Last week will go down as one of the most challenging weeks, if not the most challenging, Nigeria has faced in 2020. What started out weeks before as very well-organised peaceful protests by young Nigerians campaigning to #EndSARS, was supplanted by hoodlums engaging in wanton looting, arson and destruction of public and private properties across many states at an unprecedented scale. By the end of the week, many lives had been lost, many properties and businesses completely destroyed and Nigeria has been left reeling from a shock that dwarfs any the country felt even at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.
In keeping with the Nigerian spirit of being one’s brother’s keeper, equally unprecedented efforts by individuals, groups and corporate organisations to try to provide assistance for people and businesses affected by the crises of the past week, have followed. Individuals and groups have announced donations of cash and materials, set up helplines to offer psychological counselling and support, and started online crowd-funding efforts in support of victims. Among corporate organisations, we have seen banks take a leading role. Some banks, such as Access Bank and Stanbic IBTC, have announced funds or desks they have set up to receive requests from, and process assistance for, affected individuals and businesses. One of these banks’ efforts include pledged interest-free loans and grants that affected businesses and individuals can access.
Another bank has seen thousands of requests for assistance pour in through the online channel it set up for the purpose. The requests have flowed in, not only because of the victims’ desperation for help, but also because of the humane approach to banking that this institution adopts. Always putting the customer at the heart of its business, FirstBank has been showing empathy with all those who have experienced one loss or the other as a result of the crises. Since last week, the bank has been seeking every opportunity to identify with people who are currently grieving and hurting.
Although the largest and most prominent member of Nigeria’s leading financial powerhouse, the FBNHoldings Group that is a one-stop shop for financial services ranging from commercial and investment banking to financial advisory, insurance brokerage and pensions custodianship, FirstBank is neither immune nor removed from the challenges people face. It is a human institution with thousands of humans working as employees to provide bespoke banking products and services to millions of other humans whose pulse the bank feels through its employees. Being part of a group with expertise across the broad spectrum of financial services, makes FirstBank the banking partner with the broadest shoulders to assist SMEs buffeted by the wave of violence witnessed across the nation last week.
Given the interconnectivity between Nigeria and FirstBank’s history, it is no surprise that a tumultuous week in Nigeria is giving way to one with stories of hope and optimism by Nigerians badly affected by the crises of the past week, who are looking to FirstBank for assistance. These Nigerians have been encouraged by the strides FirstBank has made over the years in the SME space as the bank of first choice for small businesses. Built around seven strategic pillars – of connect to infrastructure, connect to talent, capacity building, policy and regulation, connect to resources, connect to market as well as connect to finance – considered essential for the sustainability and growth of SMEs and intended to promote a healthy business interaction and adaptability of the SMEs with their immediate environment, FirstBank’s involvement with SMEs, through SMEConnect (the bank’s branded bouquet of empowerment initiatives, products and services tailor-made for SMEs), has been one that has sought to facilitate their growth into future economic powerhouses playing ever-increasing roles in Nigeria’s economic development.
Since its maiden SME National Conference in 2014, FirstBank has annually engaged small businesses and SME owners in series of empowerment seminars and workshops designed to improve their business capacity. Only this year, FirstBank held its inaugural SME Business Clinic in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja with many SMEs in attendance. The SME Business Clinic featured Abayomi Adewumi, CEO of the Global Leadership Institute and an industry expert and business growth consultant with vast experience working with SMEs. He engaged participants on the FirstBank SME diagnostic tool designed for SMEs to check the health of their business, better understand it and drive profitability.
In 2019, FirstBank organised a weeklong SME event which had owners of SMEs in different sectors mentored across multiple states in the country. It was the first of its kind in the industry. Organised in partnership with SME Traction, a leading business coaching platform, it was aimed at empowering SMEs to make informed choices about their businesses, thereby facilitating growth and bolstering their contribution to the development of the economy. At the event, FirstBank’s Deputy Managing Director, Gbenga Shobo, underlined the importance the bank attaches to SMEs. He said: “At FirstBank, we recognise the impact SMEs have in promoting growth of the economy and are excited at the opportunity to continue to enable them prosper by strategically contributing to the sustainability of their business. We remain the trusted financial partner of SMEs and reiterate our resolve to be known as the brand that enables their success; much the same way that we have for over 125 years enabled Nigerians and the economy at large.”
This same point was elaborated at another FirstBank SME event, “Food Souk”, convened in 2019 in partnership with Eventful Limited, an events management firm, where the bank restated its commitment to the Federal Government’s diversification drive, promising to continue to support the agricultural value chain from production to consumption to create opportunities for SMEs in the food sector so they could in turn create job opportunities. The bank also extended its hand of partnership to all small businesses involved in organising different trade fairs and exhibitions. A food vendor at the event, Ms Ijeoma Ebeneme, the Chief Executive Officer, JEM N Iris, commended FirstBank for putting the event together. Ebeneme said she was at the food fair to make profit, meet new clients as well as create the needed publicity for her brand. It is for people like Ebeneme that FirstBank maintains an SME website (https://smeconnect.
In support of owners of SMEs operating in the education sector, FirstBank, in partnership with the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF), set up a matching fund scheme of ₦5 billion LSETF-FirstEdu Loan. Officially launched in September by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State and Dr Adesola Adeduntan, Managing Director/CEO of FirstBank, the scheme aims to cushion the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on low-cost private schools by ensuring lending at an attractive interest rate. Speaking at the launch, Dr Adeduntan said: “At FirstBank we recognise the indelible role played by the education sector in the growth of any economy and this underscores our partnership with Lagos State Government for continuous development of the education services in Lagos State and the nation as a whole. The commitment by the Lagos State Government – including this partnership – to enable schools is quite commendable as this will mitigate the challenges caused by the lockdown on the education sector following the COVID-19 pandemic.”
It is for efforts like all those highlighted above and many more that the 2019 edition of KPMG’s Annual Banking Industry customer Satisfaction Survey named FirstBank as the biggest mover in the SME space. The 2014 edition of the Survey had named the bank as the most popular bank among MSMEs for both deposit transactions and credit/loan facilities with 26 per cent of the SMEs surveyed identifying the bank as one where they had an ongoing loan facility or had obtained one in the recent past. It is also for the same reason that the unfortunate events of the last week have reignited the bond between Nigerians and FirstBank, a partner that they can bank on in times of need. The bank’s track record leaves no one in any doubt of its unwavering commitment to continue to weather all storms with Nigeria and Nigerian SMEs with whom it shares a common destiny.