Rwanda’s largest commercial bank comes of age; 50th anniversary celebrations set for today

All roads will lead to the Kigali Convention Centre this Friday evening as Bank of Kigali, Rwanda’s largest commercial lender celebrates its 50th anniversary at a colourful dinner expected to be graced by President Paul Kagame.
The CEO of Bank of Kigali Dr. Diane Karusisi (R) and the Chairman Marc Holtzman cut the giant cake designed in form of the BK Headquarters during the celebrations of it's 50th anniversary.
The CEO of Bank of Kigali Dr. Diane Karusisi (R) and the Chairman Marc Holtzman cut the giant cake designed in form of the BK Headquarters during the celebrations of it's 50th anniversary.

All roads will lead to the Kigali Convention Centre this Friday evening as Bank of Kigali, Rwanda’s largest commercial lender celebrates its 50th anniversary at a colourful dinner expected to be graced by President Paul Kagame.

On December 22, 2016, BK or ‘Beka’ as it is fondly known among Rwandans quietly marked 50 years since its incorporation on December 22, 1966.


But December being a period of competition for attention as people rejoin families to mark the Christmas festivities, BK chose to earmark 2017 as the year of celebration.


At a cake cutting ceremony held across its branch network on January 23, 2017, the bank unveiled a plan to hold a series of celebratory activities to honour the milestone and the dinner, this afternoon, is part of the series.


The milestone makes Bank of Kigali Rwanda’s second oldest commercial lender after former BCR; whose incorporation was a year earlier than its counterpart.

Tracing roots

But in a tale of two banks the BK story comes off as more colourful having managed to retain its initial brand name as Bank of Kigali throughout the last five decades, a feat no other bank in its league can claim.

Initially Bank of Kigali was founded as a joint venture between the Government of Rwanda and Belgolaise, with each owning 50 percent of the ordinary share capital. In 1967, the Bank commenced its operations with its first branch in Kigali.

Belgolaise was a subsidiary of Fortis Bank which was then operating in Sub-Saharan Africa; but in the year 2005, they began to withdraw from their operations on the continent, momentarily leaving BK’s future in balance.

It is pretty much the situation being faced today by Barclays Bank, Africa operations.

In a move aimed at restoring confidence among customers and securing the stability of the financial sector, the Government of Rwanda in 2007, acquired the Belgolaise shareholding in Bank of Kigali, thereby increasing its direct and indirect shareholding in the Bank to 100 percent.

In 2011, the Bank changed its name under the new law relating to companies from Bank of Kigali S. A to Bank of Kigali Limited; it is a change few customers if any, noticed, as the main name, Bank of Kigali, remained unchanged.

The government’s takeover of full ownership in 2007 was immediately followed by the completion of the bank’s current headquarters along the Car Free Zone, kickoff a series of ambitious plans to expand across the entire country.

In September 2011, the Bank listed on the Rwanda Stock Exchange becoming the first indigenous bank to do so; six years later, the bank’s share price has remained stable and among the most highly sought after on the local bourse.

BK General Insurance Board Chairperson, Sandra Rwamushija (L) and BK CEO, Diane Karusisi unveil the logo of the insurance company.

Rwanda-full’ Bank

Bank of Kigali then embarked on positioning itself as a truly Rwandan Bank, by pursuing an expansive growth strategy under former CEO James Gatera who presided over a period of opening new branches across the country.

In 2010 alone, the bank opened 12 new branches and service centers. The following year, the bank opened another dozen branches; in 2012, the bank opened another 11 branches making it 34 branches in just three years.

Today, the bank boasts of eighty branches across the country, close to 100 automated teller machines, 1200 agents; six mobile banking vans and employs over 1200 workers.

Dr. Diane Karusisi, who took over from James Gatera in January 2016, the bank has enjoyed its best growth in the post-liberation era, owing to supportive policies of the central bank.

“The success of any banking sector is as good as the economic policies of a country; in Rwanda, the conducive economic policies have without a doubt been the engine behind our impressive growth especially over the last two decades,” said Bank of Kigali’s Dr. Diane Karusisi.

In a recent interview, National Bank of Rwanda Governor John Rwangombwa remarked that the country’s banking sector has come of age, and grown from contributing almost nothing to the national GDP to currently posting 19 percent.

“We might not be where we want to be exactly but that is very impressive growth {in a period of just two decades},” said Rwangombwa.

Today, Bank of Kigali is regarded as Rwanda’s ‘too big to fail’ financial institution with a dominant market share of over 30 percent across all major indices as at March 31, 2017.

Putting that market share in context means that Bank of Kigali contributes the bulk of banking sector’s 19 percent contribution to the national GDP.

“We are proud of what the Bank has been able to contribute to the development of our country over the years, by supporting private sector investment, creating jobs, reducing poverty and generally transforming the lives of Rwandans,” she said.


