Exclusive: Following the launch of its Dubai office, Gulf Africa Review caught up with Access Bank UK’s C.E.O, Jamie Simmonds, who tells us a little more about the Nigerian-originated bank, and it’s plans for the Middle East
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Access Bank recently opened its offices in Dubai’s DIFC in order to cater for the growing relationship between the UAE and Sub-Saharan Africa. How are you settling in to the UAE and what areas of your banking business do you see as your first priorities in terms of market demand?
We are settling in very well – before arriving we understood that Dubai is a well-regulated part of the world for our industry, and we also understood that it’s business friendly. I have to say, that with both of those we’ve been delighted. We had a thorough regulatory hurdle to overcome to obtain the license, which we were pleased to see, and we’re finding it’s very business friendly. We had a formal launch about six weeks ago where something in the order of 300 people attended, which led to a number of interesting follow-ups and discussions.
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If we think about the logic of setting up in Dubai, it was to create a very powerful triangle. It was to leverage on our parent company in Nigeria, being a Tier 1 bank as well as a well-respected and known brand in that part of the world. We also are mindful that there’s an increasing trade finance and trade corridor between Sub-Saharan Africa and Dubai, so if we then add the other component part of that triangle, it’s having a regulated UK banking business, which is Access UK, so whilst we’re wholly owned subsidiary of the parent company and we’re delighted for that to be, we operate on a stand alone basis within the group, so we’re regulated by the UK authorities, with our own IT systems, so we’re able to bring the expertise and confidence from the UK and the European market environment. When you bring those three points together, initially we believe from a trade finance stand point, that places us uniquely well. If you look at Nigeria, it is the fastest growing economy in Africa, it’s now overtaken South Africa, now while there are head winds at the moment, clearly with what’s happening with commodity prices, and particularly oil, there are certainly challenges at an economic level for Nigeria at the moment, however it’s important to understand these things are cyclical, so be it a two year cycle or a five year cycle, these things come and go. If you look at Nigeria by 2050, it’s projected to have a greater population than America. You’ve got a growing middle class, with a growing demand for all that comes with that, so it is a natural investment centre for anybody looking to have reasonable growth and prospects. With this in mind, initially trade finance, picking up on those investment flows will be our primary focus, then where we have a full commercial banking license in the UK, what we find works really well is a model.
We get the confidence and we build the relationships from the trade finance viewpoint. We are a relationship bank, not a transactional bank. What we have found, at least from developing our UK business is we have deeper relationships with the proprietors of the businesses, who want to make better use of the services we can offer, be that transmission banking through having accounts with the UK, and sometimes with our parent company, and also from a private bank point of view. We’re unique in the Nigerian market that we have a private bank offering that has proper asset management, so we have a fund-of-funds asset management offering that we manage in house, and what we find is that as the relationship builds, it gives us an extra depth which we can offer to the customers.
The non-oil trade relationship between the UAE and Sub Saharan Africa was recently valued at $32bn by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce. How is Access Bank positioned to support the ongoing increase in business between these two areas?
I think we’re particularly well placed. I think the key point is if you really want to stimulate investment flows there needs to be a number of component points. There needs to be confidence at an economic level where the inward investment is coming into. I think the move to the Buhari government, which is the first time that you’ve seen one civilian government move from one to another is a really important milestone. I think despite some of the short-term economic challenges that is a key building block. You’re then looking at, where are the industries, and where are the opportunities. If you look at what’s happening in Nigeria at the moment, particularly with the reduction in forex revenues because of low price of petroleum, which is about 70 – 80% of the hard currency earnings from the Nigerian government point of view, there is a need to continue to drive on infrastructure. The Buhari government have already announced that as a key priority, therefore its going to be a much more friendly environment for investors who are looking to come in. I think that’s another important component, so from a government and economic level I think we can tick the boxes. We then get into the situation where naturally, if people haven’t invested in that market and if it’s new to them, then they want to know that their first foray will be successful, then the key thing for that to happen is to work with a trusted partner and that’s where Access comes in. It is this requirement that led to the establishment of Access UK and the establishment of our presence here, so we can give investors that confidence. Access in Nigeria knows its market intimately and I think it’s about enabling people to make the right connections in the right manner.
You were quoted in a recent press release published on Zawya as saying; ‘we offer a unique and powerful combination to unlock opportunities for businesses who want to invest in Africa.” Which countries, and furthermore sectors is Access seeing the most activity from investors, particularly from the Middle East?
I will come back to Nigeria and for good reason, and that is because it is such a dominant country in Sub-Saharan Africa. Now clearly Access has a presence in a number of other countries including Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Rwanda, Burundi and Sierra Leone. The reason I come back to Nigeria is because of the size and scope of that market, and what we find is for a lot of investment that’s coming into Sub-Saharan Africa, the natural next step is in Nigeria. You tend to find a lot of businesses will be based out of Nigeria and then they will operate subsidiaries in the other countries where we’re represented, so I guess the key point I would make is Nigeria is a good proxy for that part of the world. Quite often the most balanced way of entering the ECOWAS market is to establish that relationship in Nigeria where a lot of the businesses have already got trading experience. If someone wants to go directly into another country, most of the time we’re represented there or we’re happy to facilitate.
