By Temitope David-Adegboye
Funmi Adegbola is the chief executive officer, Combined Training Solutions Ltd, a safety firm in UK. For the past five years her company has worked to ensure safety of workers and also propagate safety habits. In this interview, she speaks on level of risk management in Nigeria and the attitude of the informal sector, which accounts for about 60 per cent of Nigeria’s economy. She also speaks on the challenges of getting organizations buy into the life saving idea.
How did you come about starting up a safety firm?
I came for holiday in Nigeria a few years back and discovered that there is a gap to be filled here. The major setback unfortunately, is legislation and enforcement. I tried getting information on health and safety, I couldn’t find anything. So, I started inquiring into something called Nigeria Institute of Safety Professionals and I got in contact with them to see how I could help, because if I want to come back to Nigeria with my family some day, I want to make sure it is sane and safe. I also want to give back to the society because this is home for me.
I really wanted to find out what happens if a customer goes into a bank and slumps or have a stroke. Does the bank have first aiders to administer first aid on the victim? That was even the barest minimum that I thought one should start from and I discovered there was nothing like that. I’ve been to so many banks and what I hear is nobody is checking for that, why should we comply? Some claim to have first aid boxes. And when I go further to enquire into what is contained in these so-called boxes, they list paracetamol as one of the content. That is even wrong. You are not supposed to have paracetamol in a first aid box because you are not qualified to administer any drug because you are not a doctor.
But luckily I came across the Lagos State Safety Commission and I found out they are supposed to be the regulatory body on safety in the state. I think they are doing very well, but because they are still maturing, there are still some loose ends that need to be tied. That is what is making practitioners who are registered with them to actually get anything done. I’m yet to find out a set legislation as obtained in the UK and other developed countries, like what is known as Health and Safety Regulation for specific years. There is nothing like that. And within that, we get the rules broken down to specifics; we get things defined so that each company would comply. So, it boils down to the judiciary or the safety commission to get things defined very well. The first aid one falls within the Factory Act. So, if you go to a bank and you point out certain rules to them, they tell you they don’t operate a factory, so they don’t have to comply with that. That is why certain rules need to be broken down and at least, they need to have certified first aiders within a working environment. It is within a defined ratio depending on the number of workers. Over there in the UK it is 1:5. So for every five employees, there must be one certified first aider, because you never know, you may have trained only one person in the place of work and the day you would have an emergency, that person may, for one reason or the other, not turn up. So, the more you have, the lesser the risk you incur.
In Nigeria, however, what I have found out is that they see it as a cost that they want to move away from rather than a benefit. I know there is a compensation act now, but whether it is functioning is another thing. The thing is if such an accident happens in a work place, they would have to compensate and if you don’t have adequate provision in place to reduce your compensation, you would be losing out more rather than cutting cost or corners.
What are the basic content of a first aid box in an office environment?
Basically, simple bandages, whips, sterile, gloves for protection of the hand in specific quantities depending on the number of staff you are catering for.
How did you come into this? Did you start out to be a health and safety instructor?
I studied Forensic Science in my first degree and Law as my second degree. It was after this that I decided to get trained for this. So, I got trained to become an instructor. I’ve also got the qualification to go on and train others. I am registered with professional bodies in the UK who certify us as instructors.
So, what is your experience since you ventured into doing this in Nigeria?
Since getting in touch with the safety commission, which has checked and certified me here, I was thinking getting things started would be a lot of benefit to the society but it is proving very difficult because of what I earlier said about legislation and enforcement.
I have spoken to many government officials but getting things like this done, especially through the government is proving rather slow. I have gotten to a stage where I thought to myself that maybe I was wasting my time after all. I wondered why I don’t just return to the UK where I already have a thriving company and just continue doing my thing there because some of the feedbacks you get are just so disheartening. I would have thought that the safety of people, be it on the streets, work place and so on, is something that the government would embrace and try to speed up things to get it enforced. We are still talking and I hope to make a headway soon.
