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How FirstBank Employees are Making a Difference in their Immediate Environments Through the SPARK Initiative

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Every other day, social media brings us a picture or video of a dilapidated school somewhere in Nigeria or shares images of a distraught widow, a struggling roadside trader or street hawker, or some other hapless victims of the extremely harsh realities of living in Nigeria. Immediately, as if on cue or automated, viewers launch into stinging attacks of government, public officials, the privileged class and even Nigeria itself. The attacking mob wastes no time in calling for the government’s head or the heads of public officials with responsibilities in the jurisdiction or sector where the unfortunate sights surfaced from.

The online mob seems unconcerned that while its eyes and ears, aided and locked in by the binoculars and headsets of social media, are completely focused on distressing situations it may not be able to help other than rant about, countless situations that it can help are calling for attention in its immediate neighbourhood every single day. Focusing on things so far away while ignoring or pretending not to see the things in one’s immediate vicinity is a human tendency which is well recognised. Journalists even have a term for a similar or related behaviour among their own. “Afghanistanism” is the tendency of the media to focus on news and happenings in remote places and other parts of the world to the exclusion or neglect of covering happenings and problems in the local environment of the media. It is like the psychological or emotional equivalent of the eye defect medical practitioners refer to as hyperopia or farsightedness. Sufferers can see objects that are far away but have difficulty focusing on objects that are up close.

By focusing on faraway objects people do not have to offer to give a helping hand but can offer their finger to point at others and their tongue to criticise and pontificate. Everyone can criticise and pontificate online or become an “e-warrior”, like Nigerians like to call it, fighting government and whoever and whatever in society they are unhappy with from the comfort and safety of their bedroom and behind their keyboard. It is the easiest of things to do but not the noblest or kindest. It is the well-trodden path but should never be confused with taking the high road in reaching out with compassion to people around whose lives and circumstances could do with some kindness.

Taking the high road rather than practising Afghanistanism or psychological hyperopia is the approach adopted by First Bank of Nigeria Limited, the premier bank in West Africa with its impact woven into the fabric of society. This approach has played an important role in sustaining FirstBank’s development-oriented services for over 127 years as the region’s foremost financial inclusion services provider. It has been a driving motivation for how the bank operates. FirstBank always considers the impact of all its operations and actions on customers and other stakeholders, including the environment, to ensure it is making a net positive difference in the end. And this orientation has attracted to the bank people who share a similar outlook – whether as employees, partners or other stakeholders. They look forward every year to an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the bank and make a net positive difference in their own immediate environments. These men and women do not pretend that they can solve or intervene in all the challenging situations confronting people in their immediate environments but they do not refrain whenever they can lend a helping hand and make a difference.

Through an Employee Giving and Volunteering programme employees of FirstBank find a ready platform to fully identify with the compassionate disposition of the bank, which further has a number of initiatives that enable employees to give expression to this identification. The Start Performing Acts of Random Kindness (SPARK) Initiative is but one such initiative. Aimed at expanding and deepening FirstBank’s involvement within the communities of its various stakeholders, SPARK seeks to do so by integrating and institutionalising random acts of kindness in society. Among employees SPARK has inspired and encouraged kindness and empathy as well as consideration for others. It has also contributed to employee bonding and teamwork, which have been critical to enhancing work performance.

This year’s implementation of the SPARK Initiative has seen employees under the banner of their various departments make choices regarding the specific nature of intervention they would want to undertake and the specific group of people or institutions within their immediate communities that they would want to extend the milk of human kindness to. Employees and their departments could choose any one of the four areas that constitute FirstBank’s corporate responsibility and sustainability (CR&S) pillars: Education, entrepreneurship, health and welfare, and environment. Under education, they have had a choice to make between support for infrastructural facilities in schools, such as renovation of dilapidated buildings, painting of school buildings, and provision of laptops and desktops; or donation of items such as classroom chairs and tables, books and stationaries; or provision of scholarships for best students, feeding of school students per day or week, funding of a school initiative such as JETS club, bootcamp, space club, etc. If employees and their departments were interested in supporting entrepreneurship, then they had the chance to empower through entrepreneurship programmes of their choosing such as sponsoring youth and women to acquire skills like fashion designing, baking, hairstyling, make-up artistry, electrical repairs, event decoration and planning, catering, etc., or enabling entrepreneurs with tools and equipment to work or supporting SMEs and start-ups.

