The future of banking is here, according to Rose who has been making bold moves in the financial sector. She shared with us how Branch International became the first digital bank and how they are accelerating financial inclusion.
You may know Rose Muturi as a passionate speaker when it comes to financial inclusion. Or perhaps you remember her being ranked by Institut Choiseul in 2021 as the number 1 CEO in Kenya and 28th in Africa alongside Darshan Chandaria of Chandaria Group of Companies and George Gachara, Managing Partner at HEVA Fund LLP.
But did you know her rise to become the Branch International’s Managing Director, East Africa started 17 years ago when she was working as a Business Analyst for Standard Chartered Bank? Throughout her career, Rose has worked for major financial institutions and is behind some notable banking products and policies. Here’s a chat I had with her about her career highlights and take on equality and equity.
Are you living your dream?
Yes. I was once asked how I control burnout, and I was like I don’t have burnout because I enjoy what I’m doing. Being in the tech space, being in a forward-thinking company because we are the first digital or neobank in the region, being able to work from home, having a very young and agile team that we're working with, and of course not just blowing our trumpet, but the culture at Branch is very good. Having worked in other institutions before, I think I would say I'm living my dream and I'll continue dreaming bigger.
I'm curious how what that looks like when you say to continue dreaming bigger.
Well, I'm the kind of person who sets my goals and asks, what do I want to accomplish? And one of the things I wanted was to be involved in elements to do with financial inclusion.
Deep down I’m a product person. I love product innovation. I love seeing features, getting feedback from customers and solving real-life challenges. So by and large I tend to look for institutions where I can exercise that. Therefore, when I talk about dreaming bigger, I mean growing to become a source of influence, not just in East Africa but globally. Because Branch is present in four markets and I look after two of the four.
Let’s go back to 2018, how did it feel to be ranked as the best CEO in the country by the Institut Choiseul? Did you see it coming?
I’ve been participating in their conferences. I love them; they are Pan-African and they host industry leaders across the continent.
The first time they invited me I thought it was a scam. They sent an e-mail and they said we would want me to meet other like-minded individuals at one of the conferences. After a phone conversation, I realized it was not a scam and I attended.
It was a pleasant surprise, especially representing Kenya because quite a good number of people in that list were coming from markets such as South Africa, which from a financial perspective was being considered to be more mature. So I was really happy.
I saw you were nominated alongside Darshan Chandaria and George of HEVA Fund. It is quite impressive, how did it shape your career going forward?
It meant a lot of people are watching what you're doing, so whether it's a good thing or not, just remember that there are people who look up to you. The impact you have at work is what matters. We normally say efforts are not rewarded, it’s the output or impact.
At that particular time, I was working in a fintech and we had done quite a bit of work in terms of consumer sensitization, financial inclusion and many other things. So we were doing it because we wanted the company to thrive, but then all the other positives came in.
It was fulfilling to see that it wasn’t just about the revenue or the bottom line, it's what you may call softer issues that people are also looking at.
And how did you end up there? Tell us about your early beginnings.
I’ll try to be brief because it’s a long story (laughs).
I started at Standard Chartered Bank where I worked for eight years. I used to review KYC documentation just to make sure customers have filled out forms correctly then summarise the work into a graphical output to use statistical analysis to show how the day was.
The guys at the head office asked who does the analysis and that’s how I was invited to do it for the rest of the bank and started moving from one department to the next.
I did the analytics for quite a bit of time and then moved on to do product development, which is so much fun because you look at what customers are saying, what they want to see, then you create the product, roll it out, do the launch, and start monitoring.
I then moved to Chase Bank to do product development. I was looking after all the products for consumers, businesses and corporates. Chase Bank was known as an SME bank back then.
I would say the best but scary career move was moving from banking to credit bureau. I joined one of the credit bureaus, Transunion, to look after strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa. It was scary because the bureau was a smaller entity with smaller revenue and it was pure hardcore sales. But it was so much fun and I got to understand how banks have locked out a lot of Kenyans from accessing credit from a policy perspective.
That’s the time also digital credits started coming into the market, around 2013. So I was right there when the action started happening in the country - having lots of consultative meetings with the likes of CGAP and FSB Kenya trying to figure out how to create Financial inclusion.
