How SocGen is building an African future
Senior management at Société Générale sees a unique opportunity for growth in Africa, including east Africa, Nigeria and the lusophone countries. The aim is to be much more than the only French bank left standing on the continent. Instead, the bank is courting regional clients by building local markets and structured finance platforms, while its investment in mobile money could be the seed of a much bigger African consumer business.
Société Générale is already comfortably top of the syndicated loan rankings in Africa excluding South Africa. Now, it has set its heart on expanding even further in Africa’s fastest-growing markets, making a mark on some of the biggest investment banking deals and infrastructure projects on the continent while extending its reach in mass-market mobile banking. And while it is veering away from South Africa’s slower-growth and more-developed financial market, it could soon pool global and African clients with Johannesburg-based Absa.
One example is the €250 million bridge facility that Senegal needed in January, tying into Dakar infrastructure projects. The banks ready to deploy it neatly matched the three remaining full-service international wholesale banks with most importance to Africa. On the subsequent €1 billion 10-year and $1 billion 30-year deal, Senegal also named BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank and Natixis as bookrunners. But on the bridge loan – which refinanced previous facilities from Credit Suisse and Afreximbank – there was just one eurozone bank, Société Générale, as well as one UK bank, Standard Chartered, and one American, Citi.
Of those three, SocGen appears the most ambitious bank in Africa today, particularly given Citi’s lack of a retail presence and Standard Chartered’s long restructuring.
As a French bank, SocGen has traditionally had a strong network in the Maghreb and the euro-pegged CFA franc zones. It owns Senegal’s second-biggest lender, as well as Algeria’s largest private bank, and Morocco’s leading foreign-owned bank. It owns Cameroon’s biggest bank, and the number one lender in Côte d’Ivoire, where a €1.7 billion 12- and 30-year bond followed shortly after Senegal (again, with SocGen as bookrunner).
But it wants to grow far beyond these francophone markets, including east Africa and the lusophone countries. The bank has opened in nine new African countries in the past 15 years. Since 2015, it has opened in one African country a year: Togo, Mozambique (where it bought the local Mauritius Commercial Bank unit) and most recently a representative office in Kenya. Angola and Nigeria, above all, are in its sights. This is all part of chief executive Frédéric Oudéa’s vision to focus the bank on Europe and on Europe’s neighbours – mainly Africa.
Analysts of the bank’s stock in London or Paris tend to pay little if any attention to its Africa business, and when they do, they are not always enthusiastic.
“Africa adds to the complexity of the bank and is a distraction to its management,” grumbles Guillaume Tiberghien, banks analyst at Exane BNP Paribas in London.
Yet, if Africa is small today in terms of the bank’s group earnings, Oudéa sees a far greater longer-term opportunity.
“I think 20 or 30 years ahead when I have Africa in mind,” he tells Euromoney Africa.
In line with the UN’s estimate last year, Oudéa cites a figure of 2.5 billion people in Africa by 2050, roughly double today’s population, making it a much larger proportion of the world’s total: “No other continent will have such significant demographic trends.”
He talks of the possibility for dramatic commercial expansion by the bank and its clients in Africa, owing to this demographic surge, even if he also alludes to associated social and political dangers if Africa’s economic growth is not fast enough.
“Africa might be the biggest opportunity and potentially the biggest challenge for the stability and the prosperity of Europe,” he says.
Crucially, Oudéa thinks his bank can manage the risks in Africa, and grasp the opportunity. The bank is slimming down in some countries outside France where it does not have critical mass. For example, it announced the sale of its banks in Albania and Bulgaria to Hungary’s OTP in August. Yet Oudéa has put international retail and financial services – managed by his former chief financial officer and potential successor Philippe Heim – at the heart of his strategy, and has specifically picked Africa for growth within that unit.
Frédéric Oudéa, Société Générale
Africa, as a Paris-based equity analyst notes, offers an exceptional avenue for growth for a European bank like SocGen. It holds the promise of economic expansion, in sharp contrast to the prolonged deflation in the eurozone, where traditional retail banks like the one run by SocGen are languishing.
While Europe and France have too many banks and too much debt, the majority of Africans do not even have bank accounts. African countries’ financing needs are already large and urgent, and are rising rapidly, as governments must build the infrastructure and the factories for a growing population of consumers and workers.
