The year 2017 appears to have been the climax to a series of top executive movements in Rwanda's banking sector and built a foundation for competition in an industry where it was hitherto, generally non-existent. The expectation is that this year will be an exciting one for customers, especially after the central bank in December lowered its key repo rate to 5.5 per cent from 6 per cent it had set in June 2017.
We can trace the start of these executive reshuffles from September 2015 when banking's journeyman Anand Sanjeev left I&M to join the Atlas Mara dream in Rwanda as BPR Chief Executive officer.
Sanjeev's replacement at I&M would be unveiled as Robin Bairstow, a corporate banker with over two decades' experience in the finance sector, most of which he racked up from Standard Chartered Bank's operations in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Africa operations.
In January 2016, Diane Karusisi was appointed to the helm of Rwanda's largest lender, Bank of Kigali, succeeding James Gatera, who had overseen the bank's expansionist growth strategy for close to a decade.
"Her appointment was the ultimate disruption needed in the industry's executive status-quo," said one sector analyst.
Shortly after Karusisi's unveiling at Bank of Kigali, in March 2016, Equity Bank announced Hannington Namara to boss its Rwanda operations.
Analysts saw the appointment as a clever strategy to give Equity a local face as it aimed to grow its market share in both its retail and corporate business portfolio.
Namara was a fine pick for Equity, considering his executive profile. From being a banker at former BCR (now I&M), he served as chief executive officer of the Private Sector Federation from where TradeMark East Africa had poached him to become its country director.
Around September 2017, change visited KCB-Rwanda. Sanjeev had just been elevated to head Atlas Mara Group's commercial banking operations leaving an executive void at BPR. Maurice Toroitich would be swooped to fill the vacancy.
His Toroitich's departure would leave an executive void at KCB-Rwanda. One man, George Odhiambo, head of retail banking and several other roles, was preparing to return to KCB Group headquarters in Nairobi when Toroitich left. He would dive in as acting CEO before being confirmed late last year.
Meanwhile, as BPR unveiled Toroitich as top-honcho in September 2017, Coge-Banque was welcoming a new managing director in Cherno Gaye, who had, prior to that, been CFO at BPR as well as deputy CEO at BRD Commercial, both owned by Atlas Mara Group.
As 2017 wound to an end, Development Bank of Rwanda (BRD) announced a major change with Alex Kanyankore giving way to Eric Rutabana as CEO of the country's only development financier. Rutabana was until then Country Head, Corporate and Investment Banking at BPR (part of Atlas Mara Group).
The takeover of Crane Bank Rwanda by Commercial Bank of Africa, after the fall of Crane Bank Uganda can also be included in this context of executive calibration of the banking sector.
But what do these executive movements mean for 2018?
Naturally, new appointments mean new targets and fresh expectations from the appointing authorities, normally boards of directors. And there is often no time. The clock starts to tick away the moment employment contracts get signed, demand for results begins almost immediately.
On average, a CEO's contract is between three and five years. The first year is normally discounted to allow the chief executive to pick a team that they believe would help them deliver on their targets.
Real work then starts within the second year, when it is assumed all key positions are filled and ideal teams are assembled. This is what makes 2018 a particularly exciting year for the local banking sector. Since 2015, the oldest executive team at all the major banks is no longer than two years.
Needless to mention, the reshuffling at executive level triggered a wave of labour movements across the sector as the new executives embarked on headhunting for skills to fill their senior and midlevel management positions. It is a small pool from which to pick.
For instance, to fill its human resource, retail credit, corporate banking and digital channels departments, Bank of Kigali picked talent from GT Bank, Eco Bank and KCB, respectively. But BK also saw some of its mid-level managers head out for opportunities at Equity Bank, Coge Banque and Eco Bank.
So, you basically have the same old players in the sector, serving in new roles at new workstations. What is fresh is perhaps the motivation and energy to register new achievements as members of new teams, and reward the trust of their respective recruiters.
This new motivation of fresh teams at different banks should be expected to trigger competition in the industry along two main fronts; product innovation, and scramble for retail customers for new accounts and deposits.
Race to go digital
Product innovation competition is going to be dominated by investment in digital products and delivery channels in 2018 as banks try to outdo each other to woo customers. This might have already started in 2017, where the likes of KCB, Equity, I&M and BPR unveiled mobile banking applications.
Speed could be risky but the rules have changed, according to Randy Cage, in his new book, 'Risky Is The New Safe.' Going slow to play safe won't work in a competition era driven by digital innovation.
Literally, banks must cut through the chase because winning will be for those who act fast in turning innovative ideas into tangible products and place them on the market for customers to access.
This is where Dr Karusisi's emphasis on agility and efficiency over size, comes in handy. In the past, largeness has slowed down Bank of Kigali's decisiveness in turning ideas into consumable products as smaller players with less bureaucracy tended to move faster.
An urgent need to address that weakness, to be nimble despite its size could explain an ongoing restructuring exercise that was reportedly commissioned late last year with the main objective being to streamline internal processes to boost efficiency to enable the bank to operate with agility.
Nonetheless, there is also an advantage in the New Year. The advantage of not crushing while rushing to be the first; the advantage of being able to learn a thing or two from the competition's innovation and making yours better by filling the gaps.
Controlling the megaphone
Banks want to grow their retail business and targeting the individual customer to open accounts and entice them into making regular deposits is going to be another source of major competition. The available cake is big enough for all because only less than 30 per cent of the adult population in Rwanda is formally banked.
That means there is an unclaimed market of 70 per cent of the adult population not working with commercial banks. The year is likely to see a surge in marketing spending as banks push advertisement to entice new customers by controlling the megaphone.
Creative strategies in the usage of the various media channels will determine who ultimately dominated the megaphone as banks promote various product campaigns. The year 2017 might already have provided us with samples of what to expect in 2018.