Viewpoint - August 15, 2021

Post-COVID-19 Akwa Ibom: Recovery & Resilience: The Way Forward (3)  

By Ide Owodiong-Idemeko

What does Akwa Ibom require to get back on track as we work our recovery post the COVID-19 pandemic? Yes, the impact of COVID-19 has been largely negative and disastrous, but in it also lies huge opportunities for transforming how we think about our economies and our societies. “As countries emerge from the shadows of the COVID-19 crisis, governments are focusing on how to “rebuild labour markets to allow them to be more resilient, more inclusive and more productive”  as well as build a path towards a greener and more digital society that empowers everyone to face the future with confidence.
Indeed, I must commend, yet again, the very proactive and pragmatic steps taken by the Akwa Ibom State Government in the heat of the 2020 lockdown, to get itself ready for recovery and build societal resilience for the future.
This was demonstrated by its setting up of the Post-COVID-19 Economic Reconstruction Committee. The Committee did put out calls to the public to send in their ideas and contributions towards developing positive recommendations for delivering a stronger, more social, and economically viable Akwa Ibom State post COVID-19.
One of such responses to the call came from 1001+ Voices Initiative with the submission of its memorandum to the committee on May 27, 2020. 
I would like to spend some time sharing with this audience the recommendations contained in that memorandum to the Committee.
In the memorandum, the group highlighted the problem as it understood it from a COVID-19 perspective and how it manifested itself within the state, and then went on to list a range of solutions and opportunity options. The solutions were presented within a timeline and milestone context – i.e., solution options that are potentially achievable within a short-term period of 3-6 months, a medium-term period of up to one year, and long-term period of up to three years and were based on a three-prong strategy, namely:
– Employment Creation
– Revenue Generation
– Asset Maximisation (Power Generation, HCD).
Some of the key assumptions made in the memorandum reflected on the impact of COVID-19 on the State, These included:
1. Limited or no foreign direct investment (FDI) due to impact of pandemic lockdown and travel restrictions applied by countries across the world – especially in 2020 and continuing. 
2. Limited foreign companies presence due to impact of companies cutting back or curtailing their operations and investment activities (an example is the non-progress of work at the Science Park, which the government tried to restart just before the pandemic broke).
3. Local first: Primary focus will be on local resourcing and funding due to 1 and 2 above.
4. Limited FAAC: Drastically curtailed federal revenues due to impact of falling crude oil prices (90% drop in Q1, 2020) and shrinking federal funding for its budget obligations.
5. No foreign inputs and technology
due to the impact of the pandemic on global shipping, transport, and logistics – resulting backlog in manufacturing and order fulfillment. 
6. No foreign exchange (FOREX): Limited access to or availability of foreign currency to fund imports or payment requirements; and 
7. Limited Diaspora Remittances, especially in the period of 2020, due to impact of job losses and furloughs that have been implemented in the countries where the Akwa Ibom Diaspora reside and work.

Employment Creation:
 
Employment opportunities are key considerations in planning for economic response and recovery post-COVID-19.
The worst economic casualties appear to be crude oil producing nations, of which Nigeria is a prominent victim.
Akwa Ibom state relies on the monthly allocations for about the bulk of its revenue with which it fulfills its socio-economic responsibilities to the people, including 35 million labour force. Akwa Ibom was listed as the state with the highest rate of unemployment (37.7%) by the NBS, with prevalence mostly among young people. This is coupled with the review of the N30,000 new national minimum wage which implementation commenced in the state in 2020.  
In its memorandum to the Committee, the group recognized the criticality of jobs as a crucial and indispensable tool in economic development, delivering access to other socio-economic needs, wellbeing, and peace in a society. Akwa Ibom State Government must be proactive in protecting and promoting livelihoods post-COVID-19.
 
