Kelvin Uwaibi, a development, finance as well as public sector expert, with vast experience spanning over 20 years, is the managing director of Edo State Investment Promotion Office (ESIPO). In this interview with OBINNA EMELIKE, he spoke on the coordinating efforts of ESIPO in developing and promoting businesses across the state with over $2.5 billion in both Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and Domestic Direct Investment (DDI) attracted into the state’s economy since 2017. Excerpts:
When and why was the Edo State Investment Promotion Office (ESIPO) created?
The Edo State Investment Promotion Office also known as ESIPO was established in January 2018 and that came about as a result of Governor Godwin Obaseki wanting to see that we could drive investment into the state. To ensure that the state is attractive to investors and at that point what we did was to set up the office and ensure there was legislative backing for the office, hence the Investment Promotion Law was sent to the State House of Assembly, which was passed into law.
What is the mandate of ESIPO?
Presently, as an office, the mandate is to attract investment to ensure that investors that are coming to Edo State have a seamless experience, enable the business environment, promote exports and ensure that what we call the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are investors’ ready.
To what extent has this mandate become operational and achievable?
It has been a very interesting journey for us as a state. If we recall, Edo before now was seen as a student and civil service state but that is changing as a lot of investors are coming into the state; both domestic and foreign investors.
When we started, one of the things we did was to engage existing investors, we wanted to know their pain points and areas that we could support. I do recall one of the meetings we had. They were kind of surprised, they had said, wow! Government, are you interested in us?
They did not quite believe and we informed them that we were doing things differently, that we wanted to see how we could support them as a government, and that opened the space for conversations, dialogue and policy modifications to suit the business environment.
We also undertook policy reforms, if you recall, in January 2017 His Excellency prohibited land grabbing in the state, which was a major challenge for investors.
As we always say, the governor is the chief investment officer of the state and as we speak, we can tell you that we have attracted $2.5 billion in the last seven years in both domestic and foreign investments.
In terms of the ease of doing business, what other incentives are in place for investors?
First and foremost, we talk about law and order, just being disciplined you know has its own ripple effect and it is what we have been working on in the state in terms of law and order.
Planning is also very important. When we came on board, we had six thematic pillars; one of them was the economic revolution. So, in trying to do that, we were also looking at areas like the justice system. So, part of what we did was to come up with what we call the Small Claims Court; a court where when there are civil disputes, you can go there and represent yourself.
One other very important thing was you cannot talk about investments or investors coming in without having power. So, Edo State is one and I think the only state at that point that came up with the electricity law.
It was two weeks after we had passed our law that the National Assembly passed the law at the national level. What that had done for us was that we were looking at how as a state we could support businesses. As we speak Edo State generates over 1, 000 megawatts of power through Azura, Ossiomo and others.
Most of our government buildings are being powered by Ossiomo and the large businesses are also being connected.
How have you been able to support Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in the state?
Part of what we had done was to come up with clusters, and production centres because it is imperative that when you want to lower the cost for small businesses you now need to put them in a cluster where they can access more services like water, power, and good roads in a particular environment and the businesses will all be located in that environment.
Presently, that is what we have done. We have done it successfully in Edo South and we are now expanding to Edo Central and Edo North. Also, for us, taxation is a big issue for investors, so one of the things that we have been able to do and is still an ongoing process, is what we call tax harmonisation.
`What the investment promotion office does really is that we work very closely as facilitators to ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), ensuring that we can deliver efficient and effective services to businesses and the public.
We have worked as a team and we have been able to act with synergy in most of the policy areas in terms of driving the business environment and ease of doing business.
How have you been able to work with these businesses?
We don’t work alone, we work with sister agencies. So, I will quickly mention them. We have the Ministry of Business, Trade and Cooperatives; we have Edo Jobs, which has to do with skills upscaling.
What we have done is synergize, we deal with what we call the large corporates, the large businesses, but we started having that very close-knit synergy because we discovered that a lot of the large businesses that come in have what we call auxiliaries.
They want to be able to get vendors and we want our small businesses to be beneficiaries of such not maybe you find a situation where they need a vendor to do some jobs for them they have to go to Lagos.