Where the health and welfare area was their preferred area of intervention, employees and their departments could choose from: donations to orphanages (selected from an approved list of orphanages); support to a good cause, for example lending a helping hand to the Down Syndrome Foundation; support to widows; support to people with health-related issues; and off-setting medical bills. And if employees and their departments were to decide to go for the environment, then they could choose from: support to environmental issues, such as support to Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) initiatives; donation of garbage cans to a community; partnership with a recycling firm to recycle waste; support to LAWMA such as donating cleaning tools (brooms, dustbin parkers), etc.

While several departments in FirstBank did things worth showcasing so the good citizens of Nigeria (individual and corporate) can emulate, this piece has just enough space to accommodate the activities of only three departments: Human Capital Management and Development (HCMD), Compliance, and Marketing and Corporate Communications (M&CC) departments. The employees in these departments seemed involved in efforts to outdo each other in acts of kindness, which made more sense and would leave a real difference on the ground as against criticising and pontificating online on faraway issues.

The Human Capital Management and Development department decided that reaching out to one of the most vulnerable groups in Nigeria – underprivileged widows and their underfed children – was the best way they could stay true to the “Human” in their name. And employees in the department moved beyond their Marina location to the nearest environment where some of the most vulnerable widows are to be found to go show kindness. The Makoko community situated in Lagos Mainland and which CNN once described in a report as “Nigeria’s floating slum” was overwhelmed to receive the august visitors from HCMD bearing so much food stuff to benefit their widows and children. What they did not realise was the overwhelming sense of gratitude felt by their benefactors for the opportunity to be able to give back.

Tagged “Feed a Widow Initiative”, the undertaking was HCMD employees’ way of putting a smile back on the faces of widows in impoverished communities and they got more than they could ever have imagined. Their hosts received them with the broadest of smiles and said goodbye to them with the grandest of gratitude; and they left with very broad smiles on their own faces. The jury is still out on who between the hosts and their guests ended up with the broadest of smiles on the day. And given the “fierce contest” to outdo the other in smiling, one is again forced to wonder why people labelled e-warriors would choose to forfeit this kind of real joy for the joyless world they have locked themselves in by clinging on to Afghanistanism and psychological hyperopia.

Not so for employees in the Compliance department. Not to be outdone and, in fact, as though going up the hierarchy of human needs, Compliance employees decided that they would focus on the education need of their beneficiary community. HCMD had done an excellent job of providing the basic “stomach infrastructure” without which it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get any of the beneficiaries interested in any talk about more sublime matters like education and mental development. So, employees of Compliance department, in order to encourage pupils to continue their pursuit of education, procured Mathematics and English Language textbooks for 617 pupils who would be in senior secondary (SS) 1 and 2 classes of Gbara Community Secondary School in Jakande, Ajah in the next academic session. The visit to the school and book donation were undertaken when the pupils were in the third term preceding the new academic session.

The gesture was Compliance employees’ own way of giving back in such a manner as to relieve the pupils of this public school, particularly those from indigent homes, and their parents or guardians of the financial burden involved in providing textbooks for the two core subjects. It was also, in an uncanny way, an attempt by the employees to ensure the pupils were in full compliance with the requirements for taking on the two most important subjects in the secondary school curriculum, putting the pupils at a vantage position to excel in these two essential subjects. There were other benefits of the engagement that the employees noted. They observed that their presence in the school inspired the children, giving them “hope that a better life was within reach and could be achieved.” The employees thus expressed optimism that the engagement boosted the children’s interest in succeeding in life through the pursuit of education.

For employees of the Marketing and Corporate Communications department (M&CC), entrepreneurship was the area they decided to focus on, to make a difference in their own immediate environment. Every day they came to their office on Broad Street or the bank’s head office in Marina, they passed by a number of roadside traders around the various office buildings in the locations. They observed that some of these traders were exposed to the elements or having difficulties in their business and struggling to make ends meet, and decided that they would do something about it. And true to their word, they did something about it that made so much difference in the businesses and circumstances of the traders. They provided the traders the following: branded umbrella to offer shade from both sun and rain, improving the conditions under which they operated and their quality of life; branded chairs and tables to accommodate more customers in their corner as well as grants to boost their business capital.

