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Meet Chris Low — Finance, Fin-Tech and Banking Expert

Executive Summary

Chris has worked in the financial services sector for over 30 years in numerous roles and companies across the world, from the UK to Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Chris is a qualified Chartered Accountant and has been responsible for the expansion of several companies across Africa, namely Standard Chartered Bank and Letshego Holdings. In doing so, he contributed significantly to the development of local banking regulations and policies in a number of countries, including Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria South Africa and Tanzania, as well as to the establishment of fin-tech bank alliances and promotion of these across sub-Sahara Africa. His expertise and network today make him an important advisor to the UK Department of International Trade and the I&M Group in Kenya – his expertise covers trade, digital investments, risk management, execution capability and performance. Currently, also he holds a Board seat on the Bank subsidiary of a public quoted East African Banking and Insurance Group while advising a number of early-stage FinTechs. Prior to working with MNCs in Africa, Chris worked for Goldman Sachs and Arthur Andersen in the 1980s which provided him with the skill tenacity to take on Africa in his various roles as well as with National Bank of Kuwait between 2008 and 2011.

Standard Chartered Bank is one of the largest banks in Africa. Please would you briefly explain how much it has changed since you took your first position back in 1990? What other financial institutions did you work for?

“When I joined Standard Chartered, it had about 20,000 employees, and now it has something like 90,000. I watched and helped the Group grow into what you see today in a number of countries.” Chris’ expertise lies in emerging markets and within his roles at Standard Chartered, Chris was able to capitalise on this in his various Chief Executive Officer roles in India, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania. Chris has travelled extensively across the continent, giving him the opportunity to explore each country’s specific priorities and policies as well as regional advantages on offer. He has had an influence on the structure of financial regulation, introduced new financing options e.g. project finance and strengthened the overall presence of Standard Chartered across Africa in his 18+ years with the company.

Also, Chris worked at Letshego Holdings, one of Botswana’s largest multi-nationals with a public listing on the local stock exchange for 5 years where he was responsible for strengthening Board governance to international standards, and building the required understanding and support for the investment needed to execute a digital and disruptive strategy built on ecosystem leverage that promoted sustainable MSME financing and financial inclusion. He worked tirelessly to expand the sub-Sahara Africa multinational presence to eleven countries, transformed the business and delivered a market cap of ±USD400m while at the same time giving local communities access to finance that previously passed them by. During this period also he was a Board member of Diamond Bank Nigeria Plc for 3 years.

Chris’ career has taken him to other parts of the globe too – he has held senior-level positions at the National Bank of Kuwait for 5 years as well as working in India, Indonesia, Singapore and South Korea with Standard Chartered.

It is safe to say that in his 20+ year career on the continent, Chris has not only been a true influence in the formation of the banking sector today but has built a network there with depth and breadth.

Which different countries did you interact within your role with Standard Chartered and how would you describe your relationship and network with these countries?

Luckily for Chris, his positions within Standard Chartered and Letshego Holdings allowed him to experience a wide range of what the continent had to offer – he has travelled and/or worked in Angola, Botswana, Cote D’Ivoire, DRC, Egypt, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe; in total, he has travelled to at least 26 different African countries for business.

Chris maintains a strong network across Africa, where many of his colleagues now work in government, some for central banks and also in the private sector. Chris maintains frequent contact and still possesses a personal mandate to be involved directly in Kenya/East Africa, Nigeria and South Africa through his current portfolio appointments.

How did you impact/transform mobile money and fin-tech across Africa?

Chris correctly observed during his posts that Africa possesses a large informal sector. These informal sectors are clearly visible in countries like Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe and more. While at Letshego, with goals to reduce poverty and create an economic base for this informal sector, he sought to improve access to finance for the underbanked across multiple sectors. These citizens needed to be able to borrow, so to do this he launched an initiative in partnership with the continent’s leading mobile money providers such as MTN, Airtel and Econet to launch mobile loans and other providers such as Jumo. This project started with Ghana where small loans were offered over the mobile from between $5 and $100; within a year nearly one million customers were registered and over time this rose to approximately four million people. The personal impact of this initiative on the livelihoods of Ghanaians was immense. This project was later introduced to Zimbabwe and Lesotho via Econet Wireless and in parallel mobile savings were launched in Tanzania. In addition, Chris aimed to improve the use of mobile wallets on the continent as formal banking was not common amongst many citizens – these wallets were targeted to bridge the gap is agribusiness supply chains. As agriculture makes up more than 50% of the labour in most countries across the continent, providing these stakeholders with access to finance speeds up the supply chain and overcomes many of the current discontinuities in agribusiness.

As you joined the continent when it was still trying to gather its footing (1990), how would you say you impacted the development of financial regulation across the continent? What did you bring to the table?

