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‘Opportunity cost of ignoring female economy is terribly expensive’

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Chinwe Egwim

Chinwe Egwim is an economist with over 500 published economic notes primarily geared towards macroeconomics, which cover fiscal profiles, monetary policies, forex dynamics, interest rate movements, trade, GDP growth trends, reserves management, inflation and sectorial trends and others. Consistently applying rigorous analysis to ensure Africa’s economic landscape is better understood, she is currently the Senior Economist at FBNQuest Merchant Bank, an arm of FBN Holdings.

A highly sought after thought leader, she has spoken and delivered keynotes on several reputable platforms. Her TEDx talk on Equipping the Female Economy has gained traction from policy-inclined and development institutions and has contributed to conversations around lifting women. Her recent book, Understanding Economic Jargon, uses a simple approach to breakdown how economic indicators and the investment climate reacts to economic shocks and upswings. An advocate for women empowerment and a firm believer of equipping disadvantaged women with tools to enable them thrive, Chinwe has received several recognitions for her work as an economist and advocate for women empowerment. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about equipping the female economy for growth, her new book, economic policies that will guide a post-COVID resurgence and common pitfalls that women entrepreneurs must avoid.

You have an impressive career, take us briefly through it?
My career as an economist revolves around macro financial and development economics. My first stint as a professional economist was at the Central Bank of Nigeria where I worked in the Fiscal Division Unit under the research department of the bank, which exposed me to government revenue and expenditure analysis. After this, I worked briefly as a research analyst for African Positive Outlook in the United Kingdom before joining the sub-National Ratings team at Fitch Ratings Milan, Italy.

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In this role, I analysed economic conditions in sub-Saharan African countries to produce forecasts used in developing credit risk rating reports and other written output. I also contributed to interpreting data affecting investment programs and credit risk analysis for Nigeria sub-nationals and South African Metros such as stability, future trend in investment risks and economic conditions.

I moved back to Nigeria and jumped into the country’s private sector. I am currently the Senior Economist at FBNQuest Merchant Bank and have over 500 published economic notes, 500 plus fixed income notes, multiple investment research reports and led the analysis of several Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) reports among other things. Outside my position as senior economist, I have engaged in high-level projects, which align properly with my career trajectory. On the back of my extensive knowledge on market insights and ability to actively engage multilaterals, government and sub-nationals, I was ap
pointed national consultant by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa where I led the services trade project partly driven by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Furthermore, my contributions have also supported notable committees setup by development agencies like the World Bank. In addition, I have been included in the IMF Article IV consultations and been an active member of the Africa Development Bank Annual Meetings and currently sit as a member of the Board committee on Research at the Nigeria Economic Summit Group. I have gained hands-on experience with both internal and external communication.

I am also a firm believer in volunteering, strategic volunteering that contributes positively to career growth. Accordingly, I have served (and still serving) in leadership positions at leading female empowerment and Africa development inclined organisations. I am keen on supporting impact-driven platforms and initiatives and provide support by sharing my expertise as an advisory board or executive council member for organisations such as Africa Policy Conversations, Bookings Africa, WIMBIZ, 9 to 5 Chick and The Women International. This year, I became the Resident Economist for the research-based initiative, Africa Investment Roundtable (AiR) amongst others.

As senior economist, what does your work entail?
A whole lot, but that is what makes it fun. I have already touched upon some things that my work entails, but I will include a few more. Conducting projections for key economic indicators, providing global and domestic economic views for decision-making purposes, producing post-monetary policy reactions, actively engaging in government and stakeholder relations management; conducting economic analysis relevant to operational and policy issues; providing economic data in formats understandable to stakeholders, clients, senior government officials, captains of industries and investors, as well as serving as brand influencer/ambassador by providing expert view on reputable media platforms among other things.

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In your role as national consultant to UNECA, tell us a few things this position has helped you achieve?
This position strengthened my pan-African footprint and also exposed me more to trade economics, which is very important. The foundation of economics includes demand and supply and this is at the very core of trade. Of course, being the national consultant for this project drew me closer to the AfCFTA agreement and equipped me with increased knowledge and experience. Also, I contributed to measuring how financial services contribute to the level and scope of Nigeria’s integration into regional value chains (RVCs), assessed the degree to which developing further the financial services may improve tradability of goods and services and improve the country’s penetration into RVCs, leveraged strong network of government, financial institutions and media to deliver the UN National Seminar in 2019, identified policy gaps and provided recommendations to catalyze growth of the financial services sector to further enhance positioning and relevance in the RVCs.

