5 September 2017

East Africa: Admassu Tadesse - "Mauritius ought to be a bigger stakeholder in COMESA's Bank"

On the 33rd annual general meeting of COMESA's Trade and Development Bank, Weekly speaks to Admassu Tadesse, president and CEO of the bank, about its role in regional integration, Mauritius' role in the bank and the region as well as where he sees its future heading.

COMESA's Trade and Development Bank (TDB) has decided to set up a headquarters in Mauritius. Why Mauritius?

In 2013, we identified Mauritius as a new country office that would host our fund management operations. We have set up a couple of funds in Mauritius where we are looking at a range of opportunities and, of course, Mauritius is a leading platform for special purpose funds because of its role as a financial centre in the region. We were attracted to Mauritius because of that nature of its strength. That was the basis for us to open an office in Mauritius that would handle our fund management and we based the COMESA infrastructure fund and our trade finance fund there.

But then what happened is that, as we were reviewing our strategy and plans, we realised that there was a need for a second address for the bank in addition to the funds that are purely domiciled in Mauritius. There was already a small office managing our funds in there. As we understood more about the country, we also came to appreciate the suitability of Mauritius for a variety of activities and a well-known address to have in the region. We realised that it would be a good idea to have both the funds and the bank to have a proper headquarter site in Mauritius. Part of it had to do with the profile and reputation of Mauritius. We see it as natural growth.

Was political stability also a factor ? Because reports have highlighted that the bank's current headquarters in Burundi has suffered as people don't want to go to Burundi due to its political instability.

All I can tell you is that we have been reading the same news reports that you are. It is true that there has been some adverse reporting on Burundi and that is related to some challenges that this country is facing. We have always realised that our investors want us to be closer to the markets we are in. So, that's why we have offices in Nairobi, Harare and in a host of other places. It's also a question of the bank being more accessible.

Is it true that a lot of Mauritian companies have approached the TDB for trade financing for investments in the region?

We have had some expressions of interest and applications have been made from Mauritian firms. We have not concluded any deals for trade financing for Mauritian firms yet partly because a lot of them have approached us to help finance Mauritian investments in Madagascar. But Madagascar is not yet a member of the bank. We are working to include it as a member-state, so we are looking at it from that end. But what we have seen is that Mauritian companies have shown a lot of interest in investing there. At the moment, we are working and waiting for Madagascar to open up so that we can play our role and facilitate such investments.

Is it just Madagascar that Mauritian companies are interested in?

It's much more than Madagascar, that just happens to be the closest one. Mauritian companies have also expressed interest in investing in Mozambique and Ethiopia. Some of them also wanted to go into Zambia at some point. Others have mentioned West African states such as Ghana and Senegal, but we don't cover West Africa.

What sectors are they looking to invest in?

They are looking into different sectors. Manufacturing for one and then there is agribusiness. Mauritian firms have been quite prominent in terms of sugar production in Africa. And then, there is the whole question of working through special economic zones and engaging in some light manufacturing in these. These are just some of the areas that Mauritian companies want to invest in regionally.

Let's come to the TDB itself. In 2015, a study concluded that 69% of the TDB's activities were trade financing and only 13% of its money was put into infrastructure projects. Isn't that a problem in a region where the infrastructure gap stands between US$ 55 million and $60 million each year?

The bank has always been a trade finance bank, so we focus on trade finance as well as trade supporting infrastructure. We have always maintained that we want to focus on what is feasible. The problem is that for infrastructure, you need long-term financing which is not as easily available for sources of short-term financing. The market is flush with trade finance money and commercial banks and capital markets tend to be more comfortable with short-term trade finance. It's different for long-term infrastructure financing because the commercial world is not as comfortable with that as you know. So for infrastructure financing, the sources are limited to either very specialised funding, export credits or it would come via a strategic long-term funding agency. The reality that we face is that it's not as easy to raise large volumes of long-term funding as it is for short-term financing.

You have stated that the TDB plans to boost financing of infrastructure projects. Given the reality that you have outlined, how does the bank plan on accomplishing that?

The bank has been working on a number of different initiatives; one is a very ambitious partnership building exercise. So we have built a whole range of long-term funding partnerships with European-based entities, with the African Development Bank, first and foremost and then the Chinese, so there are a number of sources of long-term funding that we have tapped and we have built up a number of such partnerships over the past few years.

You have mentioned that the TDB plans to raise a minimum of US$ 100 million over the next five years from outside institutional investors such as companies, banks and insurance funds. But such investors would be looking for quick and high returns rather than wait years to see a return from infrastructure projects. Isn't that a mixed message coming from the bank?

We don't see it that way because when investors buy into the bank, they will be buying equity. Equity by its nature is not short-term. So if you buy into the bank, you buy shares and risk-capital and so that is why it's actually suitable for long-term lending.

Would such investors be comfortable with putting their investments in long-term infrastructure financing where they would have to wait a long time to see a return?

We are not just an equity institution. The investors would be putting equity into the bank, but the bank is a lender. So in the lending business, we are like a private equity firm. Investors would see interest income coming in regularly. So from a return point of view, of course we are not as profitable as a private equity player and everyone knows that we are a hybrid model. Although we have high returns, it's not as profitable as if you went into a highly lucrative private space. We may not be the most lucrative, but we are stable and an attractive investment destination for money that is also looking for an impact. At the same time, the return on investment is at a 10% minimum. We have actually been above that for a number of years, but even a 10% return is attractive to quite a few investors.

