– Samuel Ayara
Imo is a middle aged artisan who operates a vulcanizing outlet on Udoudoma Avenue, Uyo. Whether it is in the shine or rain he is glued to his tools with which he told me fetches him between two to three thousand Naira daily. My interaction with him on a day I had need of his services, pointed me to a man who was not only happy with what he was doing, but also determined to face the future with it, as he narrated his story from nothingness to the stability the enterprise he found amity in has afforded him. Imo could boldly sound off that he was doing better than a lot of people in government employ as he flipped through his savings document, which showed he saves as much as forty thousand naira at the end of every month, a feat very few senior civil servants can sustain. He has nearly no formal education, but by association and exposure can communicate in near basic English; which in any case is neither required for the services he offers nor the resilience he exemplifies. Whether society gives him a chance for what he can offer, he is determined to keep pushing and is resolute at ensuring he renders accurate services in courteous ways that would keep his clients coming back.
At basic, mid or top level engagement, Imo is a true reflection of the Akwa Ibom spirit of possibility. Like him, are countless others that have found the fortitude of locating a spot at the top of their endeavours, they understand people would not pity them for so long and make being pitied a needless call. Regardless of what life throws at them, people in this class never blink at pushing their best in such honest and creative ways that engender sterling heights and are never found wanting. This is a rung of consciousness that no government the world over can provide jobs for more than forty percent of its citizenry, hence they find consolation in John F. Kennedy’s postulation “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” by toiling long days and lonely nights to reduce the overbearing pressure on the already limited opportunity in the public service; carving a niche the public service and organized sector cannot overlook. Whether through artisanship, retail, supply and human resource services, they are positioned as a realm that supports every strata of the social construct.
Conscious of the enduring promise the informal sector holds for the economic sustainability of a society, the Udom Emmanuel administration, has since inception deployed various vistas in scaling up citizens response to entrepreneurship; an initiative that sounded like fairy tale at the beginning, since none before him paid such attention to enterprise development that has raised it to a principle of state policy. Before long, the culture of begging for a living was replaced with leading decent lives, notwithstanding how much it was misunderstood to mean denying the people their means of survival. Little did they know a future where dependence is unnecessary had beckoned. In preparing grounds for the new order, the Dakkada creed came into existence; reminding the people we were more. This effort has expanded in scope and focus since 2015, with several state sponsored opportunities, beginning with the agricultural revolution drive, the power sector training, manufacturing and a lot more other interventions. It is gratifying to recall that while reports of job cut in the wake of the 2016-2017 recession was rife, Akwa Ibom turned the page to raise people who could create jobs.
Designing and delivering laudable entrepreneurial programmes, government policies had since then shifted to engaging the people in more ways than the usual. For example, 2016 and 2017 Christian pilgrims from the state majorly comprised of agricultural prospects who were expected to learn from the Israeli agro sector, to help the state evolve into food sufficiency. This was closely followed by the Akwa Ibom Enterprise and Employment Scheme (AKEES) which sought ways of helping citizens embrace agriculture through a template that provided incentives for whoever jumped at the window it offered. That was not all, AKEES also saw the manufacturing sector a warm zone to dare, and guided numerous indigenes of the state to the bright lights of entrepreneurship. Other opportunities in ICT and Agro processing soon dominated the discourse, to open the floodgates for an era of mentorship, support and patronage. At this point, budding entrepreneurs could find the forte to maximize their presence through numerous empowerment programmes of both the state and federal government as well as public spirited individuals. In this light, the Umbrella empowerment show of the Peoples Democratic Party, My Enterprise Development Goals programme of the Department of Marketing and Brand Management, the Ibom 3000 enterprise programme of the State Ministry of Trade and Investment, The RHAB-YES programme of the Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Aniekan Bassey, the agric empowerment scheme and fishery development programme of Hon. Aniekan Umanah, the manpower training by Hon. Unyime Idem, the push from Ini Ememobong foundation among numerous other interventions, still stand as valid testimonies that Akwa Ibom State under the leadership of Governor Udom Emmanuel has produced hundreds of entrepreneurs, to rewrite her story of economic renaissance.