That's the time I launched a product called Nipashe at Transunion which enabled Kenyans to check the data that has been reported about them to the credit bureau without them having to pay a visit.
From there I moved to Tala who I met while engaging partners and sharing insights on the data I had. I then launched the Digital Lenders Associations of Kenya which came from a need of bringing a bit of sanity to the market.
I later had a short stint in banking (digital banking) at Housing Finance. The lessons I learned about bringing a bank back to order are pretty much what I have applied today here at Branch because we did an acquisition of Microfinance Bank which was not doing very well and they were looking for a buyout.
Having that banking experience and being able to look at the details of such an institution has helped us to move even faster because I can be able to look at the financials.
So it's been an exciting journey because, through that acquisition, we've become the first digital bank in East and Central Africa with a base of 4.5 million people who knew us as a digital credit provider but can now save and do payments.
This has helped put Branch in a much better space where we can be as versatile as we wish in terms of offering what we have.
Which ones are the most notable products that you've helped launch?
I normally tell anyone who deals with product development to never get emotionally attached to the product they working on (laughs).
The one I’m most proud of is Nipashe by Transunion because I feel the essence of that product helped a lot of Kenyans access their credit information.
This is going to sound so biased but of course, the savings product that we currently have here at Branch is just amazing. We are enabling customers to save in small amounts and they can take the cash out when they need it. And we pay them interest every Monday.
When it comes to financial inclusion, what makes people locked out? Is it a factor of income disparities?
I think it's the way the financial services were structured in this country, banking was this the men's club.
Some commercial banks have been here for more than 100 years and were targeting people who were formerly employed, running a small, medium or large enterprise. They wouldn’t go out of their way to find people with no access to bank branches.
Because of that, they would still bank the same base. I remember the number, it was 4.5 million Kenyans as late as 2013. The data today shows 6 million Kenyans formerly employed, both in the corporate and SME sector. And it's still a small number compared to the adult population.
The rest, which is over 15-16 million are in the micro-enterprises where they're either employed or they're running their businesses. So that whole target population was disenfranchised because of the way the infrastructure was. The one thing that changed everything was of course mobile money. When mobile money came it made such a huge difference - I don't need to have a debit card, I don't need to know the bank manager or the credit officer and so on.
That innovation, which the country adopted, surprisingly well, made a big difference in this market and we've been able to accelerate and get to 95% financial inclusion compared to other markets.
You’ve held several leadership positions, which one would you say impacted your career the most?
Tala was quite significant and I would also say Transunion because I was handling a P&L. Housing Finance, for example, had been there since independence which is 50 years. But the other institutions were smaller. So I had to start from the ground knowing that every decision that's been made is affecting the business fundamentally.
Even from a managing people perspective, on the SME side, you may have all the structures that you need to work effectively and efficiently. But on the other hand, being on the medium enterprise side, sometimes you get affected by macroeconomics. There might be a policy decision that's been made and you need to reduce the number of people that you're working with. The impact is harder than those are larger corporates. So I think those are the ones that have taught me a lot about running my business.
If you have to choose the main milestones of your career, which ones would point out?
Milestone one would be moving from banking to credit bureau because I think that opened quite many doors for me. I would never have met the kind of people I was interacting with if I was still in banking.
Moving from credit bureau to fintech was also a big milestone in terms of the exposure that it's provided and the impact that I've seen in the market as a result of those developments in that particular sector.
Branch is predominantly known for mobile lending. Tell us about your microfinance bank suite
Strategically the goal is to become the most forward-thinking, innovative digital bank on the continent.
This journey started three years back. Based on the user research we had, people who were using us as a digital credit provider were asking whether they could save their money with us.
So we tried to work with our partner financial institution to see if we could allow our customers to save while keep doing what we know, which is lending. But the regulator was not keen on that partnership, so we had to take a step back and look at how best we could be able to offer these services. And that was getting a license that allowed us to take deposits.
So we started the journey of registering, but we were advised, as opposed to starting from the ground up, why don't we go around, and look at the existing microfinance banks in the market that are willing to sell to us so that acquire that license? That’s how we ended up acquiring Century Microfinance Bank and got approved in January last year.
