Having worked in banking all my adult life, having worked at Diamond Bank for over 20 years, having been the Group Managing Director there and having overseen its merger with another bank… it’s virtually impossible for me not to be associated with the label of “banker”. But I don’t see myself as one. And I’ll tell you why. For me, the banking that we have now is suited for a Nigeria of 20-30 years ago, whereas I prefer to see myself in the present and future of the sector.
At the Investment and Corporate banking level, there is adequate information to take appropriate decisions to facilitate and provide services to customers. They have access. This is fine if you are an investment or a bespoke financial institution. But as a commercial bank, with branches spread out across the country with the objective to scale their products and services and play a role in financial inclusion, they have been found wanting. Why? There are plenty of reasons - culture, resistance to change and just one strategy for all segments. Regulation and legislation means that all banks must do the same thing.
We are trying to use an infrastructure for commercial banking to solve a retail and consumer issue. You can’t use people to provide predictable, repeatable, scalable and sustainable products and services in the small business and consumer segment. This is not just the case for banks, but the rules of engagement make it difficult to scale and democratize this service. This was the impetus for me rolling out the Diamond Bank app; to make things simpler and to remove many layers of complexity for our customers and build a scalable product for them so they could carry out repeatable transactions, away from a banking hall. It changed banking and opened up the market to individuals, but at the time, it didn’t provide the support for small businesses and reduce the friction for them to just go about their daily business. And as keen readers will be aware, my focus has always been on how we build a better SME community and support for Nigeria - whatever the sector the operate in.
Banking is just one of many professional services that are not only critical to the success of small businesses everywhere, but in this country, they are generally not accessible to those who need them most, due to their high cost and also the time implications involved in engaging them. Improving access to banking services should go hand-in-hand with improving access to professional services such as accountants / tax experts / lawyers. Understanding how important these services are, and making them more open and accessible to the millions of SMEs throughout Nigeria, is the only route to true democratisation of services.
This is what we’re attempting to roll out and instil as a standard service for any Nigerian small business in the future - an easy, safe plug and play professional support services package. Sparkle Business has been in the planning for some time and is what we are fine tuning as I write. This is what inclusion is about. Fair access to professional support networks that will help grow and support business shouldn’t be aspirational or unobtainable - they should be a standard service. Inclusion is access, and access is affordability, and it is reach.
The traditional, brick and mortar way of delivering professional services is expensive, cumbersome, unscalable. But the proliferation of digital platforms [and I repeat digital and NOT electronic], opens up access to those who need it most. It makes business support less elitist. For example, let’s take someone who may only need a 15-min professional consultation to sort out a relatively simple tax-related query. Well, simple for a professional, a headache for someone who simply doesn’t know. They shouldn’t have to book an appointment for three weeks’ time, leave their office, get stuck in traffic, wait in the reception for 30mins and pay extortionate fees for an overpriced consultant with a lot of overheads to pay for. At what cost does that come to for small businesses? That is to say even for those who can afford the time out of their day and the fees. A plug and play digital system allows them to access what has to-date been the preserve of the rich, whilst they get their business done and get on with their day. What do I want to do today? I want to close on that deal, I want to pay my supplier, I want to do pay-roll, I want to check on that HR query I had, I want to check at what rate I should be charging tax for an international shipment…
Do I want to make four separate trips to conduct these activities? No.
A digital plug and play approach also allows for personalisation; what type of tax services does your business need right at this moment in time? What type of legal services do you need? Corporate? Retail? Property? Online communities can help pinpoint the services they need almost immediately, and these days primarily via an online tribe. Whilst I’ve always been an advocate of building a business and community tribe, I also understand the individual requirements across different markets, different company sizes, different stages of a company’s life and even of a different region. Digital allows for togetherness and individuality for SMEs. Banking, as we have had to deal with previously, does not allow for this.
Small businesses, even though they have largely been forgotten about the professional services sectors, are actually the pathway to inclusion. Every small business employs someone; that is central to an inclusive economic agenda - stimulating the economy by generating income and lifting people out of unemployment. Those small businesses who are genuinely operating in the digital era are also advocates of the benefits of digital - they are educators as to the opportunities digital provides. They are spreading the word and leading by example. Even if that means starting with a simple step of being paid via a digital platform. At Sparkle - we only pay voa digital means. If you want to get paid and hadn’t considered digital before? Well, you are really incentivised to come on the digital journey, if you want to be blessed on pay day.
In the same way that ensuring women have access to education [and don’t have to marry too young and can subsequently join the economy], we have to see support and access for all, especially the backbone of nigeria’s economy, which is SMEs, as a a must and not a nice-to-have. Access to such services, investment in women and so forth is a force for good and a critical part of social development for any economy, but one that’s especially important for Nigeria’s economy. It just so happens that Sparkle started life as a platform to support female SMEs [and not bankers].