As a bastion of liquidity within the financially turbulent Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (Communauté Économique des États de l’Afrique Centrale, CEMAC), Gabon competes head-on with the more populous Cameroon for the title of regional banking centre. While its lenders enjoy a cash surplus – total bank credit of CFA2.4trn (€3.6bn) accounted for 23.3% of GDP in 2013 – banking penetration, at 18.8% of the population, falls shy of its potential. The state’s CFA17trn (€25.5bn) drive to diversify the economy by 2025 will generate opportunities for debt financing, challenging banks to channel abundant and growing short-term liquidity into project and trade finance. Competition in a crowded market will not only support lending in the long-dominant corporate segment, but also drive innovation in products and distribution on the retail side. This will require the region’s central bank to make needed upgrades to payment and credit information systems.
Although bank lending has grown apace, from 21.9% of GDP in 2010 to 23.3% by May 2014, according to the Bank of Central African States (Banque des États de l’Afrique Centrale, BEAC), this remains modest compared to other larger African oil-producing states like Nigeria (30.4% of GDP) and Angola (29.4%). Unsurprisingly, and in line with African market trends, total lending to private corporates, at CFA1.12trn (€1.67bn) in May 2014, was more than five times higher than the CFA194bn (€291m) lent to individuals, according to the Professional Association of Credit Institutions of Gabon (Association Professionelle des Etablissements de Crédits du Gabon, APEC).
On the retail side, Gabon outperforms its peers in penetration by number of accounts, with a rate above the CEMAC average of 10%. Growth, too, is strong: according to APEC, these grew by 15.1% to 306,576 in the year to May 2014. “The growing penetration rate of the Gabonese banking sector is also creating positive synergies in the insurance sector, as they work very closely,” Bernard Bartoszek, director-general of Groupe Ogar, told OBG. The sector is, however, highly concentrated, and the top-three banks generated the lion’s share of growth. Of the more than 1200 accounts opened in May 2014 alone, for example, over half (608) were opened at a single bank, Union Gabonaise de Banque (UGB), with most of the rest spread among three others: 241 at Banque Internationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie du Gabon (BICIG), 187 at BGFIB ank and 118 at United Bank for Africa-Gabon (UBA Gabon).
In recent months, banks have sustained the double-digit growth of the past three years, albeit at a slightly slower pace, driven by both deposits and lending. Total deposits grew 43.1% year-on-year (y-o-y) in June 2013 but a slower 10.7% y-o-y in May 2014, to CFA2.33tn (€3.49bn), while aggregate lending rose by 69% and 47.5% y-o-y respectively in the same periods to CFA2.408tn (€3.61bn).
Growth in banks’ assets, after 17.7% y-o-y expansion in 2012, slowed modestly to 15.7% y-o-y by August 2013, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB), but still pushed the average loans-to-deposit ratio up from 70.6% in 2011 to 75.6% in 2012 before falling back to 72% by May 2014, well above the CEMAC average of 62.5%, according to Banque de France (BoF).
Banks’ net profits rose from 23.8% to 27.5% in 2012 alone, to CFA44.9bn (€67.35bn). As banks improved efficiency and curbed their aggregate cost-to-income ratio from 73.9% in 2010 to 53.7% in 2012, the sector’s average return on equity rebounded from 11.8% to 17.5% in the same period, according to the BoF. High commissions on transactions (transfers, ATM cards and so on) have remained resilient, sustaining banks’ stable non-interest income. As profits have risen, however, so has the sector’s chronic excess liquidity, creating challenges for deploying capital effectively (see analysis).
Unsurprisingly given state’s large role in the economy, the bulk of growth has been driven by lending to the public sector for projects in the Emerging Gabon national development plan. Loans to the state rose 12.9% to CFA297.7bn (€446.55m) by year-to-date May 2014, while those to private firms rose only 0.9% to CFA1.11trn (€1.67bn), and retail lending – generally a smaller segment in African markets – shrank by 4.3% to CFA194bn (€291m), according to APEC.
