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Economic agenda that is driven by SMEs is what Nigeria needs now, says Waheed Olagunju

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Waheed Olagunju


By December 31, 2018 when he proceeded on three months terminal leave, Alhaji Waheed Olagunju had served his fatherland meritoriously for 28 years as banker and development expert. The journey started in August 1990 at the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank (NIDB) which later metamorphosed into the Bank of Industry (BoI). One decade earlier, between 1981 and 1982 precisely, he did his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme with the Network News of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) where he also began his journalism career in 1982 as a full-time staff. This was after he had obtained his first and second degrees at the University of Lagos. As a development expert, his pre-occupation has always been how to continually impact “on Nigeria’s economic development, because wherever I find myself I try to show that whatever things I’m engaged in contribute towards the development of Nigeria. And the question is: Will it move Nigeria forward?” Olagunju’s career path is a refreshing story in resilience, dedication and diligence. Even as he begins a new chapter of his life as a private development expert, these values will define his engagements in the quest for translating Nigeria’s abundant resources for the benefit of all and sundry.

Early in life, you set out with an ambition to become an economist or a company secretary, what informed that desire?
I did not know how that aspiration came to my head. During my A levels, I had two options. I wanted to be an economist, because I like economics a lot, but disliked Mathematics and there was nowhere one could progress in Economics at the university level without credit in mathematics. Psychologically, I didn’t like figures at that time, but later I got to like figures when I realised that there was nowhere I could run away from figures. I also wanted to be a company secretary. But the attempt to study Economics at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria did not materialize, ditto studying law at the University of Lagos. But I ended up accomplishing the two.

How did it happen?
When I was in secondary school I took a lot of interest in the political and economic developments around me as well as current affairs and sports. I consumed and read a lot of newspapers, listened to many radio stations – local and foreign, and watched a lot of television programmes. During my A levels, I went to the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) for my vacation jobs. I had developed interest in how the journalists carried on. My father too worked with Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation between the mid 1950s and early 1960s before he joined the Niger Dam Authority as the public relations officer at that time. I also impressed my bosses at NTA some of whom were my father’s friends without allowing it to enter my head and still discharged my responsibilities efficiently.

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I actually started my broadcast career at NTWSports and at that time there were very few graduates covering sports. I believe that I was one of those who intellectualised sports journalism. I used to do a lot of research, there were no internet facilities then. So, I used to go subscribe to many foreign newspapers and magazines from where I got data to benchmark Nigerian athletes with their foreign counterparts who they would be competing with at the Olympics and other international sports competition. I knew all the records and could always compare the performances of our sports men and women with what the records were. It was then possible for me to project and predict who and who could do well.

That was what led me to covering the World Universities Games in 1983 in Canada, which was the first time NTA covered the event. I looked for sponsors, and got the Guardian newspapers to sponsor – I met the late Stanley Macebuh and Eddie Iro, who were then the helmsmen at The Guardian that was being launched into the Nigerian media market.

Why I also took interest in the World University Games, was that I realised that many of the Olympic medallists from the USA and USSR came from tertiary institutions and they were products of collegiate games. I also realised that there was no way Nigeria could do well at the Olympic Games without fielding Nigerian University students. I went to cover the Nigeria University Games held at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in 1982 where I observed that those that featured at NUGA could not compete favourably at the up-coming 1984 Olympics. So, I now looked beyond the shores of Nigeria and the then Director of the National Sports Commission, Mr Isaac Akioye had a programme of sending Nigerian athletes to foreign universities especially in the USA. I started monitoring the performance of Nigerian students in US and other countries.

On my own, I realised that we had potential Olympic medallists in US who could do well at the 1984 Olympic Games that was less than two years away at the time. I said if Nigeria was going to do well, we need to look into our universities and of course our national championship. That was how I first covered the World University Games (WUGA) in 1983. That was a year before the Los Angeles Olympic, so one could see the potential Olympic medallists from the WUGA. So we went to Canada and incidentally, that was where Chidi Imoh won a gold in 100 meters, Yussuf Ali won the long jump, Ajayi Agbebaku won the triple jump, Sunday Uti won 400 meters and Innocent Egbunike won the 200 meters. Those are the guys who led our team to Los Angeles in 1984. Indeed, they revolutionised Nigeria’s track and field events in the mid and late 80s and then inspired other younger ones like Mary Onyali and co.

