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‘Concentration of Nigeria’s wealth in the hand of a few people, bane of poverty’

Fijeh Roseline Aadum is a renowned corporate trainer, an enterprise and human capital development expert. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE, the business mentor and an award-winning bestselling author, discusses critical national issues, especially the need for cautious efforts towards wealth generation, skills gaps in the labour market, growing inequality and strategies that will encourage enterprise development in the country.

Tell us more about your career and interest in enterprise development?

I studied accounting from the University of Abuja and secured a job afterwards in the pension industry. I left the mainstream finance industry after five years to join a family business, where I held a couple of roles including finance and administration manager.

The family business exposed me to government relations. I had a lot of dealings with the public sector because we did a lot of work for the government. This experience taught me the bureaucratic processes in governance, especially in Nigeria. I understood the gaps between the private and public sector and why it is difficult for the sectors to align.

We delivered a number of projects. Sometimes, we have to mobilize people to work, take massive loans to ensure the projects are delivered. Unfortunately, we have had to pay back loans from our personal purse due to government hydra-headed process. In fact, we did not get paid for some of the projects, especially the ones we did for a state government. We tried the court and a couple of lawyers collected a few hundred thousand, but we accomplished nothing.

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Seeing all the stress and the injustice endured by investors in Nigeria broke my heart. These challenges propelled me to research more about entrepreneurship and how entrepreneurs survive harsh environments. I was also curious about the roles of government in driving entrepreneurship.

I later went for my MBA in International Business at a London Business school and got recruited by a UK firm to establish a branch of their business in Nigeria. We did a good job at it, but the fiscal and monetary policies of the government again sent them packing as our partners all pulled out of the local market.

At that point my research had led to a book. The book was published in 2016 and I later started a not for profit organisation; Fijeh Roseline Aadum Foundation (FRAF), which aims at the enterprise development sector. I asked the most enterprising individual I knew; Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa to be the Chairman, and he agreed to chair the foundation.

We have made great strides in the past few years. I have been very passionate about changing the African narrative. This platform has been an elixir towards that dream. I have pursued this goal by supporting entrepreneurs, transforming businesses, developing transformational leaders and helping clients to achieve extraordinary results in life and business.

We launched FRA Foundation in 2015 with aid economic and national development across Africa. The Foundation is committed to enterprise development and disadvantaged groups. In partnership with our sponsors, as at today, the foundation has offered mentorship and support to over 1,000 youths and provided financial support to over 135 individuals.

The foundation is involved in entrepreneurship training and empowerment in disadvantaged areas like the North-East and The South-south parts of the of Nigeria. I am also the Convener of The Invest Nigeria Summit and The Start-Up Dialogue Community.

What is the solution to the growing poverty rate and why is it difficult for people to generate wealth?

Nigeria’s poverty statistic is depressing. It is also pathetic that the challenge is not abating given the current economic reality, which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. I personally try not to focus on those statistics anymore because it breaks my heart and as a mother, who worries about raising children in this kind of environment, I have not succeeded in removing the emotion I feel when I think of the implications of this level of poverty in a nation of over 200 million people. So for, who are thinking that they and their children will be fine, prevailing realities across the world have shown that higher walls, thicker gates and bigger padlocks will not be a lasting solution.

I like to focus on the solution and I believe that the solution to poverty is increased productivity. Our focus should be on ensuring the Nigerian worker is more productive. How can we ensure that? Through existing and new investments; across sectors; agriculture, manufacturing, energy, power and others.

I know, we have been talking about this for a long time, it is high time to act beyond conferences, communiqués, etc.

How can we attract investment to our country?

We can only attract needed investment if we guarantee investors return on their investments. Nigeria is not a competitive destination for investment. The indications are obvious. I shared earlier about the challenges we experienced with our business, and then our partners packing up only after three years of doing business here. Insecurity, power, the sanctity of contract, and other reasons hamper investment outlook in Nigeria. Power has a direct correlation with productivity. I take this very personally because as a writer and a researcher, I know how frustrated I always got with epileptic power supply. At one point we had two generators and an inverter with eight heavy batteries to ensure access to power. That was for the house, not even our office.

The truth is, the challenges abound, but we won’t close shop because of the challenges, rather, we are energized to do more because history has shown that people have more to do with building a nation than even the government some times. I am driven by the need to contributed to a better society and engage actively in building my country and the African continent that we desire.

With regards to the concentration of wealth in a few hands, this is unfortunate, because that is one of the reasons our economy is stagnated. One of the main stimulators of a nation’s economy is consumption. No matter how rich I am, I am not likely to eat more than three or four meals a day, drive two cars at a time or even wear five outfits all at once. This is why it is important that revenue percolates down the pyramid, so that more people spend more, output increases and the economy is more robust. It is therefore not surprising that a nation that has almost 90 per cent of its resources in the hands of four to five per cent of its population will be in the quagmire.