The same trends were evident in banks’ liabilities. Deposits by the state grew 77.3% to CFA310.8bn (€466.2m); those from private firms by 6.5% to CFA1.196trn (€1.79bn); and retail deposits fell 1.3% to CFA607.3bn (€911m) in the same period. Unfortunately, banks’ aggregate non-performing loan (NPL) ratio has trended upwards from 9.9% in 2011 to 10.1% in 2012 and 10.3% in 2013, according to the AfDB – below the CEMAC aggregate, which rose from 9% in 2012 to 11% in 2013. Provisioning has fallen from 92.6% of NPLs in 2011 to 84.6% in 2012, according to the BoF.
While profitability has held steady, competition has heated up in the past four years, with seven majority-private lenders carving out niches alongside three state-owned banks. BNP Paribas subsidiary BICIG has dominated Gabon’s banking industry since opening in 1973. Over the past decade, however, its market share has eroded. According to BICIG’s management, the French bank has sought to increase its stake in BICIG (its only minority investment in Africa, at 46.67%) to majority. Faced with the government’s refusal to sell its own 26.35% stake, the bank is now seeking a 4% stake from smaller shareholders. Though BICIG controls 16.31% of deposits and 16.17% of loans as of May 2014, it remains a distant second to Gabon’s homegrown bank, BGFIB ank.
Established in 1971, BGFIB ank is publicly listed, with 48.53% private ownership alongside state-owned Banque Gabonaise de Développement (BGD; 3.3%) and Compagnie du Komo (25.01%), and operates in nine West and Central African markets. The CEMAC’s largest banking group (roughly twice the size of second-largest, Afriland FirstBank of Cameroon), its balance sheet stayed flat in 2013 at CFA3.02trn (€4.53bn), of which 47% came from Gabon. BGFIB ank has focused almost exclusively on the corporate segment – with subsidiaries in consumer finance and leasing, investment banking, microfinance and insurance broking – and made up 11.5% of accounts as of May 2014, according to APEC.
While taking head-on pressure from BNP Paribas, BGFIB ank has also seen growing competition from relative newcomers. UGB, which Morocco’s Attijariwafa acquired from France’s Credit Agricole in 2009, is now Gabon’s third-largest bank, controlling 12.52% of loans and 11.85% of deposits as of May 2014. The government also holds a 26% stake. In a rapid catch-up effort on BICIG’s network of 18 branches (with three more added in 2014) and BFI’s 12, UGB will have expanded from four branches in 2010 to 20 by end-2014. Focusing particularly on professionals and mid-income segments with a deposit floor of CFA100,000 (€150), UGB has accounted for about half of new account openings in the last two years, outpacing even BICIG’s 35.03% share of accounts with its own 35.88% in May 2014.
The top three banks account for 76.33% of loans and 74.43% of deposits, but a tier of mid-sized banks is also chasing the broader under-served market. Citibank, present since 1976, continues to focus on multinational blue chips and government customers, ranking fifth, with 6.49% of lending and 8.99% of deposits. Competition from African neighbours has heated up more recently. Togo-based pan-African lender Ecobank, present in 34 markets, entered Gabon in 2009 and expanded swiftly to 10 branches by 2014. Like UGB and BICIG, it has focused on the two centres of Libreville and Port-Gentil, which together account for roughly 75% of the population, but also on hinterland towns like Franceville. Ecobank has expanded its exposure to state agencies while trying to build up a retail franchise, having now overtaken Orabank by share of deposits (5.92% to Orabank’s 4.79%) and lending (5.63% to 5.36%).
Orabank, a Beninois lender established in 1988 and incorporated in Togo, holds what was once Financial Bank Gabon as part of its network of 20 African markets. Pan-African private equity fund Emerging Capital Partners, which has a 61% stake, and other shareholders in the development finance segment were joined by Gabon’s newly launched sovereign wealth fund, the Gabonese Strategic Investment Fund (Fonds Gabonais d’Investissements Stratégiques, FGIS), when the fund bought a 2.58% stake in November 2013.
The last foreign entrant in November 2009 and the smallest of the privately held banks, Nigeria’s UBA has yet to achieve scale in Gabon, commanding only 1.64% of loans and 1.33% of deposits. Having focused on project finance and bidding on government mandates, UBA restructured its management in September 2013 and is expanding its presence, being the only bank to open a new branch (its third) in the first half of 2014.