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We started working towards building the capabilities of our vendors here, our businesses in Edo State so that they can also serve the large businesses. So, coming to your question of what have we done, we have constant engagements with the private sector. We will ensure that for the private sector, we have a listening ear in what they have to say to us and their pain point is very important to us.
We had also partnered at some point with the Bank of Industry (BOI) to provide access to finance but I can tell you that most times the challenge with the MSMEs may not always be finance.
How much has your office done in opening up opportunities in Edo to people and investors?
Talking about opening the space as you have mentioned, for us it is engagement, engagement, and engagement. We are very close with what we call the business management organisations. What I mean is the Manufacturer Association of Nigeria, the Benin Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (BENCCIMA), Edo industrialists, and export clusters.
We are constantly synergising and brainstorming on how to ensure that Edo is that preferred investment destination and sincerely it has been a good one. I must confess now because you find a situation where businesses now have so much confidence that when they have issues they just call us immediately.
They see us as partners to provide solutions to the issues, so they don’t see themselves as complaining to the government anymore. It’s like they know that our doors are open, they know that they have access to us, and we can have conversations on how to resolve any issue at all and that has been working very well.
What things make Edo a preferred destination?
First and foremost, we have a young population and even the developed economic climates right now are battling with an aged population. It means that you can actually have a sustainable workforce that will make your business expand. A lot of the development companies are grappling with that issue right now.
We don’t suffer that in Edo State, about 60 – 70% of the population is between the ages of 15 to about 40/45 and so that gives us a very good opportunity as a state. We are a transit hub, as recent analysis with our development partners shows that within a 400-kilometre radius, you have about 70 million people that you can reach out of the 200 million plus people that is the population of Nigeria.
What that means is that you have huge access to markets and the infrastructure, such as the seaports, are within that 400-kilometre radius.
Our climate is most conducive for agricultural products. Also, as a state, one very important thing that is for investors and businesses is the political will. Edo enjoys the political will, I can tell you that we are investor-friendly. Once Governor Godwin Obaseki hears any issue about businesses, he wants to make sure that it is resolved immediately.
Edo also has a huge Diaspora community and that helps us a lot in terms of when you are looking at access to the market also because they support a lot of things that we do here as a state.
We have natural resources; Edo has the highest onshore gas in the country. We are also blessed with minerals, limestone and we have gold in Edo and we have a beautiful culture. So, most times before investors come into any environment they come as tourists. Edo has a very rich culture, a culture that dates back to the centuries and the people are very accommodating.
What measures are in place to ensure that these initiatives are sustainable beyond Obaseki’s government?
We are not winding down but we are finishing strong. We are not winding down as the government is continuous. We are only transiting, so it is like handing the baton over. We want to hand the baton in a very strong manner so that even the person who will take that baton has the energy that would go into that person, even though if he was weak, he would start to run.
So, for us, this is a very important period, the energy is twice what you saw in 2016 because it’s for the Edo people. Everything we’re talking about is institutionalisation, it is not about one person. It is not about the governor.
So, we need to think about Edo and in doing so, the people are the sustainability. We need to ensure that whatever we have gained, we build on it because what you’re seeing is foundational.
We have put everything in place; we are still putting building blocks in place to ensure that Edo people can live comfortably and go about their businesses comfortably. That is what is more important and when you are doing business, you can do it in a profitable manner. So, for us, the people are part of what will create that sustainability you are speaking about and if you have been able to enjoy certain resources and someone else comes and says you cannot enjoy those resources, he may need to give a serious explanation why you cannot enjoy those resources.
What has been the level of foreign direct inflow into the state economy?
In the last seven years, we have attracted over $2.5 billion, verifiable in domestic investment and foreign direct investments. We have changed the way we were thinking about FDI because before now we were big on pushing FDI.
We said no, we have investors, local investors in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja and all of that. We have Nigerians who are just waiting for you to tell them where they should put their funds. So, we changed the strategy and started pursuing DDIs (Direct Domestic Investment) at 70% and FDI at 30%.
We need to be creative in the way we are looking at all of these indices because for some of us, when I hear, oh, you are using just capital importation to look at FDI’s coming in, I laugh because business has gone past capital importation.
Most of the funds that have been used to do all of these businesses you will not find under that capital importation and this is me just being sincere because we need to first be Nigerians.