The reason it is so difficult to generate wealth is the lack of productivity. In studying wealth in America, I realised that the USA was one of the first nations to pursue the idea of creating wealth. Before that idea became popular, people talked mostly of redistribution of wealth and fairness in the system. However, even in a system that is reasonably fair, redistribution can only go so far. It is when people rise to the challenge of creating wealth that you get a nickname like, ‘The Land of Opportunity’ which the US was dubbed long ago.

Some reports have noted that 79 per cent of women represent between 60 and 79 per cent of Nigeria’s rural labor force but are five times less likely to own their own land than men. What is the implication of this for national development?

As part of a course I am preparing for startups, I have been looking at many case studies around Africa. Ordinary, everyday people that are doing extraordinary things with minimal resources.

I came across this lady; Emma Naluyima, she gave a Ted talk on how she turns a profit on an acre of land where she practices integrated farm. She got land when her father’s land was distributed among all the living children on his demise.

She divided the land into four parts. One part for raising pigs. She then uses the pig dung as feed for chicken and fish. She gets juicy maggots from the dung and feed the chickens and then she introduces earthworms, which improve the soil. She uses the soil to grow vegetables and sell as potted plants. As those earthworms multiply, eating from the pig dung, they excrete and that excreta she uses for fertilizer in her garden.

She turned pig dung into gold because according to her story, she saves 80 per cent on her cost of production, something she couldn’t have done with commercial feed.

Remember this is only a quarter of the one acre. The second quarter she keeps cattle. She uses cow dung for her cooking rather than charcoal. She boasts of soothless cooking because of this and saves the environment in the same breathe. She has a ton of other processes that only a woman can accomplish.

I share this story to show you what we miss when we fail to empower woman. There is a popular saying; educate a girl and educate a nation. In the same vein, empower a woman and see what impact she has on the community. By nature, women receive seed, nurture and deliver real value. The same applies to the enterprising nature of women. They always find a way. We hamper national development when we allow laws and traditions that do not empower women.

Most Nigerian tertiary institutions are now coming up with enterprise centers to encourage students to embrace entrepreneurship. What is your assessment of this scheme across institutions in the country?

For me, this is a welcome development. I always share the example of California and the impact of Stanford university on that city. Do you know that the economy of the State of California is the largest in the United States, boasting a $3.2 trillion gross state product (GSP) as of 2019? If California were a sovereign nation (2019), it would rank as the world’s fifth-largest economy, ahead of India and behind Germany. A lot of this is linked to the impact of Stanford University in that state.

I am glad that we now realize that education is not for certification, but to give people the ability to create. In my book, The Pursuit of Enterprise, the central theme is the fact that man was created to create and when we create, we are in our natural state. This is why the introduction of entrepreneurship into the curricular excites me so much. I can’t wait to see the impact of these five to 10 years down the road.

I was part of the launch of the entrepreneurship department at Afe Babalola University, after the programme, I had a long chat with Are Afe Bablalola himself, the founder and it warmed my heart to no small extent listening to his vision and plans for entrepreneurship in the school.

What really needs to change on the short and long terms to address the skill gap in the country?

There is a need for the introduction of entrepreneurship into our higher education but also very importantly we need to start rewarding effort and results and stop the rewarding connection, ethnicity and religious affiliation. When we reward productivity, we automatically get a more productive workforce and as I said before, productivity has a direct impact on the economy.

What do you plan to achieve with the Fijeh Rose foundation? What have you already done through the foundation and your projections?

Our goal at Fijeh Roseline Aadum foundation is to drive enterprise development across Africa, starting from Nigeria. We launched FRAFoundation in 2015 with a vision to aid the economy and national development across Africa. The foundation is committed to enterprise development and disadvantaged groups. In partnership with our sponsors, as at today, the foundation has offered mentorship and support to over 1,000 youths and provided financial support to over 135 individuals. The foundation is involved in entrepreneurship training and empowerment in disadvantaged areas like the North-East and The South-south parts of the of Nigeria. Our signature events are; The Invest Nigeria Summit and The Start-Up Dialogue Community.

Our goal for the next five years is to educate, empower and support 1000 professionals who are looking to start their own businesses. We see the contribution these professionals can bring to the business world with their experiences, connections and understanding of the business world. So when they are ready to start building their own ventures, whether it’s through retirement or just running a business on the side, we are there to provide the education, the resources and any support they might need to start and grow their companies into global brands.

In summary, we will be a part of their plan to profit, which happens to be the title of a programme we are rolling out in March to support professionals looking to venture into our world.

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