More than financing: How Union Bank is supporting the Nigerian entrepreneurial ecosystem

4 min read
24 Dec 2020

healthy startup ecosystem needs more than just great ideas. Without dedicated business support, potentially successful entrepreneurs can fail at the first challenges. In Lagos, there is a quickly growing tech scene with no shortage of first-time entrepreneurs. To help them and other local founders make a success of their ventures, Union Bank is dedicated to supporting startups beyond their financing needs. 

In celebration of the release of Startup Guide Lagos, we caught up with Union Bank’s Lola Cardoso to find out what meaningful business support looks like for one Nigerian bank.

“It means a lot for us to support startups because they are the engine of Nigeria’s enterprise, but also Nigeria’s future,” says Lola Cardoso, executive director and head of retail banking and digital at Union Bank. Lola joined the bank in 2013, after working as a management consultant in Washington DC and an investment banker in New York. She has advised startups in the US, South Africa and Israel.

Established in 1917, Union Bank uses its decades of experience to inform how it supports startups. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is truly providing the partnership they need not only for today’s success, but for tomorrow’s success,” Lola says. “Banking is just one aspect of what a startup needs. There are a lot of other elements that are critical before banking comes into play.” 

These elements include sourcing talent, registering an entity, finding legal and accounting partners and creating an advisory board. To help startups address these challenges, Union Bank launched the TechVentures platform.

Banking is just one aspect of what a startup needs.

Supporting Nigerian tech startups

“We recognized the need to support local technology-based innovations and grow ideas into unicorns,” Lola says. “TechVentures supports entrepreneurs at all stages with tailored support alongside our banking offerings.”

Through TechVentures, early-stage entrepreneurs can access collateral-free loans, as well as business and technical mentors from Union Bank’s network across Nigeria. Coworking spaces are also available in select bank branches nationwide. 

For intermediate and growth-stage startups with a product on the market, the bank also provides access to advisory services, partnerships and introductions to potential customers in their network. “We’re able to help you market that product to our almost six million customer base today,” says Lola.

Lola Cardoso, Executive Director and Head, Retail Banking and Digital, Union Bank of Nigeria

Hackathons and innovation challenges

TechVentures is just one of Union Bank’s initiatives to support entrepreneurs. In 2015, the bank started an internal hackathon to encourage employee intrapreneurship and to build a culture of innovation. It then broadened its focus to the larger Nigerian community and launched the Centenary Innovation Challenge to coincide with its centenary celebration in 2017. 

The competition invited Nigerians to submit ideas that address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in entrepreneurial ways. The top three received cash prizes and incubation support from innovation center Co-Creation Hub (CcHUB).

The Centenary Innovation Challenge grew to become Union Bank’s annual Innovation Challenge and in 2018, the bank held the Campus Innovation Challenge for students with technology-driven ideas. Vinsighte, a digital health venture that enables the visually impaired to navigate their environment independently and confidently, was the winner.

It means a lot for us to support startups because they are the engine of Nigeria’s enterprise, but also Nigeria’s future.

Investing in Nigerian education

In 2019, the theme of the Innovation Challenge was education. “Union Bank is very passionate about education,” says Lola. “We’re looking at edtech as a way of bringing more people into the education sphere.” 

The winner was TedPrime Hub’s Edubox, which provides offline access to learning materials. The runner-up was Utiva, an academy providing the skills necessary for a career in technology, such as product management and growth hacking.

Union Bank is very passionate about education.

Making meaningful connections

In 2017, Union Bank created Startup Connect in partnership with CcHUB. This program supported twenty startups with technology-driven solutions and tested business models through matchmaking with the bank’s customers. “We still use these startups as partners in the bank to serve the SME network,” says Lola. 

The bank launched its alpher program in 2020, which provides tailored services to support the growth of women and female-owned businesses. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it also ran the Rise Challenge, highlighting early-stage ideas across Nigeria. “We wanted to shine a spotlight on the stories of resourcefulness and innovation coming out of Nigeria in the midst of the pandemic,” Lola says.

Supporting youth innovation

Union Bank is looking at ways to support its community even before individuals become entrepreneurs. In 2020, it partnered with Awarri to create Edu360, a robotics and artificial intelligence boot camp for children aged 11 to 16. 

“We are planting seeds to ensure that we support emerging young entrepreneurs and leaders, and are encouraging them to pursue their ideas by leveraging a willing ecosystem that can support them,” says Lola. 

The bank’s future plans include maintaining its support of startups across Nigeria and adapting to changing circumstances to do so. It has plans to formalize its internal innovation community, seek out partners in the external ecosystem and continue working on a physical hub in Lagos.

Lola’s top three tips for startups:

  • Understand your impact. Look at the impact of the business you are creating and its potential to scale. There should be a clear return and path to value creation for you, your investors and your customers.
  • Learn from the process. With initiatives like the Innovation Challenge, there’s so much that goes into preparation: coaching, pitch practice, meeting and networking. Even if you don’t win, there’s a lot of value to be gained from the experience.
  • Network online. Participate in discussions about entrepreneurship online. Follow the Union Bank social media channels to learn about upcoming opportunities, such as the Rise Challenge and our partnership with Leap Africa for the Social Innovators Program.

Lola’s expert insight is included alongside other valuable information in Startup Guide Lagos. Order your copy now!

Photos by Joseph Elliott