Why Bob Diamond is doubling down on Africa

Standing outside the Belvedere Hotel, one of the busiest meeting places here in Davos on a bitter cold Swiss morning, are dozens of the most powerful business leaders waiting to get through security to attend a breakfast event at the 45th annual World Economic Forum.

While it is still dark out, everyone is eagerly anticipating a lively discussion on innovation in Africa titled "The African Renaissance."

"Africa is open for business," said Bob Diamond, CEO of Atlas Merchant Capital. "Urbanization is real, scale of opportunity is real in Africa."

Diamond has worked in financial services for more than 30 years. Before co-founding Atlas two years ago, he was CEO of Barclays until leaving the British banking giant in 2012.

Along with Diamond, the panelists at the Davos event included Mark Bowman, managing director of beverage maker SABMiller Africa; Paul Bulcke, CEO of Nestle; billionaire business tycoon Aliko Dangote, CEO of industrial conglomerate Dangote Group; Adewale Tinbu, CEO of energy company Oando; and Geoffrey White, Africa CEO of logistics company Agility.

Although the panelists are hopeful for the future of innovation in Africa, the International Monetary Fund on Wednesday revised down its 2015 growth forecast for sub-Saharan Africa to 4.9 percent, from 5.8 percent. The World Bank's estimate for growth this year in the region -- which consists of 28 countries -- is 4.6 percent.

The dimmer outlook, while still bright compared with many other parts of the world amid an ongoing slowdown in global economic activity, underscores the region's volatility. IMF blames plunging oil and other commodity prices for hindering growth in sub-Saharan Africa.

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The IMF and World Bank expect economic growth to slow in sub-Saharan Africa this year.

Looking past the shorter term risks of doing business in Africa, Diamond is peering five to seven years into the future as economic development heightens the need for banking services. "If you're going to invest, you have to believe in an opportunity for scale," he said. "The opportunity for banking to develop in Africa is really there."

Diamond and his business partner, Ugandan entrepreneur Ashish Thakkar, have a distinctive strategy for expanding in Africa. Instead of creating a fund to raise money, they have become operators, taking majority positions in companies and raising equity. "The plan is multiple acquisition, integration," Diamond said.

He's putting his money where his mouth is. Although Atlas initially raised $700 million in a private placement, Diamond told us that he plans to double that amount this year.

Speaking with CBS News after the panel, Diamond said, "We are operators -- we're not really just investors. And so we can impact the vision, we can impact the capital, the liquidity, the funding. We can impact the talent -- most important the technology and the platform -- so we can develop capital markets platforms to get lending to small businesses and to entrepreneurs."

Diamond made his first acquisition in Africa last March. Nine months later he has created banks in eight countries and is already striking deals to position Atlas Capital for further growth on the continent.

These strides have not been without challenges. Diamond recalled people trying to dissuade him when he first set out to raise capital, saying he was told that "U.S. investors were not prepared to invest in Africa."

That prognosis proved overly pessimistic. Diamond's and Thakkar's venture, Atlas Mara, raised $325 million dollars in going public in 2013. "We're at a very interesting time for us investors looking at the opportunities to invest in Africa," Diamond said today.

He added, "I've always enjoyed building businesses, and I think innovation is a key part of this."