Senior Special Assistant to the Bayelsa State Governor on Small and Medium Enterprise (SME), Ebiekure Jasper Eradiri, in this chat with Osa Okhomina, looks into the state government’s effort to attract investment and create wealth in the state.

What is the idea behind the creation of your office?
It is a new office, and, apparently, the governor of the state recognizes the need or the role played by the SMEs in the growth of any economy and also an engine room of economic growth. That is why he decided to set up the office.

How has the journey been so far?
The journey so far has not been rosy. Our mandate is to create wealth, build capacity and generate employment. Since we came on board, we have taken different measures to change the orientation of the people and change the weak resolve attached to the people. It is sad to observe that the business of providing goods and services in Bayelsa State is at its lowest level; production-wise and service-wise, it (Bayelsa) is poor.

When we came in, we rolled out our modules for change and we have met with various business groups and businessmen. We have held town hall meeting with the business community in the state. We called on them to discuss issues of development and strategies. We had another meeting on plan of action. We discovered that the existing SMEs in Bayelsa State are not known.

We followed the three Cs – the right concept, capacity and capital. If they don’t have the right capacity and you provided capital, it may not be good. We decided to compile a comprehensive list and the state governor graciously approved it. We are glad to say that the exercise was hitch-free and we went as far as Akassa community in Brass Local Government Area (LGA) of the state.

How many are they?
We discovered, through the encouragement of the governor, for the list not to be closed; so that those that were not captured in their LGA can come forward and be captured. What is the exercise for? It had never been done in the state before and after identifying them, the next line of action is to conduct a needs assessment. Some of these people may require equipment, others may need raw cash, while some others may need training. Different SMEs may have diverted needs.

Having this in mind, we thought we should approach it in this manner. Fortunately, since we came, we have given publicity to the SMEs and given collaborations to institutions in Nigeria and outside the country. I have done a lot of travelling because the governor felt we should be exposed. He approved that we should attend the U.S. investment summit with the idea of networking and presenting Bayelsa as an investment haven.

At the end of the day, it was a great event and we want to tell the people that we have huge investments coming from the United States. The U.S. investors assured us that they are moving from Asia and coming to Africa. In Africa, they are looking at the South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, but that Nigeria is attractive to them because of the population. Seventy percent of the investments on the African continent are in Nigeria, and 8.5 percent of such investments are in Bayelsa State; and that is good for the state. Our office is prepared for such investment coming into the region and the state.

But the noticeable focus of the state governor is South Africa; investors in South Africa, do they seem ready to invest?
Yes, the governor has had cause to approve my attending a summit of the Development Finance Institutions (DFI). In that summit, we had different finance institutions in attendance. They were from Asia, the Caribbean and the United States. I attended the forum with the chief economic adviser of the state, and coming out of it, we are able to endorse an MOU with the DFI.

It bodes well for the state and for BEDIC – the Bayelsa Economic Development and Investment Corporation. The entire plan is for South Africa and the rest of the world to come and invest in a holding company that is accredited. And because we have an MoU with the EIDC, automatically the state’s EDIC is known.

By February, we will start to see the inflow of investments. I am trying not to speak for the corporation, but the SMEs have a lot to gain. We have also attended the in SME conference in Accra, Ghana, and we were lauded for our role in SME development in Africa. At the end of the day, the first lady of the state was given an award for encouraging women entrepreneurship in the state. In a nutshell, we have done lots of networking, not only with South Africa but the whole business community of the world.

But how well have you done at home?
We have had interactions with the business community as I have said. We have had meetings with the Investment Council in the state. We have interacted with the Manufacturers Associations of Nigeria (MAN).All this is to bring seriousness to SME in Bayelsa State. You will agree with me that Bayelsa had never been taken seriously for investment and business in the comity of states, but such is changing during this administration.

We have been serious in all the facets of the economy. Without blowing our trumpet, everywhere you go in the world, the state is recognized as a serious minded state in Nigeria, and I am proud to say that, not as an appointee but as one that has seen the changes in SME development.

For instance, we were in Enugu for a non-oil sector conference; we were among the leading states present. In anything that concerns SME, Bayelsa State takes it seriously and this is part of efforts to develop the non-oil sector. Whatever decisions taken, Bayelsa contributes a lot. In the state, we are tinkering with the idea of having the SME conference in collaboration with Small and Medium Enterprise Development Agency of Nigeria (SMEDAN). We are also thinking of including entrepreneurship education in the curriculum of schools in the state. From February, the SMEs will bear witness to our effort.

