• Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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Owerri City Chamber chiefs outline path to business boost, industrialisation

Charles Okeke (1)

Business leaders in Imo State seem to have moved beyond lamentation of the numerous afflictions facing businesses and moved to seeking solutions and pointing to how to facilitate industrialisation of the Eastern Heartland.

Investigations and interviews in Imo State by BDSUNDAY team showed that absence of federal projects in the state seems to be the greatest disincentive to investors choosing the state over other states in the South-South and South-East. The next challenge pointed out by most sources is collapse of roads in the state, thus discouraging businesses that would want to drive easily to points.

Industry leaders especially in the Owerri Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (OCCIMA), who suggested ways to boost investment in Imo State, said businesses can thrive if simple things are done.

The Deputy President, Charles Okeke, CEO of Shabron Group, pleaded for rehabilitation of federal and state roads, extension of railway lines through Imo for which Nigeria has taken loans from China, develop Oguta Lake to link with the Atlantic Ocean so as to open the economy of the state to international trade, etc.

The Shabron Group has Shabron Ltd, Mecol Ltd, Jok Box Communications, Optimum Box, etc. with major brand being their partnership with MTN, especially in Mobile Money.

Okeke said there was need for the FG to once in a while site major projects in the state. He talked of need for what he called robust financing schemes. “Discrimination against Imo businesses should be discouraged, though the Igbo spirit that makes our people to strive to survive is what is keeping us,” he said.

The business community decried the death of the only industrial park in the state. Okeke said: “Let me also use this opportunity to highlight the menace of herdsmen. The industrial park has been taken over by herdsmen and their cattle. Those hoping to move into the parks when facilities come can no more hope to do so. I use this opportunity to appeal the FG to move quickly and move out the herdsmen in those places so as to encourage businesses back into those places. As I talk to you now, I cannot even enter into those places.”

The CEO decried poor power supply and exorbitant bills by the Disco in the zone.

“Even in Covid19 era when we were doing nothing, not open the office, but we got a bill of N179,000 where e were paying N30,000 per month. This will give you an idea of what power means. There is nothing extraordinary that we use here.”

Okeke is into IT even though it was not his area of study. He was once a top BUA Cement magnet. He is the chairman of University of Ife Alumni Association in Imo State and a national officer.

Attractions

Okeke said Imo State is a friendly state with cheap labour and that the people are quite industrious. “Imo State is about the highest in terms of skilled labour in Nigeria; from the universities and the colleges in high numbers. They now salt into menial jobs to survive.”

He further said that Imo was not one of the very bad states in terms of security and so investors can breathe some air. He however warned against the increasing presence of herdsmen and many nagging incidents. “If the state government can be proactive now and nip it in the bud by working out a way of retraction, the state would be safe, except for some bad boys out of hunger and hunt for jobs that may cause some problems once in a while. If the industrial parks are revived, the young people can find things to do.

Agric sector: Go into piggery

He advised Imo youths to move into the agric value chain and seek out agric projects that do not require massive lands. “The way to go now is to produce something. Agric comes handsomely here. Piggery happens to be very lucrative. It yields quick income and the food is not costly. I encourage people to go into it and I have sponsored some persons into it. They are doing well. You can go into fishery, snailry, etc. Imo may not have large lands for mechanised agric. We cannot talk of large scale farming because of land constraints.”

He went on: “Imo needs the support of federal institutions and banks to support an agric revolution in Imo State to create jobs, rehabilitate many people, etc. It’s not about using keke to deceive people. That is not productive. It is not helping the Imo economy. The government should find a way of taking these Keke people off the road. The easy money they get is not sustainable. The N2,000 you get in a day will not move you forward neither is the state moving anywhere. Keke will not move Imo State anywhere. There is need for an Imo Economic Summit to plot a new economic path for the state.”

He suggested the creation of what he called an opportunities desk in the state government house to search opportunities around the world and link these to Imo young people. He also said OCCIMA was developing a position paper on how to move the state forward in industrialisation and investment.

Director-General makes case for business revolution

The business community led by OCCIMA held very deep meetings with the new administration that emerged in the state in May 2019. That meeting held huge hopes for industrial turnaround. The DG, Grace Egejuru, outlines this; “Conducive environment is what attracts any investor. It includes security. That is what decides the rest. The security perception decides the rest.

“If there is robust policing and policies by the state government on this, the investor will be scared. At least in the day, people should not be harassed. We look up to power system in the state to improve. Business people are totally discouraged. Many have stopped their businesses because of dependence on gas. The whole profit goes into gas.

“Imo is not as big as Lagos and Abuja where little sales will carry you but in Imo, profit is marginal. If you depend on gas, you will not record profit. This is the biggest discouragement here.

“Multiple taxes: People rush in to ask you to pay for all manner of things including projector, etc. These taxes or levies discourage businesses. Efforts to engage the Revenue office to agree on taxes in the state proved abortive. Groups keep demanding for revenues of same nature. People did not know what the taxes were meant for. Hopes rose when the truncated administration worked out areas of collaboration with the private sector. We were fully involved in that administration and we hoped to harmonise taxes. No business person wants to throw profit or money away. There is need to engage the government and know tax policies and what they are used for.”

Egejuru too mentioned areas of road rehabilation and said the short-lived administration had started massive road rehabilitation. “If there is no road, business cannot take roots in Imo State. Let the roads be fixed. FERMA is not doing anything in Imo State. They can tackle Onitsha Road. FERMA merely does shabby thing at bad spots and disappear. Before one month, it washes off.

“It is difficult for an investor with good vehicles to enter the state and before one month, the vehicles go bad and drivers capitalise on that to cheat. If road is very bad, you cannot time your drivers.

“Regulations, laws, due process: In Imo State, there is no rule. People have ugly experiences from touts. It’s a state of pure touting. People barge in and shout at you demanding for money. They demand it like robbery. There is need for a formal notice and time gap to ask questions. There should be communication between businesses and the tax agencies. Any person can come with shabby papers to demand taxes and levies. That is the nature of the state. They mount the roads and shabbily collect tax. One way: They put very small signs in remote corners and wait to arrest motorists. There ought to be big boards plus sensitisation so that people would know what to do.

“Engagements: The economy of Imo State did not move ahead because there was no engagement system between the OPS and the government. There was a time the governor called for a meeting and he said something about the Onitsha Road industrial layout and plans to revoke lands there. The OCCIMA wrote back to ask him to hold on and follow due processes.

“You don’t wake one morning to say you are taking over somebody’s land without stating the processes. The late president reminded the government of absence of access roads, no electricity, etc. Companies there usually closed down because of these. You don’t expect the businesses to keep losing. This kind of stopped the governor then. We are still pushing for the government to understand that people need to be motivated to do business. Any amount you want to collect, you make rules about it; why it is paid, how it is paid, who should collect it, accountability clauses, etc. We had expected more investors to come because of signals that things would be better.

“When new businesses come, make them come and register at the chamber so that we can have a proper channel to engage the government. Talks were going on with the government and we are telling people not to be discouraged hoping that Imo State would be better.

“Land administration: Land in Imo State in the past eight years, a lot of land papers were revoked and people’s lands were taken. These were discussed at the last forum and the governor made definite commitments on resolving those lands taken from you. Complaints were to be looked into. Compensations were to be paid in some cases for those that could not be returned. We held him by his words and we believed his words. The team working with him also helped to assure the OPS. The OPS needs reassurances on the various areas of difficulty.”