The GTR Africa Trade & Export Finance Week 2018, held on March 1-2 in Cape Town, South Africa, brought together a wide range of industry participants. In two days, trade flows, commodity and infrastructure finance, innovative funding solutions available to African corporates, key African trade hotspots and project opportunities, and political risks were just some of the topics discussed. In this post-conference wrap-up, Eleanor Wragg brings together some of the main takeaways and key insights.


Cautious optimism for trade in Africa

Following a sharp slowdown in 2016 which seemed to pour water on the ‘Africa rising’ narrative, the World Bank estimates that growth in Sub-Saharan Africa rebounded to 2.4% in 2017 from 1.5% in the prior year, on the back of firming commodity prices, more benign global financing conditions, and slowing inflation. This, along with a firmer performance from the global economy as a whole, has improved the outlook for the continent in 2018.

“Nigeria was a big contributor to that one percentage point leap, largely as a function of improvement in agriculture and oil production volumes,” said Goolam Ballim, chief economist at Standard Bank Group. “In 2017, growth, or at least the change in growth, was largely from one-off factors and from a few markets. In 2018 we see a slightly broader thrust. We see less spirited performance by single markets contributed to that buoyancy and so whereas we see another one percentage point increase in growth from last year more or less, it’s slightly more evenly distributed.”

“Despite Africa’s challenging 18 months or so I am hugely impressed by its ambition in its desire to capture increasing levels of investment, finance and trade,” said Mark Simmonds, former UK foreign & Commonwealth minister for Africa and chairman of the advisory board of Invest Africa. “There is a wall of capital and debt looking for an African home. Why is this? There is much greater access to information which has positive impacts both economically and politically. There is an increasing African middle class. Governments are increasingly focused on attracting FDI. There is an accelerating regionalisation agenda.”

This optimism, however, is tempered by the challenges of this vast and complex continent, from currency volatility to poor power infrastructure and a lack of governance capacity in some countries. Uncertainty of fiscal architecture is also unnerving investors, with one cautionary tale coming out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which recently approved a revised law proposing to nearly double royalties for copper to 3.5% from 2%.

Another aspect which may put the brakes on trade is fiscal overreach. “Over the last couple of years and during otherwise benign times and from low indebtedness position, African economies across the spectrum, oil-dependent, non-oil but resources-dependent, and even non-resource-intensive economies, have liberally taken to the debt markets, sovereign debt markets and local debt markets. What we worry about over the near term is that many African economies are now going to be less dependent on their public sectors to be a source of growth thrust because they’re hamstrung by high indebtedness,” said Ballim, adding that some markets will be spending more than 50% of all government revenues on debt servicing costs because of the surge of indebtedness.

That said, recent political transitions in Southern Africa, such as the change of leadership in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola, have created an atmosphere of optimism for those looking to invest in the region. Meanwhile, East Africa’s regionalisation drive is seen as leading the way for the development of the continent’s trading blocs. Although Nigeria has attracted a great deal of international attention because of its 200-million-strong population, the combined populations of Ethiopia and highly-integrated East Africa are expected to reach 550 million people over the next 35 years, offering an enormous market with non-resource dependent growth.

“Tariffs are falling and co-operation is growing,” said Simmonds. “Intra-regional trade facilitation and infrastructure development and finance are happening across different regions. Therefore, regional investment funds will have to be created to a far greater extent than has happened at the moment.”

The role of banks in facilitating development remains crucial, but consolidation is still required in the continent’s banking sector in order to bolster balance sheets and create sustainable financial institutions, said Simmonds. “There is still a question as to whether banks are doing enough to provide finance particularly for export from Southern Africa but also intra-African trade.”

African governments are keeping a close eye on the performance of the nations they trade with. “We enter 2018 on the backdrop of good growth with many early indications that have been unprecedented for several years but there is an element of fragility,” said Ballim. Among potential worries are China, by far the continent’s biggest trading partner. “If China were any other economy it would have collapsed already,” said Ballim. “The risk in 2018 is not just that the authorities will attempt to prevent excesses in the industrial sector, excess supply and excesses in the financial sector. Xi Jinping enters 2018 with incredible political capital not seen since the early 1990s. He will want to inject additional reforms and burnish his legacy on the Chinese economy. The problem is that reforms tend to compromise cyclical growth by their very nature, reining in debt and excess supply can create short-term economic stutter and that could undo the early buoyancy in commodity markets.”


The CEO perspective

Sub-Saharan African economies adopted a record number of business reforms for a second consecutive year in 2017, according to World Bank research, with 15 reforms tackling issues around trading across borders. While on paper, doing business is getting easier, private sector players still face important challenges.