Africa generates about €1.5 billion, or less than 10% of SocGen’s net banking income. However, SocGen expects its French retail division to produce an annual revenue increase of only 1% in its latest three-year plan, announced late last year. Oudéa charged Africa with producing an annual increase of at least 8% in that plan. In the first half of 2018 the Africa division comfortably surpassed that with an 11.5% increase.
Barclays’ exit in 2016 and 2017 from its former 16-country-strong African business is an important development, showing how SocGen’s strategy differs from that of its competitors. Standard Chartered’s operating income was $2.8 billion in 2017 in the Middle East and Africa, but it has tended to show lower revenues in the latter than the former.
The distance to the other French banks is even clearer. None has put Africa at the core of their strategies of late. This year, BPCE agreed to sell its banks in Mauritius and Madagascar to its 5%-owned Moroccan partner BCP (it still owns banks in Cameroon, Congo and Tunisia). Crédit Agricole sold its five leading banks in west and central Africa to Morocco’s Attijariwafa Bank in 2008.
BNP Paribas makes about half the revenues of SocGen in Africa and is focusing much more on developing non-French northern European markets in its 2020 plan.
Africa is a long-term project to ensure the sustainability of our contribution to local economic development. We can play a key role in that process - Frédéric Oudéa, Société Générale
SocGen is not immune to the temptation to exit when there is a suitable buyer. It sold its Egyptian bank for $2 billion to Qatar National Bank in 2012, in the wake of the Arab Spring and the eurozone crisis, and at a time when SocGen needed to bolster its capital. Some analysts think it could also pull back from the odd African market where it lacks scale.
But conversations with senior bankers at SocGen suggest the flight of other European banks from Africa have made it only more determined to take a contrarian position.
“Africa is a differentiating factor for us,” says Alexandre Maymat, SocGen’s head of Africa who oversees the region from Paris. “Société Générale is one of only two international banks that are still developing a strong universal banking strategy in Africa.”
Oudéa, crucially, also sees SocGen’s commitment to Africa as part of its social and environmental responsibilities, marking it out in sustainable finance from other big banks. SocGen is indeed important to many of the countries in which it operates and conducts wholesale banking activities. “Africa is a long-term project to ensure the sustainability of our contribution to local economic development,” he says. “We can play a key role in that process.”
SocGen already figures much more prominently in Africa than in other regions of the world in transaction banking, and it seems to be gaining market share. In Euromoney’s cash management survey this year, it rose to second place (behind Citi) for corporates, and rose to the top three in financial institutions. However, SocGen’s position is below banks with much smaller local African networks in Dealogic’s Africa investment banking revenue ranking, even excluding South Africa.
Even so, and despite the example set by Citi, which comes comfortably top of the Dealogic table, SocGen is convinced that its retail network will be an important support to its wholesale bank. Focusing more on retail in Africa could help it harness deposit funding for its wholesale activities on the continent, including infrastructure financing, according to Maymat. And it will diversify its revenue streams and bring revenues from the local consumer boom to the bank directly.
The African involvement of SocGen’s French corporate clients, of course, is nothing new. For example, sub-Saharan Africa remains Total’s second-biggest market after Europe not just in terms of oil production but also petrol stations (the latter thanks to a long-standing downstream business in South Africa).
Some French corporates are diversifying and stepping up their involvement in Africa, especially in areas such as food and retail (Danone, Carrefour), infrastructure and logistics (Bouygues, Bolloré), and telecoms (Orange). Africa’s demographics are becoming the basis for its greater appeal to multinationals. The attendant rise of Africa’s cities and their middle classes is bolstering home-grown African corporations: clients which SocGen hopes will similarly value its base and experience in Europe.
Nowadays, despite these attractions, other international banks are shying away from Africa, in part because of perceptions of corruption and opaque corporate governance. Tighter European and US requirements in areas such as anti-money laundering mean that for some banks, the job of ensuring compliance is too onerous to be worthwhile, especially if the resulting revenues appear relatively meagre.
Sometimes such risks are hard to avoid. For example, SocGen was caught up in a Paris court’s recent investigation into whether Teodorin Obiang, the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, bought French property with public funds. Although the court did not target SocGen, in 2015 Equatorial Guinea arrested three employees of its bank there, the country’s largest, for allegedly having broken local banking secrecy laws by helping with the investigation.
