Abia State has been nominated for the ‘Best Performing State in support of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) and the promotion of Made-in-Nigeria goods’ by the technical committee of BusinessDay States Competitiveness and Good Governance Awards scheduled for July 13, 2017, at Transcorp Hilton, Abuja.
Governor Okezie Victor Ikpeazu in this interview with Anthony Osae-Brown, editor, BusinessDay, and Godfrey Ofurum, reveals his administration’s policy that has attracted awards to the state. Excerpt:
Sir, we know that you have identified five key pillars for the development of Abia State. What informed your decision on these five pillars?
I want to first of all, thank you and thank BusinessDay Media, one of the most prolific platforms for the propagation of business and economic growth of Nigeria.
I want to say that it wasn’t a decision that I arrived at, single handedly. We had a group of consultants that we engaged, to interface with some of us, who were, what I call the ‘nucleus of this government’ from inception, because we didn’t want to guess in the dark, for the simple reason that we were sure that resources would be scarce and expectations from our people was going to be high and the only option was to try to achieve the best within the shortest possible time with minimum resources.
In order to achieve this, we needed to be sure about the first steps, because every building is as strong as the foundation. And then we asked ourselves some key questions-one is that if you look at Nigeria as the father of all States, then it could be said that all the states, including Abia are children of somebody, who was wealthy before, but not wealthy now and Nigeria being a polygamist, every family has to fashion a growth trajectory, based on what attribute can lead you out of the woods as quickly as possible.
And in taking that decision, it brings to the fore, what do you do, if you have a family that can deliver eleven players, would you rather chose a goalkeeper from another family in order just to satisfy interests that are ancillary to the core interest, which is economic growth?
And we said that we must start from those things that we can do properly. What are those things that we, as a people can do better than other people in Nigeria? Do we have not only comparative advantage, but also competitive advantage on certain aspects of the economy, better than other people?
So, our response to that question, led us to the five pillars of development and two years down the line, I am happy that we took that decision, because right here, we don’t need to do much to teach the average Abian how to cultivate cassava or oil palm, because this is what we do.
And I have been a strong advocate of homegrown strategy for development. I do not believe those things Adam Smith said in those days, are still true today, because he did not experience internet, he did not envisage a global village and we must challenge some of those theories and grow at our speed, taking into consideration our cultural differences, our strength in culture, our weaknesses and creating a multi-mix that can drive growth.
I like what you said about Adam Smith, but that is a debate for another day. One of the key pillars is the development of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). Can you tell us some of the things that you have done in this area, considering the fact that Aba is believed to be the entrepreneurship capital of Nigeria and possibly West Africa, and if not Africa?
What we saw despite the strength, dexterity, ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Aba businessman, was people with low morale, not sure of the quality of their products, not too proud of what they produce, people, who would label the products of their ingenuity with another person’s toga.
Somebody will spend eight-hours crafting a beautiful shoe and after that, instead of taking pride in what he has produced, he will label it Made in Japan, thereby giving credit to somebody, who had nothing at all to do with the product.
So, I said that’s a place to start. And I will tell you one thing again that is not commonplace, about the general thought people share or hold about economic development.
Whatever you want to do in leadership, you must go for; first, what I call social mobilization, because if you are unable to mobilize the people, who are going to work with you, you’ll not achieve anything.
It is for the purpose of social mobilization that Gideon took his soldiers to the water first, because if you go to war with a disillusioned army, poorly motivated army, army that is not sure of why they are even fighting, it doesn’t matter how much ammunition you go to that war with, you’ll lose.
And that was the morale of the average Aba person. However, I decided to keep my promise, which I made in my inaugural speech, that I will wear Aba-Made apparels throughout my stay in the Government House. I decided to label all my cloths, “Proudly Aba or Made-in-Aba, so that people will know and not be in doubt of the origin of the apparel.
And it started reverberating. I didn’t need to tell Aba people what I was doing. So after a while the Aba tailor began to feel proud and today, there is no tailor or shoemaker that will emboss foreign labels on his/her products.
They have all gone back to labels Made-in Aba or Made-in-Nigeria. it is not about using slogan or campaigns over the radio or television, but it is thinking about how to appeal to the conscience of the people, because change must evolve from within the person.
And when we saw that the people are accepting the campaign, we decided to return to the artisans and say we must do something about the procedure, processes and systems of production.
We must do something about collaboration, creating clusters and we must do something about the certification agencies that saw themselves before now as impediments, rather than facilitators or enablers to the final product.
And today, Abia and Aba, to the glory of God, was the first State in Nigeria that hosted the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, when he came to launch the entrepreneurial clinic, which was an interface between small scale manufacturers and the certification agencies, including the Nigerian Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON).
