From Tony Osauzo, Benin A Professor of Microbiology and former Vice-Chancellor of Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Prof. Dennis Agbonlahor, has expressed displeasure with the country’s approach to fighting the deadly Lassa fever, describing the method adopted as “annual recurrent budget of death for the poor people in Nigeria.” Delivering the Distinguished Lecture of the University…
–Josephine Washima (SA on Job Creation to the President)
By KEMI YESUFU
In a country like Nigeria, where unemployment rate stands at 23.9 per cent, it takes uncommon courage to take up the job of Special Assistant on Job Creation to the President. But a young woman with a passion in job creation and a philosophical, yet realistic view on entrepreneurship, Josephine Washima has accepted to venture into what many perceive a mission impossible. Her first interaction with journalists during which she reportedly promised to create 5,000 jobs created a buzz on the social media.
Though Ms. Washima told Sunday Sun she was quoted out of context, as 5,000 jobs are like a drop of water in the ocean, the comments that followed her promise on the social media points to how concerned the youth are about joblessness in the country. However, the presidential aide, who is a founding staff of the Abuja Enterprise Agency, is undaunted by the challenges ahead. In this interview, she speaks on the preparedness of government to create the right atmosphere for entrepreneurs to thrive. She also speaks about what it takes to create jobs in an unfriendly business environment like it is in Nigeria. Excerpts…
Judging by the high unemployment rate in the country, many are still wondering why you accepted the daunting task of Special Assistant on Job Creation to President Jonathan.
The word impossible doesn’t exist in my dictionary. I was trained by individuals who don’t believe any goal is impossible to achieve. When I started working for the Abuja Enterprise Agency, each time I complained when my boss gave me an assignment before I have completed an earlier one, he would tell me ‘you can do it’. He would tell me I should go and figure out how I would deliver on both assignments. He never wanted to hear me say I was sent on a mission impossible. So, this is the mindset with which I accepted to serve as Special Assistant on Job Creation. I am not ignorant of the challenges ahead. I know how difficult it is to create jobs in a system like ours, yet I don’t think the difficulties encountered by actors in the private sector means that no jobs can be created or that we cannot create more useful jobs. I am going to give my all to the job. I have to set the pace because this is the first time such a post is being given, and I have to prove to Nigerians that the president means well by creating such a position in government. I do know that job creation isn’t done in one day. The issues that make job creation difficult can’t be wished away. They can only be dealt with through purposeful commitment to bring down barriers to entrepreneurship. For eight years I have been in the business of creating jobs, what I need is the support of relevant stakeholders and a show of faith by the public. I need people to give this government a chance on the issue of job creation.
What is the most important thing we need to do to create good jobs in the country?
What I say will surprise you. But the most important thing we need to do is for people to be re-orientated. Nigerians as a people must begin to think entrepreneurship as an option, rather than just seeking jobs. Those who are already entrepreneurs need to think outside the box. Those who think outside the box own the future. It is the entrepreneur who will create jobs, not government. The role of government is that of facilitator. Africa, especially Nigeria, is a fertile ground for investors to thrive based on good and workable ideas.
There are loads of small and medium scale entrepreneurs, who have come up with bright ideas but have shut down their businesses between two and three years, others are struggling to stay afloat. Most new businesses in Nigeria hardly survive the first three years due to infrastructural and structural challenges that only government can deal with. Is this government positioned to play the role of facilitator like you said?
I still want to emphasise what I said earlier about us needing re-orientation. Each entrepreneur needs to ask him/herself why their business failed, or how it will succeed. The truth is that entrepreneurship is a skill that can be learnt. People train to be successful entrepreneurs. Yes, there are born entrepreneurs, but many more people need to acquire the skill needed to succeed as entrepreneurs. Opportunistic entrepreneurship doesn’t last. Some people just go into a business because they have the opportunity to do so. Maybe they know someone, somewhere who is in charge of a company that would patronize their company. There are some others who just invest in a business because they know a friend who is making money through a similar venture. The jobs created by these opportunistic entrepreneurs don’t last, because their businesses fold up after some time. An entrepreneur has to be dedicated, committed and passionate about the business idea he/she has. Most successful businesses are the ones run by people with vision. Having talked about having the right philosophy for entrepreneurship, I want to add that the World Bank reported in 2005 that a certain percentage of Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs) in the United Kingdom (UK) didn’t survive beyond the fifth year. So, the low rate of SMEs survival is not a Nigerian thing, it is more of a global phenomenon. This is not to say that the Federal Government doesn’t recognise the need to create the right kind of policies to encourage SME owners. The Jonathan administration is committed to ensuring that businesses survive in the country.
