Lack of access to finance has typically been the key challenge facing African SMEs. However, limited access to markets is emerging as a much bigger problem.
For a majority, operations are constrained in their home markets. Due to factors like different regulatory frameworks, tariff and nontariff barriers and multiple taxation regimes, among others, only some venture beyond their borders.
The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) promises to be a game changer for SMEs. The agreement is expected to increase intra-African exports by more than 80%.
Ecobank, the winner as Best SME Bank in Africa, is positioning itself as the ideal partner for SMEs to exploit AfCFTA opportunities through access to new markets, negotiation of logistical hurdles and scaling of operations. The bank’s Pan-African footprint makes it a natural fit for intra-African trade.
This year, Ecobank has launched the Single Market Trade Hub. “The hub will help SMEs access new markets,” says Carol Oyedeji, Ecobank’s acting group executive for Commercial Banking.
She adds that besides being an information repository about AfCFTA, the hub is a marketplace for businesses offering access to a full range of financial products and solutions such as trade finance, cash management, working capital and advisory.
The hub and the bank’s RapidCollect regional collection offering eliminate obstacles to cross-border operations. In 2022, when it was launched, RapidCollect achieved transaction volumes amounting to $431 million in its first year.
These interventions and offerings put the bank that operates across 33 markets at the heart of SMEs’ success in Africa. —John Njiraini
Singapore-headquartered Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) has won accolades as 2024’s Best SME Bank in the Asia-Pacific region for its creative and enthusiastic support of SME clients during torrid times and for impressive digital innovation.
The bank works with 130,000 SMEs in Singapore alone—an estimated 50% of all SMEs.
OCBC also has been successful in accelerating sustainability efforts—achieving carbon neutrality on operations during 2022, with $10 billion in new sustainable finance investment in energy-efficient technology across Singapore, Malaysia and Greater China as part of an industry-leading target of $50 billion by 2025.
The bank scored very highly on its aggressive digitization of core operations with an investment of $250 million as the first part of the “digital core roadmap,” refreshing key channel systems across markets to enable faster rollout of digital features. These include client personalization capabilities driven by innovative artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
Personal portfolios in Southeast Asia are far more likely to include nonfungible tokens (NFTs) than in Europe or the US, mainly due to the young demographic of the newly wealthy. In the fast-growing world of digital assets, and in conjunction with the bank’s 90th anniversary, OCBC minted its first NFT for staff in late 2022 on the bank’s in-house blockchain platform. This was given to staff to commemorate the special occasion.
The bank increased total income by $11.7 billion in 2022 and grew shareholder returns by an eye-watering 18% during this torrid period—a nearly 60% increase in 2020. —Simon Littlewood
Banreservas, in operation since 1941, strives to serve the SME segment and won this year’s Best SME Bank in the Caribbean. It has a 23% share of the SME market, which represents 14% of the bank’s total business—contributing $1.23 billion to the bank’s $8.54 billion portfolio. From April 2022 to March 2023, the bank issued 21,091 loans to 15,066 SMEs, totaling $648.5 million.
Significant SME programs include Fomenta Pymes Banreservas and subofferings such as Programa Preserva, Programa Coopera and Programa Prospera.
Fomenta Pymes (“Promotes SMEs”) is a comprehensive suite of financial offerings designed to meet SMEs’ growth needs. It provides financing facilities, credit cards and free management and payroll services. It also sponsors programs to promote financial education, entrepreneurship and economic development.
Programa Preserva promotes a savings culture for sustainable economic well-being, providing financial education workshops. Programa Coopera promotes social projects to produce goods and services in economically vulnerable communities. During 2022, this program assisted 457 groups in starting business co-ops. Programa Prospera works to provide technical advice, financial services, and risk management to organizations that strive to facilitate new business development. —Laura Spinale
Central America: BAC Credomatic
Headquartered in Costa Rica, BAC Credomatic brings SME services throughout Central America, including Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama. Founded in 1952, the bank now serves 4.2 million clients, 1.9 million of whom use the company’s digital banking platform. Its SME client base consists of about 260,000 businesses. Its digital offerings include payroll services, supplier payment services, tax help, exporting help and international payment capabilities.
Financing for SMEs runs from standard business loans to more-specific offerings. The bank also provides development financing for technically and financially viable business projects. — LS
Central and Eastern Europe: ČSOB
The winner as Best SME Bank in Central and Eastern Europe is Československá obchodní banka (ČSOB), which has successfully grown its SME portfolio and customer base despite the high interest-rate environment. The bank has about 140,000 SME clients, and SME loans compose about 11% of its portfolio. Customer growth resulted partly from the bank’s new digital onboarding services, a vital part of the customer-centric business model.
ČSOB has focused on developing deep relationships with SMEs and broad product portfolios while becoming a leader in sustainability practices. The bank’s portfolio of digitized products includes solutions for lending, banking, financial markets and trade finance that SMEs can access through various apps.
The bank also strongly focuses on digitization and has created a virtual branch in its mobile app to help SMEs easily access its products and services. With the bank’s digitization effort, SMEs can use data for peer benchmarking, market analysis and industrial insights.
In 2020, ČSOB introduced a digital assistant, “Kate,” which uses artificial intelligence (AI) and data to help SMEs self-service in the bank’s digital channels so customers can better address their needs. More than 90% of customers are eligible to use the digital branch. ČSOB has recently introduced functionality that calculates and offsets an SME’s carbon footprint.
