H.H Zaynab Otiti Obanor is a global personality with a keen interest for rural development and social entrepreneurship, which has inspired most of her investments and work in her recent contributions to urban development of rural areas.
An astute businesswoman bridging continents through cultural and economic alliances, the queen who spends most of her time in the Arab peninsula, is also a fierce advocate for most of the United Nation’s core initiatives and is building both economic and cultural bridges between Arab and African countries.
Born into the ancient royal bronze casters lineage in Nigeria, West Africa, H.H Zaynab is from Nigeria, she was the Queen of the Yoruba speaking race through the Ife dynasty.
The Queen’s project ‘SIWAJU’ has so far put 8,500 women to work in the past 2 years. The women learn artisan trade skills to make high quality products from locally sourced materials to enable them earn money to support themselves and their families.
Her Highness is a strong advocate in the fight to stop domestic violence, and she founded the 1in3Africa campaign to fight it.
In October 2017, she met with United Arab Emirate’s Minister of Economy, His Excellency Sultan Bin Saeed Al Mansoori, to formalise the beginning of international relations with the UAE economic sector, to improve economic and cultural relations between the UAE and several African nations.
Her quest for development and peace birthed the ‘Arab African Economic Development Initiative’ (AAEDI) and it was formed to promote and improve cultural and international relations between Arab countries in the Middle East and Africa and so far, 34 countries across both continents have become partners of the organisation, pledging their support along with their relevant ministries in their various governments.
WHAT POTENTIALS DO YOU SEE IN BUSINESS RELATIONS BETWEEN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST?
The possibilities are limitless. There are economic, cultural and environmental opportunities within the two sub-continents that if maximised, can greatly uplift quality of life and improve general security of future human existence in these two areas. Africa has excellent arable lands, quality weather and vastly usable human resources.
The Middle East is vastly endowed with crude oil and with the likes of U.A.E and Qatar, especially being at the forefront of globalisation has also created massive fund bases. A strategic combination of these two resource systems will convert sub-Saharan Africa into a great agro-industrial hub while providing alternative sources of cash flow for the Middle East Sub-continent, apart from oil and also diverting most of Africa’s attention towards infrastructure.
This is very important because Africa is fast becoming the new economic frontier. Everyone is interested in exploiting the purchasing power of Africa to sell its manufactured products, but no one seems to be thinking that this same purchasing power will be much greater if a viable and productive economic base is created within Africa through investments in agriculture and manufacturing, to create jobs and put more money in peoples’ hands.
Then, at the other end of the pole, the world is fast thinking of alternative sources of energy apart from fossil fuels, because of the greenhouse effect. It will be wise futuristic thinking for the Middle East to think of investments in African industries as a source of future cash flow. It will be a win-win synergistic system for the two sub-continents.
WHAT DO YOU THINK HAS BEEN THE OBSTACLES TO THE REALISATION OF THESE POTENTIALS?
History shows that relations between the two regions have never been balanced, and this jaded history has left many African business and political leaders disillusioned about seeking avenues of best fit for synergistic combination of natural potentials between the two regions.
Also, the apparent volatile nature of the polity within the Middle East is also a deterrent. African businesses are also fraught with corruption and management incompetence. There are advantages and disadvantages within both regions however, it’s a new age and a time for a paradigm shift. The two regions now have to look inward to fashion out ways of purposeful co-existence for the future as we have a lot in common more than most regions. We can benefit a lot by collaborating to harness what we are already blessed to have.
HOW DO YOU THINK THESE OBSTACLES CAN BE OVERCOME?
There is no singular solution. There has to be a gradual concentration of attention towards relationships between the two regions as a channel for mutual economic benefits. We have to gradually harmonise the social relationships and how both continent view themselves, and then, when businesses and governments across the two regions start seeing each other as potential collaborators, doors will naturally open.
Determined and very objective venture capital investments and creative management will definitely create tremendous successes and lead to new tectonic shifts in the global business environment with the two regions at the forefront of the profits.
HOW HAS YOUR ORGANISATION’S EFFORTS BEEN TOWARDS OVERCOMING THESE OBSTACLES?