And he echoed this view that these agencies should serve as enablers. In fact, I have advocated that part of what you need when you want to reward NAFDAC and SON among other certification agencies of Government, is how many companies they were able to register in a year and we will pay commensurate to how many they were able nurture and not how many they were able to stop.
Between the small manufacturer in Aba and this office in Abuja, is such a huge gap. People will say, if you go there, they will kill you, in-fact you will go to jail, but we have returned to tell them that it is a lie.
In fact, there is nothing like fake fruit drink or fake soft drink. If I decide to create a cocktail of cashew juice with cocoanut juice and put my name, is it fake? It becomes fake when I write Eva wine or 5-Alive on it.
So, we have successfully worked on the level of confidence of our people now. Beyond that, we have also gone into the provision of some of the things that we think are major impediments and one of such impediments is power.
This government has led a delegation of the leadership of Geometric Power Limited to Afrieximbank to seek collaboration with the bank, so that they will inject funds and allow Geometric to exit from the imbroglio that has existed in their relationship with Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC).
That is the bottleneck in the provision of constant power supply in the South East, Aba and in Abia and Afrieximbank is ready to support us.
In fact, I am due for a second trip to Afrieximbank, which will culminate probably in the signing of memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in two other levels, apart from the one that I mentioned now.
Still on power, we have procured a 500kva generator to support production in our clusters to ensure that these small-scale manufacturers have electricity to extend their production time and reduce their cost of production.
Beyond that, we are building the Enyimba Leather and Garment City at Umukalika, in Obingwa Local Government Area, where we are going to relocate the shoe and garment clusters. And we are careful not to intervene by force and create a synthetic trajectory growth. We want growth to be organic, driven by the people themselves.
I want to create a situation, whereby a collection of entrepreneurs under a special purpose vehicle would establish their own shoe or garment manufacturing factories and we are gradually getting to that.
And today, over one million pairs of shoes leave the shores of Abia State, every week to the West coast. And by our effort, we have attracted close to N1.6 billion direct sales of shoes and garments. Of-course the 50,000 pairs of military boots, the cost is close to N300 million, order from the Nigerian Navy, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), Police, Civil Defence and all that.
So, what you see today is direct impact on the economy of the average shoe maker to the extent of N1.6 billion that this government has attracted, while their sales to the West Coast is still ongoing.
Ultimately, our vision is to be globally competitive and if we must be globally competitive, we must change our story from Made-in-Aba to Make-in-Aba.
What do we mean by Make-in-Aba? We are wooing investors to come and produce in Abia. And so we have to create an environment for that to begin to happen.
And the best way to create this environment is to start from our entry points and our entry point has to do with the first building that this Government set up and which the Vice President graciously commissioned, called our investment House or One-Stop-Shop.
I really do not know how many States in the country today that has one-stop-shop. But I want to paraphrase the comments of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) project manager for the South-East Entrepreneurial Development Centre (SEEDC), where the State Government provided N100 million to graduates of that entrepreneurial centre.
The South-East Entrepreneurial Development Centre was going to be annexed to some other geo-political zones, because my colleagues did not perceive the need to host that centre.
According to the CBN official, he spent two years in one state, trying to persuade the State to host the SEEDC. Then on the average, for some other states, he spent an average of two visits, selling the idea to them. But when they arrived Abia, it took us just 40 minutes to sign-off and this is because of our one-stop-shop.
If you go beyond our one-stop-shop, we have secured a 9,000-hectare piece of land, where we would set up the Enyimba Industrial Zone. This Enyimba Industrial Zone is seeking recognition as an export free zone. It is the best location in Nigeria. It is 30 minutes away from Onne Port in Rivers State, 30 minutes away from the Port Harcourt Airport, about 40 minutes away from Owerri Airport.
It has a rail line that crosses from Rivers, through 13 stations in Abia, to Enugu and to the Northern part of Nigeria. And it has gas for energy. There is no other location anywhere in Nigeria that can compare in terms of economic strategy than what we have.
And we went to China with this story and seven days after our visit to China, 11 companies came and we are talking with them, including the shoe-manufacturing firm that is coming with $1.5 billion investment.
To underscore how serious that business intercourse is, we are sending 100 Abia youths to China to learn how to manufacture shoes, the way the world wants it, all expense paid.
So, this is where we are today. This is our journey so far and this is our story. We are optimistic that it will herald a very serious socio-economic revolution in terms of industrialization.
