Anthonia Ifeanyi Ashiedu, commissioner for poverty alleviation, says the ambition of the government in respect of the ongoing leather works factory being built in collaboration with UNIDO is “to be able to compete for international products like NIKE shoes”
Your ministry runs one of the star programmes of Delta State government poverty alleviation through micro-credit. How did you come this far?
You know, when we talk about poverty alleviation, yes, this is the ministry. But when you talk about poverty and issues of how to solve them, it is not just a question of micro-credit neither is it a question of entrepreneurs alone. You look at it in the sense of macro way, which is what this administration has done. It has tackled poverty through education, getting our children into very good schools. Above all, children who get to WAEC and NECO, government undertakes to pay their fees. So parents here don’t have to worry about paying those fees for those external examinations. Then again, for everyone who makes a First-Class, in Delta State, already you’ve become a government scholar. We’ve given lots of scholarships. These are issues that tackle poverty. You look at the health sector, from conception to when a child is five years old; it is totally free. Free maternal healthcare! These are issues that assist in solving poverty. The water schemes, the infrastructure development, these are issues and indices that help to solve poverty situation.
If you zero down now to empowering the people, to making the people feel a sense of belonging, to making the economies of the communities bubble, as we say in Delta State, we then come down to the issue of the micro-credit scheme. Our micro-credit programme, we are so happy and proud to say, it was one of those policies that the governor, even as a [governorship] aspirant, promised the people of the state that there would be a micro-credit programme. This programme came on board, precisely December 14, 2007.
This is my area of specialisation. Indeed, my Ph.D. thesis is strictly on poverty-related issues. “Mass Poverty in Nigeria and How to Handle It”. Again, I have the singular privilege and luck to have also worked with development agencies, to have worked with United Nations agencies, collaborating with them, not as a staff. The same with collaborating with the World Bank in different committees at the federal level, before coming down to the state. So this I would say is really my turf, my terrain. So all I have to do was bring to bear what I have done elsewhere, and do it in my state; adapt it as it will soothe us. Having said that, for every poverty alleviation programme, you have to tailor it to the needs of the people; to the least of the people in the community where you work.
But here in Delta State, I will say that at the inception of the programme, it was met with a lot of challenges, and the main one actually came from the people the programme was meant to help. They were very cynical. And how did they come to believe in the Delta State Micro-Credit Programme? They believed because despite the cynicism, we go to communities, when we say we are coming in two weeks, in three weeks, we will be there. We will say we are coming for disbursement, and it will happen. And there was due diligence, due process. But again, we make the people to own the programme. So getting the people to believe, building trust with the people and bonding with them have been the key ingredients for the success of this programme.
What about markets for these products?
I will use our spice as an example. Our spice for instance, is the typical example of what you will call the value-chain experience; from the farm to the factory, and they package and they export. And they sell in supermarkets all over Nigeria. They are sold in Shoprite franchises all over Africa. Then again, we look at our shoe-making; our shoes are sold as far as Cameroun. Our shoes, like the spices and plantain flour, are also making waves. These shoes have elicited a lot of interest from the United Nations Industrial Organisation, UNIDO. UNIDO is now collaborating with us to build a first-class leather work factory that will be the best, and I am quoting UNIDO, in West Africa. As we speak, work is going on, on this factory. The equipments have already been bought; we are just waiting for the structure to be completed. It is sited along Benin-Asaba road. Not only that, technical training will also be undertaken in Europe. Arrangement for that is almost concluded; in Italy for that matter.
Would you say now that a significant number of youths have been taken away from idleness, given the fact that Delta used to be associated with restiveness?
If you recall, the governor has a three-point agenda. Peace and Security; Human Capital Development; and Infrastructural Development. If there is one thing that we are proud that this programme has done, it is in the area of peace. Let me give you an example. If you are familiar with Delta State, you would have heard about Uvwie Local Government Area. Uvwie used to be the bedrock of youth restiveness, however, something phenomenon happened there. I used the word phenomenon; mark my word. The Institute of Marine and Oceanography Research came to visit Ekpan in Uvwie. What is going on in Ekpan? It is the biggest fish farming estate. This fish farming estate, initially, was not the creation of Delta State. The youths of Uvwie decided on their own, to start a fish farm. Why this story is so important is that their neighbour is Chevron; the boundary between them and where they started this fish farming estate is Chevron, and when you recall the history of agitations for resource control and suddenly, a group of youths now said, let us look beyond this oil matter and do something for ourselves, it’s remarkable. And they started creating a fish-farm estate. In August 2008, when we first intervened there, they had 2,000 fish ponds. Today, they have over 6,000 fish farms. Indeed it has created a lot of jobs for everyone around that vicinity. What also made us happy was that some other youths somewhere saw what was going on there, and decided to replicate it. Not too far from our office here, is Camp 74 fish farm estate, where you have young boys, graduates who decided on their own also to start almost what is happening in Uvwie and today they have over 500 fish ponds there, and it continues to grow.
