20 Apr 2021 / Article

“Access Bank determined to become Africa’s gateway to the World”

Herbert Wigwe, CEO, Access Bank Plc


Dr. Herbert Wigwe is an entrepreneur who currently serves as CEO and Group Managing Director of Access Bank, a leading Nigerian banking institution. His career in financial services spans more than 27 years, during which he has successfully built Access Bank into the largest in Africa by customer base – with over 31 million clients across the continent.

In an exclusive session with CGTN Africa Business Journalist, Ramah Nyang, at the virtual Africa Financial Industry Summit, the foremost corporate banker discusses a range of issues including the company’s transformation from the 65th bank in the country in 2002 to a behemoth today, how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected banking operations, as well as further expansion plans.


Ramah Nyang: The big story around Access Bank for the last year or so has been on merging with Diamond. How’s that going?


Herbert Wigwe: It’s going well. We have done this several times and will get better continuously as there will always be investments to be made. We have been able to pull out most of the synergies, running under one brand and our technology is integrated. The culture remains a slight issue and it’s only because throughout last year, putting people together to run a single culture wouldn’t have been that easy in the middle of Covid-19.


RN: You’ve grown the bank relatively rapidly in part through the acquisitions and more of those are in the pipeline. Walk us through the thought process before you decide to merge or make an acquisition?


HW: When we got into Access Bank in 2002, we knew that in the context of Nigeria being a large economy, a very small bank wouldn’t stand a chance. Everywhere in the world, the top 5 banks control market share. Our initial strength was wholesale banking. At the time, my partner and I decided to play according to our strength – provide the top corporates with strong trade lines using technology as an edge, and working with multilaterals to provide seamless and huge lines to support clients. We carried out a series of mergers where we acquired Marina Bank and Capital Bank in 2007. Our objective was just to merge according to institutions that share the same values and have wholesale customers because that was what we needed. After this, we thought we needed to take things to the next level and become more retail.


RN: One of the key trends we’ve noted across sectors is a lot more tech is coming into the picture. Are you planning on getting tech firms as part of your future acquisition plans?


HW: We have set up a holding company structure and one of the areas we are going to concentrate on is technology and the payment space. Remember that we have created a fintech foundry called Africa Fintech Foundry and are the first Nigerian bank to do this. Embracing technology that can be used by several different players separate from Access is extremely important to us. At this next phase of our growth, we have to start looking at areas around payment and fintech that can support the growth of our business and bring more people into the formal sector.


RN: What was it that made Bank ABC of Mozambique an asset worth acquiring for Access?


HW: When we say we are going to create Africa’s gateway to the world, what we meant was we are going to be the equivalent of Citibank to Africa. So a very significant proportion of all payments across the continent would be done through Access Bank. To do this in the countries we seek to be present, we have to be more than just a dot with a reasonable presence to do retail transactions, handle trade, diaspora flows, ensure intra-African payments seamlessly across the platform, etc. Seeing as Atlas Mara was divesting from ABC, we saw it as a good opportunity. That was what led us to the deal in Mozambique. If we didn’t do it, it would take us probably another 15 years to have this kind of opportunity.


RN: Are there other markets in Africa that are of interest to you right now based on the argument you’re making?


HW: Yes. We have a presence in Kenya and are trying to seek and discover ourselves in South Africa. In East Africa, we are present in Rwanda while working on Cameroon and Guinea too. So, we are moving up across sub-Saharan Africa but still trying to understand the Sahel a bit better. Egypt is a strong market we are trying to understand before deciding on when to go there. But Southern Africa is perhaps the largest economic zone in the entire continent – from South Africa to Botswana and Zambia.


RN: 2020 was a very tough year for many African economies due to Covid-19. Given how rough it was, what kept you up at night with regards to managing your operations amid the pandemic?


HW: A pandemic will always be a problem but you have to take responsibility for all your people, employees, wherever they are across the continent. But we also have to overlook the problem, not irresponsibly, to continue to work and grow our institution. All through the pandemic, we created a very safe working environment, a way to reach our customers in a Covid-compliant manner, while restructuring loan facilities for some clients.


RN: What do you make of the CBN Naira 4 Dollar scheme?


HW: It’s not only the Nigerian central bank doing this. The idea is to encourage diaspora inflows. Diaspora remittances did plunge in 2020. In the past, the amount of flows were as much as a billion dollars a month but they dried up last year, also not helped by negative sentiments around Nigeria’s macroeconomic environment. But the CBN’s scheme and other initiatives have been reversing the trend.


RN: Let’s talk about AfCFTA which offers a lot of growth opportunities for economies in the continent. How do we make the process painless for both parties? Also, who takes care of the risk and currency volatility across the different markets?


HW: At the moment, you can make a payment from Nigeria to Ghana or Kenya with your mobile phone. By being present in the critical hubs across the continent, we’re going to be deploying several payment methods. Volatility needs to be managed irrespective of where you’re bringing the goods from. If we all work together and regulators cooperate, I think we can harmonise all of these things and find an agreement that will work. Covid has taught us that if we don’t look after ourselves, it’s going to be our problem at the end of the day.

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