By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day, 23 February, 2011

Islamic banking is viewed by many as the fastest growing segment of the banking sector in the western world. The basic principle of Islamic banking is the sharing of profit, and a contract for any financial transaction must be clearly defined and agreed upfront.

Islamic banking operates according to the rules of Shariah, which apply to Islamic financial transactions and prohibit investment in businesses involved in areas such as gambling, alcohol, pork products, pornography, or weapons.

This market is made up of specialist Islamic banks like Al Baraka in South Africa, conventional banks that have Islamic banking divisions or “windows,” asset management, unit trust and investment organisations and Islamic insurance providers.

The Islamic divisions set up by the conventional banks, including Absa and FNB in South Africa, have the advantage of access to the mainstream bank’s branch and ATM infrastructure, and its existing customer base.

Emilio Pera, lead banking and capital markets director at Ernst & Young says after assessing this market in 2009 the firm views Islamic Banking as an integral part of mainstream banking internationally.

He says the wheels are in motion to include provisions for Islamic banking in the South African tax laws, and Kenya has recently amended its banking regulations to accommodate Islamic banking principles. “This is another indication that this market is gaining recognition.”

The Muslim population in South Africa is a fraction of that in many other African countries, yet it has the most Islamic banking entities. Pera says according to Ernst & Young’s research, Northern Africa has the highest concentration of Muslims, with Mauritania topping the list with 100%, and Sudan having the lowest at 70%.

In western Africa Senegal has the largest Muslim population at 93.8%, and Cape Verde the smallest at 2.77%, in middle Africa Niger has the largest at 98.55%, and Sao Tome & Principe, an island in the Gulf of Guinea, has the smallest at 0.04%. In east Africa, Somalia has the largest at 99.9%, and Seychelles has the smallest at 1.06%.

Southern Africa has the smallest Muslim Population on the continent, with Mozambique at the top of the list at 17.65% and Botswana at the bottom at 0.42%. Ahmed Jaffer, director of Islamic finance at KPMG says in other parts of Africa most of the Islamic banking activity is currently happening in countries like Tanzania, Kenya, and Nigeria.

“In Nigeria, regulations have been drafted to allow banks to set up Islamic banking operations in the country by setting up a local subsidiary.”  He says the international Al Baraca Banking Group is looking at expanding its operations in Africa, and Absa and FNB are both looking at extending their Islamic banking activity to other part of the continent.

Nigeria based Jaiz International bank has also been given the go-ahead to set up an Islamic banking operation in Lagos, which is expected to be up and running next year. He says in Zanzibar 99% of the population are Muslims, but the People’s Bank of Zanzibar, which is controlled by the Bank of Tanzanian, only started an Islamic banking division, or window last year, and it is only offering deposit accounts to its customers.

First National Bank (FNB) started an Islamic banking window in Botswana in 2007, which has doubled its customer base over the past three years, and is now looking at doing the same in Nigeria, Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania. “Once FNB has a presence in a country and has built the infrastructure it is easy for us to follow,” says Patel.

In the South African market FNB offers personal current accounts, a youth account, savings account, business cheque account, debit card, Islamic home finance, commercial property finance, an Islamic banking private client investment product, and an Islamic vehicle finance through Wesbank.

The bank is also planning to introduce Islamic trade finance and investment offerings later this year. Standard Bank opened its first Islamic banking window at its conventional banking operation in Tanzania last May and is offering Shariah compliant personal and business cheque account and personal savings account products.

“We are also working on introducing loans and vehicle finance products in the second or third quarter of this year, depending on the progress with the supporting IT systems,” says Fazal Saib, director of Shariah Banking at Standard Bank. He says the bank is looking to set up further Islamic banking windows in other African countries where it has conventional banking operations, including Nigeria later this year.

It is also investigating similar developments in the South African market, says Saib.
Investec has been offering Shariah compliant Islamic finance products on request for several years for the purchase of assets. “We have custom crafted solutions for specific customers and have ensured they are Shariah compliant,” says Jameel Nagdee, member of the specialised finance team for capital markets at Investec.

He says the company has been waiting for the South African tax laws to be amended to make provision for Islamic finance transactions before getting more involved in this market.

In January this year the bank launched a Shariah compliant investment product and is  planning to explore further options once the tax laws have been amended to  accommodate the way Islamic transactions work.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance business and technology journalist with 25 years experience, and she writes regularly for Business Day. She also runs media training and writing skills workshops, and is the author of A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing and distributing effective press releases, an electronic version of which can be downloaded free from her website: www.jennigay.co.za.

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