Can we have an idea of what government has put into the programme?
Government has really taken this programme seriously such that as of date, this government has put in over N3 billion. And for doing that, and believing and following it up, there have been a lot of collateral advantages to it, in the sense that a large number of people have benefitted. Other people have also shown interest in other things we are doing. And it has also given us the leverage to take the programme to some other heights, like introducing micro-insurance scheme.
You talk about this programme and the products with pride. To what level have you taken it?
Indeed I think there is a Nigerian proverb which says “when a lizard falls from the tree and no one praises it, it nods its head and praises itself”. I think the Delta State government has every reason to praise itself, and be very proud of its achievement with the Delta State Micro-Credit Programme. Because this programme has received a lot of accolades from especially those for whom the programme was meant, so locally, people have really accepted it. Nationally of course, it has won several awards; and internationally, it has also done well. And I must say that even in the universities, we’ve had reason to talk about this programme. February this year, I had the opportunity to do a programme at the Harvard University; we were 45 participants, I was the only Nigerian in the group. We were asked to submit projects that would become the syndicate project. They would take just 10 of the 45 projects that we were syndicated to as groups, and the Delta State micro-credit programme, specifically the insurance programme, was the one that was submitted by us, and it was taken as the syndicate group programme project for that particular course. So, even outside the shores of Nigeria, the Micro-Insurance Programme launched on April 23, they were quite happy with what has just happened, because they could also see their own contribution to it; contribution in the sense that it was a project that was among the 10 selected for a Harvard University project.
How did the micro insurance scheme come about?
Micro insurance is novel in Nigeria, and we are the first state to have launched it. One of the biggest problems that a micro and small businessperson normally faces is the issue of, if something happens to my business, how do I restart the business? If there was an act of nature, like flood, like it happened in Delta State in 2012, what will happen? Even if there is death in the group, what will happen? And usually at that level of cooperation, at that level of doing business at the bottom of the pyramid, there is always that anxiety; there is always that fear, so we looked at it, after we had the flood that occurred in our fish farm estate in Camp 74 in 2011. Before then, we had thought about the micro insurance scheme, and we got them to become part of it; we were using it as a pilot programme to see how it will work. We got the Nigeria Agricultural Insurance Corporation, NAIC, to work with us. When that flood happened in September 2011, before the 2012 flood, because they had already been part of this insurance scheme, NAIC came immediately it was called to come and see they did their work and paid promptly. And business started all over again. So that pilot project, encouraged us, it gave us the impetus to say, we can do it on a broad basis. So it is a novel thing, but it is something that all businesses require to thrive and we hope more insurance companies, not only in Delta State, will begin to insure small businesses.
Do they put Made-in-Nigeria or Made-in-Delta?
Good question. With our shoemakers, the usual problem of developing countries was also there. At the beginning of our building the groups, the shoes, they will stamp them Made in Italy. We said No. but they said nobody will buy unless it is written made in Italy. But you see again, when you want programmes like this to succeed, you don’t force things down their throat. You allow time for them to build their confidence. By the time we went for a few outings and they saw how proud people were of their products, we said okay, why don’t you put DMCP – Delta Micro Credit Programme; they will think it is foreign, and they started stamping DMCP. As the confidence began to grow, we said okay, why don’t you put made in FRN, Federal Republic of Nigeria, and they stamped FRN. I believe that by the time our shoe-making village is ready, our leather factory is ready, and a couple of them would have gone for these training in Italy, when they come back, they will be able to say, made in Nigeria. The reason is this. We are very ambitious about this leather work project. We want to be able, here in Asaba, here in Delta State; to compete for International products. The NIKE shoes we wear are not made in America, many of them are out-sourced. Same with Adidas; Nigerians are very resilient. Nigerians are very hard working. We can cash in on these international contracts for our people. And that will help our economy. This is really part of the way we want to go. And in doing the shoemaking business, when UNIDO came here, the ceremonial clothes we wear in Asaba, they were very interested in the clothes. And they took the clothes with them. By the time we also did some work on it, some few designers got interested, and it will surprise you and make you understand how far our programme is going. A designer like Giorgio Armani is interested in the Akwaocha. Because now the clothes will also be used as part of the things we use in making shoes that will be unique to Nigeria, and can sell internationally.