I want to speak to our greatest asset here and it is our people. The greatest thing you see in Abia is not oil, but our people. There is no way I can find words to describe the attributes of the average Abia entrepreneur, from Bende to Aba. I used to inform some people that if you want to understand the strength and energy behind the Aba entrepreneur, go to some places in Aba and ask them to produce a human-being, the man will not say no, he will go to his backyard and start crafting something and after one-hour, you’ll see him sweating and he will bring something to you and say, “Is it this what you mean” and when you ask him to make him breath and talk, he will tell you to pay for this one first, then we will talk about that one.
An average Aba man will not say no, “I cannot do it”. He will make effort.
That brings me to the education aspect of the five pillars. When we hear of education, we are always thinking of formal education, considering that the average Abia person is entrepreneurial, what is your government’s plan to merge entrepreneurial spirit, which is most of the time anti-formal education and the formal education aspect that is needed to propel entrepreneurial skills?
From the first day of this administration, I knew that this question is going to be relevant, very smart question, because as a Scientist and even as a Christian, part of what you need to imbibe properly and let it serve as a compass and as a guide leading you forward in life is the logical transition of growth from one phase to another, ultimately culminating in death.
So, if you want to incubate technology and you want to promote small scale manufacturing, you must be able to create a critical pool of technically minded people, which led to the establishment of “Education for Employment” (E4E) programme, the first project we launched in education.
For our people, everything you want an Abia man to develop interest in, you must show him the apple at the end of the tunnel and if possible give him a little bit of it to eat.
We are not frivolous people; we do not do anything for nothing. So, if you want me to go to school, show me what I will do with this education.
Under our E4E programme, there is no other State and I stand to be corrected that has pool of 34,000 youths, profiled according to skill sets, age, sex, qualification and Local Government.
And we have in Abia South now, the first multi-skill development centre, driven by the private sector. Today, from that multi-skill centre, this State Government is ordering over 40,000 chairs from Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC).
Our UBEC funds have become an apple at the end of the tunnel, to get our people to begin to know how to make chairs. Then we have started renovation of our technical schools. We have 3 technical schools.
At the end of the day, our technical schools coupled with the multi-skill acquisition centres, which are actually entrepreneurial in outlook, which is the muscle that will drive whatever that is thought in the technical school, has caused a new interest in technical education.
We want to produce, middle cadre manpower that can become freshmen in the Polytechnic, freshmen in the faculty of engineering-assuming they want to be serious about that or hands men or tradesmen in the various factories.
If ultimately, we begin to automate shoemaking and dressmaking, some people will manufacture or repair the equipment. But even in asking people to come and begin to produce in Abia, I want to make a prediction, I may not be here when this prediction will come to reality, Abia will become known more for machine tools than for the things that machines produce, if I understand the psychology of my people.
This is the main focus of technical education in Abia.
We have also done what I consider fundamental and foundational education, because the problem of education around here dovetails from the fact that no teacher can give what he does not have.
If the teacher lacks understanding of the subject matter, there is no way he/she can impact knowledge on the pupils/students.
And it goes back to what I said earlier, the morale of the teachers, because we have been crying so much about salaries of teachers, at times paid and at times not paid-and teachers wage in heaven, wage on earth and all that.
This has gradually placed the teaching profession in an unviable pedestal and you hide your identity card, if you are a teacher, because it is no more something to be proud about.
What it has done is that psychology of an average teacher has begun to respond negatively to positive things of life. The teacher no longer cast a glance around the showroom of where they sale good cars. Never, it is not for him to think about that, which is wrong.
And so we entered into collaboration with an Australian non-governmental organisation (NGO), though some of them are Abia people, they came and began the retraining of our primary school teachers.
And I gave them a mandate that before the end of 2018 that I will like to see my primary 3 pupil log into the computer, type his/her name, the name of his/her teacher, name of his/her best friend and subjects and log-off, that is enough for me.
And for the primary 6 pupil, he/she should be able to type all the subjects and log-off. If I can get them to do that, I will be happy. However, the teacher should also be ICT compliant.
So, as I speak 250 teachers have gone through that training, which is on its third phase. That programme became popular in Australia and some people in Australia came and brought computers to distribute to our schools.
To sustain that programme, we will set up a primary school teachers continued development centre in Umuahia, where our teachers will be retrained from time to time.
Can we talk briefly on internally generated revenue (IGR). I want to see the trajectory of IGR and your projection going forward, and maybe a little bit of trade and commerce, one of the five pillars of development?
The IGR is a little bit problematic. At some point we were doing a 100 percent increase, because we were doing N400 million and sometimes N500 million per month, but at a point, we got to N1.2 billion, but suddenly, from February, it started going down again.
