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Africa: Regional dreams spur banks and their clients

Many of South Africa’s leading companies see a once-in-a-generation chance to build businesses across the continent. Banks in South Africa spy an opportunity too, by growing around the region alongside their clients. Can they make the most of it?

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“Everyone is intrigued and enchanted by demographics in Nigeria, GDP figures and the overall changes that the country is experiencing,” says Paula Disberry. “But the reality in which businesses like ourselves operate there is very different.”

Disberry knows this all too well. She is group director for retail operations at Woolworths, one of South Africa’s leading retailers.

As for many leading companies in South Africa, still the continent’s most developed economy and home to many of its biggest companies, Nigeria seemed like the obvious place for an ambitious group to go. Last year, Nigeria overtook South Africa as the continent’s largest economy with a rebased nominal GDP of $510 billion – 89% higher than officially identified before the exercise – and GDP growth of 7.4% in 2013. Growth in the country – and the rest of the continent – is a big pull-factor for some corporates, especially those struggling to make profits in stagnant home markets.

But in November 2013, Woolworths pulled out of Nigeria. Two of the company’s stores in Lagos and one in Enugu, all which had opened just 18 months earlier, were closed.

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