The recent agreement signed with the Bank of the North is targeted at providing over 200,000 jobs in the state; how is that possible?
Yes, Friday December 7 was a memorable day for all of us. The Bank of Industry (BoI) officially received a N1billion partnership support from the state with a N1billion counterpart funding from the bank. To demonstrate the seriousness, the governor set up the committee to map out the modalities for the disbursement of the fund. We have Commissioners of Science and Technology and others as members. We have grassroots members to ensure that the funds reach the women at the grassroots. We all know that women have better control over resources with youths as secondary beneficiaries.

But to the ordinary people on the streets of Bayelsa, the numerous foreign trips and conference are consuming huge resources that should have been used for development; how would you convince the common man those trips were necessary?
First of all, if we don’t get empowered with the knowledge on new business development skills and be exposed to modern business practices, we may not go far. It has also helped to create new synergy with the businessmen of the world. Let me tell you, there is what we call venture capitalism. This is to say that with or without government, we have the Bank of Industry and we have worked out such relationship with various investment interests.

We have told the world’s investors that many small businessmen here have potentialities but do not have the capital. And we want them to invest or we buy into their businesses, with ratios worked out. This has been operating world-wide and if we don’t go out, we won’t know. This has led to the Bayelsa Trading Company with the need to interface with the grassroots and take on the trouble to distributing to the world; that is, to take the risk from the small businessmen. We have observed and learnt new business techniques to help the people to generate wealth.

One of the major deals from such trips is to bring into the state a new orientation for businessmen in the state. Recently, from such trips, we met with a senior management officer from the Central Bank and discovered that we have a huge pool of funds that the state had failed to capitalise on for SMEs in the state.

Let me use the You Win programme of the federal government; when we started, only eight persons could benefit, but when the programme came again, we increase the publicity and visited communities in the eight local government of the state. Many participated and over 215 women benefitted. It is an improvement, but it is about seeing how many have the capacity and quality to deliver.

The governor has said time without number that such funds available would not be disbursed in the ‘business as usual’ fashion. It is meant to create wealth. We will not play politics with funding to create wealth for the people. You don’t have to be a politician or senior civil servant to benefit. What we are trying to do is adopt the style of United States in which the SMEs are used to drive the economy. If we do all these, and they do well, the state will tax them and the IGR will improve.

You can see clearly that it would not be business as usual. Basically, I believe that our people will do well with funds to be made available for wealth generation. Perhaps, we will serve as guarantor and help reduce the collateral needed. We may make guarantee and propose movable collateral such as gold necklaces or others that can easily be made available. The criteria for the fund, which is a loan, would be normal but with reduction to ensure that many benefit. If you contribute and put something at stake, it will work. It has worked in India and is working in Rivers State.

How many SMEs do we have in Bayelsa State? How much investment are we expecting and how many jobs would come out of these?
The SME sector would be able to produce over 2,000 jobs – in all modesty. We believe that by the time the other MDAs buy into the ongoing programme, we will have more jobs available. What we are saying is that within a time frame of 24 months, and going by the new frame work, we would drive the state economy with the SMEs. At this time, we have got lost of SMEs and we would not be able to place a number on them.

All we need to do is to keep an open register and allow others to get registered. From the U.S., we are expecting a minimum of 10 investors and nine are from investment meetings we attended. From South Africa, with the IDC, we are also expecting more investors. These things are all on record and on the web. You will see what is coming to Bayelsa and you get direct access to the investment profile.

How would you describe the call for foreign investors and the ineptitude of citizens towards investing in the state?
We are also disturbed. The psyche of our people has to change. I feel sad to a point. We are searching for a way for the government to partner with the people. Most of these people have built shopping malls in the state and some have done more outside. The non-natives have done more and we are searching for a better way to encourage them, like in Lagos.

We have started with boosting security and entrenching transparency. It has built confidence in the investors. What we are doing now is to convince the people to accept the investors. They may not come direct but through embassies and local investors.

Most of what we have done is collaboration and we need people to help and allow businesses to grow.

It is true that the local investors have refused to invest in the state. We observed that these indigenous investors refused because of the risk. We have identified the risk. We discovered that in the past the sincerity and support of government were not there. Secondly, we discovered that the security under the past administration was poor. But the security in place today is galvanizing businesses in the state, and our people also love taking short term risks.

An example is the Delta Airline incursion into Nigeria. They met Virgin Atlantic Airline on the Lagos-Atlanta route. When the Delta Airline came into the scene, people discourage them. But they stuck to the route. In the last 15 years, they have been on the route and have not regretted it. These people came into Nigeria when there was serious competition. This is the same industry where investors shy away from. The potential in Bayelsa has increased and we have endorsed an MoU with Investment Corporation of the South Africa.

We are currently riding on the global integrity of the institution. Everyone is rushing to do business with us because we have a credible partner.