A notice advertising office space hangs imposingly on the door of a posh building just next to the NEMA head offices on Jinja road.
This building, until sometime last year, was home to a Barclays bank branch. Kamwokya’s Kobil fuel station looks a little deserted. Barclays used to have a branch and ATM there, making the area a beehive of activity.
The two facilities are now gone. Any Barclays bank customer in Kamwokya, Bukoto, and their environs looking to withdraw money has to either brave the mad traffic to Ntinda or the equally chaotic Wandegeya, where finding parking space is nothing short of a nightmare.
There is the less crowded Lugogo branch, although that appears farther, especially for those using public transport. Charles Ongwae, Barclays bank’s managing director, says there is a good reason for these changes.
“If you look at what we have done on Kampala road branch, we have merged it with the Jinja road one to give our customers the best services,” he told The Observer last week.
“For instance, we have increased our cashiers from 10 to 25 on Kampala road branch alone. The place [Kampala road building] belongs to us and is not rented.”
Over the last two years, the bank has closed at least four branches in Kampala: Kamwokya, Jinja road, Nateete and Ndeeba. The ATMs have not been spared either. Those closed include Kobil Kamwokya, Katwe, Kisementi, Jinja road, Kasubi, Lubaga road, Kibuye and Ndeeba. All this has left some customers grumbling. Only a few years ago, Barclays had only two branches in Kampala: Kampala road and Luwum street.
It then rapidly expanded, opening a number of branches in Kampala and various other towns around the country. It also acquired Nile bank. The rapid expansion saw the number of branches rise to 50 – according to the bank’s website. The closures would appear to be a rollback of this expansion strategy. According to Ongwae, Barclays now has 46 branches, with 25 of them in Kampala.
What has prompted the closures? Is the bank disappointed with the customer response at some of its newer branches? Is it reversing its strategy of expanding into retail banking? Or is it simply looking to cut costs?
While it is not unusual for banks to close branches and ATMs in a bid to become more efficient, the fact that Barclays has not explained its moves to the public has raised eyebrows. Whatever the reasons for the closures, they would not seem to include financial pressures. Among the five biggest banks in Uganda in terms of asset base, it was Barclays that released the most glowing numbers in their financial statement for 2011.
The bank’s pretax profit grew by 134% to Shs 25bn in 2011. Total assets, net interest income and customer deposits all grew as the bank showed that it had finally recovered from the tough times of the previous years. Many thought that the bank would embark on an expansion drive to consolidate its strong financial position.
Ongwae says the bank is only rationalizing its business.
“We have not gone out there to just close the branches; we are rationalizing our services to serve our customers better,” he said. “We closed Nateete branch and Ndeeba, then opened a brand new branch still in Ndeeba, with all the modern facilities to cater for all our customers’ banking needs,” he adds.
However, a source within the bank told The Observer that Barclays is trying to manage its costs.
“If you look at the cost of running an ATM, for the bank to leave it operating, it must make business sense. There are a lot of costs involved like rent, paying guards, transporting money, stationery for the receipts, equipment maintenance, air conditioners, camera, among others,” said the source on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the bank.
“If all these costs are not recovered and you just get ‘unprofitable’ customers who just come to withdraw Shs 10,000, then the bank may decide to relocate the ATM. Remember ATM transactions are free for Barclays’ customers.”
But Ongwae says the bank’s main objective is “not to cut costs, but to serve our customers better.” He added: “We are in fact looking for sites for new ATMs.”
Ongwae argues that having physical infrastructure in place is not so important. “We have internet banking where a customer can transact [business] without going to the branch. And we are about to launch our mobile money platform, Hello Money, which our customers will use to pay merchants, utilities, and send and receive money.”
Emmanuel Kikoni, chairperson of the Bankers’ Association, told The Observer that both reasons - trying to cut costs and adapting to new technologies - might be valid for the bank to reduce the number of branches and ATMs.
Asked whether we should expect more banks to close some of their branches to adapt to new technologies and cut costs, he said: “I wouldn’t say that. Closing a branch is a strategic decision of the operator in that particular area. I can’t generalise that more banks will close. In fact, some banks will seek to increase their footprint by opening more branches.”