Sunday, 10th December 2023

Reinventing the ancient Benin economy

By Geoff Iyatse, Assistant Business Editor
16 August 2021   |   4:20 am
The Bight of Benin is metaphorical of the economic exploit of the ancient empire before the greed of Europe vanquished the empire.

Edo modular refinery

The Bight of Benin is metaphorical of the economic exploit of the ancient empire before the greed of Europe vanquished the empire. Their visit and subsequent attack blighted the unequalled economic adventure of the ancient kingdom.

Notwithstanding the European invasion and the epic battle for the economic soul of the empire, the modern Benin City, and, indeed, the entire Edo State, is synonymous with artistic ingenuity.

The creative works in the forms of sculptures, paintings, bronzes and many others are as rich as the history of civilisation, earning it “the Great City of Benin” as far back as the 17th century. Benin is one of the first cities to have a form of street lighting. Huge metal lamps were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. The lamps were fueled by palm oil and provided illumination for traffic to and from the palace.

The Portuguese, indeed, confirmed that Benin, at that time, was remarkably different from other African settlements as the city was properly planned with good drainage.

The famous Benin City Wall stood out as a work of wonder. Beyond the city walls, several other walls were constructed to separate the surroundings of the capital into about 500 distinct villages. The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin as the world’s largest earthworks carried out before the mechanical age.

As reported by The Guardian of London, estimates by New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.”

These walls, it quoted Pearce “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500sq km and were all dug by the Edo people… They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet.”

From one dynasty to another, Benin’s political structure was among the most advanced. The Ogisos and later obas ruled in absolute terms but they were subjected to norms, traditions and values that compelled them to act fairly and justly. A council of chiefs also assisted them.

The empire also had a thriving economy with well-developed trading partnerships across kingdoms and empires before the coming of Europe. Even in a modern economy, the Benin art and rich agricultural endowment have powered business enterprises that have supported the economy of the state. But like every other city, the lure of petrodollar came; taking the shine the productive sectors were neglected as typical of Dutch Disease syndrome.

In the intervening years, youths who drifted to the urban centres could not find jobs. According to the labour data supplied by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Edo State, as of last December, had an unemployment rate of 49 per cent or the equivalent of 709,099 jobless people. The unemployment rate is above the 33.3 per cent national average.

The race towards 200,000 jobs
As elsewhere, stakeholders are worried about the social consequences of the high rate of unemployment especially among the youths, a national challenge anyway. The Governor of the state, Godwin Obaseki, is also concerned. But he is not gazing at his navel. About three years ago, the state government rolled out a mass employment scheme – Edo State Skills Development Agency (also known as EdoJobs) – through which it intends to create 200,000 jobs before the end of the Obaseki administration.

Also, recently, the administration unveiled what it tagged the Making Edo Great Again (MEGA), a 30-year agenda the Chief of Staff to the Governor, Osaigbovo Iyoha, said will leapfrog the state to the club of the 20 top economies in Africa by 2050.

Iyoha, like a Benin local proverb admonishes, knows where that rain started drenching famous Great Benin – it started when the country discovered oil.

“We are a people with a rich cultural heritage. Ours was one of the most advanced societies as at the time we had the first contact with the Portuguese. They were impressed with the thinking that went into the planning of our cities and towns. As a people, we are aspirational, enterprising, strong and regal. The famed Benin artifacts are enough evidence of this glorious past. Over time, especially after the discovery of oil in Nigeria, we lost a lot due to lack of planning,” he recalled.

Speaking on MEGA, Iyoha stated Edo’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth would be the fastest and among the top three in Nigeria by 2050, which will ultimately make the state among the top 20 largest economies in Africa by 2050. The most recent data ranks Edo the seventh state in terms of GDP size while Lagos, Rivers and its neighbouring Delta sit atop the table. The GDP size of the least of the three top states is about 50 per cent higher than that of Edo, which is working towards resetting the rating in 30 years when it intends to displace Oyo, Imo and Kano as well as take off one of the big three.

Last year, the state generated a total of N27. 2 billion internally generated revenue (IGR), which puts it on 11th spot among its peers and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Its IGR to total revenue ratio was 32 per cent as against a national average of 36 per cent. Its loan to revenue was 219 per cent. The government, at different occasions, accepted that the state’s fiscal position was not an exciting story but assured that he would continue to improve on the figures.

A factory at the production centre

And the least of the 20 top economies in Africa, Mali, had a total GDP size of $17.8 billion at the last count. These give a fair idea of the lofty expectation from MEGA in 30 years when the current governnor would have retired and would wish to appear in an interview to regale the people with the conceptualisation process of the blueprint.

Indeed, these are not dreams that require sleepless nights and sufficient fieldwork. Perhaps, its implementation requires greater thinking than the drafting of its concept note. Otherwise, millions of great concepts did not leave the shelves much less translating into success.

But in fairness, MEGA seemed to have started even before the dream was conceived. Private sector-led projects have kicked off in earnest injecting fresh hop into the largely agrarian state.

