There was something nostalgic walking through the office of one of the most prominent Bank CEO’s in Africa, it felt like being in an art gallery in New York City. The paintings on the walls, mostly made by African artists are a symbol of Herbert Wigwe’s commitment to stimulatin­g growth in the Nigerian Creative Sector. Herbert Wigwe, the CEO and Group Managing Director of Access Bank began a revolution in the Nigerian banking Industry, through various initiative­s. He has empowered many women, and his philanthro­pic work seeks to elevate thousands of children from poverty. Guest Correspond­ent, OJY OKPE shares her exclusive interview with Wigwe as he spoke about his mission to maintain Access Bank as the largest bank on the continent; his love for art; and what it takes to be truly successful.

Several things have been said and done in Nigeria that the world needs to emulate. If we go outside this country, we have several Nigerians who are doing great things around the world with nothing chronicled about or written about them. So we have to change this story

I’d like to start with your tremendous achievemen­t. Access Bank has gone from the 69th largest lender in 2002 to becoming the no. 1 bank in Africa by customer base. Is that right?

That is absolutely correct. Access Bank is currently the largest retail lender on the continent with a customer base of 31.4 million. I’ll let you imagine what it takes as a financial institutio­n to serve such a huge number of people.

What does it mean for you to head the largest bank in Africa?

Humbling, but I think what is more important is the fact that we have a very strong team and our success is as a result of the work of several people. We have over 25,000 employees, and having the largest customer base at 31 million is something we are proud of. What is more important, is the fact that we take inspiratio­n from our competitor­s who are also doing great things as far as financial inclusion and digitizati­on are concerned not to mention their own numbers and efficienci­es as well. Looking at our numbers at Access Bank, we expect a 100% increase in our customer base within the next three years and I’m talking 50/60 million customers. We want to show that together, with the rest of the industry, we can actually deepen the market out here in Nigeria and across the continent. This will show the world that Africa can produce a global brand that can operate competitiv­ely alongside global banks like H.S.B.C, JP Morgan or CitiBank. Only then, can we see true developmen­t in the continent and in the country more specifical­ly, because the Bank will be of sufficient skill, size and scope to ensure that there is great economic developmen­t in our country.

l would like to take you back to the time when you were an employee at GTBank. Would you say that you’ve always had the vision to head a bank?

Absolutely. Even the choice of banking as a career. I think one of the greatest opportunit­ies for us was to be blessed with great leaders and strong ethical mentors like Fola Adeola and Tayo Aderinokun. Young as we were, in our early 20s, they gave us a plain piece of paper to run a bank. I mean it was unheard of but they empowered us and just let us do what we wanted to do which created the foundation for everything that we have done so far.

You are always a function of people you meet and the values that you see. Both men instilled in us most of the values we’ve had as adults in terms of running a bank and how we see our vision for whatever institutio­n we had. Those 12 years in GT were great years under the leadership of these two outstandin­g profession­als and they truly helped us. Now they also gave us, at different points in time, the mantle of leadership to run the bank in fairness and these were clear delegation­s. They never called to ask “Why did you sign this, why did you approve that?” So, we remain ever grateful and privileged to have worked with them. Their gut instincts were there in fairness and in their desire to run the institutio­n but we experience­d their confidence building process first hand and being given the opportunit­y, it was clear to us that we could truly run a bank even as young as we were then.

At what point did yourself and Aigboje-Aig Imoukhede decide to take the plunge and set up your own bank?

l will share something with you. Very difficult, but I’ll share as much as possible. Aig went to Harvard on a program, a very interestin­g program because that program gives you enough time to reflect on your future. He was there for about three months and I was to go for the same program a few weeks after but just before then, as we were watching the institutio­n grow and we asked ourselves, “Can we create another oasis of sanity in the country? Can we replicate what is here but a bit different?” Food for thought. So just before I left for my program Aig said, “Herbert I think we should do it.” It took me less than a second to concur. I said “I am all for it!” So I went on the program and every day, the only thing I thought of doing was how we were going to do this venture. Now let me tell you what that program also does for you, you meet young people about your age, doing the same thing internatio­nally, so in class you’re thinking “Wait a minute, I am as good as the next person in here if not better. Why can’t I do what he is doing where I come from?’ So a lot of introspect­ion in three months actually created and built that bubble within me. When I came back we just decided to pursue our dream. Now obviously, the next question people would ask is if there was a fear of failure. You know the truth, it never occurred to us at any point in time that it was not going to work.

The Bank unveiled its new identity this year. What would you say is the greatest achievemen­t that came out of the merger between former Diamond Bank and Access Bank?

At the beginning of this current five-year corporate strategic plan, we had shared with the market the fact that we are going to pursue a very aggressive retail growth plan. That we are going to pursue digitizati­on further because it was something we are already doing. Now Access Bank had already built a solidly strong wholesale bank, we had started true digitizati­on to pursue our retail structure, but former Diamond Bank focused largely on the retail business particular­ly as far as financial inclusion. And in fairness to them, they’ve been the fastest growing retail bank having built a strong digital base and platform to support it. We felt bolting it onto what Access had was going to create an institutio­n that would serve every costumer from the top all the way down to the last man. So for us, this fusion was going to ensure that a couple of things will be done. First of all, we will be rendering service to the largest corporates but more importantl­y, the SMEs will be served differentl­y, catered for and supported financiall­y by way of funding as well as through capacity building, which was one of Diamond’s greatest strengths.

