Picture an empty office, three stories high, in the center of Ouagadougou, late last century. FMO was still so small that, investment officer Ben Zwinkels was only employee number 33.

Against the backdrop of the hustle and bustle on the streets, inside the vacant building Zwinkels watches with amusement at how Frenchman Paul Derreumaux waves his arms depicting how he will turn this empty space into a new branch of the Bank of Africa.

This is the bank that Derreumaux, together with a few business relations, started in 1982 in Mali, after realizing there was a glaring shortage of banking services for companies and individuals. After the expansion across the border into Benin, he saw further potential in Burkina Faso. ”I was in charge of our investments in Francophone Africa and I had met Derreumaux in the lobby of an airport. Yes, an airport lobby," Zwinkels laughs. ”Very clichéd." At the time FMO was still primarily focused on agricultural and production companies. ”We were just starting to think about investments in financial institutions." It’s safe to say FMO’s number 33 was a pioneer in Africa investments. Retired now for several years, Zwinkels still loves to talk about the old days. ”Derreumaux needed 600,000 guilders (270,000 euros, ed.) to pay expatriate salaries to start the branch in Burkina Faso. Locally there wasn’t enough knowledge. Now there are a lot of good local banks, but in the nineties expatriates were essential to spark a financial infrastructure. I said, we might be able to do that, but what are we getting in return? How about some stock? To my surprise he said yes."

“I was in charge of our investments in Francophone Africa and I had met Derreumaux in the lobby of an airport. Yes, an airport lobby,” Zwinkels laughs. “Very clichéd. We were just starting to think about investments in financial institutions.”

That was a little too ambitious for FMO at that time, so first a loan was issued with the aim of increasing access to banking services in Burkina Faso. A few years later, in 2003, FMO did become shareholder of the Bank of Africa Group, a major milestone in a relationship that has lasted 24 years. What unfolded during the three decades after the first branch in Mali opened its doors, is a top-tier success story. The Bank of Africa managed to grow into a multinational pan-African banking conglomerate. The Group provides jobs to more than 13,000 employees and serves more than 5.5 million customers today through more than 2,300 points of sale in some thirty countries, reaching rural areas as well. In 2010 a new era started for the African bank. Paul Derreumaux retired and the Morocco-based Banque Marocaine du Commerce Exterieur (BMCE) acquired 35 percent of the shares in what was then officially called the African Financial Holdings (AFH). In 2016 it, increased its ownership to 72 percent. As BMCE became the majority shareholder, the names of the banks were joined to create the BMCE Bank of Africa Group. "That was our way of telling to the world our playing field is Africa", says Brahim Benjelloun-Touimi, Chairman of the Board of the Bank of Africa Group. Asked to reflect on FMO’s longstanding relationship with the Bank of Africa, Mr. Benjelloun-Touimi praised FMO’s guidance in governance policies in particular. "FMO has been part of a specialized auditing committee that has been very important to us. We are a rare African financial group, by having development banks as partners. It brings knowledge to the table. And that is a good way to do business: through syndication where knowledge can be shared."

“Our goal is to reach the whole continent”, Benjelloun-Touimi says.“But we also know that is a long term goal, and we haven’t seen the whole of the COVID-19 impact yet. We have to remain vigilant and creative.”

For FMO - as an investor and shareholder (8.94 percent), the Bank of Africa has remained a steady and well-respected partner for more than 20 years. Today the group is a key account for FMO with many FMO points of contact ranging from the private equity team to the financial institutions team. This is coordinated by Chief Risk and Finance Officer Fatoumata Bouaré, who before she came to FMO was a director at the Bank of Africa in Côte d'Ivoire. The French development bank Proparco and the Belgium development bank BIO are also longstanding shareholders alongside FMO with 3.73 percent and 2.03 percent, respectively.

The aim of FMO's investments ranged from funding the Kenyan branch in order to increase access to USD financing for USD-earning companies, to supporting BMCE’s initiative to improve solid waste management practices and standards, one of the major environmental challenges in Morocco. The last one being FMO’s first Green Finance transaction to a bank in Africa, signed in 2016.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and global economic difficulties, the Bank of Africa is still focused on expansion. "The objective of Mr. Othman Benjelloun, Chariman and CEO of BMCE Bank Of Africa Group, is to reach the whole continent", Benjelloun-Touimi says. "But we also know that is a long term goal, and we haven’t seen the whole of the COVID-19 impact yet. We have to remain vigilant and creative." The future of banking is not just banking, Benjelloun-Touimi predicts. "In order for your business to survive in this continent, you have to do good, and make money, that is a win-win situation. Create real economic substance with sustainable finance. Most important are the people that work for you and the people who are your clients. To be able to do this, having the right partners is essential." A partnership which, in the case of FMO, started in an airport lobby and took shape in an empty building in the centre of Ouagadougou. "And where do you think the Bank of Africa Burkina Faso has it head office nowadays?" Ben Zwinkels asks with a smile. "Still in exactly the same building."

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