For instance, the $1 billion six million metric tonnes per annum (MTPA) Okpella cement plant built by Dangote Group has commenced production ahead of official commissioning. Dangote is joining BUA Cement Plc, which had previously turned the comatose Edo Cement Company facility into a six million MTPA plant.

About three years ago, the governor was in China to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the construction of a modular refinery. Despite the COVID-19 slowdown, the project has been completed awaiting production. The company – Edo Refinery and Petrochemical Company Limited – has created a new vibe in the hitherto restive Ologbo community where it is sited.

“We are very excited to have witnessed the completion of the refinery. It started as a joke; not many of the residents before believed it would not be abandoned when it started. Today, it is a reality,” a community leader, Felix Edosa told The Guardian during a visit last week.

“The plant is ready to receive crude oil; it is ready to process and deliver products. They have done the pre-commissioning with the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR). They have certified the refinery as ready for production.

“What we have left now is to finalise the crude oil sale contract; these facilities have to get a certain type of crude from the Escravos line and that is being finalised. I hope that before the end of August, we should start lifting products from these facilities,” Obaseki had earlier noted during a tour.

Possibility of cheap energy
Ologbo also plays host to the 55 megawatts (MW) Ossioma Power Plant, another flagship project delivered in an effort to reinvent the Benin ancient city. Located in the forest in Ologbo, the plant visited by The Guardianlast week, powers government facilities, key public-private partnership (PPP) projects and some private concerns.

The project operation is secured by three licenses from the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) – a generation, independent electricity distribution network and an eligible customer (willing buyer-willing seller) licenses – giving it an end-to-end privilege in the power value chain.

The Edo Production Centre, which is supported by the Ossisioma facility, is an example of the possibility of reliable and affordable energy. Sprawling across the old facility of the old Bendel Printing Press, the production centre houses about 42 small-scale businesses (SMEs), some of which operate round the clock. And all the operators, ranging from fashion, entertainment, metalwork to waste management, have testimonies on how their access to power as well as flexible and affordable rent has transformed their lives.

Minev Design, for instance, was operating in Wuse Market, Abuja, where its two staff ran it until about three years ago when the production hub kicked in. The staff strength of the fashion house, the first to grab a space in the facility, had grown to 15 before the COVID-19 disruption. It plans to exceed the pre-COVID-19 operational capacity even as it expands into uniform making and corporate jobs.

“We get contracts to make uniforms for different organisations because we deliver, and we do not have any excuse because power supply is available 24 hours while the facility enjoys optimal security. If you wish to work 24 hours, it is a matter of convenience and not of safety and power. The cost of power is considerably low at an average of N25, 000 per month,” Daniel Okogbe, a lawyer who manages the fashion centre alongside his wife, told The Guardian.

Another operator who runs a fashion training programme at the Centre, Mercy Erikowa, narrated how EdoJobs supported her to secure a $5,000 grant from Brave Women. She plans to secure additional space to expand her operation “to reach more young ladies out there.”

There are about three polythene manufacturing industries that explained that their coming into the facilities has helped them to deliver to Ondo and Delta states. “All the polythene manufacturers work on day and night shifts because of the constant power supply. And there is a huge demand for the products,” a worker at one of the factories said.

The cottage industry hub has become a mecca of sorts for individuals, ranging from school leavers to young graduates who are desperate to make something meaningful of their lives. Young Valerie Osawe, a graduate of art and design from the University of Port Harcourt, has built a flourishing shoe-making factory at the centre while taking more young girls off the streets.

“There is no design of shoe we cannot make here, and we have fun doing it. The only challenge is the market. If we have market access, the sky cannot even limit us because, with power, our challenge is half-solved,” she stressed.

The icing in the cake is the flexible contractual arrangement that allows non-occupant with urgent needs to move into their tools to work and pay per time spent. PR and Communications Advisor of EdoJobs, Majek Segun, said thousands of artisans “have been leveraging the flexible arrangement to deliver contracts their regular workshops cannot accommodate and earn incomes.”

Segun disclosed the centre was pilot and that the state government was working on siting three new ones – two in Benin and one in the northern part of the state – to encourage the development of SMEs and create jobs for the youths.

A replica of the production hub is the Edo Innovation Centre, where thousands of youths are trained in entrepreneurship, project management, solar panel making, computer appreciation, graphics, website design and other relevant skills in modern computing. The facility, according to the Faculty and Programme Lead, Tunde Akingbade, has trained over 35,000 cohorts in the past three years to leverage technology and entrepreneurship to contribute positively to the development of the state.

The majority of the trainees, Akingbade said, are secondary leavers who are yet to gain admission into higher institutions and students. He said the majority of the cohorts make enough money to take care of their expenses while in school.

Agbonyinma Nosakare, a 22-year-old, who participated in the first edition of the training, said he got an average of four freelance jobs a month, with changes ranging between N10, 000 to N20, 000. He said he would be able to pay his fees when he eventually gains admission into the university as he saw himself earning more as continues to acquire new skills.