I understand that the TDB is looking to bring in more institutional investors and more countries into its orbit. But some, such as the Chinese investors in the TDB, have argued that, instead of looking to add more investors, the bank should ask its member states to contribute more. Does that point not show a disagreement within the bank about the way forward?

That debate is always there. But I don't see it as a question of either or. It's really a question of optimisation. Allow me to explain: in recent years, we have added quite a few new members, countries as well, as institutional investors. So, from that point of view, our growth has been quite rapid. The balance that we are looking for in all this is how do we sign up new members in a meaningful way that ensures that the bank is able to deliver results. If we sign up too many members too quickly and don't have enough capacity, you will end up with member states that don't have their expectations fulfilled. So, that's always a debate that takes place. An important consideration in admitting new members is the way it's done. Recently we included Mozambique, Swaziland and South Sudan. These states already did quite a lot of cross border trade with our member states, so that was not seen as a distraction or a dilution of the bank's focus. In the case of Mozambique for example, it's a very important country for our landlocked member states such as Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Zimbabwe, all of whom need ports in Mozambique for access to the Indian Ocean. So adding Mozambique was not just a question of helping Mozambique, but it was also to benefit our member states who needed Mozambique to be part of the regional integration picture that we are trying to advance.

Lots of people would be surprised to learn that China and Belarus are also member countries within the TDB, which is marketed as an African initiative for African countries. What role do they have to play? And how much control they have over the shareholding in the bank?

Every shareholder has a role to play. For many years, the bank has had many non-African shareholders, particularly the two countries that you mentioned. At the same time, there has always been an understanding amongst our shareholders and clarity within the charter of the bank that the majority of shares in the bank will always be held by African states. So from a control point of view, it will always be controlled by Africans. Plus, a number of decisions are reserved only for African members of the bank including the appointment of the bank's president. Changing the charter, for example, requires a two-thirds majority of our African state shareholders so it does not really matter who else is around, if the African members don't agree then nothing will happen. So there are a lot of protections built into the charter of the bank to ensure its African character. So there has been no distortion in terms of decision making and neither have our non-African members interfered with the bank's operations in any way.

Is there a limit to the proportion of shares that each member can have?

That's correct. I'm glad you raised that. No country can control more than 15% of the shareholding of the bank. Again, to ensure that there is no distortion when it comes to decision making.

How much has Mauritius committed into the bank?

Well, Mauritius has committed funds to the TDB but it's still not really a major shareholder. Given that it's a middle-income country that is hosting the TDB's headquarters, the perception is that Mauritius is still quite small as a shareholder. They've become more relevant and influential in the bank but nowhere near as influential as they should be in my view. Mauritius controls 1.77% of the shares of the TDB but it can easily grow that to, say, 5%.

How do you see the economic prospects of the COMESA region, given the fact that most of them are heavily dependent upon commodities and countries in Central and West Africa have not been doing so well in recent years?

The future is looking much brighter than it was two years ago.

There has been a bounce back in commodity prices that's helped. You are right that a lot of countries in the region do have a dependency on commodities. But the problem is less acute in the COMESA countries because we have a lot of countries that have diversified as well, not nearly as much as they should, but still they have made some progress towards that end. On the one hand, South Africa and Mauritius are the most diversified economies in Africa and, on the other, Botswana and Namibia are dependent upon commodities such as precious metals.

A lot of big economies within COMESA such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia have diversified somewhat so they were not hit too hard by the slump in commodity prices and going quite strong in terms of economic performance. At the other end, Zambia was hit quite hard when copper prices went down but, since then, copper has picked up from $4,000 to $6,000 a tonne. So it's not a uniform picture within COMESA.

South Sudan is perhaps the most oil-dependent country in the world and they are affected badly by falling oil prices, but outside the COMESA region, you have many more oil-dependent states such as Nigeria, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea that were just as affected. So although dependency on commodities is there for some of our member countries, the sheer diversification efforts of some of our member countries means that commodity dependency does not present itself as a problem in our region in quite the same way.

And how do you see the prospects for small island states such as Mauritius?

I think really the Indian Ocean economies that have been doing the right things have a lot to look forward to. Of course, it gets harder the higher up you go on the value chain. So Mauritius has had a great couple of decades. It's an upper middle income country and so is the Seychelles. But when you get to the level of moving onto becoming an advanced economy, the challenges are harder. You have to have a knowledge economy and a dynamic service sector. You need to be specialised. The quality of human capital needs to be much more sophisticated and your technology base has to be strong. It's been a great run, but I think Mauritius has been doing the right thing by positioning themselves in services and investing heavily in people, in IT for the island and infrastructure. All this makes it an attractive centre for Africa and the Indian Ocean region. So Mauritius has been doing a lot and Seychelles is following on a similar path. So those two small economies have done what they needed to do; they have played their cards well. That does not mean that Mauritius is there yet, but they have embarked in the right direction to become a high-income country.

What are some of the things that concern you about Mauritius?

It's really about the burden of time; you have to slog through it. Twenty years ago, Mauritius was a different place. But to become a Singapore- like economy will take much more investment in people. Its location is not really an advantage for Mauritius. So the only thing it can do is do things better than others. It's safe, it's a great place to live, its institutions work relatively well. So the building blocks are there. It's just about getting the investments in people right to get that depth and the sophistication of human capital; that's where continued investments need to happen.

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