With the co-operation of several partners across Africa, the Middle East and some in USA and Europe, we have been able to form the Arab African Economic Development Initiative (AAEDI). The objective is to build bridges across the two sub-regions through which businesses and governments can reach each other for mutual co-operation and profits. Through research and partnerships, we are building a database of businesses within the two regions.
We then create match-making systems by linking, upon request, businesses seeking co-operation across the two regions by dove-tailing their profiles. With our expertise and experience across the two regions, we midwife and chaperone these collaborations and ensure that they result in win-win success scenarios for all participants, without fail.
We are in partnerships with various sovereign wealth as well as institutions with keen interest in anchoring businesses with reasonably clear projections. Our core areas of concern are Agriculture, manufacturing, infrastructure, information technology, health, alternative renewable energy, education, arts, transport and tourism.
We are also working hard at persuading some wealthy partners across the two regions to provide a pool of funds which will be made available as venture capital to African and Arab SMEs in an effort to build a middle-class economic base for the two sub-regions, especially in Africa.
We believe that with a middle class created, especially empowering women and youth in rural and sub-urban areas, a much more fertile business environment will be created within the regions and also help in easing the lives of the struggling people.
WHAT LANDMARK PROJECT IS THE AAEDI PROPOSING?
Among the ongoing projects we are currently undergoing in various African countries through different Arab groups, AAEDI’s major long-term project is the International Common Cultural City (ICCC). It is designed in recognition of the critical need for partnerships in implementation of programs to achieve the millennium sustainable goals in the Arab and African world.
The Common Cultural City shall accommodate cultural museums, conference centre, hotel accommodations, transportation system, bank transaction centres, malls, security and safety posts, children’s park with arcade, gallery, theatre and so on. The place where exchanges of cultural knowledge of member states is carried out and shall be known as the ’Cultural Centre’.
We have been allocated plots by the government of few of the countries we are currently present and in affiliate with, and as a long-term project with a lot of planning, lining up the right partners and having proper planning to execute is important for us, it takes process and it’s not magic but it’s achievable in the long run.
ASSESS THE IMPACT OF THESE PROJECTS IF IMPLEMENTED?
Already, we have partnerships across 34 different countries within the two sub regions. And we are still moving to cover other countries, as we move along, we are documenting businesses within these countries.
By 2025 we hope to have 100,000 businesses within the two regions perfectly profiled. If we are able to link all these businesses together, that will be over 3million businesses. If these businesses employ at least 10 people each, that will be over thirty million jobs we have been able to create across the two regions, with profits across board. According to the Egyptian-America Economist, Mohamed EL- Erian “I believe Africa is on a fundamental economic transformation voyage that would allow it to meet the aspirations of its people, and move up its rank globally, including human talents, physical capital, the links, the resource and the ability of finance. We have all it takes.”
WHAT INFORMS YOUR FAITH IN PURSUING THIS DREAM?
My conviction and strength come from having lived across the two sub-regions and having experienced first-hand the real workings of the two economic climes. There are details I have seen which I know that if properly harnessed, will yield the desired results. I know that if properly put into use, our efforts will definitely achieve success.
AS SOMEONE WHO IS KNOWN TO HAVE ACCESS TO MAJOR INVESTORS GLOBALLY, WHAT IS YOUR ASSESSMENT OF NIGERIA IN TERMS OF ATTRACTING FOREIGN INVESTMENTS?
Nigeria as a country is like any other country going through her period of hibernation and political restructuring vis a vis economic stagnation. However, these are growing pains and we have room for expansion and growth, and I believe we definitely have the will for it.
Frankly speaking, investors understand our limitations. There has been an influx of interest from investors in recent times to be part of our business community here.
It takes a very serious investor to look beyond our limitations and just get it done. With the likes of Aliko Dangote of the Dangote group, Mike Adenuga of Globalcom, Innocent Chukwuma of Innoson, these are to mention just a few of the investors who believe in Nigeria and Africa, there are individuals who have been successful in the areas of manufacturing, telecommunications, agriculture, banking and so on, theirs are businesses you can see and use as an investor to know that it works in Nigeria.
