‘It’s time to extend Nigeria’s trade frontiers’
Richard Burge is the Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC). He was in Nigeria ahead of next year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to inaugurate the council’s new Country. In this interview with journalists, he speaks on benefits of CWEIC to member-countries and Nigeria’s opportunities to expand trade frontiers. CHIJIOKE NELSON was there.
How would Nigeria improve its investor-friendly environ?
I think the government still got to continue carrying on with promotional activities. But we also need to realise that what any government does when it is doing promotional activities is to simply talk about the investment environment. So, in the end, what all of us must do, including my organisation, is to be helping businesses find each other and actually talk about reality of doing businesses. So, the government can set the stage, do nice video shows and other things about the lovely things in their countries, so in the end, it is businesses talking to each other.
That is why I am pleased with Lagos state government ad a member of our organisation, because they know our job is to create business discussion and they can learn about how business is working. But particularly for Nigeria, I think it got to do a number of things. Firstly, it has to continue to recognise that there is still a prejudice out there about Nigeria. There is no point complaining about it, but work to change it. I also know it is now changing. A huge transformation has taken place. From my job, I have been telling people that this is a good place to do business. Nigerian businesses are always upfront and ‘loud.’
..There is a huge middle-class and one of the largest communities of middle class in the world is in Nigeria. I think India has the largest middle-class community and Nigeria’s proportion of middle class is growing, which is good for business. It means that domestic capital is being raised. People save money, put money into pension and other diverse investments. This is an emerging economy that is moving rapidly towards industrialisation. And we think we need to get the right message about Nigeria out.
What is your role and the essence of Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council?
I run this organisation and it has been on for about two and half years now. I became the chief executive about six months ago. The CWEIC has a very simple job. Its job is to help businesses across the Commonwealth nations to sell each other’s products and promote investments. Its job is to help businesses understand how much easier it is to do businesses in Commonwealth nations, as well as between a Commonwealth nation and outside. We think there are three big features around that. The first one is business in English. Everyone in the commonwealth uses English to do business and the second thing that every country tries to enforce is contract and we support that. The third thing is that we tend to do things in very similar ways – the regulators, standard organisations and others, all do things the same way.
There are other intangible things about the Commonwealth council. I have worked in 62 countries and when you are from a Commonwealth country and move to another one, you feel like you are at home because there is just something familiar about it. For me, if you are a businessman, it is a huge advantage because it gives you confidence. In the end, all these reduce the cost of doing business. There is a report that says that the cost of doing business among the Commonwealth nations has been 19 per cent less over the years. Emotionally, it is less costly and that translates to more fun while doing business.
We started in London and we have just started to open hubs among the Commonwealth nations. We would be in every member country and in some countries, we may end up having more than one hub. One of first hubs we are having is Lagos and that is for two reasons– it is the economic engines of the Commonwealth and obviously in Africa. The second thing is that as a person, I like Lagos. I know the place very well and I am a fan of Nigeria and Lagos. I do recognise that in other parts of the world, there are prejudicial barriers about doing business with Nigeria and doing business with Lagos and it is often perception. I think times have changed tremendously and we are going to work on that lingering perception by opening the hub in Lagos and getting senior business members to drive activities. It is a good way of changing global perception about Nigeria.
When people ask me what I find remarkable about Lagos, I say there is never a vacant shop and there is never a vacant store. This is a Commonwealth great nation of traders. That to me is stimulating. I am very keen with Obinna Anyanwu as our Country Head here.
Nigeria is the first and there are about four more to be opened in some other Commonwealth countries. And I am very keen that when Obinna does work here in Lagos, I will be about the whole Commonwealth and not just about Nigeria. The Commonwealth Business Forum comes up in April next year. This is a two-day event that is held in ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Governments meeting. So, it is to hold in London.
It is very important because it is probably the last one that the Queen would be attending because she would be 92 then and the next one after that of next year would be in Malaysia. So, she is not going to be travelling that much. So, we are holding the forum in the city of London and there would be senior Nigerian businesses in attendance. Mrs. Folorunso Alakija has already said she will be in attendance and she will be speaking about women in business at the forum. We are also hoping to set up some other schemes to support businesses.
There is a scheme that is running presently in UK called Commonwealth First, which is to support UK businesses. I want to introduce the Commonwealth First Nigeria and we may find, maybe, up to 100 talented SMEs in Nigeria that are export ready and for them to be part of the scheme for over a three or four-year period. So, we are hoping to help new enterprises in Nigeria get access to market. Also, at the moment, we are working with sub-sovereigns. These are entities that are below the national governments and two of them at the moment are Akwa Ibom and Lagos states. These states see us as a helpful venture and as a bridge between them and businesses and especially, in helping them mobilise businesses.
Do you have any form of financial support to the SMEs?
There may be some form of financial support as it is in some countries. Malaysia has various forms of support for small businesses. One of the things we need to try to understand is that there is a lot of money in the world at the moment looking for good investments. And what we have to do is to make sure that these young Commonwealth businesses get access and meet these people with the money that want to make those investments and make case for them.
The other thing is that Africa has extraordinary financial resources. The domestic capital resource in Africa is huge and it is looking for new opportunities as well. So, we are very keen to try to mobilise these resources. We must not think about government funding because if it comes today and at the end of the day there is a change in government, such funds disappear. We must not overlook the strength of private sector investment because it is not looking for political patronage, it is just looking for trade for commercial growth and that is what we must find ways of ensuring that interested innovative capital meet interested innovative propositions.
Do you have examples of companies assisted in areas of global funds?
There are, but not much because we are still a very young organisation. But we have examples of Diaspora money in India that was invested in business ideas. So, over time, we would be putting together case studies that we can show people so that we can use that to evangelise. But I want to have some Nigerian examples.