the relationship between staff members and customers.  “If we lay off our staff  as a way of managing costs, then we are likely to lose touch  with the customers they are servicing,” says Mr. Kamore adding that as the team leader, he is  reassuring  his staff members that   there is an end in sight for the pandemic and they have a stake in the business.

Being a business that is highly dependent on building strong relationships, occasional visits to the customers come in handy for players in the microfinance sector.  Even as SMEP uses technology in order to keep in touch with its customers, it is cognizant of the fact that they need to be visited once the situation normalizes.  “SMEP is strong and raring to go during this challenging period,” avers Mr. Kamore. “We believe that as an organization, we shall beat all the odds and emerge even more stronger from this pandemic,” he ends.

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