I also contributed to a developing road map for necessary policy frameworks that would enable maximisation of benefits that can be derived from financial services, in terms of, mobilising savings, facilitating transactions, and supporting employment while fostering financial inclusion via trade.

You have spoken on equipping the female economy in the past, tell us in detail how this can be achieved?
We need to focus on the foundational cracks and fix the root of the problem; there are multiple areas that need to be addressed. Let me begin with bridging the gender gap in the education sector; catch girls young by equipping them with the necessary knowledge that will enable them thrive in their respective spheres of influence or communities. Educating girls translates into better knowledge and skills acquisition needed to push them towards becoming economically active as adults, so, contributing to national productivity.

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According to a study carried out by the Nike Foundation, adolescent pregnancy costs Kenya’s economy at least $500 million per year, while investing in girls would potentially add $3.2 billion. Investing in educating the girl child directly feeds into increased participation of women in corporate and public service roles. Although, positive strides have been made in growing the level of participation of women in corporate Nigeria and Africa, there is still vast room for improvement. Weaving policies that are female-focused to boost productivity from the female economy is also important. A major concern is the low level of female participation in decision-making roles; women’s collective voice is very faint when it comes to policy direction and decision-making across African governments. Boosting female participation in trade activities is equally important.

Women are essential in promoting economic exchange across countries; dialogue on trade and regional integration is incomplete without discussing policies that support the female economy. Equipping the female economy is essential for the economic prosperity of a country, particularly one that has each gender representing half of its population. If both women and men are equipped and economically empowered, sustainable and inclusive growth would be attainable. The opportunity cost of ignoring the female economy is terribly expensive. We all can make differences in our individual spheres of influence.

The pandemic has affected many businesses and the economy as a whole, how best can businesses pull through these tough times?
The lockdowns and restrictions, due to the pandemic, have resulted in supply chain disruptions. In addition to this, pockets have been significantly squeezed hence leading to softer demand. Therefore, service providers will have to understand that they may not be at the top of consumers’ spending priority lists. Nigeria was already struggling with soft demand.

Since the country’s recovery from the recession in 2016, pockets have not been fully rebuilt and demand has been relatively low, compared to what was obtainable in 2014. Businesses that are attached to government contracts will also face some challenges because of the decline in government revenue. So, ranging from construction contracts to stationary, catering services or toiletry contracts, you need to look for what would put you ahead of competitors that are offering same service. Due to limited resources available, spending priority lists have been adjusted significantly.

Staying ahead, businesses need to become more innovative with product and service creation or how to market existing products, as consumers are set to have competing spending priorities, given the current squeeze on pockets. A few recommendations for businesses are:

Boost domestic production: Foreign exchange rate is forcing Nigerians to look inwards and find substitute to imported products. Organisations should take advantage of this.

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Being Conservative: Delay or stagger payments and payables, accelerate receipts and receivables, use overdraft and credit lines where necessary and cut costs.

Manage Risk: understand your risks and manage operational and market risk
Innovation is key: review business models and funding sources and leverage technology and partnerships

Nigeria’s economy has gone through recessions in the last few years and COVID-19 has worsened things. What economic policies can we embrace to tackle the situation?
This is true. Before the recession registered last year, Nigeria was still recovering from the recession that took place in 2016 and growth was fragile. When we look at Nigeria’s GDP growth rate and that is pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels, GDP growth has failed to hit 3.0 per cent y/y. Meaning that the growth rate was still below underlying population expansion. Therefore, the impact on employment levels or living standards has not been significant.

Nigeria depends heavily on crude oil exports for revenue and a very strong policy on diversification is required. An example can be seen in the United Arab Emirates, which diversified their economy by reducing dependence on oil receipts and diversifying into service and smart industries. Nigeria does not suffer from a lack of policies; it is effective implementation that is the challenge. Other suggestions include a harmonised fiscal and monetary policy, strengthening trade policies (including domestic), policies within the power sector that will result in the much-needed industrial take-off, policies that will encourage and support technology, innovation and the orange economy, a cohesive multi-model transportation policy. This is not an exhaustive list, but I will pause here.

