‘Sustainable finance’ is one of the industry’s most overused terms, but at Access Bank it has substance, forming a crucial part of its DNA. While ESG (environmental, social and governance) has been somewhat sluggishly adopted by the industry as a whole since it was introduced in the global arena in the 1960s, Nigeria’s largest bank has creatively embraced every strand of these principles. Recognising that ESG stretches beyond the commitment to minimise the business sector’s effect on society and the environment, Access Bank goes the extra mile. Whether supporting the fight against malaria or providing upcycled pencils to thousands of children, each initiative is designed to do good – inspiring fellow industry players to follow suit.
The history and challenges of ESG
The ESG guidelines were established some six decades ago in its nascent form and continue to develop. The traditional business orthodoxy that valued profit above all else meant that it was acceptable to externalise the various destructive consequences that businesses were wreaking on the environment. Especially so when, back then, the chime of climate change warning bells seemed so far off, and any doom-laden predictions they presaged seemed likely to remain uncrystallised for several centuries.
However, as environmentalists and scientists began to shine a light on irresponsible business practices and the detrimental effects of these on both human and ecological health, the need for scalable guidelines and principles around sustainability became clear, and institutions needed structures through which they could be held to account. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations (World Commission on Environment and Development) released the Brundtland Report, complete with guidelines that organisations needed to adopt to achieve sustainable development. In 1992, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) issued the Statement of Commitment by Financial Institutions – which rippled into the creation of the UNEP Finance Initiative.
Fast forward through several governing bodies, working papers, and initiatives, and we arrive at the Nigerian Sustainable Banking Principles (2012), which Access Bank initiated and led. And, underpinning all of this is the growing body of evidence pointing to the unmistakable benefits of sustainable finance. For example, from a meta-study carried out by Fidelity International, a leading investment management UK-based company, incorporating sustainable finance improves corporate performance and can boost stock market value, among other benefits.
Moreover, employees and investors are interested in companies that take corporate responsibility and sustainability seriously. According to the ‘Global Sustainable Fund Flows: Q2 2022 in Review’ report, there has been a steady but dramatic increase in sustainable fund inflows – from $5bn in 2018 to nearly $70bn in 2021, with a gain of $87bn of net new money in the first quarter of 2022, followed by $33bn in the second quarter. There’s no denying there are challenges – presently within Nigeria, no metrics for measuring industry-wide performance exist, and there isn’t a generally accepted framework for the implementation of ESG, for example.
But it’s important to highlight the progress that has been made. On a broad scale, Nigerian financial institutions have recorded, among other things, the implementation of waste management and energy efficiency practices, automation of environmental and social risk management systems, development of financial products and services targeted at women, improvement of maternity leave policies, and the creation of women networks.
The Access Bank ESG formula
In a bid to tackle climate change and its hazardous effects, Access Bank has launched a series of initiatives aimed at reducing carbon emissions and moving Nigeria – and the world as a whole – toward the global Net Zero vision. So, what initiatives have the green-minded bank come up with? In an effort to reduce its carbon footprint, it has pioneered waste recycling within Nigeria’s financial sector, expanding its recycling operations to 75 locations across the country.
Incorporating sustainable finance improves corporate performance and can boost stock market value
Keen to put existing materials to good use, the upcycling project ‘paper-to-pencil’ resulted in eco-friendly writing instruments, made available for over 10,000 school children. Old tyres, meanwhile, have been given a new lease of life as material used for furniture.
To continue this theme, the bank collaborated with SME Funds in 2017 to execute the ‘green social entrepreneurship programme.’ This empowered 238 entrepreneurs in the field of clean cooking stove technology. Some 70 percent of the beneficiaries were women, who also benefited from start-up capital. Since the launch of the programme, beneficiaries have produced and distributed 7,500 litres of bio-gel, with returns exceeding $39,317.28 – reaching 598 households and impacting 2,100, with 287 metric tonnes of CO2 eliminated in the process. During the pandemic, the bank offered support to families in need by way of the ‘family cooking support programme,’ providing clean cooking technologies to those experiencing lockdown constraints.
Through this programme, Access Bank also distributed over 5,000 litres of biofuels to support more than 2,500 families in 100 communities. In addition, the programme benefited over 900 small-business owners. To offer a set of tangible figures – the programme saved beneficiaries a daily $3.25 per family, along with time savings of 225,000 minutes, while 8,000 tonnes of CO2 was eliminated.