The fresh competition has stimulated the market, even if new players seem limited for the moment. Despite rumours of a potential entry of France’s Société Générale given its recent launch in Congo-Brazzaville in 2012, a new market entrant seems unlikely. “It can be a challenge for new entrants to make a return on the CFA10bn (€15m) capital requirement to establish a bank in CEMAC,” Christian Gondjout, the director of strategy and development at BICIG, told OBG. “The Gabonese market may be saturated in terms of number of lenders, even if there is strong growth potential for the business.”
Gabon is now host to several regional network banks: Attijariwafa, Ecobank and UBA, each with over 20 African markets, and a few niche players spanning less than a dozen markets, such as BGFIB ank, which started its own international expansion in the mid-2000s, and Orabank. Cameroon’s Afriland Bank has also been quoted by the local media as expressing an interest in Gabon.
While the state maintains minority stakes in all of Gabon’s leading lenders, it has recently restructured its direct participation in the market through three institutions: the BGD, the Banque de l’Habitat du Gabon (BHG) and the newly created Poste-Bank. Operational since 1960, BGD was restructured in April 2010 and absorbed two struggling state-run risk-guarantee schemes. Though it makes up only 1.5% of all bank accounts, its 4.37% share of lending and 4.49% share of deposits make it Gabon’s seventh-largest bank, with 11 branches. However, in light of high NPL rates, the state has sought to better target both small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and local governments by overhauling the bank’s administration. The Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations (CDC), the corporatised state asset management agency, has long accounted for the lion’s share of deposits at BGD.
In early 2014, following a year-long audit of BGD by the regional banking regulator, the state restructured BGD’s shareholding, transferring its direct 51% stake to the CDC, which already owned 18%. Backed by the French Development Agency, which holds a 11.4% stake, BGD also holds credit lines with the European Investment Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). “The change in BGD’s shareholding is a significant step since the CDC is a more corporatised entity,” Alain Fazili Bula, vice-president of global markets at Citibank, told OBG. “Recapitalising the bank should be straightforward following this governance reform.”
BHG’s more ambitious mandate has proved a challenge to meet. Spun off from BGD in 2010 as a standalone mortgage lender, Gabon’s smallest bank has struggled to lure depositors, accounting for 0.17% of loans and only 0.06% of deposits in May 2014. It also has yet to comply with the BEAC’s new €15m capitalisation floor. Although BHG needs reform to support the state’s low-cost housing programme, lack of agreement at board meetings in 2013 may delay the process.
The newest policy-bank is La Poste’s financial-services subsidiary, born of the merger of Caisse d’Epargne Postale and Centre des Chèques Postaux and licensed at the end of 2012. With technical assistance from Morocco’s Al Barid Bank, part of the Poste Maroc Group, PosteBank is raising the required CFA10bn (€15m) of equity in 2014, but has already rolled out services through 26 PosteBank branches. It will eventually reach 58 conventional post offices, spread over remote locations such as Mouilla, where PosteBank started services in October 2013.
By April 2014 La Poste reported a total of 20,000 retail postal accounts and 150,000 savings accounts. Starting with simple accounts and remittance services, the retail bank plans to gather small-scale deposits and expand into consumer lending and non-bank services. In June 2014 it started selling NSIA bancassurance products through its 74 branches. A partnership with the state social security fund signed in May 2014 will transfer all civil servants’ pensions to the postal bank, making it the key beneficiary of the August 2014 deadline for bringing all public-sector employees into the formal banking system.
The banking sector’s regional infrastructure, which benefits from a monetary-policy peg to the eurozone as well as common banking supervision, has helped Gabon avoid volatility, even if other CEMAC countries have fared less well. With an asset size second to Cameroon, Gabon’s banking system is CEMAC’s most stable, according to an IMF report on the region’s financial system from November 2013.
The BEAC’s regulatory unit, the Commission Bancaire de l’Afrique Centrale (COBAC), is primarily responsible for oversight, but shares authority for granting national banking licences with finance ministries. While Gabon lost its right to appoint BEAC’s governor in 2011, COBAC is being transferred to Libreville in 2014. Authorities have sought to bolster banks’ lending capacity by raising capital requirements from CFA5bn (€7.5m) in June 2010 to CFA7.5bn (€11.25m) by end-2012 and CFA10bn (€15m) by July 2014.