Attitude they say is everything. While a huge chunk of beneficiaries of these gestures have gone ahead with stabilizing and expanding their enterprises, there still exists a cache that could be likened to the biblical servant who got one talent. These ones either sell off starter packs and equipment intended to empower their independence, for a few notes, settling for quick comfort that has brought to nought the resources spent in developing their skill sets. This has counted in the minus for the future of the fledgling private sector in the state. While their active involvement could have by farther than half reduced the unemployment gap, they are always quick to start at opportunities they neither need nor are prepared for, the reason every vacancy for placement in government establishments usually gets such ridiculous scrambling, majorly from people who were better positioned for deals other than the establishment. Trusting everything to the dummy that the civil service is the most guaranteed career has done us more harm than good, and one begins to wonder how an engagement that leaves one summarily disappointed at retirement assumed such preference in a community where the role call of successful entrepreneurs is endless. Whether in the staggered monthly pay that leaves the employee stretched at the second week or demonstrations that have now become part of the curriculum before earning a gratuity, people had better settled for the security of being their own boss. This will not only depopulate the long queues of those waiting for government jobs, but would radicalize entrepreneurial prospects to look away from politics; an endeavour that has produced more economically crumbling citizens than ponzi schemes ever scratched.
Politics and unfavourable state policies however account twice for why several ventures in the past failed. It is not enough to build an entrepreneurial brand, the need for every government to support entrepreneurs regardless of political ideologies must be cast on stone. This offers credence to the effort of our leaders beginning with Obong Victor Attah through Chief Godswill Akpabio to Mr. Udom Emmanuel at promoting indigenous entrepreneurs, which has produced great men in different spheres of human endeavours. Regardless of how much every administration strives to grow an indigenous brand, the need for successive governments to sustain patronage to such ventures has become as important as the quest to sustain the state economically. In construction, brands like AEC works, tipped to be owned by a brother to the 2015 APC gubernatorial candidate, Obong Umana Umana was at the peak of its glory when it lost every patronage it could have gotten from government. Darty hotel which belongs to Dr. Udoma Bob Ekarika had become a ghost of itself until recently and no matter how much they tried to stay in active business circulation, brands like Assur electronics, Jackie Jay, Dam Dave, Saint Georges, Enis Group, Shade Cover, Imperial Klean, Winmos and Hensek have had to endure rainy days due to their political affiliations. The spiralling effect of this cruelty dealt on Akwa Ibom brands by her leaders has been our Achilles heel, tripling our woes of unemployment.
Enterprise development should not be wholly left to government, the need for community based interventions should be drummed up as this will ensure every hamlet has a cache of entrepreneurs that can help open budding minds to the beauty of entrepreneurship. It is not unheard of to find communities around us without a carpenter, electrician, plumber, auto mechanic, tailor and other basic artisans, let alone professionals. This dearth of entrepreneurs at the community levels has clearly shut such places out of conversations that border on expansion, knowledge sharing and corporate existence, encouraging rural-urban migration and accounts for the retrogression our communities suffer. It is time every community looked inwards at contributing to the gross entrepreneurship pool, to leverage on the biting grip of poverty and unemployment that has for long compounded our woes. This approach will other than deepen engagements also provide our communities a peer review system. By so doing, fault lines and self pity will take the back stage as families will among them find ready mentors their entrepreneurial prospects could take after.