What lessons have‘news sources and building contacts’ taught you in your over three decades career trajectory?
In 1985, I was redeployed from sports to mainstream news even though I didn’t like that decision, but that was the beginning of my breakthrough. Our Director of News at that time- Mallam Yaya Abubakar, nominated me to cover the Hajj. I was in Saudi Arabia for six weeks. I reported the Hajj and in his own opinion, he felt my coverage was the best ever embarked upon by any NTA reporter. While I was there for about six weeks (42 days), I filed more than 30 reports and he felt the reports were unusual and had depth.
When I came back he removed me from sports and appointed me Head of the Communication and Labour Desk. I felt bad because I loved sports and what I was doing. He felt going by my Hajj reports I had no business being in the sports as my scope in sports would be limited. He then played back what he considered was my best report which he saved rather than delete as other reports are usually deleted after transmission.

The report was a comparative analysis of the number of pilgrims who performed the Hajj in 1983, 1984 and 1985 from some external debt distressed African countries like Nigeria as well as Ghana and some economically prosperous Asian countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. My findings revealed that while the number of pilgrims from Nigeria and Ghana declined with the drop in their respective GDPs and per capita income, Malaysia and Indonesia recorded rising number of pilgrims as their GDP and per capita income increased. I concluded that the trends were in line with one of the pillars of Islam which says Muslims should perform the Hajj only if they could afford it. My research drew correlation between per capita income with affordability. While countries with rising per capita income recorded higher pilgrims annually which meant they could afford it, those with declining per capita income recorded decreasing number of pilgrims as these meant less capacity to afford the holy mission.

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So, Mallam Yaya told me that with that level of analysis the sky was my limit. Based on which he justified my redeployment from NTA Sports. It was while I was Head of the Communication and Labour Desk that I met Malam Ibrahim Aliyu, who was Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Communications, and it was about when digital technology was being considered for introduction to Nigeria. He later became Permanent Secretary, Economic Affairs in the Presidency while I was also made head of the Economic desk. I again reconnected with Mallam Ibrahim Aliyu. So, when he was appointed Managing Director and CEO of the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank (NIDB), he invited me to join the NIDB as Head, Corporate Communications.

As an accomplished media practitioner and business development expert, how would you describe your experience and transition at the Bank of Industry?
Indeed, I had been prepared for the banking assignment by my previous engagements. Like when I was Head of the Economic desk, I covered the World Bank, the African Development Bank (ADB) and other development finance and facilitating institutions within and outside Nigeria.

So, from being head of communications in 1990 when I joined; in 1994, I was assigned additional responsibility as assistant company secretary in 1994. By 1997, I was elevated as Acting Company Secretary when I started covering board meeting. By 2007, I was designated General Manager, Strategic Planning, Corporate Secretariat and Corporate Communications. It was in December 2012 that I was appointed Executive Director, Business Development.

In terms of capacity building, that helped me a lot. I attended a lot of training programmes and read very extensively. Most of these things are self-development. So there is a lot you can do by developing yourself. A lot of self development is what I did.
I was reassigned Executive Director, Small and Minimum Enterprises (SME) in August, 2014. Incidentally, I was prepared again for the SME job because I have always been involved in SMEs over the past 28 years in various capacities. For instance, I worked with Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi when he was Chairman of the National Committee on Industrial Development (NCID) in the early 1990s while he was also Chairman of NIDB. I was also part of the team that established the National Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (NASME) in the mid 1990s. And in early 2000, I was involved I played an active role in Nigeria’s hosting of the International Conference in SMEs in 2004 in conjunction with the World Association of Small and Medium Enterprises based in India. So, being appointed ED SME in 2014 was being asked to oversee an area I was already familiar with.

We achieved a lot working with my colleagues in BOI. I want to believe that when BOI celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2011, I was quite pleased being part of a team that transformed from NIDB into what BOI has turned out to be, and year in year out it has continued to wax stronger. I even led the team twice as Acting Managing Director. All glory belongs to the Almighty.

Despite several interventions in the SME sector, the challenges remain daunting as ever. Going by your experience in the sector, how can Nigeria tap the potential in that sector, considering the high unemployment rate in the country?
It is not rocket science and there is no reinventing the wheel. We need more entrepreneurs in Nigeria in the right critical mass. In a country of about 200 million, may be the productive age of about 40 million. The question is this 40 million, what skills do they have? The kind of education we receive over the years prepared us mainly for employment, white collar jobs in the public sector or private sector. That cannot happen anymore! There is no way jobs can continue to be provided by the organized private sector, or the government. The only way out is through entrepreneurship. We’ll end up having more entrepreneurs who will create jobs for themselves and create employment for others. That’s the best way out now.

