Tunji Idowu is the Deputy Executive Director of the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND), a non-governmental organization that helps farmers and other Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to increase output and profit in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. In this interview, he explains the work of PIND and the models PIND has adopted to sustain its operations
What were the issues farmers in the Niger Delta had before PIND intervened?
When we started in 2010, there was conflict and insecurities. Investors were leaving the Niger Delta. PIND needed to reduce the dependence on oil and gas and shift the peoples’ focus on agriculture. Over the last 10 years, PIND has been able to work with the private sector, government, and farmers on how to improve their practices because they were lagging in all aspects.
When we set out there, there were no support systems, limited agricultural extension services available, and farmers had poor practices and knowledge of what worked to improve productivity. We decided to churn out programs to ensure they receive services they were missing because there was no support system. Because we were able to facilitate the establishment of the support system, we now have people providing services and teaching the farmers. Now, farmers can grow their businesses and hire more people.
The service providers also have larger markets that they cater to. So they provide services in that area. We are using clusters and corporations to guarantee certain things to people that are not doing well.
Over the years, we have done well and been successful in attracting the likes of USAID and UKAID/DFID and others to come into the Niger Delta region and situate their projects there.
What are the challenges PIND faces so far in creating jobs in the Niger Delta?
PIND goes in as a facilitator because the people are already in the market. But many of the farmers are smallholders, so bringing things to scale is an issue. Also, they and SMEs in the Niger Delta lack the finance to expand their activities.
The challenge is also in ensuring access to markets as major investors are outside the region, these are the largest off-takers of the products and we need to connect them with the farmers and SMEs in the region. Historical lack of planning on the side of many of the state governments has also been a huge challenge. We started addressing that some years ago, starting with our support to Cross River State. This became the state that first developed a long term plan, a 30-year development plan, within the region. We followed up and are now supporting Edo and Abia and are integrating other states gradually. We tapped into the experience of the Lagos State Government as we facilitated effective practice bearing between that state and Niger Delta states.
Another challenge is political economy considerations. In the Niger Delta, governors are super influential and if you cannot convince them to buy your ideas, things will not be done. So many opportunities get missed in the various states.
Market distortion is also a challenge. PIND and others approach the economic growth project using what we call the market systems development approach. We go in as facilitators. We go in to work with the existing actors. A lot of organizations still use the direct interventionist approach. It is faster to get results using the direct interventionist approach, but when the projects end, sustainability is missing, and whatever results were achieved during the project life disappears quickly. Our approach takes a little longer to deliver results but those are sustainable as the real market actors drive things and continue to function in the market long after a donor-funded intervention has ended.
How can data address unemployment in the region?
Data will help the states to understand what economic sectors are growing and creating employment opportunities, who are employing, what skills are available or needed to meet the demands of companies, etc. This is key for governments, private sector, and other development partners to decide and design evidence-based interventions for employment generation. Sadly, during the initial study phase of PIND’s youth employment pathways project, we observed the sheer paucity and even difficulty with obtaining such useful data on employment trends where they exist at the state level.
While the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reports periodic GDP, employment and job creation data and by the sectors at the national level, which was helpful to a significant extent, this is mostly not replicated at the state level and certainly limits the ability to identify where jobs exist, new jobs or job types are being created or even to make projections as to where jobs will be created in the future. Resolving this ‘lack of data’ challenge will help ensure that the workforce is appropriately trained, and we have available skill sets that respond to or match market demands and absorptive capacity. Moreover, the respective governments will also be better able to understand and channel resources to growth sectors with potential employment or job creation.
Many of the state governments in the region understand this data challenge but still need to invest more. It is an area that they, the universities, and other partners should focus on. They must either do so individually or team up with other state governments in the region and the NBS to ensure that there is accurate data from their areas. Somebody needs to take the lead, and the two bodies that come to mind will be the NBS and the respective state governments.
Related to employment, a couple of the states in the region have invested in online job portals to help bridge specific gaps and link unemployed to potential employers. Over time, these platforms such as Rivjobs, Edojobs and similar ones to follow will help generate data that can help with job creation planning in the individual states or across the region.
It will be helpful to have an integrated and systematic way of collecting, sharing, and making data available for use. If this is available, an organization like PIND implementing a project requiring employment data will not need to spend extra money doing its own data collection. Instead, organizations can access such data easily and be faster in getting things done with their planned project and utilizing the funds on actual interventions rather than fresh data analysis. We certainly would have benefited from such when we were to start the youth employment pathways project that we implemented for the Ford Foundation, as we had to commission a fresh study and invest in data gathering to understand the environment.
How has PIND been able to use data to create jobs?
Data will let you know what is happening in the market. How many people are gainfully employed? How many are not? What kind of skills does the market require? What needs to happen? And what do you need to pay attention to? That is where it helps. It helps to plan and design interventions accurately so that they are relevant to the market space.
What PIND did was to undertake some specific studies and to talk to some employers to find out what they were looking out for, find out what some of the youths were looking out for. Most importantly, we needed to know what was required in the market place and to validate that, we were able to identify the three sectors we are paying attention to through the data collected. That led to the pilot of the project in Abia, Akwa-Ibom, and Rivers States to help the states address significant unemployment recorded in them. We are moving to Delta State now to start another one and Bayelsa may not be far off.
You get to be data-driven because only data will help you to know your market target. You can use part of the research to form the educational institutions about some of what is required so that they can tailor their curriculum to be market relevant. We are partnering with institutions to develop a strong curriculum so that it is what the market needs that people are being trained in.
How has PIND been able to function and sustain its operations in the Niger Delta?
It’s about partnerships. No single institution or entity can address the problems of the Niger Delta. From Day One, PIND was focused on facilitating and fostering partnerships between people in the public, private and social sectors, ranging from governments to companies, including Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), to community-based organizations to agree on how best to address the economic and conflict challenges in the region.
The second way we have been able to achieve much progress is through evidence-led and data-driven approaches. Everything we do, we make sure there is data to inform it.
We went into the Niger Delta region to see how we could facilitate businesses of those who had the capacities required to excel to come in and help SMEs who were struggling because business is all market-driven and capitalist-based. If we see the value of the business and they have what it requires, we will be able to partner with them.
PIND does not go in and distort the market by doing things on its own and then struggle afterward to sustain results. We go in to support those market actors i.e. stakeholders who are already doing their businesses. PIND acts as matchmakers, where we bring the service providers and connect them with farmers. The service providers train and help the farmers to increase output and profit, and then PIND just monitors their progress.
The business entities still determine their own destiny, they still follow where the value is, they follow the natural way things are done. What PIND does is to do occasional interventions by funding training programs pitched by successful service providers who train the small business owners.