Inefficiencies in banking sector holding back Africa’s growth

In its report entitled “Challenges of African Growth, opportunities, constraints and strategic direction”, the World Bank clearly points out that a key constraint to growth in Africa is indeed the structure of African financial sectors as this generally influences private sector activity, economic growth and poverty alleviation.

We would also concur with the World Bank that a vibrant, competitive and efficient financial sector that reaches the majority of an economy’s population is a cornerstone of sustained high levels of economic growth and development. In this note, we have taken a broad look at financial sector developments across sub-Saharan Africa. However, we have also centred our arguments on Zimbabwe; a country that we believe is currently facing serious liquidity constraints. The main constraints are outlined below:

Inefficiencies in the banking sector

It still remains a fact that African financial sectors, especially in low-income countries, are among the least developed in the world. We note that interest rate spreads throughout the region have largely remained high, with little indication of converging with global levels at a median of around 13% (Latin America 7%, South Asia 5%, South East Asia 6%).

We opine that the main factors causing high spreads include high operating costs (including energy), perceived risk from policy frameworks and lending environments, lack of competition, and high concentration.

In the case of Zimbabwe, the use of multiple currencies in the economy (USD/ZAR/BWP) has simply meant a limited supply of liquidity in the market and therefore high minimum lending rates (MLRs) of around 15% per year. We also highlight that some banks remain largely under-capitalised, thereby limiting lending activity. In addition, the prevalence of non-performing loans in banks’ portfolios also adds to costs as banks compensate for the cost of foregone interest income by charging higher lending rates to performing loans.

Poor credit culture

The lending environment across Africa is also characterised by a poor credit culture, poor contract enforcement, and lack of protection of creditor rights.

Coupled with a lack of collateral and inability to prove creditworthiness on the part of potential borrowers, these have resulted in a higher perception of risk and higher external finance premiums. In Zimbabwe, for example, good information is scarce in the absence of a national credit bureau.

Furthermore, the value of the collateral, which is real estate in most cases, tends to be overstated and inevitably harder to realise if the need arise. Given the fact that the lender of last resort lacks adequate funding capacity, default risk and more importantly, counter party risk remain elevated.

Low levels of savings

Saving rates in Africa have remained far below that of other developing regions. In the early 1970s, for example, the average savings rate in sub-Saharan Africa was higher than in South Asia. However, while the savings rate in Africa has trended downward, South Asia has experienced a sustained upward trend so that by 2003, the average savings rate had exceeded 20%, compared to a mere 9% for Africa. Even though the saving rates for most countries bounced back in the following decade, for some countries the falls were sustained. In Zimbabwe, for example, as at 3 February 2012, total banking sector deposits were US$3.5 billion (including inter bank deposits).

Low levels of banking penetration

It still remains a key feature that a disproportionately small fraction of the population across the region is served by formal financial institutions. Data on access to financial services is scarce, and most conclusions reached are from anecdotal but compelling evidence. Low penetration is partly a result of income levels, although an increasingly affluent urban middle class is now emerging. The low proportion of people with bank accounts also reflects infrastructure problems that have resulted in the limited development of branch networks, especially within remote rural areas. Few countries are served by more than two branches per 100,000 people.

Despite the above-mentioned constraints related to banking in Africa, we have begun to see some pockets of success across the African continent, suggesting some improvements in a number of fronts. We highlight our key findings as follows:

E-banking slowly driving financial inclusion

One of the biggest success stories with regards to financial inclusion in sub-Saharan Africa is M-Pesa’s mobile wallet in Kenya. This has successfully penetrated some of the most deprived economies and simultaneously spurred unprecedented demand in a very short amount of time. M-Pesa now provides international money transfers between Kenya and other African countries and even the UK. Countries such as Kenya, South Africa and much of the North African region are now facing 100% m-banking penetration. However, in countries such as Burundi, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, and Rwanda the penetration is far less, standing at roughly 35%.

China-Africa partnerships yielding some rewards

We have also seen Chinese-African partnerships being extended to banking activities. A good example is the US$5.5 billion acquisition of a 20% stake in Standard Bank by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). Along with other players like Stanchart, it is our view that such partnerships are broadly cementing a financial services gateway between Africa and China.

Regulation and liberalisation more developed

Some banking sectors, such as Nigeria, are benefiting from market reform. Nigeria’s banking sector has gone through consolidations over the years, leading to the emergence of streamlined, better capitalised banks that have been able to enhance their services and are in a better position to compete and meet customer demands, while seeking to develop their international presence, both within the region and overseas.

In conclusion, we believe that the various constraints highlighted in this note need to be addressed in order to reinvigorate economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa. Nonetheless, banks in Africa are evolving and we continue to see vast opportunities for emerging market investors.

Imara is an investment banking and asset management group renowned for its knowledge of African markets.