Standard Bank building occupies pride of place in Nairobi , 105 years on

Standard Bank building  was designed in a Neo-Classical style featuring a raised entrance way with towering Roman columns and a fanned stairway . PHOTO | FILE
Standard Bank building was designed in a Neo-Classical style featuring a raised entrance way with towering Roman columns and a fanned stairway . PHOTO | FILE  

The Standard Bank of British South Africa was incorporated on 15 October, 1862. The vision of the promoters was to establish a bank in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, which would grow by buying as many of the existing unitary banks in the region, with a head office in London.

A rapidly expanding South African economy fuelled by the discovery of large gold and diamond deposits provided a perfect environment for the bank to grow its branch network, gobbling up small banks in the process. In recognition of this development, and to allow the bank to operate outside the realm of British influence, the bank name was changed to The Standard Bank of South Africa in 1881.

Responding to new opportunities arising in growing economies, the bank opened a branch network across South, East and Central Africa. The first branch outside of South Africa was opened in Bechuanaland (Botswana) on 16 January 1890, followed by Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) on 29 July 1892 and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) on 20 August 1894.

The bank opened two branches concurrently in Mombasa and Nairobi, British East Africa (Kenya) in January 1911 under a country manager, J.J. Toogood.

The Nairobi branch was situated at the corner of Sixth Avenue (now Kenyatta Avenue) and Eliot Street (Wabera Street) with a return frontage to Standard Street. The original building is still standing today. It is designed to a Neo-Classical style featuring a raised entranceway with towering Roman columns and a fanned stairway.

The structure consists of a basement, ground floor, two upper floors and a penthouse. Walls are constructed of smooth dressed stone with flush mortar joints below a Mangalore tiled roof. Floors are finished in a combination of granite, terrazzo and parquet to upper floors, while doors are made of hardwood timber panels hung in embellished timber frames. Windows are glazed in steel casements.

The building is in a good state of repair and decoration and is one of the oldest historical landmarks in Nairobi. It was gazetted as a national monument in 2001.

A third branch was opened in 1914 at Farm 64 (Eldoret) under rather comical circumstances. The trekking Boers from South Africa were determined to open up new farming territory in Uasin Gishu. They had come fully prepared to settle, complete with their own money contained in a safe.

When the safe was offloaded from the ox-wagon, it proved too heavy to manhandle even for the mighty Boers. They were forced to build a bank around the safe! The target market for the Standard Bank of South Africa in Kenya was the growing number of settlers and British corporates trading in Kenya. Africans did not feature in the equation as their needs were thought to be adequately met by the Post Office Savings Passbook.

Employees of the bank comprised European managers, Goan and Indian supervisors and clerks, a few African junior clerks and many African subordinate staff.

Initially, all regional offices in Africa reported to the South African headquarters in Cape Town who in turn reported to the bank’s head office in London. The branch network grew more rapidly in Kenya than elsewhere and by 1926 Kenya started to report directly to London because their requirements were beyond the limits of Cape Town.

As international sanctions against South Africa continued to take a toll on cross border business, Standard Bank of South Africa started to create local boards of directors to placate individual states in the early 1950s but this was not enough.

In 1962, the bank’s operations in South Africa were transferred to a subsidiary company retaining the name “Standard Bank of South Africa Ltd” while across the rest of Africa the name was changed to simply “Standard Bank Ltd”. In 1969, Standard Bank merged with Chartered Bank, a British bank operating in India, China and Australia, to form “Standard Chartered Bank Ltd.”

The Standard Chartered Bank started to reduce its stake in the Standard Bank of South Africa in the 1970s and 80s, eventually disposing of its remaining 39 per cent shareholding in 1987; surrendering complete ownership to South African investors. In this way, the bank was able to remove the apartheid tag.

The process of dismantling the policy of racial discrimination started in earnest in 1990 when the National Party government lifted the ban on the African National Congress and other political organisations, eventually releasing Nelson Mandela and repealing the official policy of apartheid.

Emboldened by these developments, the Standard Bank of South Africa, once again, ventured into Africa by acquiring the branches of ANZ Grindlays Bank in eight African countries, including two branches in Kenya, through its subsidiary Standard Bank Investment Corporation (Stanbic). To avoid confusion with its former parent (and now competitor), the newly acquired banks were branded Stanbic Bank.

In Kenya, the South Africans found a very different scenario from before with highly qualified and experienced African senior managers who were well versed in international trade and the unique dynamics of the local and regional markets. The Kenyan market proved very challenging.

Realizing that they could not succeed on their own, the South Africans entered into a merger with a local bank, CfC Bank, in what proved to be the biggest banking merger in Kenya’s history, in 2007. Today the bank has more than 25 branches countrywide.

Whereas, at 80 per cent, Kenya has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa and we have a wealth of well-qualified human resources, it is unfortunate that, more often than not, these resources are not employed in the most prudent, honest or patriotic undertakings.

The author is a retired banker and motorcycle enthusiast. E-mail [email protected]