Reuters reported that when the court convicted Obiang in his absence last year, it then criticized SocGen and Banque de France for not doing more to make Obiang aware that this use of the money would not be acceptable in France.
SocGen, which has had a presence in many African countries for decades, hopes that its deep knowledge of the region can help it to keep abreast of potential threats and dangers to its business.
The bank continues to do chunky deals in countries which would be unfamiliar to most banks in France, let alone elsewhere in Europe. Its 2018 tombstones include coordinating a €215 million committed borrowing base for Addax Petroleum in Mauritania. SocGen has a universal-banking presence in the Islamic Republic, having entered the country in 2007. It has previously financed much of Mauritania’s refined-oil imports.
Cathia Lawson-Hall, SocGen’s head of coverage and investment banking for Africa, thinks the African bank network gives it focus and insights that other international banks looking to finance African clients would lack. The top executives of its bank in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, will naturally be in day-to-day contact with the finance ministry there, one of the continent’s most active bond issuers. “It helps us source the deal and to know what we should avoid and run away from,” she says.
SocGen is more aware than most banks that much of Africa suffers from relatively high political risk. The Sahel region, where it owns several banks, has been particularly unstable since the Arab Spring due to jihadist activity.
East Africa is definitely an area we want to develop. We’re already doing more business there - Cathia Lawson-Hall, Société Générale
Loose monetary policy in Europe and the US has kept international debt flowing since the 2014 oil price crash. But the frequent lack of economic diversification – especially over-dependence on oil or another single commodity for government revenues and foreign currency earnings – is a risk for some of the biggest African economies, especially Nigeria.
The answer for SocGen is to balance the political and economic risks through geographical spread, and the business risk by splitting revenues between retail and corporate banking.
SocGen has retail banks in all but two (Kenya and South Africa) of its 19 African countries, although those two are particularly important for its corporate and investment bank. It is not present at all locally in its other most important African countries for corporate and investment banking, Angola and Nigeria. This is because of the size of clients, such as Angola’s public sector, and because of group single-country exposure limits, which are related to GDP and therefore easily reached in the smaller economies where it owns banks.
To further highlight the benefits of diversification, Maymat points out that economic growth in Africa as a whole was its lowest in a decade in 2017. However, he says, more than half of African countries have achieved economic growth of more than 4%, stellar in European terms. Indeed, a majority of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa. “The oil exporters and South Africa have mainly driven Africa’s poor growth performance in recent years,” Maymat points out.
Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal both have GDP growth in the high single digits. The former is SocGen’s biggest country earner in sub-Saharan Africa. Cameroon, Ghana and Madagascar are also among Africa’s faster-growing economies, and SocGen’s biggest sub-Saharan Africa earners.
The Maghreb has slower growth, about 3%, but occupies a long-standing place in SocGen’s network, and produces relatively high earnings. Morocco accounts for about a third of SocGen’s Africa revenues, with an important retail portion.
Oil-rich Algeria is the bank’s next biggest African profit-driver. Algeria’s dominant state-owned banks capture much of the lucrative oil and gas business inside the country. But national oil company Sonatrach is an important international client. SocGen advised Sonatrach this year on the acquisition of the Sicilian Augusta refinery from ExxonMobil, to help satisfy rising demand for petrol and diesel in Algeria.
SocGen is Algeria’s biggest private bank, which makes it a vital partner for non-financial foreign direct investors in the country. For example, since the 2014 oil-price drop, Algerian production facilities such as a new Lafarge cement plant and Renault car-assembly unit have become even more important due to stricter import controls. Financing them commands high margins.
Francophone countries are natural targets for SocGen’s French corporate clients in Africa. But all the main economies of east Africa have growth exceeding 5%, and some have a more private-sector orientation than their Francophone peers, even if Ethiopia and Tanzania are growing fastest. That is why this year SocGen opened in Kenya (the country which was also one of the oldest and most important parts of Barclays’ African network).
Following clients is the starting point for SocGen’s new Kenya base, as businesses active elsewhere in its network have targeted expansion in the country as an east African launchpad, including the big French corporations which are active on the continent. Danone bought a 40% stake in the country’s biggest dairy producer, Brookside, in 2014, in a deal with the Kenyatta family (relatives of president Uhuru Kenyatta), which retains the majority.