While all privately held banks in Gabon meet these capital adequacy rules, the state-run institutions were still shoring up their capital bases in mid-2014. Implementing Basel-style risk guidelines is hindered by the lack of financial instruments on the regional bourse, so COBAC has sought to move towards counter-cyclical provisioning. In recent years it has tightened enforcement of loan-arrear provisioning rules (25% a quarter), run stress tests at state-owned banks in 2013 and put non-compliant banks under its control. All commercial banks so far comply with the minimum ratios. Yet in a market as small as Gabon, the risk of breaching COBAC’s single-borrower limit of 25% of equity – some CFA2.5bn (€3.75m) for most banks – is high.
In March 2011 the BEAC and CEMAC established a new regional deposit insurance fund, Fonds de Garantie des Depots en Afrique Centrale (FOGADAC), which started levying annual fees of CFA30m (€45,000) on banks and CFA5m (€7500) on other financial institutions. The fund’s capitalisation, however, remains a small share of Gabon’s total deposits of CFA2.33trn (€3.49bn) in May 2014, with the IMF having warned in November 2013 that more mechanisms for bank resolution need to be created.
“While the establishment of the FOGADAC deposit insurance is a welcome first step, it is still amassing the scale required to intervene, since it has less than CFA50bn (€75m) as of May 2014,” Pierre Marie Ntoko, the permanent secretary of APEC Gabon, told OBG. “The fund is still largely untested by any bank failure.” Meanwhile, the BEAC is forging ahead with more reforms. Having created the Regional Interbank Electronic Money Group in June 2012, the bank is migrating to a new IT system in 2015 that should support the establishment of regional cross-border payment settlement, although this will not yet occur in real time.
Credit Info Upgrade
The apex bank is also planning upgrades to its credit information infrastructure. The BEAC’s existing centrale des risques provides information on active borrowers (with a three-month time lag), but omits more granular data like the identity of creditor banks. While the BEAC considers upgrades to the centrale, including a biometric identification system on borrowers to curb potential fraud, the IFC is pushing for a regional private-sector credit information bureau similar to that established in the West African Economic and Monetary Union (Union Économique et Monétaire Ouest-Africaine, UEMOA) in 2014. “Such a credit bureau is a necessity in CEMAC,” Faissal Chahrour, director-general of Alios Finance Gabon, told OBG. “It should facilitate the approval of credit and improve lenders’ security.” Still at the feasibility-study stage in mid-2014, with authorities deciding on the terms of an international tender, the bureau would initially pool information from credit institutions but in time – like other newly formed credit bureaus in West and Central Africa – also vendors in telecoms, utilities like water and power, and larger retailers. “The initiative to establish a regional credit bureau will likely take two or three years,” APEC’s Ntoko told OBG.
While the CEMAC and UEMOA regions have enacted legislation to harmonise business throughout West and Central Africa, implementation has been sluggish and would still need to improve the security of collateral, according to the IMF’s CEMAC report of November 2013. “Despite some arrears by the government towards its contractors, Gabon is clearly still respecting the convergence criteria established by CEMAC,” Roger Owono Mba, general manager of BGD, told OBG.
Although it has the region’s highest percapita income of $17,220 in 2013, and one of the highest per-capita GDPs on the continent, Gabon is fairly limited in retail banking. Retail penetration stood at a mere 18.8% of the population, constrained in part by the 30% of households living in poverty – i.e. earning less than CFA80,000 (€120) a month – according to a state-commissioned report by McKinsey in 2014.
CEMAC has Africa’s lowest rate of financial access, according to the IMF, prompting Gabonese authorities to launch a drive for bancarisation. “We can grow financial penetration by going beyond traditional schemes,” Patricia Danielle Manon, director-general of BGFIB ank, told OBG. “Banks must be able to adapt to new channels like mobile banking, while microfinance today offers an alternative to the ‘forgotten’ of the banking system.”
New competition from Attijariwafa, Ecobank and UBA in particular has driven new account creation since 2010, when the minimum deposit for opening an account fell to CFA100,000 (€150). Once fully operational, PosteBank will also play a sizeable role, with its balance requirement of only CFA30,000 (€45) and interest-rate ceilings of 14%. While the state has not set firm targets for penetration, policies like requiring all 75,000 civil servants to be paid through a formal bank account by August 2014 should expand the net. “This requirement should bring in an additional 20,000 to 30,000 previously unbanked workers,” Ntoko told OBG.
