Last month, the Zambia National Building Society (ZNBS) celebrated its golden jubilee. ‘We have been around for 50 years and I think we have done some good,’ says managing director Mildred Mutesa FCCA. ‘But a lot of people in Zambia still don’t have housing. So my major goal is to exponentially grow our mortgage book and assist more people in getting housing finance.’
This involves trying to offer mortgage products at lower interest rates. ‘Every day I am challenging myself and my team to look for innovative ways to make housing finance affordable,’ says Mutesa, who was already acting MD when she took on the role last September. ‘If we can give a mortgage to a new-entry teacher or a nurse, then we will have justified why we exist.’
‘We are going into partnership with councils that have land and seeing how we can work with developers so that they are able to offer housing at below market prices’
ZNBS branches across Zambia, plus one agency
Total customers across all products
1.4 billion kwacha (US$66.3m)
Balance sheet value
Building the housing market
ZNBS has a presence in every province in Zambia, offering mortgages, unsecured loans and other banking products, primarily to individuals. It is 100% government-owned, which sets the tone in terms of its core mandate and objective, but the organisation operates independently.
‘Our main accountability is to the central bank and the Ministry of Finance,’ Mutesa says, adding that currently 60% of the society’s funding comes from customer deposits and 40% from the wholesale market.
Currently, she and her team are developing strategies to try to encourage wider home ownership in Zambia – for example, by buying land banks.
‘We are going into partnership with councils that have land and seeing how we can work with developers so that they are able to offer housing at below market prices,’ Mutesa explains.
Digitalisation is another major goal. ‘We are transforming, so digitalisation is a big thing for me,’ Mutesa says. ‘With Covid, we have had to change the way we do things and transform quickly, but there is much more we can do to make our processes more efficient and effective.’
A more digital approach is also needed to respond to new entrants in the finance space. ‘We are seeing more and more mobile phone operators becoming competitors helped by their huge reach,’ Mutesa says.
‘In Zambia, mobile phone operators provide smaller loans and mobile wallets. The reason they have grown so much is the convenience with which you can access your funds and get other products and services.’
Mutesa wants ZNBS to respond to such competition, potentially through new partnerships. ‘We have a mobile banking platform now, providing mobile wallet functionality to our customers,’ she says. ‘To offer the full product range, we would probably have to work with a technological platform.’ It is, she notes, a case of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’
MD, Zambia National Building Society (previously acting MD)
Director of finance and corporate planning, Zambia National Building Society
Finance director, Afrox Zambia
Management accountant, Afrox Zambia, then finance manager and company secretary
Audit senior, PwC
Mutesa began her career at PwC but, after gaining her ACCA Qualification in 2007 she quickly moved into industry, initially at Afrox Zambia, the country’s leading gas manufacturer, part of the Linde group, where she progressed to the position of finance director. Her achievements there included reducing debtor days from more than 100 to just over 30.
She also built a thriving finance function. ‘It’s a passion of mine to see other people grow and develop,’ Mutesa says. Her own potential was recognised when she was selected to join a leadership programme in Munich.
When the opportunity to become director of finance and corporate planning at ZNBS arose in 2016, Mutesa leapt at the chance – working in the finance sector had been a long-term goal and she was keen to get cracking.
‘I loved my new job,’ she recalls. ‘It involved a lot of new experiences which allowed me to grow. I took on the handling banking treasury, assets and liability management, and that was exciting. It also gave me exposure to corporate finance, and raising funds in the financial markets.’
One of Mutesa’s proudest achievements in the role was the raising of a ‘decently priced’ 25 million kwacha (US$1.18m) credit line with the African Development Bank. The process was tough, however.
‘It took about 12 months of negotiation,’ she recalls. ‘We had to undergo a credit assessment and serious scrutiny. We had a team of more than six people from the African Development Bank come to examine us minutely – to check our financial health and capacity to pay the money back. It was a rigorous process, but worth it in the end.’
‘We didn’t know who would default and the quantum or size of the problem, so initially we had to take a weekly view’
‘If you combine your accounting knowledge with business knowledge, you become better at your job. You add value to your peers and your organisation because you are not just focused on the numbers. If you understand the numbers, the business and the sector, even when you are budgeting and forecasting you can add value to the process, rather than it just being a conveyor belt – numbers in, numbers out.’
‘The busier you get, the more important it is to make deliberate efforts to have time with your family. Otherwise work can be overwhelming. You have to make a decision to make time available. That’s the only way to get a balance.’
‘If you are studying for the ACCA Qualification, it can be discouraging if you don’t make it on your first attempt. But keep focused because the reward is worth it. ACCA is recognised worldwide and opens doors for you. It’s an investment.’
Mutesa stepped into the top job at ZNBC in September, having been acting CEO since the start of the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine a more challenging time to take the reins. ZNBS responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a crisis management team to focus on health and financial matters.
Of the health challenges, Mutesa says: ‘We had to get opinions on how often to disinfect the branches, what type of masks we needed for our staff – all sorts of things and all new territory.’
The financial challenges were also substantial in terms of managing the balance sheet and the risks to it caused by the pandemic. ‘We didn’t know who would default and the quantum or size of the problem, so initially we had to take a weekly view,’ Mutesa says. ‘We looked at cashflows and whether we would be able to pay our staff every month.’
Employees who could work from home were supported with laptops and internet connections. However, during lockdown, around 37 (of the normal 100) continued working at head office. These were primarily from ICT and treasury teams, as well as a few legal experts.
‘We needed to support our branches and we still had customers applying for mortgages, so we had to make things work,’ Mutesa says.
The ongoing stream of mortgage applications was partly due to a promotion ZNBS has been running this year called ‘Nyumba Ya Banja’ – in English, ‘a home for the family’.
‘The idea was to waive some of the other costs that make getting mortgage finance expensive to encourage more people to come forward,’ Mutesa says. ‘We’ve seen a good response.’
ZNBS branches were kept open by splitting employees into two teams working on rotation. ‘Team one came in and worked for two weeks, and then the other team came in to relieve them,’ Mutesa explains. ‘The two teams never really came into contact.’
Covid-19 remains Mutesa’s biggest challenge, not least because of the damage caused to the Zambian economy. ‘It means there will be more people who may not be able to get onto the housing ladder because the economic situation is difficult,’ she says.
Stamp of validation
Mutesa, who appears undaunted by such challenges, has no doubt that the ACCA Qualification has helped her career, due to both its content and its brand strength. ‘ACCA opens the door for you,’ she says. It gives you a platform to be able to show what you can do; it’s a stamp that validates your worth.’
As well as building a successful career, she is a married mother of three children. How does she juggle work and family life?
‘I try to have at least an hour with my children before their bedtime, to find out how school was and check on homework, so they feel I am involved,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to miss them growing up. And, as much as possible, Sundays are for them. I do whatever I can to make sure I don’t have any interruptions and just focus on my family.’