“It’s a window we have to get to know that part of Africa better,” says Lawson-Hall of the new Kenya office. “East Africa is definitely an area we want to develop. We’re already doing more business there.”
She points to SocGen’s involvement in a recent $750 million loan for the finance ministry, increasing SocGen’s recognition in east Africa. Alongside ING, SocGen also led a $230 million loan this summer for Ethiopian Airlines, making use of SocGen’s aircraft financing expertise.
In Nigeria and Angola, the other two main countries where it lacks a presence, the bank is as yet undecided whether to buy a bank or open a rep office, or start from scratch. After the oil-price crash, both countries are still suffering low growth. Their banking sectors need to restructure – especially Nigeria’s smaller banks, and Angola’s big state bank BPC – although they are yet to set out a clear path to do so.
But it is clear that SocGen is determined to enter both countries, one way or another.
There are rumours that it is selling its custody business in South Africa to Absa, the recently rebranded former Barclays Africa. Euromoney understands this would not imply a Barclays-style retreat from Africa, rather an acknowledgement that it can gain more market share outside South Africa, given the difficulty of competing with local institutions such as Absa in the continent’s biggest financial sector.
SocGen is exploring a corporate and investment banking partnership with Absa. Absa has been looking for such partners, including Barclays potentially, to replace the global reach it previously enjoyed when Barclays owned it, and so the international partner has local African reach. Absa handed SocGen a UK securities-services mandate for its wealth and investment management business in September, when Absa launched its new London office.
A wholesale banking referral agreement with Absa could dramatically quicken SocGen’s pan-African roll-out, given Absa’s formerly Barclays-owned banks in east and southern Africa (but without Angola).
For SocGen, whether or not the Absa partnership happens, more of a pan-African spread would be an advantage when it comes to serving Africa’s increasing regional homegrown corporate champions, according to Lawson-Hall. “If they want to go to other African countries, we are there; if they want to do deals outside Africa, we are there too,” she says.
As part of its African retail push, late last year SocGen appointed Valérie-Noëlle Kodjo Diop – until 2016 head of BNP Paribas South Africa’s branch – to a newly created position as head of innovation and alternative banking models for the Africa region.
“The challenge is to reinvent the bank,” says the former structured finance banker. “The model of the bank before was more about accompanying big corporates. SocGen is good at that, but on the retail side we need to go further.”
The worry is that telecoms firms and, perhaps in the future, big tech firms could make new rivals, including in the longer-term project of bringing more people into the formal banking sector. In east Africa, Vodafone’s M-Pesa has been the poster child for how developing countries can rapidly extend financial inclusion, if only in payments, without the sluggish and costly expansion of bank branches.
Orange, too, has already rolled out a mobile-money payments product across much of west Africa. Following the launch of Orange Bank in France last year, according to the Financial Times, Orange has applied for a banking licence in the west African CFA zone in the hope it can roll out consumer banking alongside a so-far unnamed partner.
|Valérie-Noëlle Kodjo Diop,
Under Kodjo Diop’s purview, SocGen is targeting mobile phones – which are much more widespread in Africa than bank accounts – to provide an alternative way of nurturing Africa’s retail market.
Last year, partly thanks to a favourable regulatory environment, it launched Yup in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, shortly before other west and central African markets including Cameroon and Ghana, and with a target of a million wallets by 2020.
Yup is based on the agency model, deploying terminals in petrol stations and general stores and the like, so customers with even the most basic mobile phones can register and use it, not just those using the smart-phone app. The core-banking system and payments technology comes from French fintech Tagpay – in which SocGen increased its investment by €2 million to reach a 19.23% stake this July – and can work with any mobile provider.
As in Europe, banks and other providers seem willing to lose money in the short term in the war for market share in this new frontier of finance. But SocGen thinks Yup will give a better boost to financial inclusion than other mobile-money providers, as it can do so in a manner more relevant to a wider banking proposition, so the product is not just used for transfers of cash that are ultimately stored under the mattress.
“Yup has a different operating model to address the needs of people previously outside the banking system,” says Kodjo Diop. “It is part of the bank, but it’s not in opposition to the main brand. These are two different set-ups to address different clients.”