Information Communication Technology (ICT)
 
IT skills are in global demand in a market worth trillions of dollars. The government must aim to become the Silicon Valley of Nigeria by focused commitment to complete work at the Science Park.
With over 70% youth population, government can equip its youth with the necessary skills to harness the talent with a view to converting the state to a digital society. This should be the target!
The COVID-19 lockdown has significantly reduced inter-person engagement and creates a more urgent need to adopt and deepen the use of virtual skills.
It has also brought about change – we live and must embrace a ‘New Normal’. New technologies have come to prominence (e.g., Zoom meetings, Teams, O-Connect, etc.) and businesses will increasingly deliver or be defined by their intelligent and efficient use of technology.
Our government must take advantage of a world that is increasingly technology-driven; therefore, ICT is the sine qua non of development. IT solutions providers are in global demand and a source of foreign exchange earning potential.
How do we get our teeming youth population to become well-skilled ICT solution providers, especially considering the ubiquitous impact of ICT across all areas of work and modern productive endeavors as well as its suitability for all genders and the physically challenged?
 
Agriculture
 
In alignment with government efforts in agriculture and the socio-economic and cultural legacy of the people of Akwa Ibom state, government must as a matter of urgency embark on mass expansion and innovation of employment opportunities in agriculture.
With the right policies and aligned interventions, agriculture is capable of:
– Employing extra 0.5 million people directly and indirectly (in both formal and informal capacities);
– Absorbing both skilled and low-skilled workers;
– Absorbing similar skills lost in the economic crisis occasioned by the pandemic;
– Boosting food security, availability, sufficiency and resilience;
– Stabilising food prices all year round;
– Driving local and international trader and investor traffic to the state;
– Providing balanced gender employment, those living with disabilities and low-skilled workers;
– Providing exports and generate local and foreign exchange revenue for Akwa Ibom, and
– Boosting the State’s gross domestic product (GDP).
 
Industrialization/Business
 
The Udom Emmanuel administration in Akwa Ibom has as its primary focus an industrialization agenda for the State.
However, there is urgent need to engage on a ‘3R’ basis – Review , Restore, Re-purpose of existing industrial and manufacturing assets to provide jobs, as well as make investments in industries that can utilize local agricultural produce. This should be viewed as a key strategy for youth development and empowerment in the post COVID-19 dispensation. The value behind this approach can be gained in the following dimensions:
– The manufacturing and industrial sector will employ 1000‘s of our people – with blue- and white-collar jobs created – at all levels within the engaged industries and companies.
– There is a secondary and supporting services industry: e.g., maintenance and repair, skills training, supply, and catering that would be created as ancillary to the primary manufacturing and industrial sector.
– The restored or re-purposed industries will generate multiple opportunities for skills and knowledge transfer across a variety of key and strategic skillsets for the State and its economy.
– This represents the opportunity to reposition and ‘future-proof’ the human capital and skills base capacity of the State in terms of Human resources and assets.
 
Creative Industry

The Nollywood industry (which is the second largest film industry in the world) contributed $7.2 billion to Nigeria’s GDP in 2018, representing 1.42 percent. Separately, the music industry (Afrobeats) generates similar revenue and contribution to the Nigerian economy. 
These industries, along with fashion, fine art, culture, and tourism, are uniquely attractive to youth and harness their energy, versatility to leverage untapped talents.
The youth of Akwa Ibom state are no exception in this regard and thus provide the State with a vehicle for economic and social transformation.
In terms of its value, the following can be said of the creative industry: 
– The entertainment industry business can employ large numbers of people (10,000s).
– There is a large supporting services industry: e.g., music, film content retailers, etc.
– Offers opportunities for all genders.
– It is non-discriminatory as physically impaired do well in the creative industry as exemplified by world-famous musicians, like Stevie Wonder of the US, Andrea Bocelli of Italy and our own Cobham Asuquo from Cross River State, Nigeria.
– Creative industry serves more purposes than entertainment such as advertising, fashion, public enlightenment and ethical reorientation and attitudinal change.
 
