KABANDA CHULU, Lusaka
FOR over five years, Kafula Mwiche, a civil servant working in Mwense district used to travel 120 kilometres every month end to draw his salary in Mansa.
This experience was not only burdensome but also costly since Mr Mwiche was
forced to withdraw his entire earnings to avoid the long journey to Mansa whenever he wanted to access his finances.
It is indeed costly to keep money at home especially when there are no immediate needs for the funds. But this is what Mr Mwiche and many other workers, including small entrepreneurs encounter in areas that have no banking facilities.
Until recently, the majority of people in rural areas were left out of the banking system because most commercial banks are profit-driven and did not consider opening branches in those areas.
With the reintroduction of economic liberalisation and financial sector reforms in the early 1990s, some banks embarked on branch network expansion focusing on rural areas, albeit rather slowly and concentrating on provincial centres.
Out of the 20 commercial banks in the country, National Savings and Credit Bank (NatSave) stands out as the pioneer of financial inclusion, providing banking services especially in rural areas.
NatSave was established in 1972 as part of the general post office. The institution is 100 percent government owned and was created with a social mandate to deliver banking services to all parts of the country at an affordable price.
The bank currently has 38 branches, most of which are in rural areas. NatSave stands as the only bank in Chavuma, Mwense, Kalabo, Lufwanyama, Mpongwe, Chilubi (Island), Kaputa, Nchelenge, Mporokoso, Zambezi, Kasempa, Chama, Luwingu, Kazungula, Lukulu and Lumwana.
As the bank commemorates 45 years of existence, NatSave managing director Cephas Chabu said the bank will not relent in ensuring that unbanked areas of the country are serviced.
“So, a vigorous branch construction exercise is still being undertaken. The bank has firmly positioned itself in the market through its unequalled presence in several districts of the country.
“The bank further enjoys adequate customer confidence on the market and this is evidenced by the number of active accounts held in its books which top 160, 000,” he said in a recent interview.
The creation of the bank meant removing the savings division from the post office, but still maintaining linkages with the general post office until 1999, when the partnership between the bank and the post office ended, and NatSave embarked on developing its own branches around the country.
Mr Chabu said over its 45-year existence, NatSave has faced enough challenges, but is proud to still be on its feet and scoring high in all aspects of its operations.
“The bank has treated each challenge as an opportunity to become stronger and come up with more robust products and services,” he said.
Another innovation that has made NatSave to stand out is the bank’s commitment to financing smallholder farmer mechanisation.
Under its Bunjimi Asset- Plus loan facility [launched in 2015 and over K17 million has been disbursed to over 300 farmers], it allow farmers to acquire various farming equipment on hire purchase. Then the bank pays the equipment vendor, and the customer (farmer) pays for the equipment in instalments.
“This is a flexible means of purchasing equipment one may not otherwise have managed on a one off payment basis,” Mr Chabu said.
In addition, NatSave has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs for the provision of affordable loans for tractors and other farming equipment for chiefs.
Government hopes to use the influence of traditional leaders to increase agricultural productivity across the country.
As part of the 45th anniversary commemorations, NatSave members of staff visited former President Kaunda’s house last month.
Mr Chabu informed Dr Kaunda the bank has kept the mandate of reaching out to small savers in rural areas which big banks avoid.
In his remarks, Dr Kaunda advised NatSave to continue maintaining its traditional role of stimulating small savers and businesses that are key drivers of economic development.
“When my colleagues and I were in Government, we supported the formation of NatSave because there were some gaps in the financial sector. We believed that savings by small savers and the needy, will help improve lives of individuals and families, because when combined these people are a huge force to reckon with,” he said.
Dr Kaunda recollected how NATSAVE was initially started with links with the post office system.
“We felt many people, in many parts of the country will now be reached with financial services since the Post Office is all over the country, until an Act of Parliament was enacted to establish the bank,” he said.
The financial industry has evolved over time, in terms of technology. Gone are the days when majority customers had to queue up inside the banking hall to transact.
Now customers have the luxury of accessing their money from a point close to them, through an Automated Teller Machine (ATM).
“NatSave has not been left behind in embracing the developing world of technology. In 2012, the bank launched its ATM service, and to date, 29 ATMs have been installed across its branch network. Customers can access their money from other ATMs too, connected to the Zamlink switch [Finance Bank, Pan African Banking Services].
“Another innovative product the bank is offering is Agency Banking through Point of Sale (PoS) terminals. This facility allows customers in locations where the bank does not have a physical branch enjoy banking services, through an agent. Currently, 40 agents, offering banking services on behalf of NatSave, via PoS terminals, are available countrywide,” Mr Chabu said.
Nevertheless, Mr Chabu said the bank on March 20, 2017, migrated to the Finacle, a world class core banking system that will provide VISA enabled ATMs.
When officially opening the NatSave Kasempa branch in June 2015, President Lungu said NatSave is a unique bank that sets the pace which other banks follow.
“By opening up in rural areas, you give opportunities to people to access financial services. As Government, we are building roads to ensure connectivity so any bank that sets up branches in rural areas will become our friend and we shall provide total support,” he said.
As NatSave strives to be a market leader in the innovation of products to suit a diverse class of customers, the bank has introduced and rolled out products specifically tailored to respond to the needs of special groups in society such as the girl child, women, the youth, and aged, among others.
For NatSave, to maintain its tag of the preferred bank especially in rural areas, and its adult populace, the bank should continue its financial inclusion through a vigorous branch expansion programme and provision of appropriate and affordable banking services to suit the needs of all customer segments.