Why Standard Bank is expanding to francophone West Africa

Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

South Africa’s Standard Bank – also trading as Stanbic Bank – has recently acquired a full banking licence in Côte d’Ivoire. The pan-African lender plans to use the market as a gateway to expand across the francophone West Africa region.

The bank first set up a representative office in Côte d’Ivoire’s economic capital Abidjan over two years ago to become more familiar with the market.

According to Hervé Boyer, Stanbic Bank’s CEO for Côte d’Ivoire, the decision was based on a growing interest from existing clients – particularly South African – to tap into this region. Standard Bank will initially concentrate on corporate and investment banking.

“Our strategy is to first [focus] on the bank’s existing clients who are already in the region, or who are planning to operate in the region,” Boyer told How we made it in Africa.

“And also we are going to try to bring more South African entities to Côte d’Ivoire.”

While South African companies have grown their African footprint across a number of English-speaking markets, they have typically been slower to expand to French-speaking countries – a result of challenges posed by the language barrier. However, key markets such as Côte d’Ivoire are increasingly catching the attention of firms due to high-growth potential and improving investment environments. Earlier this year a Nielsen Africa report indicated that Côte d’Ivoire had overtaken Nigeria in terms of the overall outlook for opportunities for existing and potential investors.

Boyer said the eight French-speaking countries that make up the West African Economic and Monetary Union offer substantial business advantages due to their economic and monetary integration and stability. For example, the eight member states share the West African CFA franc, which is pegged to the euro.

“So we don’t face the problems that other countries like Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa face – with a very serious devaluation of their currency. We are a euro-based economy and we have a very low inflation,” he added.

“[Secondly], we have one central bank – which covers the eight countries… and is also very powerful. We have one stock exchange, and we have one legal framework – and it is a harmonised legal framework between the eight countries.”

The Standard Bank group, now in 20 African markets, aims to open its first branch in Abidjan by the end of the first quarter of 2017. According to Boyer, around 60% of the market share is held by five banks and there is potential for Standard Bank to introduce retail banking operations. However, he added the strategy is to grow slowly.

“We are starting from scratch… and building a personal banking operation is very costly. So let’s start with our existing clients, go really slowly and learn from our [experience in the market]. After that we can move on into the personal and business banking sector.”