Solar Power Installation, Deployment and Maintenance
 
This will be achieved by the planning, deployment, and maintenance of Solar Home Systems (SHS) or Solar Power units. Location could be a home, business, service facility (shop, hospital, post office, etc.).
The objectives behind this opportunity option are the attainment of National Grid Independence and ‘Powering the Society and Economy to the Next Level’.
The ‘Solar Power-4-All’ policy could be deployed in both rural and urban areas, in a modular system that is simply and quickly deployed. Various deployment modules can be operated – from Install-To-Own – where tax or other incentives are offered to business and other establishments to install or Lease-to Own, where SIM-enabled solutions are deployed by the State Government (in partnership with Service Providers) and linked to homes, business, service, public utility, etc. Key Attributes of this Solar Power initiative includes: 
– SHS – Solar Home Systems 
– Small Scale units scalable to rollout to homes and communities, single locations or small-to medium sized enterprises.
– Further scaling can be achieved by the deployment of off-Grid solutions. 
The derivable value for youth development and empowerment is in the following areas:
– Direct employment (jobs) generation in the short – medium term for up to 30,000 people. Such jobs would include the following:
– Installation technicians
– Managers 
– Administrators and clerical staff
– Security Warehouse personnel
– Drivers
– There is a secondary and supporting services industry that can be developed: e.g., training, certification, maintenance, and support services
– Set a target to provide Solar power to 100,000 locations.
– Advantages include: 
– Ease of deployment 
– Speed of installation
– Scope of opportunity 
– Opportunities: Manufacturing of units (Solar Panels, Controller Units).
 
The memorandum anticipated that if the Akwa Ibom government maximizes the opportunities identified we would be able to create within the time frame of 6 months to 3 years an estimated 4000+ jobs within ICT, 600,000+ jobs within Agriculture, 60,000+ jobs in Industrialization, 80,000+ jobs within the Solar Energy space and 11,000+ jobs within the creative sector, totaling 760,000+ jobs within the period under consideration. Using a pay as you earn (PAYE) Tax formula of 23%, and average monthly income of N22,825, we projected new PAYE Tax revenues totaling N122.9 billion for the three years period under consideration.
In addition, revenue created from new business rates assuming a factor of 6times the PAYE Revenue Base and Business Revenues calculated assuming 10 x payroll (and then discount by 40% for associated costs) will result in an estimated revenue of N732.3 billion to the government. 
Following from the above projections is the need to build a strong digital economy to achieve e-efficiency. The key attributes of such an economy will include:
– Digital Government
– E-government
– M-government
– Paperwork Issuance 
– Licences
– Permits
– Announcements
– Receipts
– Digital documents
 
Conclusion
 
In all the foregoing, the youth (Aged 15 – 35) will be the target beneficiaries. As previously stated, this demographic constitutes about 60 – 70% of the population (~1.8 – 2.0 million).
Developing and empowering them will require providing them with early access to key skills and tools to leverage and maximize knowledge transfer, commercial opportunity and value-added. They will shape and re-define the knowledge base, tax base and value system for the State going forward.
This group will act as the ‘Early Adopters’ to those in other areas, e.g. rural areas as to the initiatives and their benefits from adoption and use.
For those living in the urban centres of Akwa Ibom State (both skilled and unskilled), the expectation is that they will have closer access and exposure to those initiatives that are situated in the towns and cities. This category of youths will principally be the first to receive the ‘benefits’ and can be engaged to be the ‘Change Ambassadors’ to those in other areas e.g., rural areas as to the initiatives and their benefits for adoption and use.
Finally, for those living in the rural areas, villages and agricultural communities, skilled and unskilled; they will most likely get the largest share of new jobs, skills transferred and value derived. Youths in the rural areas will be the primary beneficiaries of implementations of the ‘Agriculture’ and ‘Solar Power Deployment’ sections of the proposal to develop and empower our youth in the post COVID-19 era. Youths here can be engaged to be the ‘Delivery Agents’ in terms of adoption, promotion and feedback of these initiatives.
I hope I have been able to lay out a strong and viable policy direction that the current government in Akwa Ibom State and the government that will succeed it in 2023 should follow in developing and empowering Akwa Ibom Youths in the post COVID-19 era as a deliberate strategy of recovery and resilience for a secured future. This is clearly a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to rethink and rebuild our economy for growth. A recovery and resilience strategy that is devoid of curbing increasing levels of youth unemployment and the implications of rising debt for issues of intergenerational justice, as well as threats to the well-being of youth and future generations is not a sustainable one and its implications are huge.
 
Thank you for listening.

This is the third and concluding part of a three-parts series.

Owodiong-Idemeko, a Fellow, Chartered Institute of Personnel Management (FCIPM) and International Coordinator, 1001+ Voices for People Empowerment delivered the paper at 2021 Convention of  Akwa Ibom State Association of Nigeria (USA) Incorporated(AKISAN), Atlanta, USA (August 5-7, 2021.

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