Unlike their UK counterparts, local SME proprietors close shop due to what many termed the Nigerian factor. What UK entrepreneurs take for granted, like constant power supply, is a big problem here. So, how exactly is government going to tackle infrastructural problems bedeviling investors?
The issue of power supply is one that the current administration takes seriously. The actions of Mr. President have shown that government isn’t paying lip service to the problem of power supply. Those willing to be objective about how the power sector has been managed under the current president would agree that the sector is one of his top priorities. Without doubt, regular power supply is vital to the survival of big and small businesses. Nigerians are resourceful and a determined people; all they need is good infrastructure for their businesses to thrive. This government will not lose focus. Nigerian businesses need all the structural support they can get from government and we in government are doing all we can to ensure the investment climate in the country improves for good.
During your first press conference, you promised that your office will create 5,000 jobs. How far have you gone in bringing your promise to fruition?
I guess you weren’t at the event where I supposedly announced that my office was going to create 5,000 jobs. What happened was that a group of women came to thank Mr. President for appointing me as his Special Assistant on Job Creation. Most of the women are people I had worked with to establish their businesses. I also have senior colleagues who feel that I was appointed on merit, so they have been calling to ask how they could assist me to deliver on the task. It was one of these colleagues who informed me that he would have to fill up 5,000 vacancies in the two mini refineries he was building. He asked that we collaborate on his project. I only shared the story with the media and journalists at the event quoted me out of context. That story was all over the social media and I was embarrassed by it. I cannot be talking about 5,000 jobs in a country like ours where millions of people need jobs. If I was giving the media my target or the target of government on job creation, it would be in millions. Not a meager 5,000 jobs. People may think that creating millions of jobs in Nigeria is a pipe dream, but it is not. All we have to do is get our acts right and we will reduce the high level unemployment drastically.
In what ways can we get our acts right?
When I said ‘we’, I meant government and the people. You remember that I mentioned that Nigerian entrepreneurs needed re-orientation. You also will recall my definition of entrepreneurship. What we need in Nigeria are true entrepreneurs, not opportunists or people who jump into businesses because their friends have succeeded in that field. Aside entrepreneurs having genuine interest in what they do and having a vision about the kind of company they want to create, they also have to co-opt the citizens. They have to support government in the area of policy implementation. On the part of government, we will continue to seek ways to be responsive to the needs of the people. There are government agencies saddled with the responsibility of implementing policies that would greatly improve the survival of businesses in the country.
Talking about government agencies that deal with job creation like the Small and Medium Scale Enterprises Agency (SMEDAN), the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), the National Poverty Eradication Programme (NAPEP), the ministries of Agriculture and Women Affairs, do you have a working relationship with them?
For me, job creation should be taken to the grassroots. It shouldn’t be done in some cozy office. Like I said earlier, I worked with the Abuja Enterprise Agency, so I understand how important it is to provide aspiring entrepreneurs the right information and appropriate tools. Each entrepreneur has an area where government agencies can help. Some start-ups need funds, some need help in simple things like writing proposals, and others need technical assistance. The bottom line is that I am committed to working with relevant government agencies to reach as many aspiring entrepreneurs as possible. The agencies and ministries you mentioned have done a lot to empower Nigerians; I will be working with them. I am looking into developing a work plan that would see me complimenting their efforts and collaborating with the heads of these agencies. I will also be working with the Millennium Development Goals office and the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC).
Most advanced economies place premium on creating jobs for the youth and women. Do you think Nigeria should do same?
Yes. We don’t have an option but to empower the youth and women. I have been involved in job creation for almost a decade and I understand the importance of creating jobs for these two groups you mentioned. Any country that wants to make progress must have gainfully employed youths and women who generate income. On a personal note, it would be shameful if I don’t prioritize youth and women employment because I am a young woman. I fall into both categories. I told you earlier that women I have worked with came to thank the president over my appointment. I have worked with women with good results to show for my toil with them. On the part of the youths, I want to say again that we must train them for entrepreneurship. I am keen on promoting entrepreneurship training so that it becomes the norm across the country. Young women especially need to be taught that though they can stick with traditional businesses women are known for, they can also try their hands on hitherto male dominated sectors.
