By Jeremiah Agada
The first phase of the COVID-19 crisis posed an unprecedented challenge for both the public and private sectors. In early March, as the pandemic took hold and lockdowns came into effect across the world, companies scrambled to adapt to profound disruptions to their business operations and markets. The rush to protect employees, jobs, financial liquidity – and in some cases the survival- was all-consuming for many companies.
However, in those crucial early weeks, many companies also sprang into action to assist the public response to the pandemic. Many of these companies made substantial contributions of funding or company resources to support first-responders and vulnerable populations. Many of these efforts took place through rapidly-activated partnerships between industry, government, non-profit organizations and others.
In Nigeria, First Bank of Nigeria is a good example of these companies. It has shown during this pandemic that regardless of the impact of COVID-19, as a responsible corporate organization, it is committed to supporting all stakeholders in the most sustainable manner possible. Been a bank that has been woven into the fabric of society for over 126 years, it is no surprise that it is no novice in overcoming challenges. Little wonder, it has remained a dominant player, partnering and supporting various sustainable activities towards the continued growth of its host communities and the nation at large. The bank has in place an Environmental, Social, and Governance Management System (ESGMS) to help the Bank integrate environmental social and governance considerations into its decision-making processes.
Therefore, adopting policies and procedures that minimise negative environmental and social impacts, the bank was among the first companies to swing into action by first practising international protocols including the recommended health and safety measures by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) for social distancing for its numerous staff and customers.
To gain access to any of its business premises, all staff and visitors undergo temperature screening and are required to either use the hand sanitizers provided or wash their hands with water and soap for 20 seconds.The bank also suspended all local and international travels for its staff, issued guidelines to staff who recently returned from or have family members returning from local or international trips to self-quarantine and self-report, in line with approved WHO and NCDC guidelines and made sure its Medical Adviser is available 24/7 to advise and/or attend to staff who may have flu-like symptoms.
To deepen financial inclusion as well as ensure seamless transaction both during and after the pandemic, the bank leveraged technology by creating alternative channels to its customers and the public at large which is in line with its robust Business Continuity Plan.
Leveraging technology, it invested in its mobile banking infrastructure enabling account opening to be carried out on its *894# USSD banking, FirstMobile (self-service telephone banking), its website – www.firstbanknigeria.com – as well as the Bank’s staff, through the Direct Sales Executive (DSE) application installed on their mobile phone, ATMs and the bank’s over 55,000 FirstMonie Agents spread across the country. Opening an account with FirstBank through any of these means is seamless, convenient, fast and user-friendly.
Basically, the DSE App is an end to end encrypted mobile application installed on the phone(s) of FirstBank staff which enables them to open an account for to-be customers while the FirstBank’s *894# USSD banking platform enables customers carry out banking activities on their mobile phones – across the four major GSM network operators in the country – without the use of the internet. FirstMonieAgent Banking on another hand is an agent banking initiative from the bank that is designed to take banking closer to people, thereby bridging the gap between the banked and unbanked.
Updating on the Bank’s efforts; the bank’s CEO, Dr. Adesola Adeduntan, had said, “we promise to continue to look at all areas of intervention where our business infrastructure, reach, digital platforms and other natural strengths lie and can be deployed to further support all efforts for Nigerians; young and old alike.”
Asides taking proactive steps to protect customers and staff, First Bank made a donation of the whooping sum of N1bn towards the joint effort by the Nigerian Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) to rapidly expand the health facilities; especially testing, isolation, treatment and the provision of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) facilities pivotal to controlling the spread and importantly, treating individuals diagnosed with COVID- 19. As an active member of the CACOVID intervention, the Bank has also launched isolation centres and donated medical equipment worth hundreds of millions of naira to the government of Borno State, Oyo State , and Yobe State as well as cash donations to the government of Cross River and Oyo State to fight the spread of the deadly coronavirus in the states.
Relatedly, the bank enhanced palliative measures to help customers through the pandemic. It introduced special waivers on repayment fees on its credit cards and a 90-day loan moratorium on its First Edu and First Trader solution, to help cushion the impact of the toll on employment and livelihoods.
But beyond adopting best global practices, advocacy and philanthropy, First Bank dedicated its efforts towards one of the most important area of society that is most affected by the pandemic: education.
The bank’s engagement in sustainable business practices is based on the commitment to enhancing economic development thereby ensuring economic stability for the present and future generation. It therefore entered a strategic partnership with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO); IBM; Lagos State Government and Roberts & John Limited to deliver an e-learning solution. The FirstBank e-learning initiative is aimed at providing students the opportunities to get e-learning solutions. These solutions include government accredited curriculum-based content for students from pre-school, primary through to secondary school as well as select university courses designed to ensure children are adequately guided and engaged through their learning experience. It also provides opportunities for the acquisition of digital skills to encourage self-development and continuous improvement.
Currently, in the drive to move one million students to e-learning, the bank has enabled over 50,000 free sign-ups to the e-learning platforms students across these aforementioned initiatives and partnerships. In a bid to drive engagement and participation on the e-learning initiatives, several competitions have been done and are ongoing to ensure that students are learning on the platform, thereby making learning fun. Also, it includes tutorial videos to reinforce the learning engagement as well as assignments and mock exam to test the students’ knowledge and progress in the course of studying. In addition, learning on the platform enables one to take notes for quick reference.
In view of the need to foster extra-curricular activities – beyond academic pursuit – the e-learning platform is configured with exciting features to make learning exciting and fun. These features include podcasts and various games such as brain pulse, monster munch etc. which allows one to play with other students online thereby building relationships and promoting interactive learning.
The e-learning initiative aligns with the First Bank Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability framework which is anchored on three strategic pillars namely: Education & Health; Financial Inclusion/Literacy; and Responsible Lending & Procurement. Evidently, the e-learning initiative falls under one of the bank’s key strategic pillars, Education. It has promoted education and has consistently demonstrated this in its support of ten universities and three secondary schools on infrastructure projects, support of ten universities with professorial Chairs and the provision of financial literacy, entrepreneurial and career counseling to over 80,000 students in over 80 secondary schools in the country.
Speaking on the implementation of the initiative, Dr. Adesola Adeduntan, had said, “The partnership with Lagos State has seen us provide low-end devices for students preloaded with Roducate offline; content which include government accredited curriculum for primary through secondary education and several university courses. This solution will see Lagos State offer children in the lower bracket, who may not have access to devices or data from home affordable smart phones preloaded with the curriculum. The phones have SIMs and limited data tied, only, to the Roducate learning product, which means the recipients cannot browse, encouraging safe learning but can still submit tests, mock exams etc.”
Adeduntan further noted that ‘’currently our partnership offers students free online access to the education solutions. We encourage parents and guardians to have their children and wards registered in this initiative so their educational development is not held back,” he concluded.
First Bank of Nigeria Limited (FirstBank) is the premier bank in West Africa and Nigeria’s leading financial inclusion bank for over 125 years. The bank has international presence through its subsidiaries, FBN Bank (UK) Limited in London and Paris, FBNBank in the Republic of Congo, Ghana, The Gambia, Guinea, Sierra-Leone and Senegal, as well as a Representative Office in Beijing.
Since its establishment in 1894, FirstBank has consistently built relationships with customers focusing on the fundamentals of good corporate governance, strong liquidity, optimised risk management and leadership. Over the years, the bank has led the financing of private investment in infrastructure development in the Nigerian economy by playing key roles in the Federal Government’s privatisation and commercialisation schemes.