REIF brings EU, UK, investors to brainstorm on de-risking PH business environment

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–  Experts point to ease of doing business, massive agro-investment, manufacturing

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Niger Delta elites have not stopped moaning over the loss of the $15Bn Dangote hydrocarbon investment portfolio (refinery, petrochemical and fertilizer) to Lekki, Lagos, said to guarantee over 250,000 direct and indirect jobs, all due to violence and youth restiveness. This has led to fresh efforts to de-risk the region so Port Harcourt can surge back as a preferred investment destination where jobs would be available to the youths.

When the US Consul-General, F. John Bray, came calling in Port Harcourt on April 10, 2018, to flag off youth training and entrepreneurship scheme sponsored by the US, the business community led by president of Belemaoil, and prodded by the Rivers State government, urged the US to lead Western presence back to the Garden City by establishing a ‘Business Liaison Office” in the City. The diplomat said such thoughts could only be entertained should Rivers State post a non-violent election exercise in 2019. Before the man could get to Lagos, the ruling party in the state (People Democratic Party) which has no rival in the upcoming local council elections, painted the state red with violence in mere primaries. This was immediately followed by the rival All Progressives Congress in its congresses.

Now, the new European Union (EU) ambassador to Nigeria (Head, ECOWAS delegation), Ketil Karlsen, came to Port Harcourt on May 28, 2018 to flag off a business luncheon and after visiting the state governor at the Brick House, said at the Hotel Presidential later that the images and messages still coming out of the state are all about tension.

One of the most concerned groups in the region, the Rivers Entrepreneurs and Investors Forum (REIF), a strong business pressure group, staged its quarterly Business Lunch Hour Network on May 28, 2018, on de-risking the Rivers business environment so as to boost industrialization through purposeful leadership and using agriculture to boost economic development. This was staged in conjunction with the EU with active participation of the United Kingdom.

At the same platform, the EU and UK pointed to the starting point; non-violent elections, free and fair election. In fact, the EU’s Karlsen made it clear that this remains the focus of the Union in the coming elections. This is exactly what his predecessor, Michael Arrion, dropped as the biggest achievement of his tenure while in Nigeria, being the successful elections in 2015. Now, the focus by the EU, US and UK seems to be Rivers State and its violent political pathway where Gov Nyesom Wike and former governor, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, are principal but opposing figures with the senator, Magnus Abe, creating a triad.

Why businesses must set 2019 agenda in Rivers – REIF boss, Ibifiri Bobmanuel

REIF says over 60 per cent of the voters are from the private sector and should thus decide what those who want to canvass for their votes must talk about. The REIF President, Ibifiri Bobmanuel in his welcome remarks said businesses can no longer wait for the political class to decide when to wake up.

He said; Businesses must stand up instead of looking up to the government. We want to use this opportunity to show the government what we as businesses want to see from them. What we are doing is about giving back to society. Lagos is waxing on but the South-South and East have everything they need to spring to a stable economic entity; airports, seaports, land, youth population, etc. In this hall, we have students from the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), trade groups from Aba, teams from China, etc.

Our businesses are being harassed through taxes, so, we must come together. We can do a lot to safeguard the business sector. In 2015, we carried out a debate for political parties in Rivers State adjudged as the best in Nigeria. This gave birth to agreements with each of the three topmost political parties in the state (PDP, APC, Labour). We reached agreements with them on infrastructure, seaports, taxes, reopening of the courts, proper market for SME, etc. Violence was an issue but we got the parties to sign peace deals. We got some of our partners from outside Nigeria (US ambassador came) to come and impress this on the parties. We are going to do it again this time. We will get the government to do the much they can do too.

EU Ambassador to Nigeria, Ketil Karlsen; Tension still coming from PH zone

There is too much dependence on one source of income in Nigeria; it is bad for oil alone to fuel the economy. There is need for inclusive growth. The EU will continue to promote free and fair elections in Nigeria. Last week at an event at the EU headquarters in Abuja, we tried to sample the opinion of Nigerians who attended it. More than half of the 532 sampled pointed to security as their number one concern that government or anybody seeking elected office must first tackle; followed by rule of law, then transparency (no to impunity), and infrastructure.

You cannot compete internationally as a producer if you must have to build your own infrastructural backbone from the scratch. Income distribution is important in ensuring that growth is inclusive. It is important to the political leaders. Those seeking power must first ask what they intend to do with it when they get it. Right-based approach by government is the best. Institutions of government must not be for fun.