To help SMEs transition toward sustainability, ČSOB partnered with Green0meter, an environmental, social and governance (ESG) data platform that assists in reporting. This partnership will help SMEs meet the EU’s changing ESG requirements more efficiently while providing an ESG marketplace. —Andrea Murad
Latin America: BTG Pactual Empresas
BTG Pactual Empresas marches toward the future bit by bit and byte by byte. It metamorphosed into a fully digital bank in late 2021, designed to serve business customers better. As a result, it now provides SMEs with a “variety of quality products and services with low service cost and less bureaucracy.” Businesses have responded favorably. The bank’s business loan portfolio has increased an astonishing 227% from 2019, to 143 billion Brazilian reais (about $29 billion). SME loans represent about 10% of that total, including lending solutions for rural credit needs and solar financing. BTG Pactual Empresas also provides client advisory services for ESG agendas.
The digital bank’s platform, which is available online and from app stores for iOS and Android, enables speedy service. For example, more than 99% of new customers have fully functional accounts within an hour of signing up.
The platform also offers digitized services that have been developed to support SMEs and other businesses. These include open banking (enabling users to manage all accounts, regardless of bank, in one place), multiuser accounts, online invoicing, payroll processing, collection management, foreign currency exchange, and a host of other services. All told, SMEs can choose from more than 30 business automations—including those available through Google Workspace. Live customer support is available 24/7 via the user’s channel of choice (chat, WhatsApp, email or phone). When users need actual paper money, bank partnerships enable fee-free withdrawals from a broad network of ATMs. —LS
Middle East: Arab Bank
At Arab Bank in Jordan, SME business accounts for nearly 12% of the total portfolio. As of June, the bank had a total SME loan value of $824 million, including $165 million in loans issued between the first quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023. A staff of 35 dedicated employees serves more than 12,000 SME customers—representing a 12.6% share of the SME market in Jordan—through 21 dedicated SME centers. Other support channels include a 24/7 customer care center and digital platforms.
While the bank serves an extensive range of SMEs, it mainly targets businesses in the medical, professional, training and recreation, beauty and wellness, and retail sectors—along with home-based businesses led by female entrepreneurs. These and other SMEs turn to Arab Bank for a broad array of financing capabilities, including financing against point-of-sale proceeds, medical loans, vehicle loans, revolving lines of credit and trade finance products.
Arab Bank is also active on the digital front. Its Arabi Next mobile application, launched in 2022, was developed specifically to meet the needs of Jordanian SMEs. Its features include self-registration, a dashboard displaying company accounts, bill management capabilities, funds transfer services, document retrieval, salary management and cardless ATM withdrawals. A payment gateway enables SMEs to accept credit and debit cards and Apple Pay and Android Pay payments. The Arabi E-Mart platform enables SMEs to sell products and services online, while Arabi Shopix helps SMEs build their websites. Another significant digital offering is the bank’s supply chain financing platform. It helps SMEs optimize cash flow by empowering them to pay their suppliers early with Arab Bank financing. —LS
North America: Royal Bank of Canada
With more than 17 million customers and employing more than 89,000 people, the Royal Bank of Canada is a multinational financial services organization with more than 1,200 branches—one of Canada’s largest banks. It offers SMEs a broad range of “lending, leasing, deposit, investment, foreign exchange, cash management, auto dealer financing, trade products, and services,” along with digital cross-border banking solutions, according to the bank.
In 2022, it granted more than $12.6 billion Canadian dollars (about $8.8 billion) in small-business loans. Its digital platform includes SME services for marketing, payments, payroll and business operations. Among these services is Ownr, a platform that helps entrepreneurs start, manage and grow their businesses. RBC Insight Edge, meanwhile, is a business dashboard offering data-driven insights to help businesses make more informed decisions about their customers and markets. It employs anonymized credit and debit card information, combined with demographic and location data, to offer business owners improved insight into the markets in which they operate.
Western Europe: Santander
For the second year in a row, Santander was chosen as the top SME bank for Western Europe. With offices in Spain, the UK and Portugal, it provides financial products and services to more than 4 million SMEs worldwide. SMEs are one of the bank’s largest customer segments, composing over 90% of the bank’s corporate customers in Portugal. The bank focuses on international trade, green finance and education to help SMEs prosper.
The bank has established platforms and programs to enable SMEs to develop an international presence. Santander Trade provides information on global markets for trade finance, and Santander Trade Club matches companies with an import or export counterpart. The bank replicates best practices across its European footprint through its One Europe strategy.
Santander provides green-finance and sustainability offerings as clients transition to a low-carbon economy. These include financial products for purchasing, constructing and renovating green buildings and developing sustainable and protected agriculture. The bank also assists companies with renewable energy initiatives by financing renewable-power and low-carbon infrastructures.
With Santander X, the bank provides resources and training so that SMEs can scale and help communities prosper. Santander has specific tools to assist SMEs, like Santander X Explorer, a preincubation program that works with SMEs as they transform ideas into value propositions and sustainable businesses; and Santander X Launch, which helps SMEs bring that project to market and raise capital. —AM
|Best SME Bank Awards 2024
|Central & Eastern Europe
|BTG Pactual Empresas
|Royal Bank of Canada
|US Regional Winners
|First Citizens Bank
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