Africa: Atlas Mara maps out bank acquisition plan

By:
Dominic O’Neill
Published on:

Bob Diamond heads new buyout team; Partners with Ugandan IT entrepreneur

A new $325 million investment vehicle co-founded by former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond was on the hunt for a bank to buy in Africa last month. The firm raised the funds, including $20 million from its co-founders, in an IPO in London in December. Citi was sole bookrunner.

The project – known as Atlas Mara – grew out of Atlas, a merchant banking firm set up by Diamond, and Mara Group. The latter is a conglomerate with roots in IT and operations in 19 African countries, set up by 32-year-old Ugandan businessman Ashish Thakkar.

According to the prospectus, the firm has engaged Jyrki Koskelo to help it look for and develop any acquisition, in return for a $500,000 annual fee. Koskelo, originally from Finland, gained experience in acquiring African banks while at the International Finance Corporation (the World Bank’s private-sector arm).

Atlas Mara's chairman, Arnold Ekpe: CEO until 2012 of Togo-based pan-African group Ecobank
Atlas Mara's chairman, Arnold Ekpe: CEO until 2012 of Togo-based pan-African group Ecobank
The founders also have relationships with advisers with particular expertise in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, and Zimbabwe. Likewise, the prospectus says the firm might call on Civitas Partners, an investment bank set up by British national Peter Heilner and former Bank of America Merrill Lynch banker Andrew Gazitua.

Aside from Thakkar and Diamond, whose role at Barclays included work on the bank’s African franchise, other nonexecutive directors include Tonye Cole, co-founder of West Africa-focused energy group Sahara, and Rachel Robbins, formerly general counsel for the IFC.

The chairman is Arnold Ekpe: CEO until 2012 of Togo-based pan-African group Ecobank, itself an IFC investment. "This is not an African division of a global bank, and that gives us an advantage," says Ekpe. "This team is second to none, and it is fully focused on sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa."

The prospectus says the firm intends to buy a business that has the potential to be scaled up in its existing markets "and across additional regions". Nevertheless, Ekpe says the firm is "not trying to replicate" the model of Ecobank, which has operations in 35 African countries.

Atlas Mara does not have sufficient funds to buy one of the bigger African banks. The hope seems to be that technology could help the bank compete with bigger and more established lenders, including via Mara Group’s relationships with mobile telephone operators on the continent.