Paul Weijers is the team leader of Growth and Employment in States for the Construction and Real Estate Sector (GEMS2), a DFID intervention programme that focuses on job creation and poverty reduction. Paul is a private sector development expert. In his 25 years on the job, he has worked in Asian and African countries, like Pakistan, Vietnam, Philippines, Bangladesh, Ghana, Ethiopia, and now in Nigeria. In this interview with CHUKA UROKO, he speaks on the GEMS2 interventions project in Nigeria’s construction and real estate sector, among other issues. Excerpts:
What is GEMS all about?
GEMS is an acronym for Growth and Employment in States. It is a programme sponsored by the government of United Kingdom under the Department for International Development (DFID), which makes funds available for poverty reduction in Nigeria.
It’s essentially about job creation and income increase for the poor. The project started its initial work in 2010. It is now in the middle of its implementation phase with a suite of support programmes ranging from developing vocational skills training systems to introduction of new construction technology to support of advocacy.
GEMS and poverty reduction
You are quite right if you say rural areas have a lot of poverty, but there is also urban poverty in Nigeria. GEMS2 is looking at states where there is concentrated construction sector presence because you cannot have project support in the construction sector in states where there is not much construction work going on.
We are currently in four states: Kano, Kaduna, FCT and Lagos. We have good reason to be in a place like Lagos where there is much poverty among its 18 million people – which is estimated to rise to 25 million in the next three years.
Among the seven million additional people, a good percentage of them will be under the poverty line. People come to Lagos in search of ways to earn income, to earn a livelihood, and one way to do that is to get employed in the construction sector.
If you walk through Lagos streets where there are construction sites, you see people on the roadside looking for a day job. These are the poorest of the poor; they are largely unskilled, and these are the people we want to empower in terms of skills and technology training.
Value of the programme
The programme itself has a total budget of 13.5 million pounds. It is anticipated that the economic value of the project for the people is 4.5 times this amount, and so it’s about 60 million pounds in direct economic value for the poor people.
People need skills and access to technology which will increase their value in the labour market and which they can use for the rest of their lives. GEMS2 intends to help them earn higher income in the long run and contribute to the creation of jobs. So, GEMS2 is a project that facilitates market development in Nigeria; we are not a market player in which short term support will give only short term benefits.
Affordable housing for the poor
Affordable housing is as complex as the many elements of the construction sector are complex. You can talk about a regulatory framework; you can segment the population according to the poor
est of the poor, and the middle class.
Each segment in the population can afford a certain type of housing. Affordable housing should be recognised as a market segment that is not explored enough at the moment. Stakeholders include government, real estate developers, construction companies, input and technology suppliers, and the finance sector. The players in this sector should see the opportunity in the large number of people who cannot afford a house yet, but who would be able to afford one if financing schemes are made available to them.
Let me talk about building technology and why houses are not affordable now and may not become affordable in the future. One key element is to reduce the cost of construction; houses are extremely and unnecessarily expensive. There are many other ways you can reduce the cost of houses. The affordable housing problem is not only in the cost of materials. There is also delay in transport, low efficiency of construction companies, the regulatory framework with all kinds of fees to be paid, etc.
Project impact on Nigerians
We have made long lasting and sustainable changes, the impact of which will be visible in the future. A good example is our support for the development of a vocational training scheme. The project supports training institutions over a period of a couple of years so that their increased training capacity can last over a period of time and, after that, the artisans would go into the sector to earn their livelihood.
We are running a project with the Nigeria Institute of Builders (NIOB) in Kano State, where we build capacity for the NIOB in developing and running training programmes. The first training programme for artisans on red bricks is starting in the second quarter of this year.
Challenges faced by the programme
The major challenge is to be a small player in a big sector and still create substantial impact. It’s amazing because we have to reach out to about 121,000 poor people. That is a challenge in itself in a sector that is so regulated.
About seven or eight ‘mega’ firms dominate the sector and set the standards, and their objective is to make profit. Our objective is poverty reduction and job creation. These are two different roles, but there is good hope for that.