You recently authored a book, tell us more about it?
As economists, financial experts or industry leaders, we tend to talk to ourselves a lot; we understand each other but there are so many people aching to make sense of economic-related matters and they do not just get it, because of the technical terms and/or ‘jargon.’ I am usually asked to break things down to relatable and digestible levels- basically, simpler formats. This is what my book does.

Understanding Economic Jargon carefully breaks down how important economic indicators and the general investment climate react to economic shocks and upswings. We all apply economics to our day-to-day activities; this book will help readers stay economically alert and serve as a guide with regards to navigating the macroeconomic landscape. Especially, for those keen on staying ahead. I used a simplistic approach to write this book so that anyone that gets a copy will have a better grasp and can do better with decision-making going forward. The book also helps readers with repositioning to be better while navigating the new economic realities triggered by the pandemic.

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The book has hit bestseller status on Amazon and ranked as top 10 on Education Leadership. It can be purchased on Amazon and Okada Books and the paperback version can be directly purchased from DAS Hub Africa (daniel.ahamba@dashubafrica.com).

How best can we equip disadvantaged Nigerian women with the right tools needed to succeed?
Similar to the points I made earlier; first, by boosting education and literacy (including economic and financial literacy). Also, by including women to skill acquisition programmes and not just for skills that are now regarded as the ‘norm’ for women, but skills which will empower them to be economically active in the blue-collar industry. For example, plumbing, carpentry, and painting among others.

There is nothing wrong with women engaging in roles such as these that attract healthy wages. Of course, better access to finance will help with equipping disadvantaged Nigerian women. Agricultural value chains reveal disparities in access to formal finance for women. The median capital available to female agriculturists is significantly lower than what is provided to their male counterparts.

The lack of ownership of collateral, with tradition rarely ceding property rights to women, in addition to the absence of credit histories, has stopped female agriculturists as well as women-owned businesses from accessing loans. The light manufacturing industry (textile, garments as well as leather goods industry amongst others, which by the way accounts for over 15 per cent of total manufacturing GDP in Nigeria) has supported increased national output in other countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia. However, it is yet to do the same in Nigeria.

Women largely drive this industry and we need to explore sustainable ways to equip women within this industry and encourage new female entrants. Improving financial support for women would increase the number of new businesses, which in turn should boost economic activities and growth. In corporate Nigeria, there are growing concerns around the retention and promotion of women. Generally, workspaces are not accommodating (especially for women with children). For instance, crèches within offices and increased duration of maternity leave with pay are only accessible to female employees working in firms that are keen on adopting global practices. Policies that support increased productivity from female employees are essential. The list goes on and on.

However, a ramp up in productivity, shrinkage in the unemployment gap, better policy direction, particularly for issues linked to women and children, are a few benefits that could be derived form a female empowered nation.

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If you were advising a business owner right now, what would you tell her so she can avoid common pitfalls in business?
The major advice I give SME owners is, make sure you have structure. There are so many businesses that are navigating using an unstructured approach. Essentially, they are hobbies as opposed to actual businesses and this makes it difficult for them to compete for specific opportunities that can result in business expansion. Get the business properly registered; secure a business account with your preferred bank, be diligent with sorting out taxes, all legal documents should be secured, build a digital footprint, this includes investing in a website and domain name (the use of Gmail accounts for email exchanges is not professional). Build databanks for your businesses; you should be able to track consumption patterns of your existing clients, especially recurring clients. I also advise that businesses should build their own inflation baskets.

Additionally, invest in partnering with professionals that can periodically assist with steering the business forward; accountants, economists or strategists, tax consultants, PR experts, lawyers, HR specialists among others. Having these sorts of professionals on your payrolls may weigh heavy on your expenses and so bringing them in periodically may be more convenient. As a business owner or senior executive for a business, you need to consistently stay in the know. This will help with avoiding hurdles as well as with repositioning for business success when need be. Also, consider opening an investment account for your business. I have noticed that SME owners may have mutual funds for themselves as individuals but fail to do the same for their business.

Final words to women reading this?
There should be some level of curiosity with regards to what is happening around you, whether it is globally, in your country of residence or home country. You owe it to yourself to stay properly informed. Understand economic “jargon”, understand investments, and leverage the information gained to strategise as an individual, a business owner or as somebody that runs a household.

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