Anyone who has met with employees in the corporate communications department of any major bank in Nigeria would readily admit that these professionals have among them some of the most skilful digital marketers around. So, it is not for lack of skills to be e-warriors that M&CC employees chose to extend the milk of human kindness flowing in them to roadside traders around their office rather than practise Afghanistanism. They could have chosen to concentrate all their time and resources on attacking the government online and blaming public officials for all the challenges in the economy and the spate of insecurity all over the nation and whatever else would make M&CC employees true champions of Afghanistanism and psychological hyperopia. But would that make any difference to the lot of the roadside traders around them and lessen their burden? So, M&CC employees chose the road less travelled but one that could deliver the desired impact, and it did.

There are so many lessons to draw and feelings to take away from the examples demonstrated by employees of these three departments in Nigeria’s foremost lender. Besides committing their time and resources to their chosen humanitarian initiatives using the platform of the SPARK Initiative that places FirstBank at the forefront of the social impact space through employee advocacy, the employees have shown that they have the milk of human kindness flowing through their veins. They have demonstrated that they would rather consider how they could extend kindness to people around them and make a difference than pretend not to see the situations affecting those around them while playing Afghanistanism and psychological hyperopia online.

For the rest of us who are not FirstBank employees, the message could not be clearer: The next time we feel like we must share on social media distressing images to provoke government-bashing or we feel constrained to make stinging comments on such images that are shared to criticise Nigeria, we should first pause and look around us. We should look to see if we can identify situations where we, not government or Nigeria, can make a difference. Then we should take our fingers off the keyboard and go out there or make that call that will make a difference in some other person’s life and circumstances. We should be like FirstBank and its employees. We should follow their example of trying to outdo themselves in showing kindness to others. We should start where we are with what we have, to make a difference right now – yes, this very minute and not some future time.

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Access Bank Rewards 359 Customers at DiamondXtra Season 14

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In its continuous bid to promote savings culture amongst Nigerians, Access Bank Plc has said it will be rewarding customers with N270 million 359 customers in its 14th edition of DiamondXtra promo.

The bank disclosed this over the weekend at the launch of the DiamondXtra promo.

The bank disclosed this over the weekend at the launch of the DiamondXtra season 14, which has run successfully for 14 years.

This year’s promo includes Salary4life, Rent for a year, Business grant, educational support, and Digital marketing training.

The bank also noted that since its inception, it had rewarded customers with over N6 billion to over 24,000 customers and that this year’s draw would create 62 millionaires

Speaking during the launch, Senior Banking Advisor, Retail at Access Bank Plc, Rob Giles, stated that Season 14 promo was designed from a survey conducted on customers to know the changes they needed to see.

While thanking its customers, and regulators for supporting the bank through good and bad times, Giles said that the innovation from Access Bank is a solution that meets customers’ needs.

He also noted that the bank has been bringing the best features that will help the customers each year while adding that Access Bank now has 2.2 million DiamondXtra users since its inception.

Corroborating him, Group Head, Consumer Banking at the bank, Adaeze Umeh, explained that the bank sought to do things differently due to the impact of COVID-19, hence the reason for adding digital marketing classes in which 14,000 customers will be trained

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Dollar Now Sells for N600 at Parallel Market, Forex Supply Shrinks

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The dollar exchanged at N600 on Monday at the parallel market, heightening fears of a further devaluation of the nation’s currency.

The rate at the Importers and Exporters Window was, however, N415.75 on Monday, widening the exchange rate spread to N184.25.

At Zone 4 in Abuja, which is the hub of the parallel market in the Federal Capital Territory, two Bureau de Change Operators,  Mohammed Isa, and Abu Abdullahi, told The PUNCH that the rate was N599/$ at 10am and 11.14am respectively.

However, the rates for both BDCs changed to N600/$ when they were separately contacted at N3.13pm and N5pm respectively on Monday.

“If I reduce this by N1, I will not be able to make any profit,” one of the two BDCs, Abu Abdullahi, said.

At the Lagos airport on Monday, a BDC operator, Adamu Haruna, told The PUNCH that the rate was “N600/$, no more, no less.”

A BDC operator at Amuwo-Odofin in Lagos, Bala Usman, gave an initial rate of N598/$ in the morning but changed to N599 at 2.53pm when contacted.

“The demand is increasing and the dollar is very scarce now,” he said.

Naira has weakened in the parallel market due to increased speculations, falling external reserves, and low foreign exchange inflows into Africa’s biggest oil producer.

The country’s external reserves fell by $313m in March, according to figures obtained from the Central Bank of Nigeria.

Politics is also a key factor, as experts see politicians mopping up dollars for election primaries this month.