Chris introduced new ways of financial governance. In Tanzania, he was a part of a private sector founders pool where he drove government policy change towards promoting economic growth. Further, in Botswana and across its sub-Sahara African operations, Chris worked towards promoting financial inclusion that aligned itself with Government and Central Bank agendas. This led to the progressive development of mobile wallets as quasi-bank accounts — this is now an extremely common form of banking in Africa. Similar practices were introduced in a number of countries and as Chris had an influence on policy he made it his mission to aid those that were financially excluded from the present form of banking. This was possible as Letshegoworked as a member of the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI) on policies as they related to KYC/AML for individuals without bank accounts/national ID. Also, he worked on influencing bank regulations (e.g. on capital and liquidity management) to make it simpler to operate non-bank financial institutions who wanted to offer basic banking services to the financially excluded. AFI was a membership organisation representing over 100 emerging markets, including 20 for Africa — most members were either Government’s Ministry of Finance or Central Banks — Letshego was the fifth private sector member alongside Visa, Mastercard, BBVA and GSMA.

What impact did the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) have on your career and business in Africa and the Middle East?

Shortly before the GFC, Chris was recruited by a Middle-East based bank, National Bank of Kuwait, and by the time the global markets crashed, Chris had begun a new post there as the Deputy CEO of the International Banking Division. The Middle-East escaped the brunt of the crisis in the early months; however as the Madoff Ponzi scheme was uncovered, a number of banks were caught by this. Further, regulators in the Region implemented many of the new banking sector regulatory changes of the developed markets to add resilience to their own. Regardless, the crisis was a blessing in disguise for many as the resulting tightening up of regulations meant that stronger banks around the globe such as Standard Chartered, came out stronger and better than when they went in, in part due to increased capital adequacy requirements imposed by Central Banks, alongside improved supervision.

As Africa became your home and you grew incredibly fond of some of the countries you lived in, what sort of charity/ grassroots work did you participate in?

Chris has been influential in the grassroots and charity sector of sub-Sahara Africa for many years. He was one of the first “HIV awareness” ambassadors at Standard Chartered Bank in the late 1990s and went on to be a member of the founding committee for the ‘Seeing is Believing’ programme that Standard Chartered Bank launched globally to tackle avoidable blindness. He worked with the albino society in Tanzania to raise awareness of the unnecessary harm to people with albinism and in South Africa, he aided a local community by funding the conversion of a shipping container into a classroom.

Chris lives by Standard Chartered’s motto “here for good” as he feels it “comes from the heart” – the banking group continues to work tirelessly to the benefit of local communities where it operates across the globe and on the African continent. Chris then took this DNA and practices with him to Letshego Holdings – Letshego’s tag line was “Let’s improve life.” This was put into practice where the bank invested in the provision of finance for education, health and low-cost housing businesses of its customers. Also, the Group sponsored raising awareness of life-threatening non-communicable diseases that most Africans never really considered, such as obesity and heart disease. Further, he strived to make an impact where he could in the education and healthcare sectors as obviously, this is an important part of improving the livelihoods of communities.

You have been developing you non-executive advisory roles over the last couple years – what organisations and businesses have you been advising and what sort of work did you advise them on?

Chris was approached by UK government, namely DIT, to do 2 things; to help build the Government’s network in financial services for the African Investment Summit in January earlier this year, and to develop a strategy on how the DIT’s Financial and Professional Services team can collaborate more effectively with UK based banks to promote trade and investment across the world. This involved working with the UK and International Banks in the UK, as well as with the PRA/FCA and Banking Trade bodies and through this he identified that there could be enhanced use of the UK Export Finance facilities if the department engaged more fully with digital platforms focused on trade, FX and international payments. Further, the strategy highlighted that the absence of Banks in the UK from countries that are strong UK trading partners may have economic consequences for these countries. Also as implications of Brexit come into full play, the UK will need to shift its focus to these strong trading partners, including in Africa. Linked to this and more recently, the DIT has launched the “Tech for Growth” programme that is looking to facilitate African based tech companies’ entry to the UK as well as UK tech companies keen to enter Africa – the UK government wants to enhance investments in finance and fintech on the continent.

What is your connection with SABA and what is your hope for the organisation? How would you help SABA shift the narrative that Africa is not worthwhile to invest in?

Chris was introduced to SABA through a colleague working at FinTech Scotland. Upon meeting SABA’s Chair and CEO, Chris was delighted to become a part of SABA and its vision for the African continent. He shares the concern that Scotland has been left behind by the UK Government and others in their involvement on the continent when Scotland has so much to offer. To address this, Chris joined SABA as a Financial Services and FinTech advisor to aid the facilitation of related investments from/into the continent.

With regard to an often negative narrative around Africa, Chris believes that this is a misconception. The continent has a very young and entrepreneurial population as well as being rich in resources – this potential must be realised sooner rather than later and the nations that capitalise on this will be much more economically successful than those that sit and wait for the world to come to them.

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