WHEN ICBC, the world’s biggest bank by value, paid $5.5 billion for a 20% stake in Standard Bank in 2007, bankers
around the world sat up and took notice. The deal with South Africa’s largest lender suggested Africa was no longer a curiosity but a potentially big source of profits. Some elements of the
continent’s vaunted financial blooming have since wilted: Nigeria’s banks, which had briefly seduced Western investors, suffered a crisis (see article). But the main business logic—that Africa’s growing trade links with other emerging markets have raised its strategic importance in
“Now everyone’s looking at Africa,” says Jacko Maree, Standard Bank’s boss. In January Bank of China, the country’s most international outfit, entered into a pact with Ecobank, which operates in 31
African countries. Chinese staff will drum up business from local branches. In August Brazil’s Bradesco and state-controlled Banco do Brasil announced a new African holding company with Banco
Espirito Santo (BES), a Portuguese firm active in Angola. And HSBC is in talks to buy Nedbank, a South African bank. William Mills, who runs Citigroup in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, says
the continent is becoming “more and more competitive”.
Local and Western banks’ profits in sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, were about $2.6 billion in 2009, not far off the sum Western firms made in India or China (see table). But China is
active, too. So far, Export-Import Bank of China, a state entity which promotes trade and investment, has done all the running. It has perhaps $20 billion of loans in Africa (including north
Africa), reckons Deborah Bräutigam, of American University in Washington, DC. Western private banks in sub-Saharan Africa have loans of $50 billion, excluding South Africa and Liberia, whose
shipping industry distorts the data. Bank of China’s loans to Africa and the Middle East doubled last year to $3 billion. ICBC recently made a $200m loan to the Nigerian arm of MTN, a South African
mobile-phone firm, to buy equipment from Huawei, a Chinese manufacturer.
There are broadly two sorts of firms operating in the region. First, the biggish locals, such as Standard Bank, which is active in 16 countries,
and Togo-based Ecobank, which operates mainly in west and central Africa. Then there are rich-world firms, which tend to operate where there are historical links: Société Générale in
French-speaking west Africa; Barclays and Standard Chartered in English-speaking countries; and Portugal’s banks in Angola and Mozambique. Citigroup has run a skeletal network since the
Traditionally all used variants of the same basic business model of serving well-off consumers, state entities, and medium-sized and big businesses. The banks typically gathered more in deposits
than they lent, which meant excess liquidity was parked with rickety governments and central banks. There were usually limits on how much profit could be sent home. But with high interest rates on
private loans, the returns on equity were pretty good.
Increasing the scale of this sort of operation is tricky, as the formal economy is often shallow and the middle class small. Some have expanded too quickly. Ecobank has 750-odd branches, 40% of
which have been built since 2007, a heavy investment which helps explain why its return on equity was a lowly 6% last year. Its chief executive, Arnold Ekpe, says he has slowed expansion and is
keen to restore profitability. At Standard Bank Mr Maree acknowledges that “we were a bit too aggressive on branches”. Barclays has also slightly cut back on sales outlets.
Jean-Louis Mattei, who runs Société Générale’s international retail activities, still wants more branches but says, “We have to be realistic, not optimistic.” He plans to add 100 in sub-Saharan
Africa to the existing 300, using plain buildings and a regional back-office system to keep a lid on costs. Mobile banking, meanwhile, is popular but most banks have yet to find a way to grab a
large chunk of the profits.
One lucrative strategy is to take a big bet on a booming economy. Portugal’s banks re-entered Angola after the civil war and are enjoying its oil bonanza. BES, Banco BPI and Banco Millennium BCP
together have 170-odd branches in Angola, but made a staggering $440m of profit in 2009. Pedro Homem, a director of BES, says that although the pool of private-sector customers is limited, the
bank’s loan book is “quite diversified”. The great risk is the Portuguese banks’ exposure to the state. The government seems also not to like foreigners taking the spoils. Last year all three had
to ensure that at least 49% of their operations were owned by locals.
Others have chosen to focus on wholesale banking. Chinese firms that are building airports, roads and power plants are sought-after clients. Standard Bank has a team of 40 bankers in an office
opposite ICBC’s headquarters in Beijing, who are trying to woo the Chinese bank’s clients. So far the financial performance of the collaboration has been disappointing. Still, the love-bomb tactics
have created a strong brand recognition in the Middle Kingdom: Standard Bank is now known as “Africa and Mining Bank”.
Many banks envy the Standard Bank set-up but doubt that bog-standard alliances with Chinese banks are worth it. “They suck everything out of you,” says one European bank boss. Yet there are other
ways to prosper. Standard Chartered’s wholesale operation now contributes 80% of its African profits, up from 60% a decade ago. It got there by bulking up its energy and commodities teams and using
its global network to win African business from European and Indian clients, says V. Shankar, who runs the bank outside Asia.
Most firms are likely to use this “network banking” approach to try to benefit from the wave of infrastructure and natural-resources investment in Africa. Citigroup looks set to to reinforce its
position in trade finance and investment banking, and if HSBC buys Nedbank, it will use it as a means to create a lean presence across the continent. (However, Barclays’ purchase in 2005 of ABSA,
another South African bank, has not transformed its position in the rest of Africa.) In one sense this is disappointing: banks will not prepare for a consumer-banking boom unless wealth begins to
trickle down. But the hard-headed approach is a sort of compliment too: banks are taking Africa seriously.