Zenith Bank Plc expects its loan volumes to return to growth this year after 2018’s decline, and is targeting higher activity in the agricultural sector, the bank said on Thursday.

The top tier lender said it aimed to grow its loan book by 7.5 per cent in 2019, after they declined last year due to early repayments, saying borrowers were replacing overdrafts with term loans. It had guided for loans to grow 2.5 percent in 2018.

“Our expectation is that the economy will continue to strengthen,” Reuters quoted the bank to have said during an analysts’ call.

“It will throw up opportunities to grow the loan book.”

Nigeria’s economy expanded in 2018 at its fastest pace since a recession two years earlier, while inflation fell in January from a seven-month high.

The bank said it saw opportunities in the agricultural sector, which receives good support from the government, and that as the economic recovery continues it could also open up opportunities to lend to manufacturers.

The bank said its $500 million Eurobond matures in April. It plans to repay the bond from its cash flow, it said, and has no need to tap the market again immediately.

Zenith Bank reported a growth of 16. 2 per cent in its profit before tax (PBT) as well as 11.3 per cent growth in profit after tax (PAT) for the year ended December 31, 2018. According to the audited results made available on Tuesday, the lender recorded a decline in gross earnings from N745.189 billion in 2017 to N630.344 billion in 2018. Net interest income improved to N295.594 billion compared with N257.991 billion in 2017.

However, impairment charges were reduced from N98.29 billion to N18.372 billion. Similarly, the bank reduced operating expenses from N144.893 billion to N137.897 billion. Consequently, PBT improved from N199.319 billion in 2017 to N231.685 billion, while PAT rose from N173.791 billion to N193.424 billion in 2018. The directors have proposed a final dividend of N2.50 per share which in addition to the N0.30 per share paid as interim dividend amounts to N2.80 per share, compared to N2.70 in 2017.