Suzana Moreira, CEO of Mowoza, a mobile phone marketplace platform that allows informal cross-border traders to access price-related information, pointed to a lack of financing as the biggest constraint to business growth. For Tim Harris, CEO of Wesgro, Cape Town’s trade and investment promotion agency, physical constraints to trade and a lack of connectivity are holding exporters back. “Funding for large transactions is only short term. We need to see medium-term funding, and an uncoupling of short-term business for long-term equipment,” highlighted Vernon Darko, CEO of EquipXP. All three called for greater collaboration in financing projects, bringing together the moving parts of forex and ECA funding. Africa’s businesses have no time to wait for regulations to create greater access to finance and liquidity through initiatives such as fintech, they said, adding that they believe it is the private sector which needs to drive change.

The view from corporate treasury

As treasurers seek to effectively manage their exposures in Sub-Saharan Africa, the key challenges when managing cross-border activities include cumbersome FICA processes, slow credit application processes, and the pain of navigating through multiple banking partners on the ground, according to Carosin Buitendag, group treasurer at Omnia. Treasurers on the continent are hampered by limited treasury instruments and products, liquidity stress at both the country and bank levels, and political interference in the movement of funds. “Liquidity is our number one concern. It always is and always will be,” said Julian Hitchcock, group treasurer at Nampak, adding that number two on the list would be exchange rates.

Another pain point is the inconsistent level of skilled people in the financial sector in Africa. “Talent is a challenge. The banks try hard to upskill their sources and resources in Africa. It’s very expensive and to retain them is difficult,” said Buitendag.

In order to successfully co-ordinate an effective treasury policy in what is an ever-changing and complex environment, treasurers not only need to consider the right business model design in order to pass on risk, but also carry out proper viability and due diligence exercises on the financial system and central bank structures. Or, as Buitendag put it: “Keep your ear to the ground.”


Export finance overview

With credit ratings, interest rates and liquidity levels changing, the comparative benefits of the various forms of long-term funding available in Sub-Saharan Africa have been brought into sharp focus. Suppliers and investors are increasingly taking steps to ensure their projects and trade activities have the most affordable forms of financing, and there has been an uptick in the use of export credit agency (ECA) and capital market funding.

“African borrowers have raised a lot of local currency, so the liquidity is there,” said Alarik d’Ornhjelm, director, head of Middle East and Africa, structured trade and export finance at Deutsche Bank. “More than US$30bn was raised in bond issuances in 2015, and although this figure fell in 2016/17, it is coming back again with good yields and good ratings in countries such as Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and East Africa.” He added that the last three years have seen a great deal of flexibility from ECAs and DFIs, bringing yet more liquidity to the markets. “This is a market where you can see a lot of funding available, even for single B-rated countries. Each borrower should tap this ECA market,” he said. One key mechanism available for borrowers is direct lending from the ECAs using the prevailing CIRR rate. “Many areas of Sub-Saharan Africa have IMF programmes and they have to cope with the 15-35% grant element. If you do a CIRR tranche and factor that through a discount rate, and then do an ECA tranche which is not CIRR but is Libor plus margin, you can calculate a grant element which is between 20 to 35%. That makes the project viable and sustainable for the borrower,” said d’Ornhjelm. He points to recent financing for a dam project in Kenya where, using this set-up, the grant element came to exactly 28%, which was beneficial for the country.

Michael Creighton, head of export credit finance at Nedbank CIB, said that he is increasingly seeing ECA deals put together by a commercial facility funded by banks. “We have seen out of East Africa a number of fairly large facilities where a pre-determined set of projects were identified, and then a commercial facility of five or seven years funded by commercial banks for those facilities. We see that being quite a popular form of funding.”

In addition to more traditional forms of financing, there is a growing role for alternative financiers to play in providing solutions. “There is a lot of dollar liquidity trying to find a home,” said Jean Craven, group CEO and founder of Barak Fund Management, adding that “demand for capital is not being catered to by traditional finance” as a result of the regulatory environment.

With the proportion of intra-African trade at a paltry 15%, versus 50-60% in other continents, there is enormous potential for further trade growth, but several obstacles need to be overcome first. “Part of the challenge we are having is the financing, not because the liquidity is not available, it’s just because a proper structure is not put in place,” said Moustapha Sow, CEO of SF Capital. While several regional DFIs across Africa are now placing more emphasis on intra-regional trade – Afreximbank recently opened a specific desk dedicated to this – change is also coming from the commercial banks. “We are seeing more and more implication from them,” said Sow. “It used to be that if you had a Senegalese contractor working in Côte d’Ivoire, the access to ECA financing was very challenging because these countries are not at the stage where they had the ECAs. But now you see a mix of commercial lending and multilateral ECAs such as the Islamic Development Bank. This is where the solution might come in order to promote intra-African trade.”

