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Book Review: Creating value in Nigerian economy – Life of LAPO

Book Review: Creating value in Nigerian economy – Life of LAPO

Q: It was his desire to do his part to better the life of the poor and his engagement with the cooperative movement that led to the founding of LAPO

The book, Touching Lives, is the trajectory story of Godwin Ehigiamusoe, the man that conceptualised, established and successfully managed Lift Above Poverty Organisation (LAPO), a pro-poor institution.

Evidence from this book indicates that it would not be wrong to call the author our own Mohammed Yunus. Muhammad Yunus (born June 28, 1940) is a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, banker, economist, and civil society leader awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and many other awards for his life-touching initiatives, like this author.

According to the book, the formation of LAPO was conceived at the Federal Cooperative College, Ibadan, but was translated into action at Ogwashi-Uku in Delta State in 1987, where Godwin Ehigiamusoe was reposted.

The objective of the LAPO is simply to assist the poor, especially women, in raising their socio-economic status through micro-credit and business training.

It is motivating that Godwin, regarded as Czar of microfinance in Nigeria, who has played active role in forming the Nigerian Microfinance Policy, Regulatory and Supervisory Guidelines, found the time to document his profile and the growth of LAPO in a colourful 381-page book segmented into four parts with a total of 33 chapters.

The memoir, as a legacy, has further stamped Godwin’s name as a major player in the Nigerian microfinance business. The book in chronological order, printed in good-friendly characters, is a must read for anyone interested in Nigeria’s microfinance industry in particular and entrepreneurship in general.

LAPO, which operates as a non-profit organisation, had in June 2010 got approval to operate as a micro-finance bank. In its over 30 years, the organisation has helped many, especially women with micro funds resulting in great testimonies, while over 5,000 children of LAPO’s clients had benefited from its scholarship scheme.

The author attributes the success of LAPO, which has expanded beyond Nigeria, to clear vision, determination to succeed, good governance, management discipline, and operational structures, and of course divine providences in running the establishment.

In fact, as believed by practitioners, which the author confirms in Chapter 19, LAPO saved microfinance business in Nigeria and put the nation on the global map of the practice. LAPO emerged as the only institution among the early microfinance institutions that was able to scale up – both in capital and operations.

The author and this laudable innovation must be commended as we know what has become of People’s Bank, Community Bank, and many related micro-financial initiatives. The survival of LAPO up till today is an indication of the originality of its concept and model. It is also an indication that ambition and determination are at the crucible of success.

Touching Lives started with a narration of Godwin Ehigiamusoe’s early life. He told us that he was born in 1958 in Ugha in Edo State by parents who were farmers. While his father, Evangelist Michael Ehigiamusoe cultivated yam and other crops, his mother Deaconess Ugheghe Ehigiamusoe populated her farmland with peppers, tomatoes, melons and plantain.

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As the first male child of later eight children, his birth brought much joy to his parents that his mother named him Imatitikua, meaning my popularity or fame has not come to nought; while his father christened him Eseiwi (kindness never goes unrewarded). Godwin’s maternal grandfather also named him Uwagboe (prosperity is established).

These names, of course, came with foresight when Godwin, 29 years after, began to manifest the names in his career influenced by the discipline and diligence he learnt from his father.

Though he was ‘devastated’ by the death of his father in his later years at United Baptist Grammar School, Uhi, but with the help of his uncle, Godfrey Emumwen, and determination, he forged ahead. He later gained admission into the University of Benin in 1977 to study social sciences.

At early university days, Godwin was already deep in issues surrounding the welfare of the masses due to his embrace of newspaper reading. In Chapter 5, he narrated that towards the end of 1982, when he completed the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC), the distress in the Nigerian economy that began to manifest a year earlier had developed into a full-blown crisis. This was influenced by the drop in the international oil market.

According to the author on page 60 of the book, “Due to the worsening economic situation” and what he considered as ‘’hand of fate,” he went through 20 months of disappointing job searching both in Benin City and Lagos, with nothing to show for it.

What could be termed as the formation of LAPO started when Godwin joined Cooperative Societies Division of the Bendel State Ministry of Commerce and Industry in April 1985. He was later posted to Ogwashi-Uku. He took responsibilities that exposed him to cooperative dynamics.

In fact, we would be doing our young school children a lot of good if we teach more cooperative studies today as this is the business that speaks for Collaboration, Cohabitation and Team Playing, which have dominated our modern business lingo.

In Chapter 7, Godwin revealed that his posting to Ogwashi-Uku led to many significant happenings where he translated the conception of LAPO into action. It was also where he met his wife, Elizabeth.

When he resigned from the Civil Service in May 1992, he got his entitlement in October of the same year and started what he called ‘play-play’ lending or informal lending of about N100 to women in cooperatives. Women’s interest in this type of lending grew when they could not access funds under the Better Life Programme for Rural Women project of Maryam Babangida.

According to him, it was his desire to do his part to better the life of the poor and his engagement with the cooperative movement that led to the founding of LAPO.

Before settling for the name Lift Above Poverty Organisation, he toyed with different names. Like most poverty alleviation organisations, LAPO also engaged in health awareness and social development in addition to microcredit.

