Maryam Uwais, an activist, is the Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on the National Social Welfare Programme.
Aderonke Bello, Abuja
Maryam Uwais, an activist, is the Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on the National Social Welfare Programme. After her appointment, she was posted to the office of the vice president where she currently oversees interventionist programmes like the N-POWER, GEEP, School feeding and Cash Transfer System.
She explains how the four initiatives under her office are benefitting Nigerians.
Can you clarify what N-POWER is?
N-POWER is a youth employment programme for youths between the ages of 18 and 35. They apply on an online platform and we deploy them to work in various sectors around the country in the spaces that the state selects.
Now we expect that they would work, because it is not a free programme, we pay them N30,000 every month, we don’t expect that they would not go to work and so we are setting up monetary structure and ensure that they get paid for the days that they actually serve, majority of them are doing very well.
The idea really is to get them conversant with their interest because they say its agriculture, its teaching, its health, once they get their hands dirty for instance in agriculture at least for a period of two years because it’s a two-year programme, they will know precisely where they can build their businesses.
How do you make your selection?
We had applications from every single local government and from every state and initially, we didn’t have many applications. In the graduate category, we only had 350,000 applications and we selected 200,000, and gave all the states, and we had to base it on the numbers of applications per state.
So, what we have done is to address the issue of gender, to ensure we have enough from each state, we used population, we used unemployment indices to beef up the numbers so that we are able to have a sizable number for each state, some are working in the teaching sector, we selected people that live in those local governments to work in those areas. The perception initially was that it has to be indigenes of that state, we encouraged the state to set up their own employment programmes but for the federal government you have to live within that location because what we pay is 30,000 a month for a period of two years, now 30,000 will not be able to pay for your accommodation and transportation if you don’t live nearby where you are asked to serve.
Please tell us what exactly your office has been doing concerning the school feeding programme and is it true some states could not benefit?
The school feeding programme is essentially aimed at boosting enrollment, rate of the out-of-school children in Nigeria is appalling, what we have is 10.6 million to 11 million of school and we are trying to boast their nutrition, there is a lot of poverty out there and it is important for these children to have at least one balanced diet.
So, we looked at government schools where primary school is free and children can just walk in and start school, we are also looking, as part of the value chain, empowering the women in the community that can cook, we are also ensuring that we create a regular and sustainable income for the farmers who grow the food item these women use to cook. So far, we are actually feeding 7,696,313 pupils around this country, we have 77,431 cooks on our payroll, we send them N70 per meal and each one of them has a minimum of 70 children and not more than 150 children to feed.
We are feeding children in classes 1-3 basically because we don’t have enough money to feed everybody and we are targeting the younger years which is when the psychosocial need is highest and we are in 40,250 primary schools around the country.
We try to ensure that we have enough nutrition for the children so the state is advised to select cooks that live within the vicinities of the primary schools, that is critical for us, if they live too far away there would not be any profit for them if they have to travel long distances to take food, generally around 11am to those schools.
Once those women are selected, we screened them medically then we train them on hygiene, allergies, on financial skills. Now, have there been hiccups? Yes, nothing ever is perfect at least not from the beginning, so we have had challenges in one or two states.
We encourage the public to come back to us, it is an awesome programme, the child in the community is going back to school, the mother is the cook and the father is the farmer, so a lot of the communities are happy, they are coming back to us and the quality of food is getting better and better.
Tell us about the cash transfer programme?
We have over 80 million by the statistics, our task as a team is to ensure we get to the poorest people, the past programmes just took list from people and paid those people maybe as patronage or royalty but now we have devised a method, we didn’t have enough funds to cover everybody and our mandate is to go round the entire country so what we did was, for the first year we did 30 percent of this country, we looked at the poverty map at NBS and world bank and the state’s poverty mappings, we selected the 30 percent poorest local government and we shared it with the state governors.
We draw up register – we call it the social register, then we go into each household that has agreed and we take down the demographics of each household, how many children, how many are in school, the number of wives, your assets, the ages, your skills etc. we are looking at certain fields, we put the information on a device that has a proxy means testing formula, it automatically ranks them between the poorest and the least poor, that is the final stage.
That helps us in determining who we pay because they can be a lead capture at community level, a Baale can say I am meant to be on that register, I am a poor man because he wants to be receiving N5000 naira every month. By the time we visit you and see your assets and the proxy means test no, there are poorer people in this community, he won’t get paid, it is the people below the threshold, so that is why we use that device.
We’ve got data from 24 states, and we have 10 states coming on board, it is so important for us to have that information because if today you want to do any philanthropy for any one above 70 in your state, that information is there, beyond that information, every community we go to we collect information on connectivity, on the nearest primary health care provider, the nearest secondary and primary school and we share that information with the governors.
Now everybody we are paying cash comes from that register and that person must fall below, we pay N10, 000 every two month, we have done it in 21 states now and we’ve being able to do it electronically with agents because banks don’t go to where there is poverty, so we brought a lot of agents into the programme through an open process, selected agents that go and pay these people.
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What about the GEEP Initiative?
The Government Empowerment and Enterprise Programme (GEEP) is a small loan programme, the cheapest loan you can get anywhere in the world, I beat my chest and say that, because, there is no interest element and there is no collateral, you do not expect that people at the bottom of the financial pyramid would have collateral to take a loan, but, what we encourage them to do is to form a cooperative. Once they form that cooperative, they should be aware that members of the cooperative all stand the risk of being blacklisted if they don’t pay back, so once they form that cooperative BOI goes to check, whether or not that cooperative exists, we look at their registration papers, we look at the members and we talk to them.
All the money for GEEP is housed in BOI because at the office of the vice president, we don’t have the agents, we don’t have the aggregators to support the efforts but BOI has a wide spread in the states so what happens is once they confirm these members everybody would get this loan and it’s a loan between N10, 000 – N100, 000. Once you get this loan and you do not pay on time, everybody is liable to lose the opportunity of getting loans, you know if you take BVN you can have 10 accounts and it’s the only one, so that BVN does not allow them to take loan from one place and go to another, since we have that BVN, we ensure that we track that payment and it’s a six month loan with a two weeks moratorium, there is an admin fee of 5 percent , it is not interest because we have to pay the agents and the aggregators so if a woman takes 50,000, she would pay back 52,500 at the end of 6 months, so that is what the GEEP loan is all about.
What happens after this administration?
A lot of what we are doing is focused on ensuring that there is sustainability, for instance the cash transfer programmes, the data is there for good, every state can use and access the data, we have the national social register at NIBSS right now, and that information is available for people to continue to support those families.
The N-POWER people are learning, it’s learning as you work, so they are taking ownership of their lives in the programme. The same thing you see with GEEP, you set up your businesses, a loan is not forever, there is a time span, if you are able to pay back on time then you can get another loan, these programmes are laudable as far as I am concerned, a lot of efforts has gone in and it is not business as usual.
It is a strategic and concerted effort, money is appropriated specifically for this purpose, now, if the public continue to clamour, they will ensure that no government can come in and say I am going to scrap this programme, as far as am concerned, there is no manifesto that can say we don’t want education, health or empowerment , in the same way we are hoping that the more the public know about what we are doing, any government that comes into power would want to continue the work we are doing because of the transparency, the efficiency, the impact we are making.
Our beneficiaries are being graduated out of poverty; we are reducing poor indices in many sectors. So, I can remain hopeful because I believe we are onto a good thing.