There’s more to SLB than just profits: Ramaili

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IT has been two years since ‘Mannete Ramaili was appointed chairperson of Standard Lesotho Bank (SLB). The Lesotho Times (LT) this week sat down with Ms Ramaili, a former Minister of Tourism, Environment and Culture as well as Honorary Consul to Ireland who shared her career highlights including chairperson of the country’s largest commercial bank.

Below are the excerpts of the interview. 

LT: Tell us about yourself, where did you grow up and attend school?

Ms Ramaili:  I was born in Butha-Buthe and attended the Interracial Primary School in the same town. It is now called the Evangelical Church School. As the name suggests, the school was interracial during the colonial era. It had Asians, Africans and Whites. After completing my primary education, I proceeded to Holy Family High School.

Back then, single-sex schools were prestigious and it was the only school with boarding facilities at the time. I subsequently enrolled at the National University of Lesotho for a Bachelor of Commerce degree.  I am a mother of two, though now an empty nester.

I furthered my education at The Harvard Kennedy School where I completed a master’s degree in Policy Analysis under Public Administration.  I later enrolled at Graduate School of Business at University of Cape Town. I also took short term courses in management, training and programming statistics among others.

While still at the university, I worked part time at the Department of Water Affairs. It was an interesting time for me, since I was a young woman who was focused and committed in a male dominated industry. I gained vast knowledge and expertise on how ordinary people look forward to receiving decent services on time and within their budgets.

Upon graduating from (NUL), I was placed at the Lesotho Institute of Public Administration then called the Public Service Training Centre. I was in the Finance and Supplies Management department.

I was later attached to IDM where we conducted team-teaching in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (BSL). It was an exciting time for us. We were in our twenties traveling across Southern Africa. Between 1980 up until late 1982, BLS was really closely-knit, there was free movement and IDM was operating in all the three countries.

At that time, the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association (LPPA) was undergoing a transformation wanted a Deputy Chief Executive to focus on human resources. So, I joined LPPA.

During this period, we focused on family planning. We aimed to reduce the maternal mortality rate and on population management in the context of the economy. Women were urged to have just the number of children they could optimally provide for and were also taught on how to effectively manage their fertility. I worked for the association from 1982 to 1984. In 1984 I was promoted to be the chief executive of the association, at the age of 24.

We faced a lot of resistance from the government of Lesotho then on their appreciation of family planning. I had to attend several committee meetings in parliament to explain the need for a family planning association. Our appearance in parliament gave us the platform for advocacy for family planning in this country. The population management policy we now have was advocated for by the association.

The maternity leave we now have for those working outside the civil service was advocated for by the Family Planning Association. The Family Health Department in the Ministry of Health was established with the association’s assistance. Integration of Family Life Education and the Ministry of Education was also done by this association.

Therefore, I will always be proud of these achievements.

The small pink LPPA house at that corner in Maseru is my flagship programme. It was not a donation. We were initially supported by the United States of America (US). However, the US unexpectedly stopped all financial assistance on suspicion that we were carrying out abortions.

The World Bank was at that time running a project called Health Population and Nutrition. We were the first NGO to be given a grant by the World Bank and we continued with our project.

From there I moved to the Ministry of Health where I was involved in putting together management systems for primary healthcare. At that time, Lesotho’s primary health care was one the best globally. I’m disappointed that it has collapsed. The multi donor project was funded by the World Bank, ADB, the United States of America, and WHO among others. I moved there to help them to do the management systems. It was very exciting in that after our interventions no clinic would ever claim that lacked drugs or transport. The system was well organised.

We introduced an assistant physicians programme where qualified nurses were given 18 months of vigorous training to enable them to efficiently and effectively screen and filter patients to see a doctor.

The system was effective in that queues disappeared, there was no shortage of medical supplies or transport.

I then left the Ministry of Health and joined UNICEF as Head of Programmes. I worked for UNICEF, from 1992 to 1998. At UNICEF, we focused on the most inaccessible areas like Senqu in Mokhotlong. I then moved to Irish Aid in 1998 assuming the post of programme advisor.

We initiated programmes like the school feeding programmes that created employment for women. Through other initiatives, the rural roads network was improved. The government would have workers to construct the roads and, in the process, create jobs and reduce unemployment.

From Irish Aid I was appointed ambassador to Ireland in 2005. As an ambassador, I had to ensure that there was an increase in development assistance to Lesotho.

LT: Where are we as a country in terms of development initiatives? 

Ms Ramaili:  We were vibrant prior to the advent of majority rule in South Africa in 1994.

We got a lot of international development assistance, a lot of training and trading opportunities. While we were vibrant, this was not sustainable. This could have led to a dependency on foreign development assistance. But things changed from 1994 onwards with a lot of donors leaving Lesotho and relocating to South Africa.

