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Sierra Leone Business: …To further promote financial inclusion SLACB propose agency banking

Data suggests that 80% of the population in Sierra Leone is excluded from the banking sector, which is about 3.6 million people who are not part of the banking sector. That figure the Executive Secretary from the Sierra Leone Association of Commercial Banks (SLACB) says is bigger than the population of The Gambia. Shola Taylor-Pearce asked how can they get these people into the formal banking sector whilst responding to questions about SLACB’s role in accelerating financial inclusion in the country at the Microfinance Conference, last week. From the commercial bank perspective, she said that they believe that agency banking is the silver bullet. “We have all spoken about it, how many new branches can we build? It is expensive, with electricity, security and insurance costs, can we do that in all districts, chiefdoms and villages…No” she said.  So, as an industry they are proponents of what is called Agency Banking. It means they engage the services of a third party to be an extended arm of a bank often a commercial entity. She cited an example of having a petrol station within Karene district, so if any of the banks could contract the station to become an extension of Ecobank, then Pa Sillah or Mama Turay doesn’t have to walk miles to a branch to withdraw money. “So we honestly believe in Agency Banking as we are not reinventing the wheel. We know that, that has revolutionised banking in Africa and Asia, and that is why we are pushing for it” she said. Asking “Are there road blocks in our way, yes, I think we are the only country in Anglophone West Africa that is not fully operational when it comes to Agency Banking.” The Gambia, Nigeria, Ghana amongst others she said have gone ahead, “so what is holding us back as an industry?, frankly regulation, we need the statutory instruments to help us to push this and I will throw it back to you ML Sesay because it is sitting right in the central bank waiting.” She furthered that, “we need it, without it we cannot move forward, and we know that in order to reach those 3.6 million people, like we talked about it is all about financial services module that’s the way.” Madam Taylor-Pearce acknowledged that indeed there is mobile banking and that she says is another issue. “Yes we also believe that partnering with the mobile network operators (MNOs) will help us, we have commercial banks right now with mobile apps, but they are internet based, that’s not the way that large scale mobile financial services have been deployed in other places” she said. Whilst mentioning that, in other places they have used the USSD technology- GSM, so therefore being able to leverage access to USSD technology requires a partnership between banks, telecom’s the central bank and NATCOM, “we need those regulations in order for us to move forward.” Financial inclusion she said should not be a talk shop as they all know what is holding them back, “if little Gambia today can move forward with the national switch, agency banking what is stopping big sister Sierra Leone, is it the will power or is it the desire” she asked.  In his response ML Sesay from the BSL agreed that they too are aware of the importance of agency banking, networking and have realised that even with the mobile money there has been a very serious problem in terms of liquidity.  “If somebody knows that he has money in his mobile phone and goes to Makeni and knows that he will be able to cash out with that confidence we will be able to do it. What is important is that we want to make sure that we awash the system with liquidity” he said. He said that they are working with NATCOM on the USSD and they in turn have told them that they will have to discuss with Sierratel. “That is why promoting financial inclusion actually needs collaboration and partnership; we have signed an MoU with NATCOM.” He promised that by the end of the year the national switch will be in country as they have received funding from the World Bank and when once it becomes operable all financial services providers will be speaking the same language.

By Zainab Iyamide Joaque

Monday May 13, 2019.

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