That was a huge milestone because the license that we acquired enabled us to launch some services. Our customers are excited to know that they can keep money with us. It's made their lives much easier. We have some fantastic rewards when you interact with our platform, whether you're paying a bill or you're sending money to a friend. We are making banking fun and exciting, that's the difference that we're creating.
We constantly monitor how users interact with our products, take feedback and improve because we want to provide world-class financial services to the mobile generation.
This is the month we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month. What does equality mean to you? And on a scale of 1-10, how well do you think Branch has performed in terms of diversity?
Equality or equity? (laughs)
Equality is about ensuring each individual has the same resources and opportunities, especially in the workplace. At Branch, that's something that we've done quite well to the point where we were saying now the balance needs to come back because we have more women than men in the institution, which is a good thing.
Globally, all the MDs in the different markets are women. When it comes to leadership, we have women well represented, I also sit in there.
We've done pretty well in terms of ensuring there’s equality because people can work remotely and we can extend some good benefits to our employees. For example, if you apply for a role and you are expectant, some companies subconsciously say ‘no’ because they will need to take a break in a couple of months.
But for us, we’ll give you an equal opportunity when it comes to the interview process a decent 6 months of maternity leave since most of the teams work from home. So on a scale of 1-10, we are a 15 (laughs).
We have been intentional in creating a welcoming culture where everyone is encouraged to participate.
What’s your biggest struggle as a woman leader?
The only one that comes to mind, and I guess it's a personal bias on my side, is sometimes when you need to have a meeting with someone and they propose meeting after office hours because of their busy schedule.
I don't find it prudent, I think men, sometimes have it easier because you can meet up after work whether it's over a couple of drinks or in a more relaxed setting, and talk about what you want to sell. But I may not be able to do that, so I find that to be a disadvantage to me because I'm not going to be selling a proposal at 8:00 PM over drinks.
It's not a gender thing, It's just me because I know society may not look at it like this was a business meeting. And even if you accept my proposal, there will be question marks about when did this conversation happen and why? Yet a man, probably will not be asked the same.
What key questions should leaders ask themselves if they truly want to achieve equity?
Equity means recognizing that individuals have different circumstances and get the same opportunities. With that in mind, I think some of the questions that you need to ask are just a reflection of the social identities that are represented within your workplace.
Are you cognisant of them? As individuals, we have our conscious and subconscious biases. Today I was listening to a book which talks about how people will always want to be associated, whether it's with the majority or with people who are similar to them.
So when you're talking about equity, are we paying attention to those social identities to ensure that everyone has the same privileges given to them, and not subconsciously being inclined towards someone similar to us?
The other thing is something called attribution error. From a subconscious bias, when someone else does something, it’s their fault, but when you do something, it was probably due to an external factor. For example, if I’m late I’d expect you to understand that there was traffic. But if Mark is late it means he is careless.
That’s something you need to fully understand as a leader. Attribution error can cause bias when you are looking at performance reviews, or conducting weekly one-on-ones and hinder your performance. What are the fundamental issues? It's not that this person is bad for that role. Did you do the wrong hire?
Lastly, are your policies and manuals as generic as possible to accommodate everyone to ensure that there are no biases?
What is the most significant piece of advice you ever got that you would want to share with aspiring women leaders?
It's a song I sing. I always say the world belongs to the askers. Anywhere you are, just ask. The worst that can happen is you'll be told ‘no’. If you don't, it's a 100% chance of ‘no’. But if you ask, there's a 50% chance. So you increase your odds.
What next after Branch?
If I were to move from Branch way later after we’ve done the amazing things that we need to do, I would want to still focus on financial inclusion and financial health.
What’s the last app you opened on your phone?
One of our competitors (laughs) - the M-Pesa business app. There’s something new they’ve launched which I think is exciting.
Have you ever borrowed money from Branch?
Unfortunately no. But I have a very high limit.
If a biography about you was to be created, which actor would play you?
I love Wonder Woman. She’s very hot, she can make people say things they were hiding in their hearts. She’s friends with Batman and she lives forever. I don’t know if that's a good thing.