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I Left NEPC Better Than I Met It—Awolowo

Mr Olusegun Awolowo was appointed as the Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer of the Nigeria Export Promotion Council in November 2013 and re-appointed in 2017 for another four years. In this interview, he spoke on the challenges he faced, the programmes implemented under his watch and their impact on the economy particularly as they relate to promoting non-oil export and economic diversification. EXCERPTS

Sir, you came on board as the ED/CEO of NEPC in 2013. Within this period, what is your scorecard like? In essence, what will you say are the milestones you have achieved?

Thank you for that question. When I assumed office, I observed that the Council had a moribund strategic plan on how to reposition its operations with a view to realising its mandate – which is diversification of Nigeria’s economy for sustainable economic growth. 

So, I said, we need to have an Institutional and Functional Review of the NEPC mandate and operations. I got KPMG to fix it. That in my opinion was the much-needed framework that would uniquely reposition the Council for the task ahead and indeed for me as well.

It was key to my success. Without the Institutional and Functional Review, we would not have been able to identify need gaps and thereby proffer workable solutions to some of the challenges I met on ground.

Secondly, I noticed that I cannot do it alone. I needed some kind of collaboration and strategic partnerships if I hope to achieve any meaningful progress in the course of my tenure as the ED/CEO. So, I embarked on strategic stakeholders’ engagement with all relevant Ministries Departments and Agencies (MDAs), the Organised Private Sector (OPS) and Multi-lateral Organisations such as International Trade Centre, UNIDO, USAID, WTO, JETRO and DFID just to mention a few.

I also had to extend the engagement to the State Governments through nationwide consultation with Governors on the need to develop alternative sources of non-oil revenue in order to create wealth and job opportunities. 

But in all the modest achievements I made, none can compare with the Zero Oil Plan (ZOP), a policy document which was considered by the National Economic Council (NEC), adopted as an integral part of the Nigerian Economic Sustainable Plan (NESP), leading to the constitution of the National Committee on Export Promotion.

Are you of the opinion that NEPC as it is presently, have gone through any form of significant evolution?

I believe I have played my part in positioning the Council as an Agency of government that requires all the support it can get to drive the diversification of the economy.

Today, I can tell you that the profile of the Council has gone few notches higher, particularly in terms of its brand positioning in trade promotion by the quality of services rendered to our exporting community. For example, last year the NEPC website was rated second best among other MDAs. 

Besides, through the Zero to Export programme which trains potential exporters to the level of exporting, the Council has significantly created awareness for its programmes and activities thereby building capacity within the exporting community. Some of these programmes were the reason why the NEPC for the first time won an International Award – the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2018 as the best Trade Promotion Organisation for inclusiveness.

Finally, I feel fulfilled to have also increased the morale of the Staff I met while in office – through building their capacity in terms of training, and ensuring that throughout my tenure promotion exercise was conducted as and when due, for duly qualified Staff.

What do you see as major hindrances to NEPC delivering its mandate fully?

I would rather see them as challenges. The major one is funding of the NEPC. Take for instance, the Malaysian Export Promotion Agency is being funded directly by the Government because they know that without adequate funding, they will not be able to compete in the global market. Again, look at Taiwan, the country boost of about 41 Trade Promotion Offices around the world. That is the way to go. Before, Nigeria had a lot of Commercial Offices in several countries of the world but today that number has drastically dwindled as most of these Commercial Desks have been closed.

Other challenges include the need to enhance Staff welfare and these can only be done when the Council has an enhanced/approved Condition of Service for Staff. A motivated work force will always go above and beyond the call of duty

What is your view of the ongoing EEFP intervention by Government to enhance non-oil exports, considering that you are instrumental to the introduction of the program?

The Council I must say needs a lot the funding if it is to effectively perform its functions and thereby achieve its mandate. Export promotion and trade facilitation are highly competitive and technical given that it is the same standards that every competing country strives to meet in the global market space. Without adequate funding the Council will achieve little and therefore it’s impact on the sector will not be seriously felt by relevant stakeholders.

Therefore, I was delighted that the Federal Government graciously granted this facility – warehoused by NEPC, and implemented by an Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee. 

Do not forget, we were just partially coming out of recession when COVID-19 pandemic struck. It regrettably had a negative impact on the economy particularly on MSMEs. Most factories closed operations while people lost their jobs. Exporters for instance who had obligations got their contracts cancelled by the importers. 

You will agree with me that the Export Expansion Facility Programme is the tonic that was needed to rejuvenate the operations of these exporters as well as save and create jobs.

I must tell you that there is need for the Federal Government to create a Special Fund for export development and promotion. The country is blessed with abundant resources that has the propensity to revive the economy and reduce the dependence on oil as the sole revenue earner.

