Banks see an opportunity in Africa

By DONNA BRYSON, Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) - For Princess Moyo, who lives in a shack in a Johannesburg settlement infamous for poverty and crime, the bank account she opened several months ago means security.

"In Diepsloot, there's lots of criminals," she said. "If they break into my house, they won't find money. The money's in the bank."

Not long ago, banks here were unconcerned with providing services for people like Moyo, a 34-year-old with an easy smile. But banks across Africa increasingly see opportunity in the slums.

The spread of mobile phones has made it easier for the poor of the continent to maintain bank accounts. Africa's middle class is growing, too, and millions of people need a way to amass and maintain their money.

African banks, which have attracted international attention for resilience in the difficult global economy, are also providing advice on multi-billion-dollar deals involving foreign companies looking for business on the continent.

Late last year, one of Africa's largest banks, Standard Bank of South Africa, announced it had secured a $125 million loan from 18 banks around the world, a demonstration of the confidence of foreign investors.

Most African banks had little exposure to the global risks that have weakened Western banks, said African Development Bank chief economist Mthuli Ncube. Instead, he said, they have expanded beyond their borders within the continent.

They have found plenty of business. The economies of sub-Saharan Africa are expected to grow 5.5 percent this year. That is second only to Asian developing countries, which are expected to grow 7.3 percent. The global average is 3.3 percent.

The number of Africans with enough disposable income to be called middle-class has been increasing about 3.8 percent a year since the 1980s, Ncube said, slightly ahead of population growth. Banks and other business see a market there.

Among the poor, Kenya has been a hub for financial innovations. When the telephone company Safaricom introduced M-Pesa in 2007, it was the first mobile money transfer system of its kind.

Now M-Pesa - pesa means money in Swahili - "is part of the local parlance, and it means money transfer," said Anthony Mwai, IBM's manager for East Africa. IBM has been expanding business with African banks.

In a practice now common around the world, users load money onto their phones at small brokers or from bank accounts. Then they use it to pay rent or bills, or send money to another M-Pesa user, who can visit a broker to get cash.

Banks that once saw M-Pesa as competition have gone into partnership with Safaricom. Such innovations have allowed banks to reach customers without building branches in places like Diepsloot.

For the most part, African banks haven't experienced problems that befell their Western counterparts.

Ncube, of the African Development Bank, said African central banks are generally cautious, perhaps because many African economies have been through painful restructurings at the hands of the International Monetary Fund, something some European economies are now confronting. Banking regulations reflect the caution, and African banks have kept a tight rein on lending.

The poverty of many African countries has meant their economies and banks are somewhat isolated from global trends, while China's growing appetite for raw materials has benefited African producers of minerals and timber.

Still, in 2009, Nigeria's central bank had to provide a $2.55 billion bailout for troubled banks. Analysts blamed lax regulations exploited by corrupt bankers. Ncube insisted that Nigeria's central bank did the right thing in the end.

The banks are healthier today and preparing for more growth.

Last year, IBM signed 20 deals worth $200 million to provide services for banks across Africa. IBM's Africa business has grown by double digits over the past three years, "and the growth we see, we see continuing," spokesman Jonathan Batty said.

Banks have asked for IBM's help modernizing their computer networks to handle more customers and to connect with customers through mobile phone banking and other technology, said Mwai, IBM's manager for East Africa.

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