The President, Association of Bureaux de Change Operators of Nigeria, Alhaji Aminu Gwadabe, told The PUNCH that the situation was caused by several factors, including elections, loss of confidence, and demand/ supply.

“It is a market where demand and supply determine the price. Do not forget that election years are associated with foreign exchange volatility, coupled with supply squeeze. External reserves, inflation, cost of inputs, and the Russia-Ukraine war are also key issues,” he said, arguing that there was indeed a loss of confidence, saying that “once people see the exchange rate rising, the confidence will also fall.”

The Director of Research and Strategy, Chapel Hill Denham, Mr Tajudeen Ibrahim, told The PUNCH that the issue in the foreign exchange market could be attributed to falling external reserves and uncertainty in the economy.

“The parallel market is speculative. One of the causes is the foreign exchange reserves. Secondly, there is no indication that Nigeria is going to see an inflow of foreign exchange that can underpin the FX reserves any time soon,” he said.

“There is nothing like Eurobond. There are no indications for other borrowings, so there is no clear indication of inflows. This is also one of the reasons for what we see in the market,” he said.

He explained that it was possible that the market was seeing an election-related demand.

He urged the Central Bank of Nigeria to devalue the naira to match the parallel market rate, while also managing the market to ensure that unforeseen circumstances did not happen.

On his part, the Chief Executive Officer of Centre for the Promotion of the Private Sector, Dr Muda Yusuf, urged the CBN to float the exchange rate market to provide clarity for investors and allow the market to be determined by the forces of demand and supply.

Yusuf said the CBN’s current approach would continue to deepen distortions in the economy,  perpetuate round-tripping,  fuel speculation, and suppress forex supply.

On the other hand, Nigeria is a deeply import-dependent economy, relying on crude oil for over 80 per cent of the foreign exchange.

The non-oil sector inflows are still 10-20 per cent and most of the export products are raw materials and agricultural commodities.

The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria said only a strong manufacturing sector could raise the productive capacity of the country, reduce importation and increase FX inflows from non-oil exports.

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Consumers Condemn Power Sector Privatisation As FG Hikes Electricity Tariff

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The Federal Government through its Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission on Thursday officially released different documents indicating the approved power tariff increase payable by consumers to various electricity distribution companies in Nigeria.

In different orders to the 11 Discos operating in Nigeria, the commission stated that the tariff hike was based on the extraordinary review of the Multi-Year Tariff Order, as it explained that the order took effect from January 1, 2022.

It further noted that the order shall only be subordinated to a new tariff review order as might be issued periodically by the NERC, but this hike in tariff by NERC was kicked against by different power consumer groups, as they called for the complete reversal of the sector’s privatisation.

The NERC provided myriads of reasons why it had to effect an upward review of the tariff payable to Discos, as figures from the individual approvals for each Disco showed that the commission hiked the amount to be paid by consumers for electricity beginning from February 2022.

In the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company, for instance, non-Maximum Demand power users in Band A had their tariff increased from N51.75/kWh in January this year to N56.28/kWh from February to December 2022.

Also, non-MD consumers in Band B had their tariff increased from N49.72/kWh to N54.13kWh, while the non-MD power users in Bands C and D had their tariff raised from N45.65/kWh to N50.65/kWh, and N29.70/kWh to N33.20/kWh respectively, under Abuja Disco.

For non-MD customers of AEDC in Band E, their tariff was raised from N29.38/kWh to N32.88/kWh.

In the service bands, the NERC explained that customers in Band A were those receiving a minimum of 20 hours of electricity daily, while those in Bands B, C, D and E include power users receiving 16 hours, 12 hours, eight hours, and four hours of power supply daily, respectively.

The documents for each Disco also showed that aside from non-MD customers, there were other categories of maximum demand power users classified as MD1 and MD2, but most of the tariffs of these categories of power users were also raised.

It was observed that aside from the AEDC, the tariff hike played out in other Discos, as the regulator raised the tariffs payable by consumers in the various franchise areas of the power distribution companies.

For Eko Electricity Distribution Company, it was observed that there was a marginal decrease in the amount payable by non-MD consumers in Band A, those in Band B had their tariff unchanged, while others in Bands C, D and E had their tariffs hiked.

Under Eko Disco, non-MD customers in Band A had their tariff reduced from N56.08/kWh in January to N55.55/kWh from February to December, while non-MD customers in Band B had theirs unchanged at N51.81/kWh.