SocGen is better suited to the regulatory requirements of African mobile banking, as opposed to simple transfers, due to its experience as a regulated deposit-taking institution, Kodjo Diop adds. Stricter know-your-client processes will come more naturally to a bank, for example.
“Compliance will be a relative advantage for us and it’s more of a challenge for the telecoms firms,” she says. There is even scope for telecoms firms to outsource their financial products to SocGen, via Tagpay.
Yup has a different operating model to address the needs of people previously outside the banking system
- Valérie-Noëlle Kodjo Diop, Société Générale
Yup already offers cash transfers, deposits and withdrawals. Credit and savings products, including payday advances, as well as international transfers, will follow. Yup can help with SocGen’s wholesale clients too, offering them a cheap, cashless way to pay wages. Workers then use it to pay their water and electricity bills, top up phone credit and pay merchants.
Inspired by Open Banking rules in Europe, Kodjo Diop sees Yup’s future as a platform for banking and non-banking products, such as health insurance. Its innovation hub in Dakar, based in co-working premises called Jokkolabs, is already developing ways for Yup to offer these products.
In Côte d’Ivoire, Yup has even helped spread access to electricity deep into the country, via pre-payments for solar batteries, manufactured by France’s EDF. It is planning to do the same in Ghana, allowing remote villagers access to power for things richer urban dwellers might take for granted, such as fridges and televisions.
Across Africa, SocGen sees access to electricity – and infrastructure more generally – as a vital area in which it can add value in its host nations, especially on the wholesale side. As with spreading solar batteries and financial inclusion via its mobile-money platform, it all plays into SocGen’s wider idea of reaping rewards from serving Africa’s growing and urbanising population.
One of the main challenges for its infrastructure financing team is finding bankable projects. The regulatory framework for public-private partnerships is yet to be fully developed, says Maymat, while lower oil prices have hampered the capacity of some sovereigns to provide financial backing.
Partly as a result, export credit agency-financing is a major part of SocGen’s wholesale activity in Africa, and the importance of jurisdictional specifics to this business means it has sub-regional ECA specialists across the continent. One example this year is its leadership of a €165 million buyer credit and tied commercial loan alongside Bpifrance to upgrade the electricity network in Cameroon’s biggest city, Douala.
“Access to electricity is key,” says Maymat. “Without better electricity infrastructure, it will be very difficult for African countries to develop their agriculture sectors, because of the lack of power for storage facilities. That’s true also for the development of industry.”
SocGen’s other ECA-backed deals this year include a similar €67 million Bpifrance-supported deal for the modernization of Angola’s meteorological system. This coincides with a warming of official Angolan-French links after Angola’s new president, João Lourenço, visited Paris in May. SocGen was also involved in a €109 million financing in Angola with Spain’s CESCE for train maintenance this year.
Weak government finances and legislative frameworks, however, also mean more demand for private-sector methods to meet the infrastructure challenge. With creaky national distribution networks, local entrepreneurs and multinationals often have to turn to building their own off-grid electricity generation capacity.
“The development of Africa won’t be the same as Asia’s growth,” Maymat underlines. He does not see a Chinese-style frenzy of power-station construction, but rather a popping up of small and medium-sized projects focused on individual cities and factories. The building of captive electricity generation is therefore important if companies are to grow in size and sophistication.
Local trading capacity
SocGen sees a role for itself in Africa, not just for international clients, but also because it can bring in skills learnt from developed markets to Africa’s own rising corporate champions. To do so, it is reinforcing coverage links between its African banks and teams based in Paris and elsewhere, while developing local product capacity.
The departments of its corporate and investment bank in Paris that are most relevant to African clients all have bankers solely focused on Africa, including three people in debt capital markets, and five for natural resources and infrastructure.
The job of Lawson-Hall and her team is to plug these teams into African governments, corporates and financial institutions, and not just in the countries where SocGen is present or owns banks. This includes the head of the new Kenya office, George Mutua, previously head of global corporate for east Africa at Standard Chartered. Lawson-Hall also calls on two coverage bankers in South Africa, in addition to its London-based team, for names like Investec, for which it co-arranged a €450 million senior unsecured term loan this year.
