Five years ago, owning a bank account was a far-fetched dream for most Zimbabweans. Banking was only for those with registered businesses and or individuals who had proof of income to show that they were employed or had a stable source of funding. In a country with more than fifty percent of its population employed in the informal sector, a solution was required to cater for not only this segment but for every other individual who needed to open an account, for saving or transacting.
The restrictive KYC requirements for opening an account made it impossible for just anyone to walk into a Bank and open an account, even for savings purposes. When Steward Bank came into the scene five years ago, its core purpose and strategic goal was to foster financial inclusion, making banking cost effective, universal and accessible to every Zimbabwean. The Bank introduced a KYC light account which only required customers to bring in their ID and a minimal account opening fee which covered the cost of debit cards. The transactional account, called iSave, which targets the middle to lower income customers attracted a lot of attention and became popular overnight due to the fact that it carried no bank charges and could be opened instantly. In addition, the account came with an option to link to the EcoCash platform which significantly increased convenience as it almost completely eliminated the need for customers to go to the Bank. Customers could transact over their mobile phones and through the vast agent network that the Bank set up countrywide.
Steward Bank became known as ‘The Neighbourhood Bank’, due to its strategic partnerships which produced more than 1,200 operating agents across the country. Banking services became accessible in the neighborhoods through the agent network, proving that anyone can have a bank account, regardless of their location, income level, status or occupation. The Bank also introduced Agents in rural areas and provided mobile banking in farms and villages, including the most remote of all places in a bid to cater to the previously marginalized everyday people.
The Bank went further to ensure that customers were able to access mobile banking facilities both through mobile App and USSD for customers with feature phones. In addition to the agent banking facilities, the Bank currently is the largest payments acquirer in Zimbabwe with more than 11,000 POS devices nationwide. These POS devices are NFC enabled and customers can also pay using tap and go, EcoCash, USSD, EcoCash Mobile App and EcoCash Debit Card. The Steward Bank MasterCard has broken individual barriers to access financial convenience of credit cards as customers have an option to apply for credit cards that are offered under the MasterCard banner. In line with the company’s banking strategy to provide financial inclusion for all Zimbabweans, the partnership with MasterCard has enabled cardholders to access close to 10,000 point of sale transaction points within Zimbabwe and over 47 million points of sale points globally.
The Bank also introduced the Universal banking concept throughout its Agent Banking Network, which allows both Steward Bank and other banks’ customers to transact on the POS infrastructure both at Agents and at other service providers including toll gates.The SME sector has also been catered for accordingly under the financial inclusion agenda. The charges for the SME are significantly lower than those of corporate accounts. Previously, this category of business people was classified under the same banner as bigger corporates and this repelled the SMEs from opening business accounts.
In addition, the SMEs receive financial literacy and business management skills, taking them from being unbanked to being banked and running businesses well. Steward Bank has embraced Zimbabweans living in the diaspora by providing them options to manage their finances back home from wherever they are in the world. Steward Bank facilitates remittances for diasporians wishing to send money home to their families through different partnerships including Western Union and Cassava Remittances. Put simply, the Bank has provided Zimbabweans living abroad the ability to access financial products and services in Zimbabwe, but with international transactional capability, through its Diaspora Banking Unit.
At the same time, parents can now save for their children between the ages of zero to twelve through the Savvy Kids account, while teenagers and students have an opportunity to learn from a young age how to manage their own finances through the Savvy teens and iStudent accounts respectively. These accounts carry a zero minimum balance and no bank charges as there are no monthly charges deducted by the Bank. From the outset, the mission was to bring in Zimbabweans who had previously been excluded from the banking mainstream and what Steward Bank has done is to come up with a model supports that goal.
Essentially, the Bank has experienced the widest reach across the country and there is no question that this new financial inclusion model is a game-changer for the banking industry in Zimbabwe.Steward Bank has led the banking revolution in Zimbabwe by adopting a strategy which ensures that the previously marginalised individuals and communities are introduced to a banking and saving culture through Steward Bank.
The Bank has significantly grown due to its bold strategy to pursue a digital banking model anchored on transactional banking and a seamless integration with the EcoCash mobile money platform as a central pillar. In line with Steward Bank’s mission to offer affordable financial services to every Zimbabwean, and propelled by a strong brand,180 000 new accounts were opened in the past six months, as testimony to how far the Bank’s financial inclusion agenda has reached. The Bank has really become an Everyday Bank for Everyday people resulting in the Bank receiving various accolades for its role in financial inclusion.
“We are proud to have been recognised on a global platform for our part in writing the Zimbabwean story on how we can improve and change banking across Africa, making it relevant to the 21st century and contributing to the Reserve Bank’s vision to improve financial inclusion for people in the remote parts of the country. Despite the challenges we face, we believe it is possible to innovate and offer the banking products and services that people want and not what bankers believe they need. Banking should be affordable, it should be universal and easily accessible” said the bank’s Chief Executive.
For further details on the iSave and other accounts, please log onto www.stewardbank.co.zw
ECB stays put but warns about surge in infections
By Balazs Koranyi and Francesco Canepa
FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The European Central Bank warned on Thursday that a new surge in COVID-19 infections poses risks to the euro zone’s recovery and reaffirmed its pledge to keep borrowing costs low to help the economy through the pandemic.
Having extended stimulus well into next year with a massive support package in December, ECB policymakers kept policy unchanged on Thursday, keen to let governments take over the task of keeping the euro zone economy afloat until normal business activity can resume.
But they warned about a new rise in infections and the ensuing restrictions to economic activity, saying they were prepared to provide even more support to the economy if needed.