The catch them young module will in more ways than few deepen the entrepreneurial interest in our clime and replace the obtuse mindset that encourages people to go to school so they can work in white collar jobs. In achieving this, we must liberalize the post secondary school curriculum to give prominence to entrepreneurship studies, where students are put through various trainings and mentoring programmes and left to settle for which artisanry they can profess. This will reduce the burden on the establishment and position them to develop in their areas of interest, while the state reaps from the low hanging fruits from such engagements, including a robust tax net and growing population of independent citizens. We will worry less about unemployment if we ever get to a future where thirty-five percent of students admitted to universities from the state are already engaged in various enterprise concerns and would have reduced by more than three quarter the number aspiring to serve politicians as personal aides or what our society now terms social media influencers.
Breakthrough initiatives would also require all the support it can get from both government and multinationals. In achieving this, a department that keeps track on the budding entrepreneurs’ progress should be strengthened to reach out either for purposes of supporting their ingenuity or encouraging others to be ingenious in their deliveries. In ICT for example there is yet a known explanation to why Hanson Johnson of the Start Innovation Hub and the Onuk brothers of the Rut Hub fame should not be roundly supported. In entertainment, Aniebiet Francis, Moses Eskor and a handful of others have worked long man hours promoting the Akwa Ibom brand – people must see the gold mine of entrepreneurship through them. Langua of the AKEES fame has been doing well, but could have done better with more support, so also with Aniebiet Antia.
At the level of their reach the duo of Ekaette Ayara and Abigail Akpan of Progressive Savers are doing great at financing micro businesses and require more than a passing commendation. Similarly, Mbietenie Etim of Carrot photography and Emediong Johnny of the Blezman Media as well as fashion designers like Bobby Bassey of Men’s court, Ukeme Nkanta of UK fashionz and Aniekan Akpe of Aniferras deserve all the mention we can muster for leading revolutionary initiatives that have helped grow our entrepreneurial turf. One may find the lame grandstanding against the altruistic revolution of the hospitality sector by the Tilapia Island Resort as an idle ego-trip, considering the social capital it has invested at taking people off the street. Don Bassey of the Shade Cover brand has remained a valid example that the Akwa Ibom brands can be exported across Nigeria, while the cult-like cluster of entrepreneurs Nature Udoh parades should be helped to stand on their feet as the only way their passion and sacrifices can be appreciated.
Not intending to shelve our indigenous products from actively competing with those from other places, Collins Oscar’s disposition at promoting made in Akwa Ibom products has been legendary and worthy of emulation. Indigenous products should without emphasis saturate our markets and accorded the status of a customer’s right of first refusal. That way, even visitors that have found the state a warm and welcoming destination will be left no choice than accept the creativity that defines our industry. Meeting global standards for our products will remain a source of concern until the authorities make it easier for our products to be listed by regulatory agencies that have even been found guilty of listing products elsewhere that are less compliant with acceptable standards. This will save our people the condemnation to the agony of bureaucracy at getting the required approvals and certifications to facilitate our products a space on the global space where it can safely compete for prominence and value. Thankfully, the Emmanuel administration through several fronts including the SME desk has been responsive to these calls and has in recent times mobilized and facilitated registration and listing for homegrown businesses; a feat that must be intensified and accorded deeper rural penetration to capture more indigenes in the enterprise development net and position the state as self sustaining and ready for the socioeconomic flight it is aspiring.
While keeping an eye and ear on the conversations surrounding unemployment in the state, especially with the sad murder of the late Miss Iniubong Umoren who was lured through a job offer by her assailant, the rest of our senses, mind and heart should look towards the future where every home, family and community becomes a one-stop entrepreneurial cluster, to reduce dependency on paid employment and consolidate our grasp and readiness to reap the attractive gains of industrialization that has made our state the cynosure of the Nigerian nation. Laziness, hooliganism and dependence is alien to our culture, we must rise to the occasion, conscious that nothing is impossible when the passion is right. This is time to take back Akwa Ibom from the claws of blame trading and consolidate a front that will create a safe and expressive work space where everyone earns a decent living, whether in or out of government.
Samuel Ayara writes from Ibong Otoro in Abak LGA.