South Africa remains a very powerful catalytic force for the region, with Goolam Ballim, chief economist at Standard Bank pointing out that every one percentage point of growth in South Africa contributes anything between 0.5 and 0.8 of a percentage point to Sub-Saharan African growth. As a result, many are calling for greater support from South African banks in financing flows around the region.

“South African banks are very focused on Africa and are definitely looking for opportunities,” said Nedbank’s Creighton. “We do have some natural challenges; our cost of funds as a starting point. If we are competing with European banks, South African banks have a limit to how competitive we can be from a pricing perspective. To overcome that we typically look at niche areas.”

Banks are also pushing for greater flexibility from the ECAs in order to drive intra-African trade. “Local beneficiation should be looked at because it helps the exporting country develop and create its own manufacturing and industry,” said Creighton. “What could be done in the next two years is really a European initiative. Based on Europe’s political momentum, it is time for banks and ECAs to push for 50% local content. It has to be led by politics,” said Deutsche Bank’s d’Ornhjelm.

Given the backdrop of increased regulatory burden, banks are keen to focus on the right transactions in Africa. “One of the key takeaways is you need to educate the various counterparties,” said d’Ornhjelm. “You need to tell them how the framework needs to be done, attract some DFIs, and educate them on what other markets have done. It’s all about focusing on the right project, the right structure, and at the end, the financing is there.”


Embracing opportunity through innovation

The myriad challenges currently facing the financial services industry in Africa bring with them fresh pressures and a need for new ideas. Derisking has led to a decline in correspondent banking relationships, supply chain finance has yet to gain the same momentum as in other regions, and the need for political risk cover is growing. Bankers, insurers and financiers came together at the conference to come up with some solutions.


Attendees pointed out that banks’ risk appetite changed after the almost unquantifiable fines received by some financial institutions. Derisking was also seen as a play around profitability. “As you started to look at risk and return, certain of the markets just didn’t make sense any more in terms of servicing,” said Michelle Knowles, head of trade finance product at Absa. However, the overarching feeling is that “we are over the worst and whatever needed to happen has happened, so it should start stabilising”, she said. Nonetheless, questions remain as to whether smaller banks will be able to stay in the game given increased regulatory burden.

Banks called for solutions around taking ambiguity out of regulations, particularly African banks, which have to juggle satisfying their own national regulator and the various regulators governing each of their correspondent banks. “There isn’t an even playing field here,” said Knowles. Banks are also concerned that the punitive approach by regulators leads to less, rather than more, capacity to support trade in the region.

Supply chain finance

Although the growth of supply chain finance in Africa has been slow in recent years, the last two years have seen an estimated 30% year-on-year growth. Attendees said educating the market as to what is available will be an important factor in maintaining this growth, as supply chain finance is less expensive than non-trade finance products such as corporate loans and overdrafts, particularly for SMEs, which can benefit from the better credit rating of the anchor firm further up the chain.


“Banks and insurers should be working more closely together,” said Tom Cary of BPL Global. “There is a lot of work being done, but if you compare the penetration levels within say Europe when you have a 60-70% penetration mark versus Sub-Saharan Africa, there is still room for growth.” A major factor is the disconnect in the view between the banks on the ground in terms of their risk appetite and the insurers who mostly sit in London, and attendees called for solutions to bridge the perception gap. Insurance coverage is seen as good for political risk: “There are probably only one or two countries that we wouldn’t be able to find coverage in,” said Cary.

Trade asset distribution

For African banks, the biggest risk is limits. Sean Edwards, chairman of the International Trade & Forfaiting Association (ITFA), said that “one reaches limits in Africa very quickly, while for a lot of banks in Europe using asset distribution is all about managing the return on capital”. Contrary to the expectations of European banks, African banks said that the received wisdom that African trade deals are riskier but they are much meatier is no longer the case. “Either there wasn’t enough to distribute or the names are not acceptable with the big European insurers, so even the African banks are being very conservative,” said Edwards. Attendees highlighted the need for a change in mentality among banks when they originate their deals, with a move towards a portfolio model seen as one solution.


Regional risk snapshot at a glance

“Africa’s largest and most exciting economies are still struggling to reach their full potential. Central Africa’s oil economies are in distress. Meanwhile, new champions of investment and trade have become established in East and francophone West Africa,” said Robert Besseling, executive director at EXX Africa. “However, underlying socio-economic grievances are steering usually business-friendly governments into a more nationalist and authoritarian direction that will begin to limit the sustainability of their success.”