Given our endowments as a country, one, starting from our location is a big advantage that we are taking for granted. We are not land locked, having access to the sea is a big advantage, so, we are not facing the challenges that land locked countries face. Two, our natural resources and endowments: agriculture, solid minerals, oil and gas, the creative industry, the service sector and so on. As regards the structure of our GDP, we are a blessed country. Even in terms of natural disasters, we don’t have any volcano. We are blessed! It’s for us as human beings to reeducate ourselves such that we’ll arm ourselves with the skills and the capacity to be able to conquer our environment. Let’s start from the basic need of man – food, if you’re able to get your business model right in agriculture, you can’t go wrong because feeding 200 million people is huge business opportunity. We’ve not been able to achieve food security yet, although the import bill has been going down. We have not attained self-sufficiency in food yet. There is a lot we need to do.

Then in terms of multiplier effect and developmental impact vertically and horizontally, the developmental impact is higher. There is no investment that is higher than in agriculture. Farming for example, whether it is vegetables or fruits or cash crops, each of them you need to prepare the land, you plant those things, nurture them and harvest. Thereafter, you need to process, package and then you sell… the value chain is marvelous. You employ people along the line who can play active roles at every stage. Warehouse and storage facilities will be needed and so on. Then, if you want to go into livestock farming or animal husbandry such as snail, fish, poultry or cattle rearing… there is a lot of business opportunities in agriculture alone to feed 200 million people. You can even feed the continent and Nigerians in Diaspora who like to eat Nigerian foods. They are export potentials for agricultural resources. This is just in agriculture alone, and we have telecommunication, oil and gas, transportation and several others. Nigeria has no business with poverty and unemployment. We simply need to prioritise our educational system. Besides, we have the huge market.

But the solutions will not come from one person. Other countries that have got it right created ecosystem for the SMEs where multiple agencies pool resources together. We need that kind of structure (ecosystem) for SMEs to thrive in Nigeria. What creating the ecosystem does is to de-risk SMEs. The general perception is that SMEs are risky. Financiers are reluctant to support them as they fear losing their investments. But through the ecosystem, the SMEs are de-risked. As the Executive Director at the BoI, I did a lot of reassurance when banks came up with complaints of default by the SMEs. With that, the chances of repayment are higher.

What is your reaction to the prediction that by 2030, Nigeria will probably become World Poverty Capital?
I am an incurable optimist when it comes to Nigeria’s prosperity potentials. That prediction will not manifest. It is not enough to say I wish it does not manifest. We need to work to ensure it does not manifest. We need to ensure that the rate of our GDP growth is faster than that of the population growth. The point of those who came up with that projection is that the rate of the GDP growth will be lacking behind the population growth or it would not be widen enough to guarantee high living standard. So, we need to grow our GDP at double digit over a period of two years to ensure that the living standard is very high. The good news is that other countries that are less endowed have done it. Nigeria can do it too. And that prediction will not materialize.

At early stage, you developed interest in four things: politics, economics, current affairs and sports. In your career of over three decades, the last three had been fully explored! Would it be right to say politics will be engaged as you enter into retirement?
To an extent, you are right. Up to this stage in my life, I have engaged in current affairs, in sports, economics, development banking, development financing, but not in politics. I will not go into party politics, that’s rest assured. Many people have asked me that question: now that you are retiring, are you going into party politics? However, I will continue to dedicate my life to the development of the country. As a development practitioner, you cannot but deal with government, either at the national level, sub-national level or even multi-lateral agencies that are owned by the government or owned by different countries of the world.

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By the grace of God, I have had a lot of experience, knowledge and expertise as a development practitioner and scholar in this environment in the last 38 years. This is because when I was at the NTA, I was more into development journalism and news research. Most of the things I came across at the development banking were not new to me. So, my antecedents at the NTA prepared me for the job. In retirement, I believe I have a lot of information that would be very critical to the development of Nigeria’s private sector.

As a country, we cannot surmount our economic challenges or realise our development aspirations without a thriving private sector particularly MSMEs as well as efficient and effective state-owned enterprises. Added to this is the support of our development partners such as African Development Bank, the World Bank and so on. So, my advisory services would be aimed at these three areas, providing solutions that will help trigger the level of development in the private sector across micro, small, medium and large enterprises, and then helping state-owned enterprises. This is because what we’ve done in BOI needs to be replicated in many state-owned enterprises. Also, we cannot do this on our own, we still need the support of our development partners. The value that development partners bring into these processes cannot be quantified. I can attest to that. Basically, my advisory firm will be working on these three major areas in order to surmount our economic challenges and achieve our development aspirations as a country including meeting the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Really, there is no way we can achieve the SDGs without the strong private sector. There is no way we can achieve the SGDs without efficient state run enterprises. There is also no way we can achieve the SGDs without the support of our development partners.


In this article:
SMEs’Waheed Olagunju
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