A private sector initiative embracing SMEs across Africa

Carl Manlan, the Chief Operating Officer of Ecobank Foundation, has spearheaded the noteworthy initiatives that have culminated in Ecobank winning the esteemed title of Africa’s Best Bank for Corporate Responsibility in the Euromoney Award for Excellence. He emphasises that Ecobank has chosen the holy trinity of health, education and financial inclusion to add value to the communities in which it operates.

We speak to him to understand how the bank plays a role in putting the right systems in place across Africa. Carl elaborates on their thriving private sector initiative embracing pan-African SMEs, as well as projects to expand financial inclusion across Africa, such as Xpress accounts that can be opened over a phone, agency banking and USSD Banking, amongst others. In a post-COVID world, he envisions a future where community investments take place through public-private partnerships, African philanthropy grows on the back of individuals pooling their resources for social causes and MSMEs, and employees voluntarily contribute time and effort to solve local problems. Edited excerpts:

You have evocatively noted that ”People think the role of a bank is giving money, but actually what a bank does is build systems.” Could you tell us more about Ecobank’s role in putting the right systems in place across Africa, as a pan-African bank with an active corporate responsibility arm?
As a bank, we do not only focus on generating revenue but are committed to social impact in our communities. In health, we have invested in improving access to life saving treatment against malaria through the Global Fund. We have also developed a private sector initiative embracing the SME network across Africa starting with Benin, Burkina Faso and Senegal. Furthermore, we leveraged Ecobank Academy, our corporate university, to build on their offerings and expand it to public sector organisations such as finance managers of health programmes, leaders of national societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. For financial inclusion, we are privileged to have developed the infrastructure for any citizen and member of the diaspora to contribute to issues that matter to the continent. And, this is in addition to initiatives run by the bank to expand financial inclusion across Africa, with our Xpress accounts which are opened by just using a phone, agency banking and USSD Banking, amongst others.

Could you elaborate on Ecobank’s core capabilities in delivering positive social and environmental outcomes across Africa?
Ecobank chose health, education and financial inclusion to add value to the communities in which it operates. In the area of health, we worked on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), trained finance managers of health programmes (education) and drove individual giving through digital financial services building on the financial inclusion investment made by Ecobank.

As such, we collaborated with the NCD Alliance to develop a three-year programme to support the fight against NCDs in Africa starting with 33 countries where Ecobank is present. The platform that Ecobank has in Africa is unparalleled thus a core capability of community engagement in Africa; being present in the community.

Early July 2020, Ecobank launched the Zero Malaria Business Leadership Initiative to leverage the Ecobank’s SMEs’ network in the fight against malaria in Benin, Burkina Faso and Senegal initially. This initiative was born out of the idea that SMEs, representing the backbone of African economies, had a role to play in the fight against malaria. While the focus is often on large African companies, combining SME development and malaria elimination makes business and social sense.

How has the journey to winning the esteemed title of Africa’s Best Bank for Corporate Responsibility in the Euromoney Award for Excellence been?
It is a humbling recognition. It recognises the road less travelled that the bank chose to build internal mechanisms that align with the African environment in which it operates. The decision to invest in a digital platform allowing a Zimbabwean to transact with a Cape Verdean is an important feature of the African Continental Free Trade Area. For our purposes, it also means that a Cape Verdean can donate to a cause she/he believes in, in Zimbabwe.

Five years ago, when the strategy was approved, we recognised that to become the “go to partner” in Africa by 2020 would require a contribution from all staff regardless of their role in the foundation. As such, shifting our community day to a three-year programme started with a staff survey to determine what they believed was the most pressing issue to deal with in our community. According to the World Health Organisation, Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) will soon be a leading cause of ill health, disability and premature death in Africa with an adverse impact on socio-economic development. Thus, an important issue for a pan-African bank to take a stand and bring communities together. Non-Communicable Diseases was the most important one thus requiring us to think about the specificities of each market and the impact it would have on our staff, our clients and the communities in which we operate.

It has been a dialogue with different partners to identify areas of mutual interest and complementarity hence the partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Africa Office focused on leadership development, digital fundraising and first aid training for Ecobank staff.

