Educating the Unemployed

, Cover story

Ifueko Omoigui Okauru, Chairman, Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF)

Ifueko Omoigui Okauru, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), and Member of the Order of the Niger (MON). Appointed Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), a champion of Tax Reform at Federal and State level throughout her tenure and honoured for collecting tax revenue of N2.2 trillion in 2009, an unprecedented amount in the history of tax administration in Nigeria is without a doubt a woman of substance. Before becoming FIRS boss, she was the Chief Responsibility Officer of Restral Limited, a leadership management services company she founded in 1996. She is an erstwhile Partner of Arthur Andersen now split into KPMG Professional Services and Accenture. In her new role as Chairman of the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF), she talks to Boundless Magazine about how Lagos State is training and educating its citizenry on vocational entrepreneurship.

Can you give a brief synopsis regarding the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF), its mandate and why it was established.

Let me first talk about history. This was an idea of His Excellency the Governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode, even before he became Governor. It was birth out of a concern about the number of unemployed youths in Lagos State. He felt there was a clear need to address the problem of unemployment, because this would determine the future of the state and the country. It was a campaign promise and therefore after being sworn in as Governor, it was one of the very first things that he put into place. He sent a bill, which was eventually passed into a law, which is now called the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund Law 2016.

The Fund is aimed at providing financial support to residents of Lagos state to tackle unemployment through job and wealth creation. That is what the law says, but in regards to financial support it can be direct or indirect. As a Fund, the Governor committed to give us over N6 billion every year as seed funding, with a total of N25 billion over a four year period. The Fund is also not just about providing funding, it is about creating an enabling environment so that those who want to access funds, not just from us can do that if they want to, or those who want to succeed in their sectors.

The LSETF was inaugurated on March 3, 2016 with a 10 man board and one of the first things we felt we needed to do was to be clear that we set a very good tone, being the pioneer board but more importantly we felt that if we did not have a very clear plan of action it would be very easy to derail. I must commend the board members, we actually spend a lot of time thinking through the strategies, and what our mission and vision should be.

Our vision as a Fund is to create employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for all Lagos residents. Some people do not have access, some do not even know that opportunities exist. Our mission is to enable Lagos residents realise their aspirations by providing leverage and access to finance. We also insist that businesses in Lagos should be patronized.

What are LSETF’s key focus areas especially as it relates to sustainability and employability?

We like to focus not on employability alone which is a mandate but also on sustainability. This is because what is important is that whatever we are doing outlives the tenure of the Governor and me as Chairman, because ultimately it is really about Lagos residents and that’s why for us these kinds of interviews are very welcome to keep on reiterating to the people of Lagos State that it is really for them. Letting them own the programme and be part of it, going beyond dependence on Lagos State Government. For example we have new partners, we now have Local Governments who are coming to us to provide money and we match where we can and work with their citizens within their states.

We also have individuals, the likes of Wale Raji that created the Wale Raji Foundation who has identified his community and we support them. We want people to realise that this is a fund that has been put in place to provide a platform that they can take advantage of. We want people to realise that at the end of the day the fact that we have unemployment in our mist is a collective problem and not just the fault of the Lagos Government and the more we can create employment for each and everyone of us that are in need, the more secure, prosperous and hopeful our environment is.

For us sustainability is therefore beyond us, it is about people realizing that it is an idea that has to stay. We want people to feel they are part of the programme. Because the more we have people who believe in the programme, even if I am not here, those are the people that will continue the programme. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for example, having listened to what we are doing put together $1 million and we are matching it with $3 million, which is a 1-3 ratio and together we work on creating employment opportunities and employable programmes for 6 different sectors.

In terms of strategy, we have four strategic plans that are driving us as a board. The first strategy is Entrepreneurship. This entails providing support to entrepreneurs to create tangible jobs across the state and in that line for example we have a goal to create 300,000 direct and 600,000 indirect jobs. We have the MSE loan programme which aims to create affordable access to funding for small businesses to grow, expand, create wealth and put people to work. The loan scheme attracts only 5% interest in comparison to other microfinance organisations that accrue a 5% interest a month and banks 20%, we charge only 5% in a whole year. It is a deliberate low cost finance option to enable people build their businesses and not spend time paying the bank, but spend time growing their businesses and creating employment.