Charles Karera worked for Bank of Kigali from 1967 when it started operations until 2002 when he retired; still sharp dressed as a professional banker, the senior citizen couldn’t believe the transformation when he visited BK corporate headquarters recently.

“From a small establishment, the bank has blown up to what we have today; unbelievable, considering where we started in 1967,” said Karera as he mused over the new banking technology used today.

Karera still retains an active account in the bank, having opened it in 1967. In an interview, he noted how banking has evolved from traditional practices to technologically driven service channels.

“Who knows what it will become in the next fifty years,” he said, with a soft chuckle.

Rwanda’s Minister of Commerce and East African Affairs Francois Kanimba is also a former Governor of the Central Bank.

“Bank of Kigali has been my banker since the day I first thought of opening an account, many years ago,” he said, during an interview.

Kanimba said, banking as a profession is founded on integrity, trust and reliability, values which he said Bank of Kigali has proven to hold dearly.

“I remember after the liberation of the country, at the end of the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, BK was the only bank that had customers’ affairs in order, customers finances were safe, a mark of a true bank,” he noted.

Hariharan Dharmarajan is the Managing Director of Sulfo Rwanda Limited, an Indian family owned business that kick started Rwanda’s manufacturing sector in 1962 when the country had just gotten independence.

“We had started our business four years earlier when Bank of Kigali opened; we opened an account with them right away and it is a relationship we have maintained since then,” said Dharmarajan.

John Mugarura is one of Bank of Kigali’s 80 branch managers, manning the Kicukiro operations. His story is fascinating and inspirational in equal measures. Having joined the bank as a teenager, he started as a note counter; he was nurtured by the bank’s patient human resource culture that has seen him rise through the ranks, to a branch manager of a busy township.

“So I hope you will appreciate when I say, BK is my life,” said Mugarura, a father of two.

Then there is Jean Pierre Iyamuremye, a Small and Medium Enterprises’ Manager at Bank of Kigali. Jean was at the bank as early as 1983 and has remained steadfast since then.

“One of my fondest memories is remembering where we started with many of our customers; from humble beginnings to being among the country’s most influential entrepreneurs; it is the most fulfilling realization for a banker,” he said.

There is not a business that Iyamuremye doesn’t know its location or owner.  

“He’s our memory bank,” says Barbra Busingye, a senior manager in charge of the Bank’s expansive branch network.

Empowering women in leadership

The announcement of Dr. Diane Karusisi as CEO in January 2016 helped high light a story that has been developing for some time now in Rwanda; women in corporate leadership.

Today, there are four female CEOs at the helm of Rwandan banks; Crane Bank’s Edigold Monday, AB Bank’s Arah Sadava, and Ecobank’s Alice Kalonzo Zulu. The fourth is Dr. Diane Karusisi, not only at the helm of Rwanda’s largest commercial bank but also the only Rwandan female CEO.

“Being a woman is not a qualification in itself. Women occupy the positions they do because they actually qualify and are competent enough to serve in their respective roles,” says Dr. Karusisi who presides over a boardroom of three men and three women at Bank of Kigali.

Dr. Shivon Byamukama is Bank of Kigali’s Company Secretary and head of Corporate Affairs; she notes that Bank of Kigali is out to smash the long prevalent myth that women can’t do as well as women.

“For instance, women account for 75 percent of Bank of Kigali’s senior management and 51 percent of the total number of employees, that is arguably the best record in the industry,” said Dr. Byamukama adding that there are no limitations on how far women can go.

Ms. Flora Nsinga and Nathalie Mpaka are the other women on Bank of Kigali’s executive management; as Chief HR and Administration, and Chief Finance Officer, respectively.

BK staff during a tree planting session.

Journey to a century

Together with their male chief executive counterparts, Chief Commercial Officer Vincent Gatete, Chief Operations Desire Rumanyika and Chief IT Eddy Kayihura, the team is ready to steer the Bank on a journey to a century.

They have already laid the foundation on which to build growth over the next fifty years, a foundation based on technology and innovation.

“In the past, our growth required that we opened more physical branches. We did so. But the next fifty years demand a different kind of growth, a growth almost physically intangible as it will be more of digital than physical,” says Dr. Karusisi.

The objective for Karusisi’s team, she says, will be to preserve Bank of Kigali’s relevance in the economy and the lives of Rwandans over the next fifty years, by predicting customer needs and moving fast to innovate and deliver services and products that respond to their needs.

In March, the Bank unveiled two new subsidiaries; BK General Insurance and BK TecHouse, with the latter expected to help Bank of Kigali stay ahead of technology by being the engine of innovation.

The involvement in insurance business is a development that may have surprised many but whose objective is line with growing the Bank into a one stop centre for financial services.

Recently, the bank opened a state of the art Digital Service Centre at Kigali Heights, a paperless branch aimed at giving the bank’s customers a sneak peek into the future.

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