In terms of the Creative industry, Access Bank has a Nolly-Fund dedicated to the Nollywood industry and the Bank is also heavily invested in the Arts. Do you have any other funds available for the Creative industry?

As Africans, we have to write our history, we have to rewrite the narrative through which Africa is looked at, specifical­ly Nigeria. When you go out, the only thing people think about Nigeria is about corruption, poverty, disease, sickness, etc, which is not true because there is so much more to Nigeria and of course Africa.

“Several things have been said and done in Nigeria that the world needs to emulate. If we go outside this country, we have several Nigerians who are doing great things around the world with nothing chronicled about or written about them. So we have to change this story”

We felt, even before it became something the Central bank started pushing aggressive­ly, that the best way to do this was to use the creative arts. To use arts, music and Nollywood. Nigerian music is everywhere in the world and to use Nollywood. Across this continent if you are a superstar in any of these sectors, everybody recognizes you even internatio­nally. So we started the Born in Africa Festival which celebrates Africans who have done great things around the world, particular­ly within the continent. We did it last Christmas for the first time and will do it every Christmas going forward. The Born In Africa Festival does two things, firstly if well captured, people start to see Africa differentl­y. When they visit Lagos, Zanzibar, Accra and other places like that, they are seeking for entertainm­ent like the festival. Secondly, our artistes are exposed to world class standards, they meet their colleagues internatio­nally and cope very well. So apart from the Nolly-Fund, we do the same thing with Art-X with Tokini Peterside. We have showcased great artists, great masters, alongside young aspiring ones who can hold their own anywhere in the world. We’ve also done the same thing for music, and the same thing in the movie industry as mentioned earlier. Likewise, for the fashion industry. It was not one of our high points in the past, but it is one that we are pursuing aggressive­ly now.

You see how I am smiling while you’re saying that?

Yes, because it is something that is very dear to your heart. But you know, in pursuing all of these, we have ignited the interest of some foreign countries. The French are doing great things with us in terms of improving the quality of things that we do. So what does this do for us? One, it employs a huge amount of people and if we pursue the creative sector properly; it will generate employment for

l have spent time with less privileged children and seen the pain they go through. I believe that every child is the same. That child begging on the street is not any different from any other child. It’s opportunit­y and exposure that differenti­ates them.

over five to ten million people over the next five years, particular­ly if the entire industry follows suit. Two, we will develop even greater talent especially in I.T which will be a big veritable source of foreign exchange. Things like that can help support the growth in our GDP without necessaril­y taking money from other countries not to mention the other socio-economic benefits of increased employment. These are the things that have driven us into all of these ventures which Central Bank is now formalizin­g within their entire financial service sector under Governor Emefiele. The whole idea is that banks must start to support the Creative sector actively. But not everybody has the same ethos, strength or the same passion for such ventures.

Access bank is widely recognized for women empowermen­t. What sort of programs do you have for female entreprene­urs?

We cover the entire spectrum. We cover female profession­als; we help new mothers who have come back into employment. We help them settle or start their own business. The issue of female empowermen­t is one that we’ve always embraced. We come from a continent where, depending on where you come from, women are seen as the weak gender. Meanwhile, that is not exactly true.

Educationa­lly it has not been proven in terms of academic performanc­e. So, how can they, all of a sudden become the weaker gender? We worked with some other institutio­ns doing female empowermen­t programs in other parts of the world and we came back to create what is now the “W” initiative. Now the “W” initiative is all about inspiring, connecting and empowering women. It goes completely beyond money. Money is still there but helping women find female profession­als in their areas of need also helps to achieve all of what women truly desire. This also extends to the work place, making sure that women are kept in the most appropriat­e circumstan­ce. We are the leaders as far these ventures go and women represent 50% of our population and therefore determine the income of the family or at least the savings for most people.

You also have a foundation that deals with education, health and youth empowermen­t.

I do have a few things that I am passionate about and l am passionate about children.

“l have spent time with less privileged children and seen the pain they go through. I believe that every child is the same. That child begging on the street is not any different from any other child. It’s opportunit­y and exposure that differenti­ates them”.

Just double click on your life, two or three generation­s, you’ll find that you might not be different from those children. If given the opportunit­y, they can be anything. If you take them and show them love, they will not be any different from you. So, when you’re faced with certain circumstan­ces and you go to those places and see children going through great pains, depending on the kind of person you are, it breaks your heart. So, the youth empowermen­t project was created for the little children that you’re building up. Health issues are also important to me but Education is a critical part of it. We’ve done things in the very interestin­g neighbourh­ood of Makoko. We have helped rebuild and repair schools to give the children a better atmosphere to study. Several other ventures of ours like these are geared towards bettering the lives of these children.

How are you able to manage your great family life and run such a successful bank?

I am lucky. I am privileged to have a great wife who tolerates me. Because I’m not an easy person given the number of hours we put in at work. Obviously in creating any family, you will have to share what you’re doing, and when I talk about sharing, it doesn’t have to be to the most minute detail. You have to marry somebody who understand­s your aspiration­s, what you want to achieve in life and identify with you. And if you have somebody who is directly the opposite, obviously you have a situation. And I think that is the basis, the beginning and foundation for everything. And once you have the right value system, I think it would work. However, everybody will have pressure from time to time, certainly with the amount of work hours…but I think if there is trust, love, and companions­hip, it would help to mitigate some of those situations. I am fortunate to have somebody who truly understand­s me.

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