Of all the challenges of unemployment in Nigeria, none has been as problematic as ensuring that the youth are productively engaged. Apart from saving the youth from crime and anti-social behaviour, youth unemployment has been a major source of despair for parents and, to some extent, a potent disincentive to education.
With about 4.5 million youths entering the job market annually in Nigeria, albeit a growth rate that is barely able to retain existing manpower, the unemployment situation attained the level of a national emergency a long time ago. Yet, it is not for lack of trying. The National Directorate of Employment (NDE) programme and National Poverty Eradication Programme (NAPEP), among others, were established to address the problem of unemployment in a functional and practical manner. To a large extent, these programmes did make some appreciable impact; particularly the NDE, which, to all intents and purposes, remains a veritable platform for youth empowerment and poverty reduction.
Yet problems remain. The huge variance between the number of graduates churned out by Nigeria’s institutions of higher learning and the absorptive capacity of the economy remains a major source of concern. As many will agree, the situation is made more intractable by the gap between knowledge acquired and the practical demands of the job market. Many employers of labour complain that Nigeria’s educational curricula are not designed to equip products of higher institutions for the workplace. Consequently, most products of higher institutions are forced to queue up, in the ever-lengthening labour market, most times without any hope of ever being hired.
It is against this background that the President Muhammadu Buhari administration’s N-Power programme has come to acquire great currency, both for its potential and the controversy that has trailed the programme. Happily, there is good news, courtesy of the painstaking re-engineering effort of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, with Hajiya Sadiya Farouq as the minister.
The recent report by Halima Oyelade, Special Assistant to the Minister on Strategic Communications, to the effect that about 22 per cent of the 500,000 beneficiaries of the Federal Government’s N-Power programme have now established their own businesses is both reassuring and significant. A bit of a background: It will be recalled that the N-Power programme is one of the planks of the Federal Government’s Social Investment Programme, the main aim of which is to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty, within 10 years. Under the N-Power programme, graduates and non-graduates who meet the enrolment criteria are attached or seconded to various partners and stakeholder groups in the private and public sectors of the economy. This achieves the twin objectives of bridging the manpower gap while equipping the participants with life skills that could trigger entrepreneurial exploits by them.
Paradoxically, as good as the programme is, though the 200,000-strong Batch A participants started in 2016 for a two-year programme, they have only just transited into other areas of activity after all of four years. The delay and attendant problems became a source of national embarrassment as mischief-makers and political jobbers, rather than suggest practical ways of handling the impasse, desperately sought to make political capital out of a national problem. It is in the context of the ability of the Buhari administration to actualise the vision of the N-Power programme that this transitioning into entrepreneurial activity should be seen as a landmark boost to the national economy through people empowerment.
For one, the jinx has been broken. Those lingering doubts over the efficacy of the programme have now been decisively dispelled. That 109,823 participants have established their own businesses means that, going by the dependency quotient of about 1:10 in Nigeria, approximately one million persons would have been taken out of poverty. It is also particularly instructive that most of these beneficiaries sited their businesses in their communities. This, perhaps, is the single most significant boost to rural youth empowerment in Nigeria, in recent years. Obviously, 109,823 local businesses will trigger unprecedented multiplier effects in these communities. The other implication is that the pernicious rural-urban migration will be reduced by a minimum of the same number of persons. Herein lies the overall salutary impact of the programme.
There is the temptation to argue that the lifting out of poverty of 109,823 persons out of the target population of 100 million people, as a tiny speck in a vast canvass of unemployed youth. That will be wrong. The N-Power programme is only one among many on-going programmes that are providing various opportunities to millions of people for self-actualisation, entrepreneurship and gainful employment. Yet, even if these other opportunities did not exist, nothing would be taken away from the milestone recorded by the transitioning to entrepreneurship of the 109,823 N-Power beneficiaries. We should never underrate the importance of humble beginnings. Was it not the Chinese who said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step? See where they are today! Could this be for Nigeria, in the words of US astronaut Neil Armstrong (following the Apollo Moon landing of July 20, 1969), that one small step that will translate to a giant leap for Nigerians? Perhaps, yes. Therefore, the minister of humanitarian affairs, disaster management and social development was spot on when, in reference to the transiting N-Power beneficiaries, she said: “Statistics like this gives me joy and, once again, I want to say congratulations; I look forward to hearing amazing testimonies and meeting beneficiaries of this programme who will be doing great things in the future.”
Sadiya Farouq, this unassuming jinx-breaker of a minister, has every reason to be happy. In the first place, the testimonies are already pouring in. Let us take just the testimony of one of the beneficiaries, Angela Mojisola Nabu: “I am a graduate of Ladoke Akintola University, where I studied Agriculture. I wanted to go into fish farming but was not sure how to go about it. When I learnt of the N-Power, I decided to apply and was enrolled into the programme without knowing anyone or being connected to anyone. The selection was clear and free. I gained practical experience working with the Ogun State Agricultural Development Programme, Ilaro Zone (OGADEP). I was able to save some money from the stipends to start my own fish farm. Today, I have 12 ponds. I have people working for me and I have trained one IT student and I am willing to train more.’’
For another, with the first two batches out of the way, the minister’s utmost desire to enrol 500,000 participants under Batch C of the programme can now proceed without hindrance. It is instructive that, within 72 hours of the opening of the enrolment portal, over three million applicants had been received. While that is indicative of the level of unemployment in the system, it also shows that many Nigerians recognise the programme is a lifeline that cannot be ignored.
It is reassuring that the Federal Government does not intend to orphan the beneficiaries once they exit. No. Instead, deliberate effort should be made to monitor the progress of the businesses, helping through mentorship, peer review facilitation and targeted retreats that enrich their business acumen and community orientation. Who knows: these beneficiaries could become the renaissance catalysts for civic orientation, nationalism and communal development. Again, the minister could not have put it more succinctly during a digital meeting with some of the beneficiaries. Her words: “You are our model N-Power beneficiaries. Please, avail yourselves of all opportunities provided by government like interest-free loans and leverage on these opportunities while using N-Power as a stepping stone.” It could not have been more aptly put.
As the saying goes, to whom much is given, much is expected. Our privileged (yes, that is what they are!) group of burgeoning entrepreneurs should see themselves as both pacesetters and role models. This position confers on them the status of N-Power Ambassadors. In some sense, the status also demands reciprocal relationship from the ministry; a constant reminder that, short of micro-managing the beneficiaries, the system should show more than passing interest in how they are faring. It needs not be overemphasised that, even as “children of the government,” they will still contend with the same issues that plague Nigerian entrepreneurs: erratic power supply, multiple taxation, bad roads and sundry problems that constitute the bane of entrepreneurial activity in Nigeria. How much support comes the way of this group of entrepreneurs will ultimately determine the ability of the programme to spearhead the novel entrepreneurial renaissance envisioned by its promoters.
Going by the passion, sagacity, presence of mind and commitment of Minister Sadiya Farouq, qualities that explain the turnaround of the programme, Nigerians can remain optimistic that, with the support of the National Assembly and other stakeholders, N-Power will ultimately emerge as the arrowhead of employment generation and entrepreneurial ferment now and in the years ahead.
•Yakubu, an entrepreneur and public affairs commentator, wrote in from Kaduna