BusinessDay

Olusegun Awolowo: Taking a bow after class act at NEPC

Several federal government parastatals merely exist, sustained through annual budgets, but, for all practical purposes, are largely unheard of, even though they are set up to deliver on specific mandates. It takes the drive of a go-getter who gets appointed to head an almost moribund organisation to breathe life into it.

A good example is the Nigeria Export Promotion Council (NEPC). By his own admission, even Olusegun Awolowo, Jnr, knew next to nothing about the Council before he was appointed its Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer in 2013 by former President Goodluck Jonathan.

But the grandson of the political colossus of the old Western Nigeria, Obafemi Awolowo was already equipped with the confidence to take on a daunting responsibility on the strength of his exposure to such high flyers as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nasir El-Rufai, Oby Ezekwesili, Charles Soludo and others in the administration of former president Olusegun Obasanjo.

On the expiry of his tenure in November 2017, President Muhammadu Buhari reappointed him for a second tenure in February 2018. It is safe to surmise that he got reappointed in appreciation of the zeal and passion he brought, notably through the Zero Oil Plan, an economic blueprint for Nigeria to boost non-oil exports, among several others.

Through his leadership at NEPC, Nigeria has been able to scale up the export of non-oil products, through the Zero Oil plan in synergy with other agencies.

Read Also: Buhari names Yakusak as new CEO of NEPC

NEPC

Before his time at NEPC, he worked as a special assistant to president Obasanjo, who challenged him, instead of “just making noise outside” to “come and see what it is to be inside government.” As special assistant to the president on traditional institutions, Mr. Awolowo harped on the idea of briefing the traditional rulers on government programmes. “The exercise was an eye opener — the traditional rulers knew the workings of government and its programmes and intentions,” he enthuses in fond recollection of his efforts.

He also worked in the President’s office with Oby Ezekwesili in the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligent Unit (BMPIU known as the Due Process Office), which became the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP). After president Obasanjo’s tenure, he was a secretary for Social Development at the Ministry of the Federal Capital Territory during the tenure of Aliu Modibbo.

From there, he moved to the Transport Secretariat where he was part of the team that pushed the agenda for the development of the rail system. After Modibbo he worked with Adamu Aliero; then with Bala Mohammed, who assigned him to supervise the Area councils in FCT.

NEPC has also been able to energize the Export Development Fund, which is a fund for MSMEs in drawing them into the export business

His appointment to head NEPC was on the recommendation of Olusegun Aganga, former Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment of Nigeria. “It was the first time I was hearing of NEPC because in the ministry, the most popular were Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC) Bank of Industry (BoI), Industrial Training Fund (ITF) and others, with NEPC quite y low in terms of popularity,” he recalls of his initial acquaintance with the Council.

Once he had read the Nigeria Industrial Revolution plan (NIRP), he got cracking on the job. “From research, I realized that really and truly, we’ve been doing it wrong,” he reflects. “We have not put exports on the front burner of our national development. Most of our development plans have not really looked into exports. And I knew that was really a major concern. After doing research, I found out that the major problem is that we’re not even producing enough.”

He has collaborated with key players like the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC), Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON), NEXIM bank, NEPZA, etc. to end the era of everybody working in silos, with no shared information on the nation’s export potential.

Mr. Awolowo facilitated the development of the Zero Oil Plan, an audacious and ambitious initiative under which NEPC identified 22 sectors where Nigeria can earn $30 billion in foreign exchange.

Under the Industrial Revolution Plan, NEPC settled for 13 strategic products to replace oil — palm oil, cocoa, sugar, rice and cashew while mining related are cement, Iron ore/metals, auto parts/cars, aluminum fertilizer/urea, petrochemical and menthol.

He found an ally in the National Economic Council (NEC), which is chaired by the Vice President and has the 36 state governors and other ministers. NEPC has also worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat to develop a plan for export of services, one he handed over to the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy to continue driving it, because digital economy really means trading in services, as he noted.

“I have been a meddlesome interloper in many more ways than one because I go from ministry to ministry, agency to agency trying to drive things,” he highlights his approach. For instance, “I have to urge Edo state to scale up palm oil production because there is a market and there is also the processing of all the derivatives of palm oil that we can make,” he says.

He is also delighted that the CBN has been inspired by the Zero Oil Plan, noting: “They took rice for, instance, and started the anchor borrowers programme on rice.”

He also sees prospects of taking advantage of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement in terms of boosting exports through ECOWAS’ ETLS to move products into Africa and to the world. He gives an example: “We were with the Ghana Export Promotion Council a while back. The MD said their number one import is still rice, and that they used to import a special rice called Abakaliki rice, that it was the best rice they liked. But Nigeria stopped producing it (in enough quantity)!”

NEPC, he says, had to alert the government of Ebonyi state on the need to invest in rice production to take advantage of the market just next door (in Ghana). “Now, with Africa continental free trade, it’s duty-free; so you just move it down,” he says.

NEPC under his leadership supported companies in boosting export capacities. An example is Food Pro, a company exporting raw cashew kernels. With 120,000 metric tonnes bought by just one country (Vietnam) out of 130,000 metric tonnes produced, it became imperative to not only boost local production, but also processing.

He also interfaced with Akinwumi Adesina, who was then minister of agriculture and rural development, now President of the AfDB, which resulted in more attention to cashew due to the foreign exchange potentials in cashew. “We worked with farmers (on the use of) improved seedlings under the auspices of the Nigerian Cashew Association. In another two years, we got 270,000 metric tonnes. Now, we are doing over 300,000 metric tonnes,” he says. “So, I told the guys at Food Pro to come into processing. They came back to me later with other businessmen to support them. We got BOI and NEXIM Bank, who identified an old cashew processing plant in Ilorin, called the governor and asked for support. I was even able to take the Vice President to commission that plant. They are employing over 600 women to do the work there.”

Under Mr. Awolowo, NEPC got an approval of almost N350 billion from President Buhari for incentives through the Export Expansion Grant (EEG).

NEPC has also been able to energize the Export Development Fund, which is a fund for MSMEs in drawing them into the export business. It started this year under the N50 billion export expansion grant from the federal government. “We are taking almost 2000 companies,” he says. “We’ve given them grants of almost 7 billion naira. We’ve been able to give companies COVID relief to cushion the effects of these companies. I think we’re going to be doing almost 20 billion naira on that.”

NEPC is supporting the provision of storage facilities at six international airports, working with NAHCO, as well as providing domestic export warehouses all over the country to help exporters aggregate their produce and from there go straight to the ship, not to the port, because everything has been cleared. There’s a committee working on this that involves from Customs, NAFDAC and quarantine services.

Mr. Awolowo and his NEPC team regular visit states and meeting private sector investors to encourage them. For all his accomplishments, Mr. Awolowo is surprisingly modest about listing them. “I’m not in the habit of saying what I have done or achieved, but always like records to speak for themselves and let people see,” he says.

He is likely to write a book, like his grandfather, one in which he would detail how he has worked with four Nigerian presidents – Olusegun Obasanjo, Musa Yaradua, Goodluck Jonathan and now Muhammadu Buhari and his close encounters with all of them.

Just what inspires Mr. Awolowo? “The major inspiration is the fact that I just love this country,” he says in an interview. “I think we should really embrace how great Nigeria can be when we are one. When we build this economy and this country, other countries would want to be part of us. And I keep telling my children that this green passport will still be the best passport.”

 

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.