They are not saying there are no challenges, but looking beyond challenges for every investor is the key to success. There are war torn nations that recently started rebuilding, the investors who went in to build it up had to look beyond the security problems in order to achieve what they plan to achieve. The beauty about every struggle is the end result. In every chaos, there are opportunities but definitely not for the faint hearted.
So, we have spoken with investors who don’t even want to hear the name Nigeria, we have also spoken with investors who are willing to give it all just to be in Nigeria as a player too. It all boils down to how badly an investor wants to invest in new territories. Of course, we would also hope that in the coming times, that the incoming government would help to create enabling rooms for investors to come in without doubts. Like I say, these are growing pains and it’s part of every developing nation.
BEYOND THE BUSINESS SIDE OF YOU, SHARE ON YOUR ACTIVE INVOLVEMENT IN CHARITY THROUGH THE QUEEN ZAYNAB FOUNDATION
Yes, I have in my own little ways contributed to some of the social gaps we experience within the society. It’s a collective effort not a one man show. I have been part of some humanitarian activities not just in Nigeria but most African countries, and in recent times, other parts of the world in need of emergency aid.
Under the Foundation, there are quite a few initiatives and at different times, we pick a certain one and prioritise our input. One initiative that has been at the forefront of our activities in very recent times is the water for wellness project. We realise the need for clean and safe water in rural communities and as an immediate need to help sustain the health and lives of the people, especially young children, we have been building solar powered water systems to most communities.
Water is an indispensable and irreplaceable resource for development. The welfare of every society is inextricably linked to the sustainable exploitation of water resources. In 2016 alone according to WHO statistics, approximately 8% of all deaths of children under the age of five were the result of diarrhea; a disease caused by drinking water contaminated with bacterium called vibrio cholera.
We can talk of education, access to food and employment for the youth, there are so many gaps to be closed but water is life and it’s first in my opinion, and that is why beyond every other humanitarian involvement of our foundation, the water project is our core focus at the moment and the foreseeable future until the gap of unclean water is almost or completely closed for safety.
SHARE ON THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF YOUR FOUNDATION
The Foundation has recorded tremendous success in the last few years, personally, I have always seen humanitarian work as part of everyone’s responsibility, I believe that we all can offer something to help another. To change the world is to first change our thought towards giving, and it has to be a collective movement. Regardless of where you are in life, there is something that you can offer, you mustn’t wait to be rich to be able to save the world. You can save someone this afternoon just by saying something nice to that stranger whom you might not know what he or she is going through, and by so doing, you have given them a gift to sustain them. The act of generosity must first start from our willingness to develop a kind spirit. And for some of us this is where the inspiration comes from. At the Queen Zaynab Foundation, we have tried in our own little way to set women in rural communities up in small businesses, we have given scholarships to kids from tertiary levels to the university, we have given aid to urgent needs of families, we have rendered medical care to few communities in need, and just as I said earlier, we currently prioritise water as this is a desperate crisis to attend to, and this has seen us building solar powered systems to generate clean and safe water for these rural communities.
THERE IS SO MUCH CONVICTION WITH THE THINGS YOU DO, WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
First of all, inspiration comes from God, and the ability to recognise that at some point in life, we will be lacking one day, we could have another day, we would be weak one day, and be strong in some, we will be young and we eventually will be old, we will be sad some days and some days we are happy.
All of these stages and emotions in life are inevitable to every human. If we can at least realise this, then we are humbled and when we find ourselves in a position to help the next person in need, we have no excuse because then we know we are privileged to be the saviour of another human being and that in itself is a great honour.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WOMEN?
As women, we must recognise the force we carry, from the miracle of birth, how we transform a house into a home to what we achieve in the boardroom. There is so much we can do and there is so much we can be. We are unstoppable if we put our mind to achieve anything, and so, this should be a reminder to all women across strata that you can dream, you are allowed to dream big and unrealistic dreams if you can, because you have the ability and strength to become that which you dream of if you pursue it without fear. Lastly, women should be a source of strength and support for fellow women instead of adopting the pull her down mind-set. No one has ever become successful by getting distracted with such unprogressive mind-set. We are a community, and we must draw strength from one another.