Access Bank: The place of sustainability in the growth of Nigeria’s largest financial institution

In 2019, TIME magazine named 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg Person of the Year, recognizing her leadership role in “sounding the alarm about humanity’s predatory relationship” with the planet. Some weeks earlier at the Sustainability, Enterprise and Responsibility Awards (SERAs) in Lagos, Access Bank was the night’s big winner, carting away prizes for the ‘Best Company in Climate Action’, ‘Best Company in Sustainability Reporting’, ‘Best Company in Partnership for Development’, ‘Best Corporate Communications Team Award’, and for the third consecutive time, the ‘Most Socially Responsible Company of the Year (Overall Winner)’.

From Nigeria to Sweden, Paris to Canada, thanks to sound science and the sustained efforts of activists and funders, climate change is squarely on the front burner and only corporate organizations who recognize their responsibility to the earth can stand a chance of competing favourably.

Awards and honours are tricky things. While they are great platforms for shining the spotlight on important causes, they tend to focus on the results, often glossing over the backbreaking, tasking work that goes into making the planet safer. Long before environmental sustainability became a soundbite, Access Bank – led by the forward-thinking Herbert Wigwe – has taken upon itself, the burden of peer leadership, setting out a clear example for the rest of corporate Nigeria to follow.

Access Bank Plc. has an existing framework that embeds sustainability into the core fabric of its business operations. This isn’t borne out of sustained pressure by the government or other external agents. This focus is simply based on a need to make a lasting, positive impact on the economy while promoting the sustainable development of the country as a whole. This follows from the ambitious United Nations-led commitment by global leaders to protect the planet, end poverty and ensure peace and prosperity for all by 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) encourages efforts and relationships between the private and public sector, thereby creating opportunities for businesses to get involved in community action and national agenda. This is where Access Bank has pitched the thrust of its intervention strategies.

Access Bank’s position on sustainability isn’t a random one. It came about as a result of a cost-benefit analysis, undertaken by the bank about a decade ago, to assess the aggregate expected expenses against the expected benefits of implementing environmental, social and governance considerations in project financing and other lending activities. This further led to a complete restructuring of Access Bank’s corporate philosophy as a new mission statement was crafted for the bank to reflect its new ideology on sustainability.

Access Bank has kept true to its word by continuing to develop impactful initiatives that have strategically addressed key social, environmental and economic challenges in the country. At the executive management and board level, the bank has created a sustainability committee tasked with the responsibility of steering Access Bank’s sustainability strategy. This team engages with stakeholders as often as possible with the aim of picking up ideas on how sustainable processes can be integrated into its operations. As a fallout of this robust engagement, Access Bank initiated and led the process that culminated in the development of the Nigerian Sustainable Banking Principles – a set of nine principles that now guides the Nigerian banking industry to embed sustainability in their business operations and practices. The bank also sits on the board of the United Nations Global Compact Nigerian Local Network, serves as the co-Chair of the Corporate Alliance of Malaria in Africa, and chairs the Nigerian Sustainable Banking Principles Steering Committee, among many other leadership roles.

Some of the tangible interventions put in place by Access Bank include providing financial and business skills to female entrepreneurs through the Womenpreneur Pitch-A-Ton. Developed in 2019, this is a capacity-building initiative which provides financial grants and mini-MBA trainings in conjunction with the International Finance Corporation for 50 lucky winners. The first women-in-business support initiative of its kind in the industry, the Pitch-A-Ton is an expansion of the Womenpreneur Business Workshop, under the Bank’s groundbreaking women proposition, the “W” Initiative.

Last year’s merger with Diamond Bank made Access the largest retail bank in Nigeria by customer base and assets. Access Bank ensured there was no downsizing during the entire process, preserving the jobs and financial security of thousands of employees across the country.

Demonstrating a commitment to clean energy, there is a focus to ensure that sustainable materials and components are used in building new branches. This is in addition to the previously existing branches and ATMs powered by solar, hybrid of alternative energy sources and the national grid. These interventions have reduced the carbon emissions of the bank and in turn, minimized impact on the environment.

Leading by example, Access Bank issued the first certified corporate green bond in Africa, raising N15 billion (US$41 million) in the first quarter of 2019. Access Bank’s Head of Sustainability, Omobolanle Victor-Laniyan laid out the bank’s commitment while speaking at the 2019 Central Bank of Nigeria Sustainability Awards where once again the bank cleaned out ahead of its peers: “In our determined effort to offer more than banking, we will continue to set the standards for responsible business practices and demonstrate corporate brand commitment to addressing social, economic, and environmental issues.”

Having achieved outstanding success from its sustainability efforts including women empowerment initiatives, tree planting projects, reduction of greenhouse emissions, among others, Access Bank maintains a strong commitment to securing a sustainable future for Nigerians and Africans, as it forges ahead on its quest to further improve sustainable banking practices in Nigeria. Group Managing Director and CEO, Herbert Wigwe sums up the bank’s charge nicely: “The journey has not been easy, but our commitment remains unwavering. It is, after all, the only approach that can deliver long-term prosperity.”

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