But it requires a lot of support as export business is capital intensive and too technical, so without adequate funding there is little we can achieve. That is why I was delighted that after 35 years, we could properly activate the Export Development Fund (EDF) courtesy of the EEFP. 

Another feather was added to your cap when you recently got appointed as President of West African Trade Promotion Organisations. A commendable feat by every standard – so recognized by the Presidency. What are your plans for the organisation, especially as formal trade among countries within the region is abysmal?

Thank you. Indeed, I am most grateful to my colleagues from other TPOs within the ECOWAS sub-region who reposed their confidence in me to lead the TPO network as the first President of ECOWAS Trade Promotion Organisations Network.

It is part of a strategic move that was long overdue given the competitive global economy in this 21st century. We must begin to position our Region and indeed speak with one voice if we are to complete favourably with our counterparts in the Africa and the world as a whole. 

More importantly, with the operationalization of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), there is need for us to close ranks with a view to maximizing the opportunities in the Free Trade Agreement.

The first thing I intend to do is to work with other CEOs from ECOWAS, to see how we can reduce the bottlenecks that continue to plaque seamless trade within the region. So, we intend to address issues like informal trade, reduction or near-total elimination of Non-Tariff Barriers as well as work towards positioning the region to trade more with itself particularly in the area of trade in services. 

However, we also want to see how we can fast track the Sealink Project working with NEXIM and the African Export Import Bank (AFREXIM) to ease the burden of sea transportation of goods which over the years remain an obstacle to seamless movement of goods and services within the region.

Lastly, we also hope that with the necessary framework in place, we would be able to reduce the issue of most cargo planes such as DHL and UPS flying back empty due to dismal patronage from exporters particularly exporters of perishable goods. This we intend to do by partnering with the Organised Private Sector to see how they can also partake in providing this service through a Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) model.

You have definitely brought unparalleled significance and visibility to the Council, what else would you have loved to achieve that you perhaps did not?

Very good question. But my answer is very simple. The 10 percent NIMASA Export Fund that is meant to provide a robust financial support to the Council’s programmes and activities, is one of the major things I had hoped to pull through during my 8-year tenure. We made effort, and without equivocation, I want to use this opportunity to commend the effort of present and past Ministers of Industry, Trade and Investment, and my Management Team in trying to get the NIMASA authorities release these funds to the Council.

I believe that if the Federal Government wants to diversify the economy with a view to creating wealth and job opportunities for the teeming population of its citizens, the only solution is to adequately fund the Council to effectively drive this process. Don’t forget countries like Mexico, UAE, and even India, are doing well today because there was a deliberate effort on the part of the government to fund and provide all the necessary assistance to promote trade. So that in a nutshell is the only low point that characterized my tenure. 

ED, what can you say is your desire for NEPC in the next one decade from now? Where will you wish the organisation to be by then?

Well, if am the President of Nigeria, the only thing I would do just like President Buhari said “We must survive without oil”, is to hope that in the next 5 to 10 years Nigerian products would be the preferred brand in the global market through the promotional activities of the Council.

That is why I believe that “Export Business, is Tomorrow’s Business“. Meaning that if we don’t deliberately promote our products, ensuring that the meet the requisite standards and quality as well as good packaging then the country may not stand a chance in diversifying its economy for sustainable growth. Remember, like a one-time Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said “Produce or Perish”, Nigeria must produce what they consume, and consume what they produce.

So, my desire is to see NEPC as the foremost Trade Promotion Organisation not just in Nigeria but in Africa, as well as worthy Brand Ambassadors of trade in the global market.

Sir, when you eventually leave this exalted position of ED/CEO, what would you term as your legacies? Things you will love to remembered for.

I will like to be remembered as one of the patriots who enhanced the fortunes of the country through activities of the non-oil export sector, and created better visibility for the Council. Achieving a full circle in the mission of NEPC is still a work in progress. But with the attention given to the sector by His Excellency President Muhammadu Buhari’s Government, I can assure you that the future is bright.

 Any regret in your entire public career life – from your time in the Presidency, the appointment with FCTA, and then your 8-years on leadership chair of NEPC? Any stand-out reference as the high-point in all these career growth stretch?

Regrets? Not at all. As one who could be termed as an “Accidental Public Servant” – borrowing the words of my friend Governor El-Rufai, God has been faithful all through my Public Service life – giving me people of immense intellect and mien to support and deliver my moderate successes.

What is your parting shot sir.

I wish Nigerians, the country and all a highly successful Zero Oil economy – one reliant on activities of non-oil exports.  

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