unfazed by competition

Herbert Wigwe: ‘We want to be Africa’s gateway to the world’

By Nicholas Norbrook, in Paris

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Posted on July 5, 2023 11:31

The Managing Director of Access Bank, Herbert Wigwe
The Managing Director of Access Bank, Herbert Wigwe (rights reserved)

Aiming to steer the bank as ‘Africa’s gateway to the world’, the managing director of Access Bank discusses the path to transform the banking landscape and attract investment back to Nigeria.

Amidst the champagne flutes and the high officials doing the rounds at the launch of Herbert Wigwe’s Access Bank’s Paris branch at the Petit Palais in Paris on 11 May, one French banker says: “Paris is becoming the new stomping ground for Nigeria’s commercial elite.”

Given the frequent trips to Paris made by Nigerian businessmen with deals underway with French companies, such as AbdulSamad Rabiu’s BUA Group or Globacom’s Mike Adenuga, or indeed President Bola Tinubu himself, there may be some truth in it.

Speaking to The Africa Report the day after the launch party, Wigwe envisions an era of growth, one in which the bank could become Africa’s Citibank. “It is about being Africa’s gateway to the world, the equivalent of Citi. One out of every three transactions that will happen on my continent, in the next five years will happen on our counters,” he says.

The bank has achieved considerable size and profitability, something the MD attributes to leadership and efficient operations. In 2022, for example, revenue grew at over 40%, to hit gross income of N1.38trn ($1.78bn), while an asset base of N15trn makes Access Bank Nigeria’s largest.

Despite fluctuating exchange rates and other challenges, Wigwe remains unfazed by competition from other Pan-African banks.

When it comes to Africa’s leading bank, South Africa’s Standard Bank, Wigwe says they are not immediate competition. “They are not all over ECOWAS,” he says. “They are a tiny little bank where we come from, they are just a dot in Nigeria.

In Morocco where leading pan-African franchise Attijariwafa Bank tops the league tables, Wigwe says Access Bank would be hot on their heels if Nigeria hadn’t suffered from such terrible economic management.

We will be in the US, but it’s not fair to tell you when, but either you want to stand up, or you just want to lay in your little corner

“I have 60 million customers, [the] same size as Citibank, globally,” says Wigwe, lamenting the failure of political leadership in Nigeria that allowed the value of the Naira to collapse. “During my time as a banker, I saw the exchange rate move from four Naira to the dollar to 800. That’s within […] my short lifespan.

“With the right leadership, our exchange rate would not have deteriorated like this, and we would have billions more dollars on our books. For a bank like Attijariwafa, the only benefit they have is that they’ve come from a place with a more stable currency. They are not anywhere near the sophistication, or the size that we have.”

Furthermore, he discloses plans for an expansion into the US market, reinforcing the bank’s commitment to extending its global footprint. “We will be in the US, but it’s not fair to tell you when, but either you want to stand up, or you just want to lay in your little corner,” he says.

With plans to revisit markets like Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal within the next 12 to 18 months, and ambitions of banking more Pan-African corporations, Access Bank has its sights set on becoming the leading banking institution across the continent.

Global outlook

To hedge against domestic currency woes, Access Bank has adopted a global outlook, recently opening an office in France, which may seem surprising to the uninformed observer.

“In the 1980s, and in the 1990s, much of the business in Nigeria was controlled by the French. Over time, it has dwindled, but there are still reasonable investments,” says Wigwe.

Access Bank in France is in effect the Paris branch of Access Bank UK – a London-based wholly-owned subsidiary. It will focus on trade finance, targeting customers involved in various cross-border flows across the continent. This will allow Access Bank to plug a gap left by French banks, such as Societe Generale, which has left clients in francophone Africa seeking correspondent banking connections stranded.

“Somebody’s going to take up that role,” he said.

Wigwe also believes the French branch will allow Access Bank to move into the domain of reserve management for francophone countries in West and Central Africa, who keep a portion of their reserves currently at the Banque de France.

Access Bank’s move to France was influenced by Brexit’s impact on the financial landscape, requiring the bank to find a new home in the Eurozone. It speaks to the ambition of the bank to be seen as a universal player for African companies and those investing in the continent.

Change afoot

Nigeria’s new administration has three ways to convince international investors to return to Nigeria, says Wigwe. “The first would be the harmonisation of exchange rates, which is basically the ease with which you can move capital in and out of the country.” That already appears to be underway, with the reforms announced around the naira.

“The second is the disturbance and intrusion, which some agencies give to investors; and the third is making sure that the judiciary works – that commercial disputes are properly resolved,” he said.

While he acknowledges the challenges faced by investors in the past, the Access Bank chief is emphatic about the measures being taken to correct them.

“We saw a lot of indiscriminate and stupid things happen in the last couple of years. You bring your capital, you have a dispute, then the legal system was not working properly. That is going to change.”

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