While your Dubai office is a subsidiary of Access Bank UK, you are ultimately a Nigerian based bank. According to a recent release published on Moody’s credit agency (05th November 2015), “Access Bank to remain resilient over the next 12- 18 months despite significant challenges.” Specific challenges include weaker than anticipated economic growth in Nigeria, leading to weakened liquidity conditions. What is your outlook for Nigeria, and do you believe it can remain an attractive nation for foreign direct investment?
Fundamentals are not changed by short term cyclical commodity pricing and you’ve only got to look at Nigeria’s history over the past decade or so with its GDP running at 7 – 7.5%. Now the reality is in 2016, GDP is going to slow and that’s already well reported and understood. I think there are three points I’d make.
The first is GDP will slow but it won’t decline, so we’re looking at potentially 2 – 2.5 or maybe even 3% growth in 2016; it’s still growth.
The second point is the state of the government finances is good. There are still significant reserves, estimated at around $31bn. Now that’s not to say there won’t be challenges and revenue adjustments come through in light of the commodity issues.
I think the third point is because of the reliance on the dollar earnings from oil, clearly the biggest challenge will be dollar flows and the ability of dollars, and I think there have been some adjustments already. Whilst the trading conditions will be challenging, there will be growth. Again, it comes back to, and I know I sound like a broken record on this, but I think it’s an important point to make, there are significant opportunities, be it around infrastructure in particular, if you look at the governments intent, it’s to increase the indigenous manufacturing base within Nigeria which makes a lot of sense. It will reduce the country’s previous reliance on imports. I think to establish that infrastructure it will require inward investment and inward investment will come into a very friendly environment for people who want to take that step. I think 2016 will be difficult; it’s a difficult cycle for commodities. If you look historically, two to five years. For people making the investment now there’s never been a better time and they’ll be well positioned for when the adjustment comes through, which it will. I can’t say when exactly, but it will happen.
Access Bank is able to draw on its 27 years of experience in Africa and beyond in order to support its investors. What would say makes Access competitive by comparison to its continental peers, such as Standard or Nedbank?
The first is, we’re a relationships bank and I think when you look at our experience, 27 years in Africa and ten years in the United Kingdom, the core of what we do is relationship building. We also have a moderate risk appetite therefore; if you put those two things together you tend to find they are very strong in respect of being able to identify the good opportunities from those that are less fruitful. We’re certainly in the right position to give an assessment of risk reward, and because of that relationship base we’re able to unlock and identify opportunities that may not be readily available to our competitors in the same manner so I think those two together with the coverage we offer places us uniquely well.
What is your expectation for outbound investment from your Middle Eastern client, into Nigeria?
If you come back to what we touched on earlier, which is ‘why create an office based in Dubai at this time’; it’s very much with the aim of supporting the flow of foreign direct investment in mind. When you look at the infrastructure projects that are available for investment in Nigeria, and the returns available, particularly by comparison to the returns elsewhere, if you look at the need around power, roads and some of the key communication channels, there has been some investment but there’s much more to be done. Certainly from an infrastructure point of view, for the roads and rail, there are significant investments to be made. If you look at the returns available by coming into Nigeria, we believe there is a very powerful investment case to be made. Part of the expertise we’re creating in Dubai is to make the communication clear, where people are creating that interest and to put them in touch with the right group and to bring in the informed opinion that can make the decisions. What we tend to find is some people will want to make an initial investment with our parent, and quite often we’ll find people will open a relationship with either our Nigerian or UK entities and then use that as a stepping-stone to committing greater investment in the future.
Does Access favour working with either the public or private sector?
Both – I mean the relationship model means we have very strong relations with the government in Abuja, very strong relationships with a number of the key states and we have facilitated directly some of the infrastructure projects that are underway. We also have some very long-standing relationships with some of the larger conglomerates that are in country.
Do you believe your new office can benefit from the large number of far eastern investors who use Dubai as a hub in order to access pan-African investment?
If you look at the Access Group as a whole, we have a representative office in Shanghai, we have a representative office in Lebanon, we’re looking at one or two other areas, so the key thing is we have the reach and depth that where ever a customer is located, we’ve got an office near to them. We tend to find customers have multiple relationships with us, so you find a customer that has a relationship with us in the UK, that has a relationship with our representative office in Shanghai, so I think the key is we’re established where our customers need us. We’re certainly seeing a lot of our customers relocating to Dubai, again another part of the reason that led to us establishing our office here. We’ll look to deepen our presence here in order to better service our customers. One of our primary aims is that where ever our customers are located, they’ll never be too far from an Access Bank presence, and in all cases we can use the most local presence to harness the power of the group. That’s our strategy and it’s worked very effectively thus far.
If you look at Nigeria by 2050, it’s projected to have a greater population than America