For non-MD customers in Band C, D and E, their tariffs were raised from N42.44/kWh to N47.44/kWh, N28.63/kWh to N31.75/kWh, and N28.63/kWh to N31.71/kWh, respectively.

Taking the Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company as another example, it was observed that the approved end-user tariffs for all the bands for non-MD customers from A to E were hiked by the NERC.

Non-MD Band A customers of PHED had their tariff raised from N57.16/kWh in January to N60.67/kWh from February to December 2022, while the tariff of non-MD Band B customers was increased from N56.79/kWh to N59.64/kWh.

Non-MD customers in Bands C, D and E had their tariffs raised from N50.15/kWh to N55.15/kWh, N35.31/kWh to N38.81/kWh, and N35.08/kWh to N38.58/kWh, respectively.

It was also observed that customers in MD1 and MD2 in the various bands under the PHED had their tariffs also raised by the NERC, as similar scenarios played out in other Discos.

This came as power consumer groups condemned the hike in tariff by the NERC, describing it as unfortunate considering the fact that power supply had failed to improve across the country amidst the hardship nationwide.

An industry expert and legal practitioner, who doubles as President of the Nigeria Consumer Protection Network, Kunle Olubiyo, stated that the increase should be resisted and the privatisation of the sector reversed.

He said, “They did it in January and gave the licensees permission to surreptitiously increase the tariff and do mechanical configurations such that we are being shortchanged.

“The key performance indicators that they put forward which have to do with supply being contractual and service-based have not been met, they have failed on that. Yes, if they say inflation is high, do we get commensurate service as per what we pay?

“I was at Aso Drive on Monday here in the capital city of Abuja, they get supply for just three hours in a day. The supply to areas outside the city centre has been bad too. So if we can’t get power and there is a lot of blame game, what is the justification for tariff increase?”

Olubiyo stated that many customers on estimated billing had received up to 300 per cent hike in their electricity bills, as the capping methodology approved by the NERC had not been effective.

He wondered why the commission would be bold enough to release documents showing the approved tariff hike payable by customers to the Discos, as he called for the complete reversal of the power sector privatisation.

He said, “The NERC we have today is NERC for the Discos. We’ve reached a crossroads now and the next thing we expect from the Federal Government is to go for all the credit lines and clean up their books, those who are owing Nigerian banks or so, and make sure that this privatisation exercise is reversed.

“This is because this is not the end of it. Their new MYTO under the service-based tariff has given the Discos an open cheque to continue to increase tariffs without the basic principles of equity. We have two parties to this contract, the demand, and the supply sides.

“But NERC that we have is on the side of the market. They are not taking the demand side, but you must have demand for you to maintain supply. So for us what we want is an outright reversal of the privatisation, we are not saying review.”

Also speaking on the development, the National Secretary, Network of Electricity Consumers Advocacy of Nigeria, Uket Obonga, regretted that the tariff hike was approved by NERC despite the hardship in Nigeria.

“We are going to bombard them. It is official now that they have increased the electricity tariff even in this hardship. This is unacceptable. We cannot continue like this,” he stated.

Meanwhile, the NERC explained that pursuant to the Extraordinary Tariff Review Application and Performance Improvement Plan filed by Discos, the commission approved the MYTO 2020 Serviced Based Tariff effective from September 1, 2020.

It said this was to ensure that rates paid by customers were in alignment with the quality of service to customer clusters as measured by the daily average availability of power supply.

It said the objectives of the latest order on tariff hike were to reflect the impact of changes in the projected minor review variables for the period January to December 2021 for the determination of Cost-Reflective Tariffs, adjust the Discos’ capital expenditure for the years 2021 to 2026 in consideration of the approved PIP.

The commission said it was to ensure sustained improvement in reliability and quality of supply in line with Discos’ capital expenditures proposal and PIP commitment.

It said the order would ensure that tariffs payable by customers were commensurate and aligned with the quality and availability of power supply committed to customer clusters by Discos.

The NERC said the tariff order would ensure that prices charged by Discos were fair to customers and were sufficient to allow Discos to fully recover the efficient cost of operation, including a reasonable return on the capital invested in the business, pursuant to the provisions of sections 32(d) and 76 2(a) of Electric Power Sector Reform Act.

It further said the order would provide appropriate incentives to ensure continuous improvement in the performance of the Transmission Company of Nigeria Plc in reducing its network technical losses, among others.

The Punch

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