The launch of HSBC’s first Sub-Saharan branch in Johannesburg recently has heralded a new era for the bank on the continent, it claims. It has merged the businesses of HSBC Equator Bank and HSBC Investor Services (formed when it took over Simpson McKie in 1995) into HSBC Bank.

CEO and group country manager Richard Adcock says Equator Bank was no longer sustainable due to changes in the market.

Central banks were passing business directly onto commercial banks and the IMF also put an end to much of the bridging finance that HSBC traditionally undertook in the region. Adcock says a new business model is needed.

Of the group’s top 1,000 customers, 200 have a presence in South Africa and 160 have a presence in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Many other customers who do not necessarily fall into its top 1,000 customers are also moving into the sub-continent to do business, he says.

HSBC Holdings’ group CEO Stephen Green says the fact that Johannesburg serves as the regional management office for the group’s business in Sub-Saharan Africa highlights its commitment to the region.

“By combining the business previously conducted under the HSBC Equator banner with those of our South African operations under the new branch mantle, we now have a consolidated service to offer our clients,” says Green.

HSBC’s focus is on new money coming into the region, as well as supporting clients with financing requests in Africa. It is offering corporate institutional banking, research, private client wealth management, trade services, treasury, capital markets and equities trading.

Although foreign direct investment to South Africa has been falling in recent years, HSBC still sees the country and the rest of the continent as a growth market.

Banks like HSBC see Nepad (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) as a positive move for the region.

Isaac Takawira, who is MD for Barclays Bank in South Africa, agrees. Takawira says that as Africa sorts itself out, opportunities are being created for global banks. Governance is improving, private enterprise is being embraced by governments and the private sector is being promoted.

He says there are growing opportunities for banks to finance infrastructure development. With South Africa and Johannesburg becoming the hub for Africa, Barclays moved its Africa headquarters from London to Johannesburg last year.

It has brought the bank closer to its customers, the bank believes, many of whom also operate out of Johannesburg into Africa. Barclays’ focus remains largely on corporate and investment banking. On the retail level, it has launched a joint venture with Standard Bank locally to distribute Barclaycards.

Standard Chartered is more focused on the retail market than its international peers.

It bought online bank 20Twenty last year, and is on track to relaunch the bank within the next few months.

It says good progress has also been made on the wholesale side of its business. Its initial aim when it opened shop in South Africa was at leveraging its existing relationships with local corporations, particularly those doing business in countries where it already operates. Standard Chartered has been operating in Africa for 140 years and has strong ties with many South African companies operating on the continent.

South Africa and Nigeria represent the bank’s biggest growth markets in Africa. It also has relocated a sizeable proportion of its Africa regional office from London to South Africa.