Two weeks ago, or a little more than that, I was at the midweek service in my church when the testimony of a member was read on the pulpit. The budding entrepreneur said something like: since he won a $10,000 grant from the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), his story had changed. I wouldn’t normally use my phone during service but I couldn’t hold myself: I whipped it out of my pocket and sent a “God bless you” message to Mr. Tony Elumelu. I was particularly emotional because earlier in the day I had gone through some scary statistics about the youth unemployment situation in Nigeria. I had been wondering: we are in serious trouble where do we go from here?
In my previous article, “The Forgotten Conversations” (October 8, 2017), I did ask questions on what happens to the children who don’t go to school at all, those who drop out of primary school, those who finish primary school and do not proceed to secondary school, those who fail their O’Levels, those who fail university entry exams, and those who graduate and end up unemployable, underemployed or unemployed. I wish I had the answers. To lament is the smallest part of the problem. Everybody can lament. After all, lamentation is free. But how can we confront this present danger which has enormous implications for our future?
One thing easily comes to mind. Any strategy, or programme, to tackle these multidimensional problems must factor in multidimensional solutions. Not all of us will go to the university. Those who are not good academically can be good in other areas, such as sport. You have many “area boys” throwing punches for free on the streets when they could be groomed to become professional boxers. Some potential athletes are hawking inside traffic and sprinting like Usain Bolt to chase payments for their wares. Many young people are best suited for technical and vocational education: that is how they will end up making something out of their lives.
I have always thought, too, that not all graduates will become employees. Some will be employers within a short time. When I was in the university, my ambition was to start my own business after graduation. I was not planning to apply for a job. I had garnered considerable journalism experience in my undergraduate years. I was even involved in setting up a national campus magazine with my friends and course mates, Lanre Issa-Onilu and Clement Aigbogun, at 200 Level. Further armed with on-the-job experience as an intern at Complete Football magazine under my mentor, Mr. Mumini Alao, I believed I was ready to take the plunge after national service.
In 1993, I conceived the idea of producing a special publication for the 1994 African Cup of Nations in Tunisia. Nigeria was a favourite to win, having just qualified for the World Cup for the first time with the golden generation of Rashidi Yekini, Emmanuel Amuneke, Jay Jay Okocha, Finidi George and Sunday Oliseh. In my head, I had a good product that could do very well in the market, more so with the renewed enthusiasm of Nigerians in football. There was also the little matter that the publication could turn me into a millionaire in my early 20s. I was over the moon. But there was only one problem: I did not have one kobo to push my idea.
And that is actually why the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme fascinates me. I was a young man with plenty ideas and no money. I had packaged a beautiful proposal according to those who saw it but there was no such thing as TEF to run to. My proposal got me a job, though, against my wish. Thankfully, through Elemelu’s philosophy of “Africapitalism” which focuses on private sector-led empowerment of African entrepreneurs through capacity development, seed capital, mentoring and networking many young people are becoming employers rather than employees. Where was TEF in 1993 when I badly needed it?
In 2015, Elumelu ushered in the “Decade of the African Entrepreneur” by committing $100 million to the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme a first in concept and scale on the African continent. The goal, he said, is to empower 10,000 entrepreneurs who will collectively create one million jobs and generate $10 billion during the period. The third annual TEF Entrepreneurship Forum was rounded off in Lagos yesterday. It brings together business leaders, established entrepreneurs and policy makers for networking. They are expected to forge partnerships, share insights and develop made-in-Africa solutions as the continent continues to seek transformation.
This is my line of thought. The exploding population of unemployed youth offers different opportunities to different people. To some politicians, it offers a big market to recruit thugs for electioneering. It also offers a massive market to recruit voters and “buy” votes give them fish, don’t teach them to fish; give them bread, don’t teach them to bake. They will become your slaves. I hate this feeling that I have the feeling that some of our leaders are happy to see people continue to live in abject poverty and ignorance because that way, they remain pawns on the political chessboard. When we discuss poverty and unemployment, it’s Greek to these politicians.
Yet, this youth “market” offers positive opportunities to turn around the fortunes of the country, as the TEF programme seeks to do. There are enormous opportunities to empower both the educated and uneducated in virtually all sectors of the economy. Teach them to fish. Teach them to bake. Don’t give them fish. Don’t give them bread. We can look at the youth with all their bubbling energy, make entrepreneurs and employers out of them to create a prosperous society. Rather than give up on the youth situation, the government, at all levels, can concentrate policies and programmes on capacity development, seed capital, mentoring and networking like TEF.
The National Directorate of Employment (NDE), started in 1989 by the military government of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, has faded away. YouWiN! Connect, started by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2012, provides support to young entrepreneurs through three stages: from planning and starting to growing businesses. The aim is to promote entrepreneurship as “a viable career option for young Nigerians which in turn will create jobs and wealth”. On paper, these are great ideas. But, in truth, the government itself could be overwhelmed. We are discussing millions and millions upon millions of unemployed youth, not just a few thousands.
That is where Africapitalism makes sense it is about the private sector working with governments and other stakeholders for the economic and human development of Africa. How many people can the government employ? How many can MTN and Shell employ? But there is no limit to how many self-employed people and entrepreneurs we can make out of Nigerians. Government must actively encourage entrepreneurship. I would further suggest that government should make it easy for people, especially young people, to do business, rather than harassing anyone that opens a company with all sorts of taxes and levies, forcibly enforced by police and touts as if we are at war.
The idea of encouraging men and women of means to empower the youth should be part of our overall strategy to tackle unemployment in Nigeria. Elumelu himself was barely 34, and largely unknown, when he acquired a distressed financial institution, Crystal Bank, and became the country’s youngest CEO in the banking sector. He changed the name to Standard Trust Bank which later became Nigeria’s fifth largest bank and acquired the mammoth UBA, which has now moved from being a single-country bank to an institution with operations in 19 African countries. There are plenty Elemules waiting to be unearthed, mentored and empowered all over Nigeria.
I summarise. As gloomy as things appear to be for the youth both the formally educated and the uneducated there are opportunities to build and empower them to become entrepreneurs in their own corners, as TEF is doing. Government policies must factor in the private sector and other stakeholders as we seek to tackle the daunting challenges. Men and women of means, beyond being just billionaires and philanthropists, should look in the direction of youth empowerment. We are in a society where some people think they are insulated from poverty and all this talk about youth explosion is none of their business. They need to rethink. We are all in this together.