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Barclays Moi Avenue branch oozes Georgian elegance six decades on

Barclays Bank Moi Avenue branch in Nairobi on December 1, 2016. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA
Barclays Bank Moi Avenue branch in Nairobi on December 1, 2016. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA 

Unlike Stanbic Bank building across the road on Kenyatta Avenue, which had rather torrid beginnings as ‘Torr’s Hotel’, Barclays Bank Moi Avenue branch has a longer and more sedate history.

In 1916, the National Bank of South Africa (now First National Bank) opened a branch at the junction of Government Road (Moi Avenue) and Sixth Avenue (Kenyatta Avenue) soon after establishing a branch in Mombasa.

The original building, constructed in a Georgian style, comprised a basement, ground floor and two upper floors.

Walls were built in plain dressed stone beneath a Mangalore tiled roof while doors were made of panelled timber hung in embellished timber frames. Windows were glazed in arched timber frames to the ground floor and rectangular timber sashes to the upper floors.

The Anglo-Egyptian Bank was an overseas British bank established in 1868, operating mostly in Egypt and within the British Mediterranean where it often acted as bankers to the British authorities.

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By 1921, Barclays Bank had acquired a controlling interest in Anglo-Egyptian Bank and the National Bank of South Africa.

In 1925, Barclays Bank merged Anglo-Egyptian Bank, Colonial Bank (acquired by Barclays Bank in 1918) and National Bank of South Africa to form Barclays Bank, Dominion and Colonial Overseas (DCO).

Barclays Bank itself traces its origins to 1690 when John Freame (a Quaker) and Thomas Gould started trading as goldsmith bankers on Lombard Street, London.

The name “Barclays” became associated with the bank when, in 1736, James Barclay, the wealthy son-in-law to John Freame, joined the business as a partner.

By this time the bank had come to be visually identified with the sign of a black heraldic eagle, a sign of authority and physical strength, which remains to date.

The Barclay family made much of their wealth from the slave trade — David and Alexander Barclay being involved as late as 1756. David Barclay owned a large sugar plantation in Jamaica, where he later freed his slaves, finally appreciating their equivalence to whites.

Barclays Bank was one of the larger British lenders that set out to take advantage of the business opportunities and vast natural resources in the colonies. In the words of Sir Cecil Rhodes; “Africa is lying ready for us. It is our duty to take it”.

In order to recoup the massive cost of the Kenya Uganda Railway, the British government offered white settlers large tracts of land in Kenya for farming.

However, initially many of the settlers came from South Africa because potential settlers from the home country found the lease terms to be unattractive as they wanted nothing short of freehold tenure for long term investment.

In the event, South African banks were amongst the first to establish business in Kenya led by Standard Bank of South Africa in 1911.

However, by that time the National Bank of India, having started operations in Kenya in 1896, was already the de facto bank of the colonial government.

Barclays Bank (DCO) expanded its operations in Kenya rapidly after World War 1 targeting large British corporates trading in the region and the growing settler community.

At the time, Africans were not considered bankable and the best they could do was to open passbook accounts with the post office.

In fact the situation was so serious that if an African was found with Sh100 note by the authorities, he would promptly be arrested and made to explain the source as it would have been presumed he had stolen it!

In the early 1950s Barclays put up a modern five storey building to house their head office. The building stands on Kenyatta Avenue with a return frontage to Moi Avenue.

Walls are constructed of stone with recessed mortar joints finished in an off-white lime plaster and granite finish up to 2,000mm height externally.

Doors are made of hand carved panels in polished timber frames while windows are glazed in steel casements. Floors are finished in a variety of granite, terazzo, PVC tiles and parquet.

The building was designed with a flat roof which is now covered with an iron sheets canopy because of frequent deterioration of waterproofing membranes, a problem associated with hot direct sunlight in the tropics.

The building has not been gazetted as a national monument but it is in a fair state of repair.

The bank was incorporated as Barclays Bank Kenya in 1978, a wholly owned subsidiary of Barclays Bank International. In 1986, the bank listed its shares on the Nairobi Stock Exchange through a successful IPO.

For many years Barclays Bank was always among the top three commercial banks in Kenya by way of branches and assets.

Today, the bank headquarters are housed in the ultra-modern multistorey Barclays Plaza on Loita Street. As of 2014, Barclays was ranked fifth largest bank in Kenya behind KCB group, Equity group, Cooperative Bank and Standard Chartered.

The market place has certainly evolved over the last 100 years and Barclays finds itself in a fiercely competitive environment. Returns in Africa are not as lucrative in the traditional sectors such as oil, copper and iron ore.

There have been strong indications this year that Barclays is to cut back involvement in Africa particularly in view of losses incurred on the falling value of the South African Rand.

A strong global regulatory regime and a highly informed retail customer has sector have also caught Barclays wrong-footed recently bringing to the limelight scandals such as the “dark pool” fraud and the LIBOR and EURIBOR rate-fixing incidents.

I am sure the latest rate-capping laws in Kenya have not helped the bank’s cause. The bank also sees extra risk of corruption and misconduct in Africa. Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

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