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The rise and rise of Access Bank

Nigeria at 60

The rise and rise of Access Bank

Access Bank has risen to become Nigeria’s biggest bank and is rapidly becoming a major force across the continent. Dianna Games spoke to Group Managing Director Herbert Wigwe to find out more about the bank’s growth strategy.

To survive in an increasingly changing and volatile world, business leaders need to maintain focus on building sustainable companies that are able to maintain the best traditional practices while embracing new priorities, Access Bank Group Managing Director Herbert Wigwe says.

“For CEOs to thrive in this fast-paced and dynamic environment they must be digitally and technology savvy, understanding the implications of new technologies for their industries and businesses.

“They must embrace, seek, and create change with a passion, and be ‘tragile’ in their approach – maintaining the right balance between the traditional way things are done and still being agile.”

His words ring particularly true as the world starts to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and businesses look for ways to rebuild not only themselves but also the communities and countries in which they operate.

The pandemic has left many individuals, businesses, and countries floundering and businesses have had to, and will still need to, take proactive measures to get the best deal for shareholders, staff and customers, he says. Banks need to respond in a timely manner to changes in customer behaviour.

Wigwe has championed the need for increased digital banking and has forged partnerships aimed at nurturing the next generation of fintechs, while also developing products to support digital payments across Africa.

A dizzying ascent

Access Bank was a small commercial bank, ranked 65th in size out of 89 banks in the country when Wigwe and his business partner, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, acquired it in 2002.

It was scaled up through a series of strategic mergers and acquisitions over the years and in 2020 it is not only Nigeria’s biggest bank, it is rapidly becoming one of the top financial institutions in Africa.

Wigwe took over from Aig-Imoukhuede as the bank’s MD/CEO in 2014 and has been driving its expansion, both in terms of footprint and product diversification, ever since.

The bank currently serves over 4m individual and corporate account-holders through over 600 branches and more than 3,000 ATMs in major centres across Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa, and the UK. It is now ranked among the top five banks in Nigeria in terms of assets, loans, deposits and branch network.

The growth strategy over the years has relied heavily on mergers and acquisitions to build capacity and market strength.

In 2005, it acquired Marina Bank and Capital Bank and a few years later, it acquired the shares of Omnifinance Bank. It took a leap forward with the 2011 acquisition of Intercontinental Bank.

But the deal that really set it ahead of the pack in terms of size was the 2019 acquisition of Diamond Bank, another top-tier Nigerian institution, in a deal worth $200m.

It has also continued with its quest to increase its global footprint and now has subsidiaries in Ghana, Sierra Leone and the Gambia in West Africa and beyond, in Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Zambia. As of June 2020, the bank serviced more than 36m customers across the continent.

It also has an operation in the UK and representative offices in China, India, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. 

Wigwe said earlier this year that the group is planning to increase its rest-of-Africa business.

“We want to have subsidiaries across 22 countries over the next five years, with strategic plans to be present in the major trade corridors on the African continent. Building on our successful expansion into Kenya, we will also be making entry into Angola and Mozambique.

“At the moment, Access Bank does not have a presence in the Francophone region of Africa, and we will be working to see that this is changed in the coming years. By 2023, Access Bank will have consolidated its position as Africa’s gateway to the world with about 100m customers in Nigeria and additional 20m customers across our African subsidiaries.”

The group is relying on its digital capability and innovative payments solutions to take the business to the next level as part of its expansion strategy.

Bridging financial literacy gaps

The Access Africa Platform is the Bank’s fund transfer product designed to provide instant intra- African transfers. 

“Access Bank is set to revolutionise the payment and banking landscape in Africa. We will soon be introducing a new payment system that will allow users to enjoy a secure, seamless and convenient service when making payments at merchant locations without cash or card,” Wigwe says.

This, he explains, will help to bridge financial literacy gaps in both Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa.

In mid-2020, Wigwe was named the African Banker of the Year at the African Banker Awards, an annual awards ceremony hosted by African Banker magazine under the High Patronage of the African Development Bank. 

The award recognised Wigwe’s many achievements. Over the 12-year period starting from when he was still the deputy CEO, he has grown Access Bank’s balance sheet by 1,022%, from $901m in 2007 to $19.7bn in 2019, while pre-tax profits rose to $316m from $21m over the same period. This was more than the cumulative profit made by the bank in the previous 12 years. 

The CEO was recognised for several socio-economic efforts, including leading Nigeria’s private sector Covid-19 response. The bank donated more than $2.7m to support the government in fighting the virus, while championing the Coalition Against Covid-19 initiative in Nigeria.

Receiving his award, Wigwe spoke of the need for organisations to embrace the institutionalisation and practice of sustainable banking. “Financing and facilitating a sustainable future for Africa, and indeed the world is something I am most passionate about.

“Now, more than ever, Africa needs us to unite as we seek to improve access to health care, sustainable energy, finance, and improve the standard of living in our communities.

“I enjoin all stakeholders to be a part of the facilitation of a truly sustainable future for Africa. The future of our respective organisations and the future of generations to come depend on the alliances we form and the actions we take.”

Access Bank, he said, had already taken steps towards facilitating this future by issuing the first-ever Climate Bonds Initiative certified Green Bond in Nigeria.

The bank also won the Agriculture Deal of the Year for the deal that has made the most impact, for its role in helping Singapore commodities trader Olam develop its rice operations in Nigeria.

The bank has moved decisively into the digital space, establishing the Africa FinTech Foundry (AFF), a tech hub designed to act as an accelerator for the bank.

It sources, trains, mentors and invests in start-ups by funding promising fintechs and enabling them to thrive and scale up. With support from Access Bank, the  Foundry works  to  provide  solutions  to  agriculture, financial services and education. 

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