How Africa’s young entrepreneurs are changing the trade landscape
Africa has always been and will continue to be a dynamic landscape, from both a physical and a human geography perspective.
While in the past the continent’s rich resources were used for the advantage of others, the time is now for Africa to move into a new era of self-sufficiency born out of increased trade. The current innovations in the banking sector are supporting this growth and change.
The banking sector has moved forward significantly since the beginning of my career, when banks in Africa essentially acted like savings banks that collected deposits and invested in treasury bills. Sometimes they financed big corporates but SMEs and entrepreneurs were not factored into their strategies in the slightest.
Borrowers had to find other ways to finance themselves, for example through pooled investments or microfinance institutions. Compare this to the Africa of 2017, with a rising tide of entrepreneurship sweeping the continent, and the difference couldn’t be more significant.
Not content with the hierarchies and social structures of their forefathers, the young generation is ripping up the rule book. As the West goes through its own challenges, Africa is forging ahead on its own path.
New businesses boom
Africa is enjoying the highest rate of company creation globally. According to the African Economic Outlook report, no less than 22% of Africa’s working-age population is starting new businesses, which is a higher rate than any other region in the world. Today, young Africans from the diaspora are going back to Africa to start their own business or to work in their native continent. They want to be part of the new African dream.
This was not the case a few years ago. This young generation is pushing for change. When you consider this entrepreneurship trend, the growing middle class and the potential of African trade, it becomes clear that African banks have no choice but to adapt and target all market segments with a dedicated product offer.
The banks respond
In fact, this change is already happening. International banks are already present in Africa, opening regional hubs for investment banking and structured finance, consumer loans and leasing, with dedicated business lines for mobile and internet banking, supply-chain or structured finance. This is the case with Ecobank, for instance.
At the end of 2016, there were six pan-African banks operating in 15 or more African markets, a growing phenomenon that should facilitate the harmonisation of financing solutions. With industrialisation and trade growth firmly on the agenda, I can report with confidence that the African finance sector is now structuring itself to be able to support regional trade growth. I am not only talking about banks but also about trade insurance companies like ATI.
Despite this positive trend there are still gaps to be filled in terms of African trade financing needs. I would add that Africa cannot be viewed as a homogenous country or market segment, particularly if we compare Francophone and Anglophone countries.
Gaps in financing needs include: SME financing, for which the role of DFI and microfinance institutions is still key; industrial or project financing; finance leasing, which is still difficult to obtain, especially for large-scale leases, specifically in West Africa; supply chain financing, for which it is still necessary to have a tailored solution; and infrastructure finance to be made available in local currencies.
Time to be proactive
Pan-African banks are ready to support African trade and economic growth, but even with exceptional local knowledge and understanding they still face two major constraints. Firstly, equity level and balance-sheet sizes are often limited, and secondly, the cost of funds in US dollars or euros is often high due to their African rating as even subsidiaries located in Europe are capped by the rating of the parent company.
We often see situations where an African bank is ready to take the risk but its funding costs make its financing offer uneconomic for the exporter or the importer. So has the time come for Africa to take charge of its resources and move forward economically?
Yes, it has. The main proof for me is that African talents are now staying in Africa. Even if there are still a few challenges, the African banking sector is restructuring itself to accompany trade growth. We will be ready.
Julie Coulon is head of structured trade and commodity finance, Ecobank Paris.
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