The response really hasn’t been really encouraging. I went to a bank that told me at first that it is not in their priority and then they change it to the fact that I don’t have anything to prove that I was from the Lagos State Safety Commission, so I told them I would get that so they can comply because if they don’t, it is to their own detriment. Nigerians have this ‘God forbid’ attitude but the day God bids it, what happens. The fact is that it reduces the number of casualties. We have people who are epileptic; we need to know how to treat them.
How do you think this could be better handled by the governments?
I think they should start from within rather than without. Then you go out. Let them get started by getting their own staff trained, and then they can then extend it to other companies and schools. If someone falls down at the Ministry of Justice now, would they just be shouting and crowding up the person. They should have a certified first aider amongst them who would calm them down and give the person the necessary attention before a medical practitioner gets there.
Apart from that, we need to go into schools and get our children to know these things. My nine-year-old son knows basic life support requirements. They have it in their curriculum. Let teachers be aware of safety. When a child knows something and an adult violates it, they can correct them. They know that their safety is being violated and can correct their parents when they drive past the red light. They grow into it and as they go into the university, it becomes second nature. So, at that point, we probably wouldn’t even need so much money trying to train people. But that is a long term vision.
In the interim, for adults, they need to go to the grassroots as well and talk to people in the language they understand, giving them information so that they know what to do. I must commend the Lagos State Safety Commission. If you take an initiative to them, they don’t rubbish it. They look into it. The Director General of the Safety Commission is a very enlightened person, so she is welcoming to these ideas. Also, LASEMA is committed to progressive change in the state. However, they need to move fast. They need to get a team for enforcement. Not only would these ensure that people comply with safety standards, it will also create employment, which is one major thing the youths of this country are asking for. I went into Shoprite recently and I found that there is a place that we needed to get a ticket and you had some people sitting there helping to push the button. You don’t need anybody to push a button for you. Instead, get these people trained and let them go into the stalls to ensure compliance. We need to enforce these rules. You don’t need anybody to check you to be safety conscious. They spend money on other things like etiquettes and things like that. But if you are not alive, what is etiquette? And this is very scary to me because no one knows what could happen the next minute. I could go into a banking hall and fall down and there would not be anyone to give me a necessary first aid. So, anything can happen. It could be the end of me.
So, I think there is a lot to do with awareness and information. Once you have the information, it is so key. And that is what I am trying to let organisations and even individuals know. There are so many emergency clinics around and you find that there is nobody in there. This is not meant to be. There is so much overlapping of responsibility that nobody ends up doing anything.
You seem to have met with a lot of bottlenecks. Have thought of giving up?
Really, I have. I think a lot of people enjoy this structure as it is now and so I have thought of maybe just giving up on everything. Some people are gaining financially from the system as it is. Again, Nigerians are quick at adapting to their environment, so they can adapt.
So, are you giving up?
No, I won’t give up because this is beyond the physical for me. It is more spiritual. I got a revelation to go into doing this because this has nothing to do with what I read. But again, there is a Law angle in this and this is in terms of enforcement. We have to inform our lawmakers that this and that are what they need to do.
Why did you study Law?
I studied Law because I was tired of Forensic Science. I know that I’m called to help people. Let me tell you how I got convinced about this. I went to visit a friend’s hotel on the Island one day and I was by the pool and I noticed there was no lifeguard around. So, I ask my friend what would happen if anyone falls into the pool and the person cannot swim. He said why would anyone who doesn’t know how to swim go near a pool in the first place. I asked him again, what if it happens. Instantly, I had a small voice instructing me this is where I come in. It kept reccurring in dreams and then I went to make enquiries. That was how I branched into it.
There are so many things we take for granted in this country, which is not supposed to be. I went into FAAN recently and they were mopping the floor and there was no sign to indicate that the floor was wet. She just automatically assumed that people should use their senses to know how to walk in such an environment. But what if somebody walks in from outside and slips? Some people die from that incidence alone. Abroad people get to be millionaires from such silly negligence. They just sue the company and they get heavy compensation. So, many of them are guarding against such now. I understand it has to be systemic. I know it can work. Fashola has done the BRT and it is working. People queue to board the bus.
Are you hoping to return to Law practice some day?
