Nigeria/France: Herbert Wigwe – “We want to be the Citibank of Africa”

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Nigeria/France: Le Nouveau Chapitre

By Nicholas Norbrook

Posted on Monday, 28 June 2021 14:28
The Managing Director of Access Bank, Herbert Wigwe
The Managing Director of Access Bank, Herbert Wigwe (rights reserved)

Herbert Wigwe, the managing director of Nigeria's Access Bank, has been working on acquiring a French banking licence. It is all part of the plan to become the 'Citibank of Africa', and help plug the gaps in the global financial architecture that have left African companies shut out of financial markets.

From modest beginnings as a small wholesale bank in 2002, to Nigeria’s largest bank by assets, loans and deposits, Access Bank has mastered the art of inorganic growth. The purchase of Diamond Bank in 2018 and of Kenya’s Transnational Bank in 2020 have kept managing director Herbert Wigwe busy, from building a common culture to integrating the banking platforms on which each bank runs.

“It is not the first time we’ve done this kind of merger,” Wigwe tells The Africa Report, referring to the 2011 purchase of Intercontinental Bank. “But these things take a minimum of five years to bed down properly.”

Access Bank had long sought to pivot to retail banking, and the pace of change of mobile banking has given things a boost.

We had to shut down a branch in Côte d’Ivoire… But nothing will stop us from creating that global institution that we seek to create.

“15 years ago, the cost of serving these customers would have been horrendous,” says Wigwe. “Today you can sign up hundreds of thousands of customers straight from their mobile phone, and also meet the anti-money laundering/know your customer requirements.”

He can lean on the skills Access Bank acquired while helping South African telecoms giant MTN enter Nigeria in the early 2000s. “We had to train people in basic bookkeeping, and those people became the distributors for MTN – they were the boys selling scratch cards on the streets. Then we helped MTN in its roll-out of phone mast sites.”

Intra-African trade

Access Bank has pan-­African ambitions. “We want to be the Citibank of Africa,” says Wigwe. Is there enough intra-African trade to justify that? Wigwe points to the gap left by international banking groups in recent years as Basel III and other regulations make compliance more costly for global banks.

“There is no point in waiting for other banks from other continents to come and serve you. You must create your own,” says Wigwe.

The African Continental Free Trade Area offers proof, he says, that intra-African trade is set to increase through formal channels. Intra-African payments are also on the rise – Nigerian parents paying school fees in Ghana, for example – while there are also investments and remittances worth billions of dollars. “And we want all of that to be coming through our franchise,” says Wigwe. To beef up its correspondent-banking links, Access Bank has an office in London that will soon be joined by a new banking operation in France.

Nigerian banks have been burnt in continental expansion in the past.

Wigwe says the lessons have been learnt: the main one being about the business case. For the planned expansion into Mozambique, for example, he points to the growth of the gas industry, where there are Nigerian companies present.

He is also transparent about Access Bank’s own failings. “We had to shut down a branch in Côte d’Ivoire,” says Wigwe. The bank will be returning with a fresh approach. “But nothing will stop us from creating that global institution that we seek to create.”

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