How has the pandemic reshaped Standard Chartered's operations and the banking sector in Nigeria?
The banking sector was clearly impacted because a number of our clients had to shut down their operations. We had the challenge of continuing to serve our clients while our branches were closed, meaning we had to rely on digital channels. The financial sector has done reasonably well under the circumstances. The central bank stepped in to provide liquidity support to vulnerable sectors, and banks were allowed to restructure facilities to have forbearance schemes in place to allow borrowers to repay their loans on easier terms. As a result, non-performing loans in the industry were not as bad as expected, given the severe shock the economy incurred. It was a huge challenge, but we weathered the storm, and the Nigerian economy emerged out of recession with modest GDP growth in 4Q2020.
With GDP growth driven by telecoms and agriculture, does this diversification bring you more opportunities in corporate banking?
We do see opportunities in the non-oil sector. Nigeria needs to diversify away from oil for foreign exchange earnings. The challenge that the country faces with foreign exchange is that one big engine brings in foreign exchange, but whenever that engine has a problem, the entire economy suffers. Nigeria should have an export-led growth driven by agriculture. It has enormous potential to not only be self-sufficient but also be an agriculture powerhouse, particularly when it comes to commodities that countries such as Ghana and Ivory Coast are producing. In mining, Nigeria has only scratched the surface. As for manufacturing, we need to take advantage of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to increase regional trade. It is time to look at the structure of the economy and see how we can reduce this dependence on oil and move away from that.
Have you seen the same adoption of emerging technologies in Nigeria and by Nigerian banks as is the case globally?
Digital banking has been a focus for almost all banks. That was further strengthened by the pandemic, when clients did not have the opportunity to physically go down to branches in many cases. In terms of new technologies like blockchain, Nigerian banks have not really invested in that significantly. However, over time I expect to start seeing some investment in blockchain, particularly when it comes to the trade finance side. As for Bitcoin, the central bank issued new regulations that commercial banks in Nigeria should be careful about supporting cryptocurrencies, and banks were asked to close accounts of any of the players that were trading them. This is concerning. Bitcoin has a number of positives, but it also carries some risks, namely the lack of transparency and the opportunity for people to carry out illegal activities. However, you cannot ban Bitcoin. It is global; if you ban it, people will always find ways around it. The central bank should instead find ways to enforce regulations to identify and prosecute those who abuse the platform.
How does Standard Chartered plan to increase its presence in the retail and commercial banking space? What are your comparative advantages?
We are actually making solid headway in that space, driven largely by our investment in digital banking. We did that extremely successfully in 2019, and since then we saw our client base grow by 50% in less than one year. We have the opportunity to significantly scale up our retail business in Nigeria on the back of not only investments in technology but also investment in products and services that would attract the right clients to the bank. Because of our international network, we are able to provide opportunities for clients to invest globally. As a result, we are seeing tremendous growth in our wealth management segment. In addition, the brand is strong globally, so you are seen as a Standard Chartered client everywhere, whether in Singapore, Hong Kong, or Dubai.