I think that it is not because people are no longer paying, but we had some issues about a few revenue windows, which we gave some agents to handle, because IGR drive must be professionally handled, it must be predictable, people must know what they are supposed to pay and it must be uniformed, it should not be arbitrary.
However, there is an attitudinal problem, people want to steal, people want to lay hands on money. When you say pay directly to the bank, they compromise the process, by all means. But the solution is automation.
When we doubled our IGR, it spoke to our strategy to begin development in Aba, because we try to lay emphasis on Aba, because we say get Aba right and you get Abia. The money you get from Aba, you can use to develop Abia and that is our story.
Trade and commerce is one of the five pillars. If you ask me in terms of priority, if I say MSME is number one, then the next will be trade and commerce. Like I said earlier, we are the best traders in the world.
If you doubt me, go and read Frederick Forsyth’s book titled “Emeka” he wrote it there. Forsyht is not an Abia man, but he said that people here are better traders than the Lebanese.
And if that is so, naturally, it should be one of our pillars and I said to some of my colleagues that if you want development and you want to proliferate prosperity, the easiest way to do it, is to hand over wealth to an Igbo man, because if you go to the remotest part of Nigeria, you will see an Igbo man.
And he is not just going there to establish his business, make money and come back, but he is going there to make money, add value, build a five star hotel and raise his children there.
Trade and commerce wouldn’t thrive if you don’t get the enablers right. And chief among the enablers are good roads and security. So, we decided to tackle roads right from my first day in office.
And in doing roads, we also elected for ourselves roads that can outlive this administration. Not only have we done so many roads, we have so far commissioned close to 35 roads, predominantly in Aba. And if I count the other parts of Abia, we would have done and completed close to 42 roads, but we are active on about 75 road sites.
We needed also to make bold and strong statements about the quality of the roads and other infrastructure that we are building,
This is about the first time in many years that three first-class contractors are working simultaneously in the state. And there is no state within the economic bracket of Abia that has kept three world-class contractors, working simultaneously for two years.
We have Setraco here, Arab Contractors and a Chinese firm that is doing our interchange at Osisioma.
We don’t just do roads for the sake of just building roads, our roads must lead to an economic site, either it is leading to Ariaria or to Ahia Ohuru or it is helping you to exit the city.
People that want to do business don’t want to be caught up in traffic. And we also pioneered cement pavement technology in this part of the country, where we do 9-inch concrete before asphalting. In addition also, it is a policy here that we must do drainage here, from end to end, for every road and then put streetlights, so that we can extend business hours.
It has worked, because somebody can stay under the streetlight and sell corn. Today all our markets are booming.
The roads that give us greatest headache are roads that lead into Aba from Akwa Ibom, Port Harcourt road and Owerri road. Though they are federal roads, but we recognise and understand that there are no federal citizens, so, we are doing Owerri road and we are coming into Port Harcourt road.
But because federal government has a contractor on Ikot Ekpene road, we don’t want to interfere, but we responded by finding a tangent to Ikot Ekpene. We opened the bush and we are doing a 7.5 kilometer road to Ikot Ekpene from Aba.
We are doing a massive reclamation at Ife-Obara pond, which is supposed to take storm water from the low lying areas of Aba, which Ariaria is within that geographical altitude.
So, I think that with the vision that we have set for ourselves and the speed with which we are going and the promise from God that He will bless every genuine effort, we are confident that things will begin to work for us.
Finally, where would you want to see Abia by May 29, 2019, when you will be sworn in for a second tenure?
First of all, I will like to see highly mobilised and optimistic Abia citizenry, confident in what they can do, all of them and half of Nigeria wearing made-in-Aba shoes and garments.
I will like to see young people actively engaged in providing goods and services for the rest of Nigeria. I will like to see people that are not only educated in the real sense of the word, but are capable of producing things with their hands and employing other people.
I will like to see beautiful cities, not only in Aba and Umuahia. I will like to see a world-class 18-hole golf course at Ohafia that will bring attention to the world about the beautiful undulating hills of Ohafia area with an event centre that can host the world.
I will like to see children’s hospital where every child under the age of five and the mother will be safe and healthy.
I will like to see a situation where if any baby dies before his or her first birthday, the Governor will get a report.
I will like to see our Abia emergency health service from 2 ultramodern ambulances today, to get 8 to 10 ultramodern ambulances, capable of rescuing people with heart attack by 2.00am.
I will like to see the ground breaking of Enyimba Industrial Zone, where hundreds of companies, would be manufacturing simultaneously and they are shipped either through the Obaku seaport or Onne seaport.
I will like to see an Abia rail line covering the 13 railway stations in Abia, getting to Enugu, conveying happy people and goods.
This is the kind of Abia I will like to see.