Lawson-Hall herself speaks with the kind of native-level English that Maymat and Oudéa lack, although she is also French. She has travelled often enough to Nigeria to claim, “I know the country almost as if I were Nigerian.”
The development of a local corporate client base has also encouraged SocGen to set up joint ventures between local African banks and its global structured financing unit: first in Casablanca for north Africa in 2013, then in Abidjan, in 2015. The latter team will double in size to 10 people this year as it becomes a structured finance hub for sub-Saharan Africa. This is a way to offer SocGen’s globally competitive structuring capacity to infrastructure and natural resources projects that it might deem too small to be profitable elsewhere. Payment arrears restructurings to government are another part of these local hubs’ roles.
It has also established or thoroughly rewired local trading floors in Africa, with a particular bent towards hedging currencies and commodities. Typical clients might include an electricity producer seeking to hedge dollar or euro exposures, or a cement manufacturer seeking to protect against its exposure to the oil price in its purchases of fuel for its own electricity generation.
The bank itself is often heavily involved in commodities trading with Africa. This year it was the sole mandated lead arranger and lender in a €65 million one-year pre-export finance facility for Burkina Faso’s national cotton company, Sofitex.
SocGen opened a new trading room in Abidjan in 2017, serving the west African CFA zone. That followed modernization of older trading rooms in Ghana and Morocco, and the establishment of a first trading operation in Algeria, both around 2015. The Casablanca operation, also serving Morocco’s relatively developed local bond market, has shared management between the 57%-owned local bank and SocGen’s Paris markets division.
This local trading capacity is a major differentiator to rivals. Other international groups will have equally good access to euros and dollars, but trading west African currency is harder in Paris, due to the distance from the local investor community.
Maymat says he is impressed with how quickly these investments in local markets rooms returned a profit for the group, with net banking income growing 20% in Casablanca and 35% in Abidjan: “The potential demand was much higher than we forecast.”
The Africanization of SocGen Africa
Alexandre Maymat and his family were initially apprehensive about moving from a comfortable job in France, to Cameroon in 2009 for him to run Société Générale’s bank there. It turned out to be an exceptionally good move for the alumnus of the École Polytechnique in Paris, an institution from which he graduated only a few years after SocGen’s group chief executive, Frédéric Oudéa.
“We fell in love with Africa,” says Maymat. The continent’s climate stood in particularly favourable contrast to a previous posting, in cold and drizzly Brussels, where he worked for the EU’s Economic and Financial Committee before going into banking at SocGen in the early 1990s.
SocGen owns Cameroon’s biggest bank, with about a quarter of the retail and corporate market. Maymat’s move there happened while Europe was still suffering from the fallout of the 2008 crash. The promotion to African regional head – also overseeing SocGen’s banks in Lebanon and in France’s overseas departments and territories, which includes Réunion – came not long afterwards, in 2012.
“It’s a fascinating continent, so dynamic and confident about the future, such an entrepreneurial culture. You’re developing the sector in which you operate. There’s so much to be done in African banking.”
Maymat describes “a new generation of young managers coming back from Europe and the US”. Even so, he says there are “still too many” French chief executives of its own banks in Africa. French bankers still oversee the majority of the banks it owns in Africa, he admits.
The proportion of expatriates in senior positions in Africa has fallen by about a third in the past five years, as the group has overhauled the boards of its local banks in Africa – something Maymat thinks must go further. “We are changing the order of things,” he says. The development of homegrown African banks is part of the impetus: “African managers will leave if they can’t reach the top.”
In July, Maymat appointed a new tier of sub-regional heads, most of whom are from the region, in conjunction with a project to centralize the regional IT systems in Abidjan and Casablanca. These are George Wega (Cameroonian) for west Africa; Sionle Yeo (Ivorian) for east and central Africa; Ahmed El Yacoubi (Moroccan) for Morocco; Eric Wormser (French) for Algeria, Lebanon and Tunisia; and Walid Chaouch (Tunisian) for the overseas departments and territories.
“African people have a better understanding than Europeans about the way the banking sector is evolving, and better penetration of the local business community,” acknowledges Maymat. “The time when we only focused on big international clients is over. That’s a less profitable business due to competition, so it’s important to be strongly linked to the local business community.”