Now the curve has dropped and growth is low. I feel we have ourselves to blame for failing to develop sustainable programmes. We appear to have lost confidence in ourselves.

LT: Standard Lesotho Bank has just celebrated 25 years. Would you say the bank has achieved the vision and the mission that it had set when it was incorporated in 1995?

Ms Ramaili: Yes, it has. I joined the board recently but I have been a customer of this bank since its inception. I want to recognise the contributions that were made by the men and the women who toiled throughout the years to make this bank what it is today. I’m honoured to represent those individuals, because I only came in 2015 and became board chairperson in 2019, two decades after the establishment of the bank.

We have to acknowledge that a commercial bank’s aim is to make money. Therefore, you would have achieved your mission if you have made notable profits. Standard Lesotho Bank achieved that goal because when Standard Bank Lesotho Limited and Lesotho Bank merged in 2006, the profit after tax was only around M13.5 million.

In 2016, the profit was M387 million and it dropped to M264 million in 2020.  The reason for the drop was due to the global economic meltdown.

In addition, Lesotho was hit hard by successive droughts.

However, Standard Lesotho Bank is not only about making money, it’s also about contributing towards the economic development of Lesotho. We are financing large projects like the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), the manufacturing sector among others.

We’ve also been contributing in other sectors such as water, energy, mining and communications. When you look back at the government priorities or at the national strategic plan, you will see that water, mining, and energy are our key economic accelerators.

When such projects are implemented, there is employment creation, forex inflows, infrastructural development and general upliftment of the host communities where the large-scale projects are implemented.

We are also the leading bank when it comes to supporting SMMEs.

Standard Lesotho Bank has also contributed immensely to closing the digital divide and enhancing financial inclusion of all people. In Lesotho we don’t have any educational institutions to train bankers. Standard Lesotho Bank invests immensely into staff development and growth.

We are proud to say both chief executive officers of Lesotho Post Bank and FNB banks are former employees of this bank. Vodacom Lesotho’s Mpesa has eighty percent of the market share. The manager of that programme at Vodacom Lesotho is also a former employee of our bank.

Most other banks’ senior officials are former Standard Lesotho Bank employees. We are therefore proud of our role in nurturing such skills.

We’re also proud that some of the banks we are competing with like Boliba cooperative bank, were formed by people who were nurtured by Standard Lesotho Bank. The owner of Western Union also comes from this bank. Sekhametsi Investment Consortium (SMIC) leader, Palo Kotelo, is a former manager at Standard Lesotho Bank as well.

This shows that we are not just about the profits only, we have immensely contributed to skills and economic development of the country. The greatest challenge we have is gender equality or gender imbalance.

Not enough of our women are in managerial positions. We would like to see more women as part of the executive team so that there is balance across all levels.

LT: If SMMEs are critical to the economy as you say, then why is the bank not aggressive in its support for SMMEs? 

Ms Ramaili: We have always had development initiatives for SMMEs. For instance, we have the Bacha Entrepreneurship Project where we partnered with Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA) and Basotho Enterprise Development Corporation (BEDCO) to provide and enhance skills development to the enterprises in Lesotho.

We have the youth at heart, we have a hub at Maseru Mall for them to use for online transactions, virtual procurements among other activities. So, the bank sees the SMMEs as the engine for sustainable economic growth in this country. We have recently opened another hub at Mokhotlong, the home of the LHWP project, further emphasizing our resolve to develop entrepreneurs in the country.

BEDCO was established specifically for the development, training and incubation of SMMEs. If BEDCO was a viable entity, it would be easier for us to help them with financing loans to help the SMMEs grow as planned. But, as of now, BEDCO does not have the capacity.

It’s not the fault of the BEDCO management. The problem is that traditionally, our national budget allocations will always talk about growing the economy, but I think we don’t focus on all the aspects required to build the economy. These include equipping and skilling those who start small business to enable them to grow organically in all aspects including quality, marketing and pricing to enable them to develop into bigger companies that fall under the LNDC.

Equally, the LNDC is supposed to develop and grow bigger companies. They have now changed their strategy and now want to engage communities in agribusiness among other things. Hopefully they can build on that instead of just focusing on infrastructure development.

LS: Where do you see Standard Lesotho Bank in the next 25 years?

Ms Ramaili:  It’s important to underline the fact that we’re a subsidiary. Therefore, our vision cannot differ from that of the parent Standard Bank Group.

That said, we are already engaging with communities and businesses in Lesotho. We are building our brand through relevant and meaningful sponsorships and looking beyond the financial outcomes to create more value socially, economically, and environmentally. This is part of our vision and I fully subscribe to this vision.

Under digitisation, the focus will be on the behaviour and needs of the customers. We will not be selling our products like we did in the past. This time the bank will be offering solutions that enable a client to have various choices.

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