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Al Baraka revs up Africa footprint with Morocco venture

Sept 11 (Reuters) – Bahrain’s Al Baraka Banking Group plans to launch an Islamic finance venture in Morocco in an effort to diversify assets and revenues as the lender expands its operations in Africa, its chief executive said.

Morocco, with a predominantly Muslim population of 32 million, is the latest market to open to Islamic banking and this has attracted several new entrants.

In January, the central bank approved five applications to open Islamic banks and allowed three others to sell Islamic financial products.

Morocco is attractive for Islamic banks partly because of a competitive landscape that is free from large western lenders, which can often nudge them for larger deals in the Gulf and Southeast Asia.

“We feel that since the country is not overbanked, there is room for more players to come in and play a positive role in supporting the growth targets of the Moroccan economy,” said Chief Executive Adnan Ahmed Yousif.

There are 19 banks in Morocco with the top three accounting for two-thirds of total assets, while offshore banks represent less than 5 percent of total assets, according to an IMF report.

The country also has a large pool of companies seeking financing. The number of small businesses with access to bank credit has doubled since 2007, the IMF said.

“The regulatory climate is definitely conducive…further reforms are being considered and this is crucial,” said Yousif, adding that complete tax neutrality towards Islamic finance contracts was still needed.

The central bank has set up a central sharia board with a body of scholars to oversee Islamic finance, which is based on principles that ban interest and pure monetary speculation.

Al Baraka has partnerd with BMCE, Morocco’s third largest lender by revenue, to launch an Islamic bank under the name BTI Bank and is awaiting regulatory approvals to start operations.

There are business opportunities for Islamic banks in the SME and trade finance sectors, while project finance, leasing, Islamic insurance and sukuk (Islamic bonds) are also of importance, Yousif said.

This would help diversify the balance sheet and revenue sources for the lender, he added.

Al Baraka has operations across the Middle East, Asia and Africa, where it is strenghtening its franchise.

In July, Al Baraka signed a collaboration agreement with the Libyan Foreign Bank to enhance its operations in that country. In April, it increased the capital of its Algerian subsidiary to 15 billion dinars ($135.76 million) from 10 billion dinars. ($1 = 110.4900 Algerian dinars) (Editing by Shri Navaratnam)