You noted that “The Euromoney Award for Excellence recognises our collaboration with African communities and like-minded partners.” Could you elaborate on some of the partnerships and collaborations that have been instrumental in winning the award?
Working with Speak Up Africa means that a financial institution collaborates with an advocacy do tank to transform the way private sector companies fight malaria elimination in Africa. Thus, allowing Ecobank to learn about health advocacy and the role of civil society in improving communities across Africa.

The Community day for staff allows us to take a step to improve an issue in all the communities in which Ecobank operates. In every country where Ecobank operates, in collaboration with NCD Alliance, WHO and national authorities, Ecobank staff members launched the Together For Better Health campaign which included a walk or a physical activity in cities across our network that drew about 7,000 people across the Group. In Togo, the activities were spread across all major cities across the country thus ensuring a good balance between urban and rural prevention mechanisms. Specifically: Simultaneous screening actions against non-communicable diseases had been organised in 3 medical centers in Lomé and in 7 polyclinics inside the country.

The Ecobank CEO notes that “Through the Foundation, our Group leverages its resources and capabilities to contribute to the economic and social development of Africa.” How does this process work in practice?
One of the ways in which this is implemented is best represented by the Group Chairman Sustainability Award, an internal initiative to support an affiliate’s journey in social impact investments. Initiated in 2018, the first recipient was Ecobank Ghana for supporting informal sector journey to financial inclusion through government and in 2019, Ecobank Togo for improving access to electricity in rural areas. Other initiatives include Cash for plastic waste initiative in Nigeria where over 2 million plastic bottles were removed from the streets of Lagos. In Zimbabwe, a crowd-funding initiative mobilised financial support to provide water treatment kits to over 600,000 households in the high-density areas which were the epicentre of the cholera epidemic.

Ecobank’s Corporate Responsibility segment primarily concentrates on the three key areas of health, education and financial inclusion. Could you provide instances of major initiatives across these three areas?
On health: The Zero Malaria Business Leadership Initiative – https://www.speakupafrica.org/ecobank-group-spearheads-new-private-sector-initiative-to-end-malaria/

In financial inclusion, with educational overtones: Junior Achievement Africa https://www.cnbcafrica.com/africa-press-office/2020/06/24/ecobank-group-and-ja-africa-partner-to-promote-financial-literacy-skills-among-africas-youth/

In education: The second feature is leveraging Ecobank Academy to transfer leadership and financial management skills to public sector organisations. Born out of the idea that 15,000 employees across Africa and other locations in the world imply that there is a range of skills – finance, marketing, communication, design, accounting and leadership – that are within Ecobank that can improve the way organisations make use of their existing resources. Ecobank Academy through this collaboration, and other engagements, has become a member of the Graduate Business School Network.

At a time of a widespread pandemic which is wreaking havoc across the world, is your health pillar coming under increased focus? We note that Ecobank has recently undertaken an anti-malarial programme towards eradicating this dreaded disease with support from private and public sectors. Could you tell us more about this key initiative and any other such measures in the pipeline?
Health and economics are interrelated. We need healthy people to build healthy economies. With economics and finance focus from the financial institution, we are well positioned to think about integrating both aspects through partnerships.

As such, Ecobank contributed about US$3 million to the national response across its 33 countries in line with its commitment to Africa. We were guided by governments’ strategy to contain the virus.

Specifically, for malaria, we chose to widen the pool of potential contributors in a coordinated manner at country level. Working with SMEs in our portfolio improves the synergies for the communities in which the bank supported the clients’ financial needs. Now the client, the bank and partners collaborate with the National Malaria Control Program to identify ways to eliminate malaria in Senegal, Benin or Burkina Faso which helps us improve our own understanding of the environment in which we operate.

Finally, as COVID-19 forces the world to wake up to the importance of a sustainable way of life, how do you see the corporate responsibility arena rising to the challenge of meeting this increased focus on sustainability?
I think there are three possibilities:

The importance of community investment through public-private partnerships to coordinate strategies and to reinforce system capabilities;
The growth of African philanthropy through individuals pooling their resources for social causes and MSMEs: and,
The role of employees in volunteering time and effort in solving local problems.