You worked in AES for years. Is there a story that easily comes to mind when it comes to entrepreneurs you assisted in business?
There are quite a number of success stories that give me joy, and one of them is about a widow called Zainab. She used to be staff of the Nigerian Tobacco Company, Zaria. She relocated to Abuja after she lost her husband. She was assigned to me as a client. Luckily for both of us, she already had a work-space. Here in Abuja office space is one of the greatest challenges of new entrepreneurs. Zainab had a space in the National Assembly where she wanted to run an eatery. But she wasn’t able to put things together. She came to us thinking that finance will be her major challenge and I usually discourage entrepreneurs about putting money first. Finally, we were able to get the equipment she needed with the money she had. I followed her to Wuse market to buy some of the things she needed then. Because she couldn’t cook in the National Assembly, I encouraged her to make proper arrangement to cook in her house and transport the food to her workplace. I spoke with the management of AES and they attended the opening ceremony of her restaurant. Today, she has an annual turnover of N10 million.
Millions of Nigerian youths are unemployed and this administration would be judged by how many of them are employed by the end of its tenure. All government officials involved in job creation and unemployment reduction must be under pressure to deliver. Which areas do you think government can invest in to get quick results?
Well, I am not a quick fix kind of person. I also don’t think that government should be looking for a quick fix to a problem that has to be dealt with gradually. I know, like most people do, that Nigerians need jobs as soon as possible. But the issue of high unemployment rate is a multi-layered problem that has to be solved with long term fixes. We cannot afford to create jobs that aren’t sustainable. So, I think government has done the right thing by prioritizing the Agric sector. Nigerians have been involved in subsistence farming for too long. Farming is part of our culture. I used to go to the farm with my mother as a kid after she retired from the civil service. A huge chunk of the Nigerian population have been to the farm at some point in their lives, so an economic policy that takes people back to the farm wouldn’t be hard to sell. What government intends to do is to make farming a profitable enterprise. Farming can be profitable. It is not just a slogan that government is selling. Only recently I met a lady called Cynthia Mosunola, she is called ‘Pretty Miss Farmer’. She resigned from Exxon Mobil to start her agro business. I met her recently at the Lagos International Career Fair. A lot of people dream of working in Exxon Mobil, but she resigned from that company to start her business. Not only has she succeeded, today, she speaks to people on behalf the World Bank and UN agencies on her area of specialization. We both were at the Abuja NYSC where she spoke on financial intelligence, not just as an expert but from a position of experience, because she also surmounted some challenges to get to where she is today.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when taking a decision?
I must be honest with you by saying that I put myself first when taking decisions. I know I might sound selfish, but I am the one to live with the consequences of my decision, so I have to put myself first. But I also ask myself if the decision I am making will not hurt the next person. I know it is common for Nigerians to think they don’t have a choice but to conform to society’s expectations, but this notion is not entirely correct. There is always another option. It is up to you to be what you want to be. Even simple things like being happy or angry are a decision we have to make for ourselves. We may choose to be angry or we just overlook what/who is trying to make us lose our temper.
What is your guiding philosophy?
I don’t compromise on my Christian values. I work hard at my relationship with God. I am committed to being a good Christian, but I don’t go around flaunting my faith. I don’t use my faith as a marketing tool. For me, religion is a private thing. In my walk with God, I have learnt how important it is to treat other human beings with kindness. Secondly, I believe in service to mankind. I am someone who believes in leading by example. I see myself as a servant leader. As an employee, I try not to disappoint my boss. This is why I take the assignment given me by the president very seriously. People may see me as a political appointee, but I see myself as someone given an onerous task to accomplish.
If your 10-year-old self was to see you now, what would she say?
My 10-year-old self would be completely amazed with how I have turned out. She would say, ‘Jo-jo, is this you looking all lady-like?’ As a kid I was a tomboy. I was quite naughty though I never strayed outside my home. I come from a closely knit Catholic family; my parents are both retired teachers. My 10-year-old self would be happy with what I have become. I am a counselor, a leader and trainer of entrepreneurs.