Segun, whose agency oversees the centre, “is that it is self-sustaining like hubs”. The centre, popularly known as Edo Innovates, has a partnership with Cisco, Amazon Web Service, OXFAM, Butterfly Works and many other organisations.

A bite of Lagos elite software engineering pie
Like Andela, like Nigeria’s Decagon. The latter wishes to domesticate what the former is doing globally, with a tall dream of training 5000 elite software engineers in its first five years. All along, Lagos, being the innovation hub of the country, had the whole attention of the company until Edo signed a deal with the tech company. The presence of a campus at Okhoromi, Benin, probably puts the state on a course to bite into the Lagos software engineering pie.

When The Guardian visited the facility last week, the Programme Associate Co-coordinator at the centre, Omowunmi Kassim, said about 107 students were undergoing the competitive programme in the Benin facility. While the programme targets applicants from other states and administers a merit-driven entry assessment process, Edo indigenes without the financial strength to pay the fees are entitled to state government-secured loans.

Decagon is run such that students can access loans and pay when they start work. A 2008 geology graduate from the University of Benin, Ehis Ehinma, told The Guardian that the programme was an answer to his dream job.

“I graduated about 12 years ago but I have not been able to pick up a good job. The Tech Park is my answer. I will write the next entrance exam, and I know that I will pass it. I did geology but I have a strong passion for technology. I have done a few foreign programmes; Decagon is my next shot,” Ehinma told The Guardian.

Obaseki had noted, during his pitch, that the Edo Tech Park aligned with the state’s vision to develop a “globally competitive digital economy for the benefit of Edo citizens by 2025.” Through the programme, the state intends to produce 15,000 elite software engineers in collaboration with Decagon by 2025. The state government provided the physical infrastructure while Decagon brought the technical and organisational expertise required to produce the talents.

To achieve the lofty dream MEGA contemplates, an efficient public sector is as necessary as every aspect of the intention. Last week, the state government organised training for communications officers in the state civil service. It was learnt that the upskilling series is part of its ongoing civil service reform and that permanent secretaries and directors are equally ongoing reorientation and skill acquisition training.

A top civil servant told The Guardian that the government took cognizance of the role of the permanent secretaries and directors in public service efficiency hence he wished “to prepare them for the new task before appointing commissioners”.

Dealing with ills of urbanisation
The Oko Prison jailbreak during last year’s #EndSARS was an acid test of Obaseki’s preparedness for his second term in office. As expected, insecurity in Benin and other towns spilled out of control. The aftermath of the heightened insecurity was the establishment of the state vigilante group. Months after the group was inaugurated, there is a sigh of relief. The local security personnel are also excited at the job just as one could drive around Benin now without fear of attack.

Sustaining the current motivation among the rank and file may as well as depend on how willing the state government is to review the incentives of the job to align with rising expectations. As a resident observes, if all they have to do the jobs are guns, they could as well turn them against the people they are recruited to protect.

Flood and erosion are a perennial worry in Benin residents as the rain comes each season with pains and anxiety. Last year, the Nigeria Erosion and Watershed Management Project (NEWMAP) extended about N18 billion gully erosion and flood control projects to 11 communities in the state. The state government has also started executing a flood control programme while an aggressive urban renewal campaign with attention to drainage has also commenced.

But today, Benin-Sapele Road, which interestingly connects the flagship modular refinery and Ossioma Power Plants, has been taken over by flood. Yes, it is a federal road but if those who visit Benin cannot conveniently drive out through that route, it will rub off on the viability of the state’s goodwill and a new brand the government is working hard to build.

The governor recently assented to the Edo State Nigerian Environment and Watershed Management Programme (NEWMAP). This will give fulcrum to the state’s environmental programme.

Agriculture needs Midas Touch
The Special Adviser to the Governor on Media and Communication Strategy, Crusoe Osagie, said over 50,000 persons, including farmers and food processors, have benefitted from the state government agricultural programmes as of July last year. Osagie said the beneficiaries were involved in the cultivation of over 10,000 hectares of farmland across the state.

But farmers who spoke with The Guardian said the governor must not only mainstream agriculture into the state’s economic blueprint but should also make it the driver to restore its glory.

“You cannot make Edo a paradise overnight. So, it has to be a journey. If it is a journey, it means a step must be taken. The question is: have we taken a step? The answer is yes. Is it the right step? Yes, it is because many routes can take us to where we want to go. But I think agriculture must be given a priority.

“Edo has the capacity to feed the nation. We could choose to be the new food basket of the country. That could be a viable alternative to achieve our dream. Industrial development is not entirely bad but Edo, for me, has a comparative advantage in agriculture. The governor is doing very well but he should pay more attention to agriculture,” Godwin Ebor, an agribusiness processor, based in Ekpoma, observed.

Today, the question is not whether Edo is on the path to the glorious old days. It is more of whether the process can be sustained.