Community support on every level
Access Bank’s ongoing investment in its host communities is far-reaching across the pillars of health, education, sport, arts, environment and social welfare. Over the years, Access Bank has invested about $38m in a range of strategic CSR initiatives, reaching 1,519 communities and impacting 30,623,790 lives and a further 834 NGOs. Through the bank’s employee volunteering scheme, employees have invested over 2.7 million hours of their time and resources, impacting over 530 communities across the six geo-political zones in Nigeria. This true mark of staff engagement is testament to the seriousness with which Access Bank approaches sustainability.
The bank’s online financial literacy platform, Access 9ijaKids, has garnered much attention. Launched during the pandemic, the free-to-use platform provided financial literacy education to over 100,000 children and parents. The platform and its engaging games were played by some 1,700 children.
Promoting financial inclusion, the bank has launched initiatives – large and small – to empower women. ‘Womenpreneur Pitch-A-Ton,’ for instance, is an initiative through which businesswomen within Nigeria and beyond are provided with world-class business training, finance, and mentoring opportunities. So far, over 250 women across Africa have received free mini-MBA certifications and financial grants worth $21,123. The Access Bank W Power Loan initiatives, meanwhile, disbursed loans worth $30m to some 1,300 women, helping to support asset acquisition and infrastructure upgrades, providing business working capital.
Responding to a rising need for financial support among homes and businesses, Access Bank unveiled a business recovery fund intervention programme to support individuals, businesses and communities affected by the nationwide protests to end police brutality. As of the bank’s last report, 66 businesses have been supported with interest-free loans. A total of $7,493,817 has been distributed to businesses to catalyse growth and sustainability. In addition, 105 micro-businesses have availed themselves of grants and funds disbursed to the tune of $55,757 across eight states in Nigeria.
At the height of the pandemic, the bank led the fight against COVID-19 and rallied several leading private organisations through the private sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID). Under the auspices of the coalition, the bank donated $2,497,939 and raised over $87,427,872 alongside other organisations and individuals who clubbed together to provide medical equipment, treatment, training, testing and isolation centres to all states in Nigeria. The coalition also provided the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control with over 60,000 testing kits and spearheaded a palliative drive to feed 1.7 million households in Nigeria. These are only a few examples of initiatives the coalition and Access Bank independently launched to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
The ‘maternal health programme’ is another Access Bank brainchild, developed in partnership with HACEY Health Initiative. The bank’s commitment to improving maternal health has also secured best-practice training for 540 health workers, and the distribution of 75,000 long-lasting insecticide nets to pregnant Nigerian women and mothers of children under the age of five.
Sustainability in governance
Inclusion and diversity are high on the agenda at Access Bank. The bank’s board of directors – comprised of 35.3 percent women, 64.7 percent men and a healthy mix of varied cultural backgrounds – reflect its commitment to improving diversity and inclusion within its organisation and the country as a whole.
Access Bank sits on the board of the HIV Trust Fund – a private-sector-led platform focused on obliterating the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Nigeria. Through the fund, the bank, along with other leading organisations, has raised N62.1bn ($141m) towards accelerating the achievement of the UNAIDS (Jointed United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) 95-95-95 epidemic obliterating strategy.
Fighting malaria is another key concern. Access Bank sits on the board of Corporate Alliance on Malaria in Africa (CAMA). Through this alliance, it has begun mobilising private sector capabilities and resources for sustained support towards lowering malaria incidence and prevalence in Nigeria and beyond. The goal, according to the bank’s representative and Head of Sustainability, Omobolanle Victor-Laniyan, is to save 50,000 lives in Nigeria and other countries across Africa by 2023. So far, it has donated insecticide-treated nets, malaria rapid diagnostic test kits, and multiple doses of IPTp-SP to primary healthcare facilities in over 12 communities in Nigeria. The Alliance has also benefited over 6,600 pregnant women across Oyo, Ogun and Lagos, Nigeria.
Working with the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) and other leading global banks, Access Bank contributed to the development of the Principles for Responsible Banking (PRB). The Principles serve as the global benchmark for banking institutions with regard to knowing the requirement for becoming responsible banks. Being the only West African Bank on the Core Group, Access Bank served as Africa’s Consultative Lead on the Principles. In this capacity, it has helped galvanise other banks into becoming signatories to the Principles.
Access Bank’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed – in recognition of its ESG and sustainable finance achievements, Access Bank has been the recipient of several national and international Awards including the Central Bank of Nigeria Award for Sustainable Bank of the Year (three-time consecutive winner); the Karlsruhe Award for Outstanding Business Sustainability Achievement (six-time consecutive winner); and World Finance Award for Most Sustainable Bank (11-time winner). As Access Bank consistently demonstrates, it pays to be good.