Access Bank CEO: ‘Doing business responsibly and sustainably is the only way’

Herbert Wigwe discusses the African bank's sustainability and financial inclusion goals

October 10, 2019

When Herbert Wigwe first created Access Bank, his ambition was to create the most respected bank in Africa. He explains what this means: in terms of expanding financial inclusion in Nigeria and the rest of the continent, supporting women entrepreneurs, and helping launch Nigeria’s Sustainability Banking Principles. We have two more videos from this interview: about Access Bank’s improved corporate governance practices, and what it means to be Nigeria’s largest bank by customer base.

World Finance: When you created Access Bank, your ambition was to create the most respected bank in Africa…

Herbert Wigwe: Absolutely.

World Finance: …financial inclusion, sustainability, obviously extremely important for that; tell me about your sustainability goals.

Herbert Wigwe: I think for us, sustainability is a very important part of our business. Issues that have to do with people, planet and profits – very, very important. So we – together with the Central Bank of Nigeria, several years ago – launched the Nigerian Sustainability Banking Principles. And I think for several years we have been at the lead of it.

Things that have to do with gender balance; we started supporting female entrepreneurs, we introduced things like the maternal healthcare scheme – things which are not very normal, in the context of the continent.

But apart from that, I think the most recent aspect – which gives us a lot of pride – is the fact that we launched a green bond. And that green bond is Climate Bond Initiative certified – it’s the first in the continent.

And the more we do these things, the more we think other corporates will take a lead – and therefore lift up the continent as far as sustainability is concerned. And I think if you keep us side-by-side, most institutions in the continent and world over, I think we’re exactly where we want to be.

World Finance: As you say, supporting women has always been very important to Access Bank – how has that evolved over time?

Herbert Wigwe: When we first started this whole initiative, we initially thought about supporting women financially: professional women, women who were entrepreneurial. And we said, we wanted to take 20 women from zero in terms of turnover, to NGN 1bn in terms of turnover, over five years.

And over the five years – you know, from 2006-11 – I think we did very well.

But we then went and sat back and said, look. This whole thing about gender support can be done differently. There’s so much more apart from finance that we need to give. Finance is important, but it’s not everything.

So we emerged into what we referred to as the Access Women Network. This was about creating a forum where we inspire, connect, and empower women. We created portals through which women could be supportive of themselves. We created portals where we could support women – for instance, if you needed an accountant, you could get an accountant to look at your books at rates that were subsidised. Because for a lot of them who were becoming entrepreneurial, they needed to be taught a bit more in terms of the basic things around accounting, and all of that.

And then we deepened our capacity-building as far as this was concerned. So twice a year we would take women and train them. For those who are at the beginning, early stages of their business, support them from a capacity-building standpoint. For those who were a more mature level, teach them about issues around succession planning for their businesses.

So that was what Access Women Network was built around. And I think today it’s got to a mature stage. We have tens of thousands of women who are part of that network. They meet at different points of time in the year, discussing the typical issues that their gender has to deal with.

World Finance: How does your mission inform what you do? Both in terms of the services that you’re offering to your customers, and also across the continent – working across borders and building your brand?

Herbert Wigwe: Our mission is very simple: it’s setting standards for sustainable business practices. Unleash the talents of employees. Deliver superior value to our customers. And provide innovative solutions to the market and communities we serve.

And what that does, simply, is to say: we will do business, but we will do business responsibly. We will do it sustainably. And it’s something we have been celebrated world over for, and we remain extremely proud of it. So it may not be the most profitable thing in the short term – defined in strict financial terms. But in the larger sense, and looking at it over time, doing business responsibly and sustainably is the only way to live.