Citizens must no longer wait for the politicians to produce results always. There must be pressure on them to deliver. Businesses must demonstrate the way forward.

Tension is always coming from Rivers State and this is not good for investments. There must be level-playing ground for all contestants. We (EU) are working to support free and fair elections (supporting the INEC, political parties, etc). Since 1999; we have observed elections in Nigeria. We are out to support the EU ways of doing things but we are keenly on listening to you, the people. The EU is working in over 100 communities on sanitation, health, etc.

UK Ambassador to Nigeria, Paul Arkwright, who was represented by Louise Edward, head, Niger Delta desk, said the Niger Delta region is important to the UK. He noted the activities being undertaken to bring stability and security in the Niger Delta, adding that the UK will continue to encourage the state government in its actions on taxes.

Gov Nyesom Wike; How we provide infrastructure, fight insecurity

The governor was represented by the deputy governor, Ipalibo Harry Banigo who said REIF is doing well to project Rivers State in good lights. Leadership is important but it is an age-old problem in political philosophy. The state takes infrastructure with utmost seriousness; that is why we in Rivers State have devoted 70 per cent to infrastructure. That is why we carried out biometric exercises to fish out ghost workers and allow only genuine workers to be paid. The rest fund is to projects.

Security is paramount to us; that is why we enacted laws making kidnapping and cultism highly penalized. We created the Rivers State Neighbourhood Watch. The FG employs the police but we help to equip them. We have created a portal to help people find jobs. We are creating a business hub, too. We renovated schools, and paid N4Bn counterpart funding in 2017 as arrears to attract FG counterpart payment with which we rebuild schools in the state. It is the FG agencies that cause trouble: INEC, Police. They don’t want the people to vote their choices. Let the international community observe the coming elections and see what is happening. Rivers State is totally committed to one Nigeria.

Bayelsa, NDDC make strong case for Agro-investments

The Bayelsa State government represented by the Commissioner of Agriculture, Doodei Week, made strong showing on the panel, pointing to the decision of the government to exploit the importation gaps in fish and starch to create businesses and investments. He pointed at the $2.4Bn import bill on fish and $500m for starch, saying fish and cassava grow well in his state. Week talked about the establishment of what he called aquaculture villages that could start with 500 ponds in one village to take 7000 fingerlings per pond, hoping to close as much as $600m fish need. This would create over 15,000 jobs.

He went said the cassava investment would lead to processing plants that would supply starch and cut into the $500m supply gap in Nigeria per year.

The NDDC Director of Agriculture; Marcel Eshiogu, said the interventionist agency has found that fertilizers were harming the soil in the region and thus came up with what he called soil booster to be applied with inorganic fertilizer. Already, Commission, working with a US firm, has procured 51,420 litres of organic fertilizer and 51,420 litres of soil booster. All the Niger Delta states have got their allocations. “We expect bumper harvest this farming season as a result of this”.

On credit to farmers, he said it has been difficult in the region because of land preparation costs but said a new partnership with Fidelity Bank would help manage credit to farmers in the region. “We are working with IFAD (a UN agency), to boost farming in the oil region. Under this partnership for a period of six years, the IFAD would bring $60m while the NDDC would bring $30m, totaling $90m investment. It would deployed in a scheme we call ‘Train Me to Train Others’. This would be in fishery, poultry, livestock, etc.”

Idise Emeni: Agriculturist and farm service expert

The experience in farming is that you may record big harvest but with huge loss due often to theft. It is not easy to be a farmer and it is not attractive. Farmers are poor-looking. Nigeria has about 25 small holder farmers who are poor due to poor yield and other losses. Now, groups come to dupe them with one loan offer or the other.

Agriculture needs support like in oil industry that has oil servicing firms. Labour is expensive  especially for cassava and palm produce work; so, there is need to supply weeders to farmers to reduce cost of labour, if any agency wants to intervene in the farm chain. There are palm pruners now that help to reduce cost of labour. There is need for off-takers. There is need to empower the farmers.

Farmers are poor and highly dependent. Agriculture should not be a hobby but a serious practice with full attention. There is invasion of army worms and pests that destroy promising farmlands. We suffered many disruptions when we started full time farming. We realized that we had to experiment with all year round planting; some crops did not grow well in off seasons.

It is advisable to do processing so you can preserve the produce which would have to travel far, sometimes abroad.

I advise Nigerians to concentrate on supplying to Nigerian demands, foreign investors will come.