Adesola Adeduntan, CEO, FirstBank

BY EMEKA EJERE

The financial inclusion drive of First Bank of Nigeria Limited recorded yet another boost last week as the lender announced that it had disbursed over N17bn loans to individuals across the country through FirstAdvance, its digital lending solution.

For a bank which prides itself as the nation’s financial inclusion services provider and has pursued the financial inclusion drive of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the federal government with vigour, this may be another exciting way of matching words with action.

According to World Bank, financial inclusion means that individuals and businesses have access to useful and affordable financial products and services that meet their needs – transactions, payments, savings, credit and insurance – delivered in a responsible and sustainable way. World Bank also notes that access to a transaction account is a first step toward broader financial inclusion since it allows people to store, send and receive money.

A few years ago, the CBN set a target of 80 percent financial inclusion by 2020. The objective was to get Nigerians who do not bank or do online transactions to get onboard as a way of reducing poverty in Nigeria.

The apex bank was concerned that while Nigeria has about 96.4 million adult population, it is sad that 40.1 million (almost half of the population) are financially excluded in a digital age where e-payment, e-commerce among other financial services products and banking innovations are trending.

CBN also found it shocking that women, youths under 35 years, rural dwellers and those in Northern Nigerian, particularly North West and North East, are the most financially excluded. First Bank is clearly leaving no one in doubt that it is not any less concerned in this regard.

In a statement titled, ‘First Bank reinforces its financial inclusion drive; disburses over N17bn loans through FirstAdvance.,’ the lender explained, “FirstAdvance is designed to offer a convenient and easy access to cash for salary earners whose accounts are domiciled with FirstBank and have received regular salaries for two months, prior to the loan request.

“In barely a year since the launch of FirstAdvance, over 128,000 unique customers in over 782,996 successful transactions have so far benefitted from loans.”

It also explained that processing a loan with FirstAdvance was implemented in less than a minute and it was accessed in two ways, namely its USSD code and mobile banking application. And customers were advised to upgrade their FirstMobile App to the latest version on android and IOS for requests via the app.

First Bank said it also offered personal loans against salary to individuals in paid employment who needed long-term loan to meet their financial obligations, especially as the economy returned to normalcy, stating that the personal loan guaranteed a convenient repayment plan of up to 60 months.

The Deputy Managing Director, First Bank, Gbenga Shobo, said, “Meeting the needs of our customers has always been our priority and we are delighted with the volume of loans disbursed to Nigerians as it reinforces the confidence of Nigerian workers in FirstAdvance, our digital lending solution and also our long-term offerings through personal loans for people in paid employment.

First Bank sees every occasion as another opportunity to add more impetus to the drive. While speaking at the opening ceremony of the 12th Annual Conference of the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN) late last year, the Chief Executive Officer, First Bank, Dr. Adesola Adeduntan, announced the bank’s target to get up to 500,000 operators onboard its agent banking platform to boost financial inclusion.

Adeduntan, who also served as the chairman of the CIBN 2019 Conference Consultative Committee, reaffirmed that FirstBank would support all efforts to ensure effective financial inclusion in Nigeria.

“We have a very ambitious plan to appoint about 500,000 agents across the nook and cranny of our country and to ensure that banking facilities and services are made available to all Nigerians.”

In 2017, FirstBank launched its agent banking network; ‘Firstmonie Agent’, described as its ‘Human ATM’. The Firstmonie Agents are empowered to extend access to finance to all Nigerians, regardless of where they may be across the country.

The agent banking network complements the bank’s effort at reducing the size of the unbanked in the country, while providing a handful of the bank’s bespoke financial services, including account opening; cash deposit; airtime purchase; bills payment; withdrawals and money transfer.

FirstMonie Agents are usually owners of small businesses within communities with limited or no banking penetration. As at September 2019, the bank had an agent banking strength of over 31,000 agents spread across 98% of the country’s 774 local government areas.

Speaking to journalists in August last year on what distinguishes First Bank from other banks in terms of financial inclusion, Adeduntan stated that the first thing that makes the bank stand out is that it has successfully put financial inclusion as a core part of its business strategy which, he said, entails exploiting opportunities to create significant social impact in a profitable manner.

“As earlier mentioned, our Agent Banking network at over 31,000 agents is unparalleled and unrivalled”, he said.

“I mentioned our USSD platform with 8 million subscribers is second to none. I have also mentioned that the volume of transactions we process given our agent network is unparalleled.

“Today, if you speak with both NIBSS and Interswitch they would tell you that the volume of transactions processed through FirstBank easily accounts for 25 percent of the industry volume.

“The most important thing I also want to highlight is when you look at the key gaps we have mentioned which form part of our strategy; the geographical gap, the gender gap, FirstBank is leading the pack. This puts us at an edge.

“It is a known fact that the rate of exclusion is higher in the northern region, but since FirstBank started two years ago, we have put in 9,000 agents and the number of agents in that region is still growing.”

The CBN and commercial banks have also recognised the need to collaborate with financial technology firms (fintechs) to bring banking closer to the people and even get more bank customers to embrace digital banking.

Little wonder the First Bank FinTech Summit 4.0 virtual conference held in Lagos last month presented an opportunity for experts, policy influencers and regulatory officials in the financial, banking and technological sectors to discuss the gains of bank-fintech partnership in promoting financial inclusion.

The event with the theme: “How block-chain and Artificial Intelligence will disrupt FinTech in Nigeria”, was an opportunity to get knotty issues around digital payment resolved and discuss opportunities digital payment presents to the financial sector and economy.

Speaking at the beginning of the conference, Shobo said: “At FirstBank, we have been at the forefront of employing technology in the delivery of financial services in the country exemplified by our various products and services such as FirstMobile, USSD Banking services, FirstMonie Wallet, FirstMonie Agent Banking, and FirstAdvance loans provisions.

“The 2020 edition of our fintech summit was built on the successes achieved in the last three editions. We welcome the panelists as we look forward to the shared knowledge, which will be integral to deepening the continued growth of banking technology, especially its impact on the Gross Domestic Product of Nigeria and the continent at large.’’