My two sisters are into the practice of Law. I am more of a science person, but after I had my kids and I didn’t want to work with dead bodies anymore, I switched to Law. I just did it. But even at that, I want to run my own business. I can’t work under people’s instructions. I can’t function when people are bossing me around because I have a mind of my own. So, the best thing is to run my own company and I am doing that and it is working.
What is it like being an entrepreneur?
It is very challenging but the advantage is that I’m able to balance my family life with work. I have a two-year-old child. I’m able to take time off to say I’m going to have a baby and things like that. But if I were in one organisation, I wouldn’t enjoy that freedom. With this, I can time off because I have got competent people who work for me and I’m sure that whether or not I am physically there, it is working. I’m able to leave it to come to Nigeria to come and branch out. So, it allows a lot of flexibility and it can be very challenging. Very challenging in the sense that sometimes, I work very late at night.
How do you then find time for your children?
I love spending time with my kids. When they return from school, I like to be there with them irrespective of any nanny. We do the school work together and when they go to bed, I then work.
What’s your staff strength over there?
I work based on contract. I get contractors who I send out as the work comes. It is a lot cheaper for me and it also works well for them because I don’t have to tie them down. They can also make money from different avenues as well. And then, I don’t have to pay too much tax as well. But in the office, I have about 10 of them who do marketing, administrative works and other things.
What are principles that you imbibe to help be a good leader?
Being myself and being assertive is just it for me. I am very disciplined but very jovial. You want to get your job done well, but your workers should also see you as somebody that they can talk to. You don’t want to create a communication barrier between you and your workers but at the same time, you need to let them know you are the boss. So, when it is time to take off my hat, I do. I wear different hats at every point in time. When it is time for us to go for dinners, we do and when it is time for work, work has to be done. I just let them know that there is a season for everything.
What was growing up like?
I grew up in Nigeria till I was nine with my parents. My father was a Customs officer while my mum was an air hostess with the defunct Nigeria Airways. It was a balanced life where both of them were there to provide for us. So we were trained to be very content with whatever we had.
I went to Caleb for just about a year and after that, I travelled abroad. Since then, I’ve lived there. My mum was there with us and my dad would always come as well. My mum saw us through school.
I started off wanting to be a dancer or actor but my mum was very supportive. She didn’t want to impose herself on me. Along the line, I found myself and discovered it may not be the right profession for me. But she was always supportive. I try to emulate that in the handling of my kids as well. I let them see the right things but never impose anything on them. And it really works for us. Here I am today, married with kids.
How did you meet your husband?
He is also a Nigerian, an accountant by profession. He is the financial director of the umbrella company of Guinness called Biagio. We met about six years ago but we only got married about three years ago. It has been a jolly ride, I must say. He is very supportive. He is with the kids now that I am in Nigeria.
How do you cope with having to travel regularly?
I am a woman who, when I set my mind to doing something, I do it. My husband understands that. It is very heartbreaking leaving my children over there coming to Nigeria for a month or thereabout. I call them every morning and night to hear their voice. It is not a good thing. However, it is for a good cause. I travel a lot. I might have to bring my baby with me on my next trip.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you and who gave you?
My pastor, Segun Adenuga is an inspirational speaker and he has so many quotes that keep me going. For instance, he tells us: ‘People come into your life for a reason or for a season, so you need to be attentive to know whether it is for a reason or a season that they are there.’ I found that very useful because I meet so many people, especially here in Nigeria and you get so many propositions and it helped me to be able to identify who is who. So from the minute you open your mouth to talk, I’m able to discern the sort of spirit that you carry so I can access it and know how to relate with you.
That is one of the major ones that has helped. Another one is whatever you find yourself doing, do it well; nobody is indispensable. We are all replicable. So whatever I find myself doing, I do it well because I know somebody is out there that can replace me fast. There is also another one. “God is watching, man is also watching.”
What are you doing to give back to the community at large, especially to those who can’t afford to pay for your services?
There is a part of my organisation that I’ve just registered as an NGO and I intend to use that as youth development and enlightenment. What I want to do is train youths and just get them off the streets. They could be graduates or those ‘drop outs’ too. I’ll just give a certain number a month or year training for free and then maybe employ them as contractors so that as the work comes, I’m able to send them out. So, that is one thing I am passionate about and it is actually in the pipeline now.