In South Africa, the ‘Ramaphosa effect’ is in full swing, with business confidence on the up following a tough but hopeful budget. State-owned enterprise reform is a key priority, but 2019 elections may pivot policy. On the downside, further credit downgrades loom and land reform is being used as a political football.

In Angola, the political transition has triggered the most significant shift in influence dynamics since the 1970s, while taking place in an increasingly tense socio-economic environment. The first political battle of the transition will be over the future of the struggling state oil company Sonangol, and extensive oil sector restructuring plans. This contest will determine the new government’s policy on the oil sector, transparency, and the potential return of the IMF.

Mozambique is still in limbo with no debt deal. While structural indicators have shown improvement with the gas sector development on track, there is still an unsustainable debt outlook and little confidence from donors.

In Ethiopia there remains serious concern over forex supply as state contracts in key sectors near default.

In Tanzania, President Magufuli’s self-styled ‘economic war’ has targeted the mining, power, and LNG industries.

In Zambia, growing political risk may undermine the country’s chance of economic recovery on the back of rising global copper prices.


A pan-African perspective on commodity finance

A rebound in commodity prices has hopes high for growth in African trade, but is the finance there to support it? A panel discussion led by Tasneem Krueger-Vally, director of structured commodity finance at Deutsche Bank, considered developments in the structured commodity trade finance sector, bringing to the fore both pain points and areas of strength, as well as some innovative solutions.

As a product, structured commodity finance is well-suited to Africa as banks are able to support small and medium-sized enterprises whose balance sheet strength may disqualify them from direct lending. “Because we are not focusing on balance sheet lending, structured trade financing structures actually cater very well to the weaknesses that we see with counterparties on the African continent,” said Gwen Mwaba, director and global head of trade finance at Afreximbank.

“We are seeing a lot more structured finance coming out wherein the bankers, together with the commodity traders, try and put across solutions that are more acceptable credits from a lending point of view, and easy to sell down in the secondary market if the bank wants to do the selling and reduce their balance sheet,” said Bharat Gupta, regional head of trade and structured finance for Asia, Middle East and Africa at Olam International.

Nonetheless, because of a lack of transparency and access to information, some borrowers are still unable to meet banks’ KYC requirements, and as a result there is a vast amount of informal trade taking place outside of the banking sector. “As bankers, there is a need for us to find a way to bring those trades into the formal sector, because that is the only way that we can support these entities to be able to grow with the growth of the continent,” said Mwaba.

One way of filling this gap is via alternative lenders. Chris Ash, managing director of ExWorks Capital, said that most of his firm’s clients are small businesses. “We are basically bridging their cash flow requirements to normalise cost of capital. The banks struggle to service the SME space, and we help do that, whether it is with structured trade products, equity, financing for raw materials, right the way through to manufacturing equipment to allow them to value add their product.”

A running theme throughout the conference was the unintended consequences of heightened regulatory oversight around the world. “With the enhanced KYC requirements in the Western world, we have found a lot of banks on the African continent have lost their correspondent banking lines,” said Mwaba. “We can step in and provide that service to those banks that have lost these correspondent banking lines, but then we don’t have the operational capacity and machinery behind us to be able to do these frequent payments. That presents a challenge. There is a problem, we want to help, but we are caught between a rock and a hard place.” Deutsche Bank’s Krueger-Vally added that even under greater regulatory scrutiny such as Market Abuse Regulations (MAR) and enhanced Antitrust Regulations deals continue to be done, however banks are much more careful in how they approach syndications for example.

Although commodity prices have steadily increased today, during the downturn there was a lot of conversation around whether bankers should have embedded derivatives in the structures to be able to protect the floor for the oil price, for example. Today, the use of derivatives as an add-on for traditional structured commodity finance products may be an alternative to over-collateralisation when financing commodities. “The instruments themselves are really primarily for price risk management and for price discovery,” said Raphael Karuaihe, head of commodities, capital markets at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. “One reason we don’t see a lot of uptake of structured commodity finance in many of the African countries is really the fact that you would never know where the price is at. You may get into a deal today, but then the price of cocoa by next week may go south. The derivatives market is really there to allow market participants to actually discover the fair value of that particular price.”

Addressing the nuts and bolts of commodity trading is an important focus for DFIs such as Afreximbank, which is working to push transit guarantees so that goods can move across borders without being stopped at every single one, among other logistical improvements. This, along with the availability of liquidity and the will of banks, financiers and private sector to work together to find new solutions, should be enough to keep commodity trade moving on the continent.