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Ecobank moves to berth in DR Congo

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Ecobank Transnational Inc. sees fresh opportunities in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the nation joined the East African trading bloc last month.

The mineral-rich country became the East African Community’s seventh member after heads of state agreed to its request to join the group, which has a common market enabling free movement of goods, people, labor, services and capital. The other participants are Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

The DRC brings the total number of people covered by the bloc to about 267 million and overall GDP to $250 billion.

“We need to grow our business in the DRC,” Ecobank Group Chief Executive Officer Ade Ayeyemi said in an interview. It’s “a large market with close to 100 million people.”

The East African community now stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean and the bank “needs to see how we can scale up our business in that market,” he said.

Ecobank will be looking to replicate the success of other lenders who have tapped the business potential in the DRC, where only one in four people aged 15 years and above own a bank or mobile-money account, according to the World Bank’s latest data from 2017.

Two years ago, Kenyan rival Equity Group Holdings acquired a Congolese lender to create the country’s second-biggest bank, more than doubling loans and quadrupling deposits in the process.

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The Nairobi-based lender is aiming for return on equity of as much as 20 per cent from its unit in Africa’s top copper producer.

Founded in 19 85, Togo-based Ecobank was focused on West Africa and central Africa for more than 20 years before expanding outside its core region. That included starting a presence in the DRC and opening branches in Kenya, East Africa’s biggest economy, and in each of the bloc’s five other markets.

Kenya’s banking regulator locked Ecobank’s local unit out of its currency market for five days last month, making it the second lender to be penalized for failing to comply with rules aimed at stamping out money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

“It was an unfortunate incident, an oversight that shouldn’t repeat itself,” Ayeyemi said. “We’ve put enough controls and training to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Ecobank has a strategic alliance with Johannesburg-based Nedbank Group Ltd., its biggest shareholder with a 21 percent stake, enabling the lender to offer clients wealth products from its South African partner.

While Ecobank expects revenue growth to slow to 1 per cent to 3 per cent this year as a devaluation of local currencies pushes up its costs, the group aims to more than double its wealth business within the next five years.

“The middle class in Africa is growing and therefore wealth management becomes one of the things they would look up to,” he said.

That represents an opportunity for African lenders, according to Ayeyemi.  “Otherwise, a large number of the ultra-rich are getting their wealth management solutions outside Africa.” ~Bloomberg

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