We recently spoke with Mamadou Cisse, CEO for Baobab Senegal, to ask about his experiences managing a microfinance bank during COVID-19. As with many countries, the government declared a state of emergency and put restrictions in place in March, including setting a national curfew and closing Senegal's borders.
ADVICE TO A FUTURE LEADER ON CRISIS MANAGEMENT
Thanks for speaking with us Mamadou. Before we jump into some of the specific responses you implemented, I’d like to start with your learnings. What important piece of advice would you give a financial institution leader to handle a crisis in the future?
“The main thing is focus on your human resources.” Mamadou explained how the leadership team learned this lesson in a positive way by pro-actively helping staff. They have found that as a result, staff have become very loyal, even more so than they were before.
Another learning Mamadou described was, “It is important to be close to your clients. Not only to be focused on financial services, but take a real interest in the client as a person.” Staff have realised, at a time like this, how important it is to have meaningful relationships with clients and serve as a 'distributor of important information' that their clients value.
CLIENT CENTRIC APPROACH TO CRISIS MANAGEMENT
We also discussed the ways Baobab Senegal had been affected by COVID-19 and had to change their operations. In March, the bank reduced operating hours, staff were put on one-month vacation rotations, and 15% of branches were temporarily closed.
However, despite these necessary temporary changes, senior management prioritized a client-centric strategy wherever possible. To ensure clients would still have branch access – even those located in more rural areas – management only closed branches that had a second branch location within a reasonable distance. In March, the bank also implemented and communicated measures to allow clients to take a repayment holiday, which was two months earlier than authorities mandated a repayment holiday nationally. The staff quickly pivoted what was previously in-person communications with clients to Facebook and other digital channels, including WhatsApp. They actively shared relevant information with clients so they were informed and equipped to understand their options.
(Below) An example of a Facebook post to continue encouraging clients to protect themselves by wearing a face mask.
CARING FOR STAFF
How did operational changes and the overall crisis impact staff?
“Senegal is a very social country so it is important to look after your staff.” Because Baobab Senegal gives staff bonuses based on performance, Mamadou explained that bonuses went down because performance was forced to go down. This was a disadvantage for staff.
To help mitigate these and other impacts of the pandemic, Baobab Senegal took several pro-active measures focused on staff welbeing:
- Despite being put on holiday for a month, staff have continued to receive full pay.
- Management also agreed to shift monthly salary payments to mid-month rather than the traditional end of month payments that most salaried employees in the country receive. These early payments helped staff buy goods before month-end and mitigate the risk of food or supply shortages, benefiting their whole household.
- For anyone that requested it, the bank offered staff loans for essential purchases, and also offered loan repayment holidays for staff already with outstanding loans that may have difficulty making payments due to loss of other household income.
- To help mitigate the health risks of commuting to work, management is providing alternative transportation so staff members are not forced to take crowded public transportation. They also purchased personal protective equipment for all staff to continue working safely.
- For three months, the senior management team diminished their own salaries by 10% as gesture of solidarity with the team.
- To increase open communications and transparency with the team, Mamadou personally organized several meetings online with staff members to explain the changes and measures they were taking to support staff. Senior managers similarly organized frequent virtual check-in meetings with staff, something that was not in practice before.
(Above) Baobab Senegal staff recently facilitated a free financial education training seminar. Participants were then offered the opportunity to open a free account at the end of the training.
What do you think will be the long-term changes that will remain in place even after COVID-19?
“One surprising transformation is that we have become closer to the other Baobab banks in other countries. This has always been the goal of the Baobab Group, but through this experience it has significantly increased this relationship.”
An advantage of being in the Baobab network is that they operate in three other countries in the region, which meant they could support each other and share advice. The CEOs and senior management teams held twice weekly calls on how to manage risk, operational changes and staff. Through Baobab’s head office in Paris, they were also connected with seven other microbanks to see how each was adjusting their operations. Mamadou found this very helpful, as he explained, “We had no previous experience before of dealing with a health crisis so we had to learn it on our own.”
“We have also found that it is very important to have strong team cohesion across the MFI and good spirits, rather than just running and doing your work. You need to have trust.”
Mamadou explained that going forward Management plans to keep in closer contact with staff members through WhatsApp and regular meetings. Before there was more of a distance between staff and Management. They have also found that teleconferences can be a very productive way to meet.
Mamadou Cisse has been with Baobab Senegal for more than 10 years, and was appointed CEO four years ago. Baobab Senegal, which started operations in 2008, is now the second largest MFIs in the country and has 26% of the market share. With more than 700 staff operating across 45 branches, including 300 loan officers, the MFI has a wide network and prioritizes making banking very accessible for its customers. Clients are able to access both microloans through their group lending model, as well as SME loan products, including school improvement loans. Opportunity EduFinance began a partnership with Baobab Senegal in 2019.