* Diamond attracts U.S. hedge funds for Africa push
* Atlas Mara to raise $400 mln to pursue acquisitions
* Barclays targets Africa potential as it scales back investment bank
* Returns need to improve on back of economic growth, mobile boom
By Steve Slater and Helen Nyambura-Mwaura
LONDON/JOHANNESBURG, May 21 (Reuters) - Gaborone and Lusaka are the unlikely settings for a battle between one of the world’s most famous investment bankers and his former firm over the future of African banking.
American banker Bob Diamond last week unveiled plans to raise $400 million to double the war chest of his African venture Atlas Mara and set him up to buy more banks.
This was just five days after Barclays, the British bank where Diamond was chief executive before he was ousted in 2012, announced the dismantling of the investment bank he built up and pinpointed Africa as one of its two main growth engines.
The prize both are chasing is sub-Saharan Africa’s mostly unbanked 1 billion population and the companies there looking for capital to grow. Economies are growing on average at 5-7 percent a year, the fastest expansion in a generation, offering lucrative returns for lenders who get it right.
“It’s ripe for entry,” said Keith Jefferis, a former deputy governor at Botswana’s central bank and now managing director at Econsult, a consultancy in Botswana’s capital Gaborone.
“If you operate efficiently and pick up market share then potentially it’s a very profitable strategy, but there is a lot of fragmentation. Each country has different systems so it’s very management intensive, but openings are there.”
Diamond has already bought a platform in Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Rwanda. Barclays wants to be a top three bank in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Botswana and Zambia and also operates in seven other countries.
New technology, in particular a mobile banking boom, should help banks spread further and reach more customers at far lower cost than in the past.
Diamond has teamed up with Africa-based entrepreneur Ashish Thakkar to set up Atlas Mara, with the intention of building it into Africa’s leading financial services firm.
They spent most of a $325 million initial fundraising to buy BancABC in March, and will use the extra $400 million to get a deeper and broader footprint.
Diamond, 62, spearheaded Barclays’ takeover of the U.S. arm of Lehman Brothers in the heat of the financial crisis in 2008 and the African deals mark a return to the spotlight.
The avid sports fan from Massachusetts was forced from Barclays in 2012 by UK regulators after the bank was fined $450 million for attempted rigging of Libor interest rates.
Diamond’s successor, Antony Jenkins, is attempting to repair Barclays’ reputation after a series of scandals raised concern that a high-risk, high-reward culture ran across the bank.
Jenkins is dramatically shrinking Barclays’ investment bank, cutting 19,000 jobs and selling businesses in mainland Europe, and wants to divert more capital to grow in Africa, where Barclays has been since 1925, but where returns have been sluggish for years.
Less than a third of sub-Saharan Africans have bank accounts, and an even lower percentage of firms hold a loan or line of credit.
As well as huge untapped markets, margins are attractive, with the spread between borrowing and lending rates over 10 percent in many countries, compared to 2 percent or less in many western countries.
Barclays said its Africa business made a return on equity of 8-9 percent last year, below what it costs to raise capital, but it expects to improve that.
One investor in Atlas Mara said he expected Diamond to deliver a return on equity of 20 percent or more and pursue “an M&A strategy” in the company’s early years.
“There’s high growth in Africa and it’s an underpenetrated market. It should also have a cost of capital advantage over the domestic banks, which is very significant and if he (Diamond) executes well it will only get stronger over time,” the investor said, who asked not to be named as Atlas Mara is raising funds.
Two U.S. hedge funds are the biggest early backers for Atlas Mara. Clough Capital, based in Boston with $4.7 billion in assets, has a 10.8 percent stake, and Owl Creek Asset Management, a $4 billion hedge fund based in New York, has an 8 percent stake, according to regulatory filings.
Diamond’s co-founder Thakkar runs conglomerate Mara Group with IT, manufacturing and real estate businesses across 19 African countries, and Atlas Mara Chairman Arnold Ekpe was CEO of Togo-based Ecobank Transactional between 1996 and 2001 and from 2005 to 2012.
Diamond has also poached John Vitalo, a former U.S. marine who has headed Barclays’ Middle East and North Africa region for the past five years and previously led its African investment bank arm, to become chief executive.
Atlas Mara shares were suspended after its purchase of BancABC was treated as a reverse takeover, and are expected to relist in the next two months, probably with a market value of about $800 million. The shares last traded at $11.40, up from their December IPO price of $10.
Barclays, Standard Chartered and Citigroup are the biggest overseas banks in sub-Saharan Africa, although others are active in selling government bonds and catering to companies - which will remain the main focus of most international banks.
New technology has encouraged several domestic banks to grow regionally, including South Africa’s Standard Bank, Nigeria’s United Bank for Africa and Ecobank.
Chinese lenders also stepped in to fund infrastructure projects when some European lenders retreated during the financial crisis, and ICBC has taken a 20 percent stake in Standard Bank.
Ecobank, which operates in 35 countries, has been seen as a possible target for Diamond, although industry sources said he is more likely to be attracted by smaller banks that would be less of a turnaround task and could be integrated with BancABC.
Jenkins, meanwhile, is keen to increase the slice of revenue that comes from outside South Africa.
Barclays, which has 45,000 staff and 12 million customers in Africa, made a 1 billion pound profit there last year. Although its returns are short of target, the Africa business required 4 billion pounds of capital, or 8 percent of the group total, while it accounted for 16 percent of profit, adding to its attraction at a time when capital is scarce. (Editing by Anna Willard)