While lower account requirements will help, the launch of mobile-based payment platforms since 2012 points to significant potential in a market with more than 1.8m SIM cards. “Alternative banking channels like mobile payments serve to democratise financial services,” Chrismain Babala, head of communications at BGFIB ank, told OBG.
Mobile operator Bharti Airtel was the first to launch its proprietary programme Airtel Money in March 2012, partnering with Ecobank. It was followed in June by BICIG-Cash, a similar mobile-wallet available for use on all networks. Legacy telecoms operator Gabon Telecom entered in 2013 with Mobicash, providing mobile banking functions in partnership with UGB. Etisalat, the Emirati-owned operator, launched its “Flous” service with Orabank in June 2014.
Given their short track record, figures for these pilot programmes have yet to be published, but BICIG-Cash claimed over 20,000 subscribers in 2013 (of which two-thirds have no bank account), while UGB claimed nearly 10% of their clients (roughly 11,000 in May 2014) had Mobicash accounts. Despite mobile banking’s small size, bankers see in it the potential to expand access, if not also drive revenue. “While BICIG-Mobile’s growth in number of subscriptions has been very satisfying, growth in transactions has grown from a low base,” Gondjout told OBG. “In traffic terms roughly 6-7% of our subscribers are active users, but growth has been exponential and we are in line with peer markets.”
Providing both post-paid and pre-paid mobile clients with virtual wallets, mobile money systems are primarily used for airtime top-ups, remittances and, increasingly, the payment of utility bills. Société d’Energie et d’Eau (SEEG), a privatised utility, moved to mobile payments for top-ups for pre-paid water and electricity meters through BICIG-Cash in November 2013, significantly bolstering the appeal of mobile payments given that SEEG’s offices are often crowded and long queues are common.
Competition has heated up, with BICIG signing up partners including pay-TV operator Canal+ and Airtel Money partnering with the Omar Bongo University for tuition payments. Expanding the pool of agents – to small retailers, petrol stations and so on – will be key as operators launch cash-in and cash-out services in 2014. BICIG and Airtel have expanded the fastest, signing up more than 1000 agents each (paying commissions of roughly 1%), although Airtel may take the lead in 2014 as Total turns its 45 petrol stations into Airtel Money agents, more than the total number of branches at local micro-finance institutions (MFIs).
More limited than in neighbouring markets, microfinance in Gabon remains fragmented and small-scale, although there is an informal market of some 204 unlicensed savings cooperatives, mainly serving women and rural clients. With capital requirements of CFA25m (€37,500), some 19 MFI licences have been awarded since COBAC started regulating the sector in 2005, although only 11 were solvent by 2013. After the bankruptcy of two smaller lenders, Générale d’Epargne and Crédit-EMF, in November 2013, the sector was down to nine. MFIs, dependent as they are on high-cost, short-term bank funding for a limited market, have generally struggled, despite charging interest rates of 3-5% a month on loans of CFA50, 000-4m (€75-6000). All the same, the top four lenders, two of them owned by banks, have achieved profitability.
Financiere Africaine de Micro-Projets (FINAM-EMF) is the largest and oldest MFI, with eight branches and CFA500m (€750,000) in equity, while Loxia-EMF, more recently launched by BGFIB ank in 2010 but with 18 branches, ranks second in terms of value of lending. Third is Express Union of Cameroon with 11 branches, followed by Gamifi-MFI with three branches. The latter is a joint venture launched in 2009 by BICIG, Total, PetroGabon, Ascoma and AXA. The sector’s total value is still marginal: as per BoF figures for 2012, its assets were CFA26.5bn (€39.75m), about 1% of bank assets; aggregate deposits were CFA16.7bn (€25m), or 0.9% of bank deposits; and loans were CFA9.2bn (€13.8m), or 0.7% of bank lending.
Nevertheless, growth in the retail sector is sizable, giving a strong boost to efforts to increase financial inclusion. The number of MFI accounts grew 45.2% to 62,107 in 2012, while deposits and loans rose 18.2% and 81.6%, respectively, according to the AfDB. Sufficient capitalisation, however, is still an issue, and following two closures in late 2013, the government proposed a draft law that would establish new refinancing mechanisms and a fund to protect small depositors.