LAPO’s turning point was Godwin’s contact with Grameen Bank of Bangladesh run by Muhammed Yunus; and Frank Hicks, programme officer at West African office of Ford Foundation, who supported LAPO to stand on its feet with ideas and grants.

In 1991, he received the first grant of $14,000 (N136,765) from Ford Foundation, which was a major boost to LAPO loan funds. Being a good and focused manager, determined to succeed, he applied the first grants from Ford Foundation judiciously to make it attractive to other support agencies. On page 107, he put it succinctly that this became his hidden objective of any support relationship LAPO cultivated in subsequent years.

Subsequently, loans and grants from international donors were approved for LAPO because of good governance and operational structures.

From the book, we know that Godwin is a man who made friends quickly from early days in school, but discerned those significant for his progress.

One of the daunting challenges LAPO confronted was when phantom financial institutions came on stream and duped some people. Unfortunately, LAPO was associated with it but with conviction, it survived the time.

Other success factors for LAPO were managing the business with ‘heart’ and ‘head,’ a mixture of naivety with consciousness of pragmatism. This means that while LAPO interest rates were far lower than what money lenders demanded, they were not as low as that of People’s Bank, a government microcredit institution.

LAPO gave priority to the application of sound conventional management principles and practices. It also delivered a series of non-financial services like insurance policies, pre-loan training, healthcare and scholarship awards for clients’ children.

For LAPO, one of the core operational values is the deployment of flexible structures and processes to reach and engage low-income people and owners of micro, small, and medium enterprises.

In the book, Godwin told us that from early years, LAPO developed structures that enabled clients to get involved in its processes. For instance, LAPO’s earliest governing body was made up of a group of female clients.

As a pro-poor organisation, LAPO ensured that its products and services were exclusively directed at low-income households. This was achieved through identification and application of a series of eligibility criteria to access credit. For instance, if a woman’s husband is in regular employment, she is not eligible. For him, LAPO Microfinance Bank goes beyond credit but creates access to basic micro-business management training and health tips.

In its operations, LAPO had confidence in the poor’s ability to access credit, ensure adequate utilisation and meet repayment obligations. Godwin said the poor, on the average, work very hard, toil from dusk to dawn but remain poor because they operate from slim asset bases and they are deprived of credit, a critical factor for wealth creation.

In Chapters 11 and 19, Godwin listed factors that assisted LAPO to institutionalise itself today. This includes credit discipline, dealing with repayment delinquency, quality staff, and human face in dealing with staff grumbling over unequal salaries, copying models, support from international grant agencies such as Ford Foundation, USAID, Grameen Foundation, UNDP, ASA Bangladeshi, and others.

His resignation from Civil Service to focus on LAPO and establishment of supporting subsidiaries and inauguration of quality board were other factors. By 1997, he said LAPO had emerged as a thriving institution.

The organisation was also conceived as a development organisation rather than a financial institution. This inclusive approach of LAPO was to make a desired impact on poverty as the other aspects of poverty must also be addressed.

Godwin confessed that loans from international financial institutions boosted LAPO funds and the impact on its outreach and financial performance was profound. It established more branches and LAPO climbed to the tops in Nigerian microfinance NGO sector.

The author, in his narration of growing the institution, never forgot the police harassment he suffered with his visitor from Grameen Foundation in the hands of policemen from Area F in Lagos, which he described as an embarrassment to Nigeria. This type of action by inexperienced uniform men can frustrate foreign investment.

After running LAPO for 32 years, Godwin Ehigiamusoe in May 2020 stepped aside as Chief Executive Officer to give opportunity to younger colleagues to lead with fresh ideas. Since then, he is using his free time to provide strategic leadership and guidance to Lift Above Poverty Organisation, the parent institution that has grown into a system of several mutually reinforcing institutions.

In part four that contains nine chapters, the author reflected on life, strength, and weaknesses in managing LAPO. He also recognised divine interventions and a number of people, including his wife Elizabeth that were instrumental to the founding of LAPO and helped to shape the organisation to what it is today. There were also awards, including BusinessDay Banking awards, as the Microfinance Bank of the Year in Nigeria from 2014 to 2019.

With the spirit to impart knowledge and help the poor, the author said if he had not chosen the path of poverty alleviation, he would have gone into the path of academia. He illustrated the book with many memorial pictures of recognitions, meetings and visitations.

In his forward, Dr. Tony Osawe, project officer, IRED-Anglophone West Africa, alluded, “The growth and development of LAPO has been phenomenal because Godwin and his team were able to identify where it was going and what to do to get there by creating a sound corporate culture that blended human and organisational relations to affirm the realisation of its energy.

“Through his vision, he recognised and focused on critical competency and problem-solving skills in recruitment to ensure that employees demonstrate an optimal level of competency.”

The inspiring book is simply an inspirational memoir to the youths and entrepreneurs who are struggling with focus, decisions and weak determinations on visions, especially in a challenging environment like Nigeria.

This book should be a must read for our local policy formulators for two reasons. First, it would expose them to the Nigerian version of how poverty eradication works from the practical dimension from the pen and heart of a business guru, and secondly, the book is full of tips that would make government policies like Trader Money better and more focused.