Our second strategy is Employability. We aim to facilitate individual employability through upscaling and job placement. Our work with the UNDP gives a sense of what our employability is all about. We have for example the Lagos State Employability Support Project (LSEP) which is jointly funded by the LSETF and the UNDP which is designed to help tackle the unemployment problem amongst the youth by helping them gain requisite knowledge and skills through vocational training and subsequently helping them to get job placements. The aim of this particular programme is to train 10,000 young people over a two year period and enable them gain skills in six sectors: Manufacturing, Hospitality, Entertainment, Construction, Health and Garment Making.

As at the end of March 2018, we have trained 763 students of which 659 have been certified. We emphasize training not just for certification, but skill. We emphasise on skill certification because we believe there should be a certification in a trade, for example if you are a plumber, you should have a certification in plumbing. The training is free, infact to encourage people from all parts of Lagos to attend the training we pay a stipend for transportation. We have currently placed above 101 students out of which 75 have been engaged while 26 have declined placement offers. We found out that the sectors that have the highest request are garment making and hospitality. We encourage people who have funding to work with us because funding is a limitation to how much more we can do. Just like UNDP has partnered with us, we encourage corporate donors to partner with us as well.

The third strategy we have is Interventions. This involves facilitating the enhancement of the operating environment and conditions for Micro and Small Medium Enterprises (MSME’S). For example, we have the Lagos Innovates Programme. This is a series of programmes designed for the benefit of technology and innovation driven startups. We have chosen that niche by providing access to high quality infrastructure, learning capital and networks. When we talk about access to capital it might not be our money, but we help support hubs. We are creating and supporting hubs who are providing an enabling environment that allows others to come and see what they are doing. For example, FCMB has supported what we call a “hackathon”. A hackathon is when there is a series of different people and different ideas and in the course of it, the winner is given the money to develop an app. Another intervention we have done is to give a loan at a very low interest rate to a market maker, a hub that wanted to expand and just by expanding the hub will create the opportunities for different businesses to come in which may not have office space, but once you get in there you have a table, a chair, the internet that will enable you do your work etc.

Our fourth strategy is Promotion. This is an area that we have started, but in terms of progression there is still a lot more we can do. Promotion is boosting entrepreneurship and linkages to international domestic stakeholders. For example, writing to the Executive Governor to put an Executive order in place for those who have businesses in Lagos or we create a platform that will help promote your business.

How successful has the loan programme been and what are they key lessons that have enabled its success? How easy is it to access loans through the programme?

The loans are easy to access in the sense that it is open to everyone. When talking about access to loans, our values come into play, they influence the kinds of programmes we have. Our values are TRACE III. T is for Transparency, to be open, fair and equitable. R – stands for Result oriented, focused on delivery and desired outcomes. AC – stands for Accountability, periodically inform and give updates to our stakeholders. E – stands for Enabling a catalyst for a conducive environment to make businesses thrive and unleash their potential, I stands for Integrity – Principled, Ethical And Honest, the other I stands for Inclusiveness, meaning nobody left behind and the last I being Innovation which means questioning the status quo and always striving to be better than we are.

We have 3 routes to access the loans.

The first route is that you apply directly to the website, you don’t need to know anybody just apply. There is an independent process supporting the application process, all applications get to Pricewaterhouse (PWC) and they go through a scoring system and based on the scoring system it comes to us. We also have business development providers particularly for the SME’s where they don’t just look at the score, they actually visit people who have qualified and they gain the scoring. It is based on your scoring, that determines whether the loan gets approved or not. There are certain assessment criteria’s, if for example you have just started a business and you have made some profit that can show results, you are going to get a higher score than someone that is just starting. There were some discrepancies’ when it came to scoring and we tried to address it. For example we set aside funds specially dedicated to the youth, this is because at a point in time when we realized that a majority of people that were getting the funds were a higher age bracket, we decided to deliberately focus on the youth.

How well known are LSETF’s initiatives, are there plans for increased and sustained communication and messaging to its various stakeholders?

We have to keep on talking and communicating. We have spread our message on social media, but not everybody is there. We also have 20 liaison officers in each of the Local Governments and one of the mandates that we have given them is to raise awareness within their terrains. Last year we went round all the stakeholder offices, doing stakeholder communications and telling them all about the loans.

Interview by Ruona Phido

Ruona is a Business Analyst and a Communications, Media and Society graduate from the University of Leicester.