With roughly two-thirds of lending in short maturities, consumer lending to the roughly 200,000 formally employed Gabonese remains limited, although banks compete against three non-banking finance companies. Banks’ total lending to individuals reached CFA194bn (€291m), or 8% of total loans, in May 2014, a 4.3% drop on December 2013, according to APEC, while non-bank financial institutions (NBFIs) lend about CFA150bn (€225m) in payday advances and loans for up to five years. “Banks and finance companies compete for a market that is very sensitive to rates,” Chahrour told OBG. “While both offer competitive pricing, non-bank lenders tend to capitalise on proximity to the client and a faster credit approval process.”
In terms of consumer credit, Alios Finance took the top spot by value of lending in 2013 when its share grew from 38% to 46% – although Finatra’s CFA20bn (€30m) in mortgages and property leasing makes it a larger lender overall. BGFIB ank and BICIG run the second-and third-largest NBFIs, respectively: Finatra and BICIB ail. A faster-growing part of these NBFIs’ business, however, is leasing to SMEs and larger firms, which already accounts for 60% of their turnover. Although the two bank subsidiaries remain on their parent company’s balance sheets, Alios turned to the regional stock exchange for financing in June 2014, when it raised CFA10bn (€15m) in seven-year bonds at 6.25%.
While SMEs tend to be financed much like consumers – in short-term loans and overdrafts – a number of initiatives have sought to expand access to credit. Short-term excess liquidity in the banking sector has translated into lower borrowing rates for blue-chip corporates, but has not yet trickled down to smaller firms (see analysis). Indeed, the AfDB estimates that less than 3% of Gabon’s SMEs have access to long-term credit, showing vast potential: estimates for the number of SMEs range from the IFC’s 3000 to BGFIB ank’s 15,000, accounting for 60% of total employment. One challenge is definition: the BEAC defines SMEs as having turnover below CFA500m (€750,000) a year and equity of CFA100m (€150,000). Gabon’s law is looser: turnover under CFA2bn (€3m) and equity under CFA1bn (€1.5m).
Once the two former SME funds were folded into the BGD in 2010, the bank claimed to serve roughly 19% of Gabon’s SMEs, with plans to reach 50% by 2016, although its total lending grew only 0.8% to CFA105.3bn (€158m) in the year to May 2014. Aside from structural reforms aimed at reducing information asymmetry – a common challenge in Africa, where bookkeeping is scant among smaller firms, which often limits SME activity – several donor-funded risk-guarantee schemes have been rolled out to improve SME credit access, by insuring up to 50% of risk on a portfolio of bank loans for fees of 1-2% of the loans’ value. Commercial banks have a mix of guarantee funds to chose from, including the French Development Agency’s Ariz, launched in 2009, the African Solidarity Fund and the AfDB’s $50m African Guarantee Fund, established in June 2012. Schemes such as Ariz have seen some success, having partnered with five banks including BGFIB ank, BICIG and UGB and covering loans up to CFA200m (300,000) to 100 SMEs by end-2014.
The guaranties are not a silver bullet, as there are other constraints on SMEs’ development. Access to credit for SMEs has become harder: Gabon’s ranking for credit on the World Bank’s “Doing Business 2014” index fell four places, to 109th. “The challenge of lending to SMEs is not so much that of guaranties, although those are being used, but rather of finding bankable companies that are not under-capitalised or suffer from weak profitability,” Gondjout told OBG.
With the requirements of SME lending stretching banks’ capacity to provide advisory services, the IFC expanded its SME Toolkit (already launched in Benin, Cameroon and Senegal) to Gabon in November 2013. The online training and support platform, which was first rolled out through BGD but is open to all banks, is expected to improve companies’ transparency and reduce their barriers to funding.
As new entrants expand both their physical reach and drive new account creation, Gabon’s banking market is becoming increasingly dynamic. Resolving the funding challenges at state-owned banks will be one of the government’s priorities in the coming year, while PosteBank’s impact on bancarisation levels will likely be profound. Developments in payment systems and lower account-opening requirements have driven the market in the past year, but over the longer term banks will need to find new ways of bridging their maturity mismatches to expand their loan books.