“The renewed surge in coronavirus (COVID-19) infections and the restrictive and prolonged containment measures imposed in many euro area countries are disrupting economic activity,” ECB President Christine Lagarde said in her opening statement.
Fresh lockdowns, a slow start to vaccinations across the 19 countries that use the euro, and the currency’s strength will increase headwinds for exporters, challenging the ECB’s forecasts of a robust recovery starting in the second quarter.
Lagarde saluted the start of vaccinations as “an important milestone” despite “some difficulty” and said the latest data was still in line with the ECB’s forecasts.
She conceded that the strong euro, which hit a 2-1/2 year high against the dollar earlier this month, was putting a dampener on inflation and reaffirmed that the ECB would continue to monitor the exchange rate.
The euro has dropped 1% on a trade-weighted basis since the start of the year, but is up nearly 7% over the last 12 months. Against the U.S. dollar, that number rises to over 10%.
Opening the door for more stimulus if needed, Lagarde confirmed the ECB would continue buying bonds until “it judges that the coronavirus crisis phase is over”.
Lagarde also kept a closely watched reference to “downside” risks facing the euro zone economy, which has been a reliable indicator that the ECB saw policy easing as more likely than tightening.
But she signalled those risks were less acute, in part thanks to the recent Brexit deal.
“The news about the prospects for the global economy, the agreement on future EU-UK relations and the start of vaccination campaigns is encouraging,” Lagarde said. “But the ongoing pandemic and its implications for economic and financial conditions continue to be sources of downside risk.”
Lagarde conceded that the immediate future was challenging but argued that should not impact the longer term.
“Once the impact of the pandemic fades, a recovery in demand, supported by accommodative fiscal and monetary policies, will put upward pressure on inflation over the medium term,” Lagarde said.
Benign market indicators support Lagarde’s argument. Stocks are rising, interest rates are steady and government borrowing costs are trending lower, despite some political drama in Italy.
There is also around 1 trillion euros of untapped funds in the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) to back up her pledge to keep borrowing costs at record lows.
The ECB has indicated it may not even need it to use it all.
“If favourable financing conditions can be maintained with asset purchase flows that do not exhaust the envelope over the net purchase horizon of the PEPP, the envelope need not be used in full,” Lagarde said.
Recent economic history also favours the ECB. When most of the economy reopened last summer, activity rebounded more quickly than expected, indicating that firms were more resilient than had been feared.
Uncomfortably low inflation is set to remain a thorn in the ECB’s side for years to come, however, even if surging oil demand helps put upward pressure on prices in 2021.
With Thursday’s decision, the ECB’s benchmark deposit rate remained at minus 0.5% while the overall quota for bond purchases under PEPP was maintained at 1.85 trillion euros.
(Editing by Catherine Evans)
Bank of Japan lifts next year’s growth forecast, saves ammunition as virus risks linger
By Leika Kihara and Tetsushi Kajimoto
TOKYO (Reuters) – The Bank of Japan kept monetary policy steady on Thursday and upgraded its economic forecast for next fiscal year, but warned of escalating risks to the outlook as new coronavirus emergency measures threatened to derail a fragile recovery.
BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said the board also discussed the bank’s review of its policy tools due in March, though dropped few hints on what the outcome could be.
“Our review won’t focus just on addressing the side-effects of our policy. We need to make it more effective and agile,” Kuroda told a news conference.
As widely expected, the BOJ maintained its targets under yield curve control (YCC) at -0.1% for short-term interest rates and around 0% for 10-year bond yields.
In fresh quarterly projections, the BOJ upgraded next fiscal year’s growth forecast to a 3.9% expansion from a 3.6% gain seen three months ago based on hopes the government’s huge spending package will soften the blow from the pandemic.
But it offered a bleaker view on consumption, warning that services spending will remain under “strong downward pressure” due to fresh state of emergency measures taken this month.
“Japan’s economy is picking up as a trend,” the BOJ said in the report, offering a slightly more nuanced view than last month when it said growth was “picking up.”
While Kuroda reiterated the BOJ’s readiness to ramp up stimulus further, he voiced hope robust exports and expected roll-outs of vaccines will brighten prospects for a recovery.
“I don’t think the risk of Japan sliding back into deflation is high,” he said, signalling the BOJ has offered sufficient stimulus for now to ease the blow from COVID-19.
NO EXIT EYED
Many analysts had expected the BOJ to hold fire ahead of a policy review in March, which aims to make its tools sustainable as Japan braces for a prolonged battle with COVID-19.
Sources have told Reuters the BOJ will discuss ways to scale back its massive purchases of exchange-traded funds (ETF) and loosen its grip on YCC to breathe life back into markets numbed by years of heavy-handed intervention.
Kuroda said the BOJ may look at such options at the review, but stressed a decision will depend on the findings of its scrutiny into the effects and costs of YCC.
He also made clear any steps the BOJ would take will not lead to a withdrawal of stimulus.
“It’s too early to exit from our massive monetary easing programme at this point,” Kuroda said. “Western economies have been deploying monetary easing steps for a decade, and none of them are mulling an exit now.”
(Reporting by Leika Kihara and Tetsushi Kajimoto; additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore & Shri Navaratnam)
World Bank, IMF agree to hold April meetings online due to COVID-19 risks
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have agreed to hold their spring meetings, planned for April 5-11, online instead of in person due to continued concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, they said in joint statement.
The meetings usually bring some 10,000 government officials, journalists, business people and civil society representatives from across the world to a tightly-packed two-block area of Washington that houses their headquarters.
This will be the third of the institutions’ semiannual meetings to be held virtually due to the pandemic.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Chris Rees
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