By Kenneth Jukpor, Ayoola Olaitan & Yusuf Odejobi
Chief Mrs. Chinwe Ezenwa is the founder of Le Look Nigeria Limited. She is also a former acting Managing Director of National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA). Ahead of her 70th birthday celebration, she granted an exclusive interview with MMS Plus newspaper where she spoke on a wide range of maritime issues, highlighting major challenges and proffering solutions. She also revealed her plans to initiate a Bag Academy aimed at empowering younger ones.
Recently, you revealed plans to set-up a Bag Academy, what is it about and what inspired such an initiative?
The Bag Academy came as a result of my many years experience in the bag making industry. At this age, I think that such knowledge needs to be transferred, fully transferred to the younger generation.
Since Nigeria signed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, we haven’t done much to improve the capacity of Nigerians to serve the African market. In Nigeria, there are huge gaps that we might end up being the dumping ground for many products. For things as simple as school bags, and bags generally, we can export them. Why are people bringing these things from abroad when we can make them in Nigeria?
If Nigeria wants to boost its share of intra-Africa trade, we have to raise an army of competent and skilled artisans to do it. When you empower them, this will also increase the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country, this is my legacy. It is what I want to leave behind.
Where is the Bag Academy going to be located?
It’s in Abuja. It is going to be an Academy and the building is there. And then I will just have a few here in Lagos, though it can’t take in more than 10 people in Lagos but for Abuja the place can take upto 50 or 60 persons and we have an adjoining building that eventually will take up to 150 people.
How many people will make up the first intake for the academy?
Well, the pioneer intake will be 25 people and it is a six-month program. We have designed the program in such a way that we have the beginner class, intermediate and the master class.
The beginners program to intermediate will be six months. It is going to be six months intensive training, then that person should be well equipped to start up a bag company on their own or to join us until they become craftsmen on the field and they’re qualified for the master class program. They can do an internship of about three months and then go into the master class.
Now that you have your biggest structure in Abuja, but the commercial city of Nigeria is Lagos, are you still looking at having other superstructures in Lagos and other states?
No, I am not considering having any other superstructure not at 70 years of age. At my age, I am consolidating all the structures in Abuja and it is also the capital of Nigeria and the center. It should be able to attract people from different parts of Nigeria to attend the Academy. Lagos is overcrowded and from Abuja you can also send goods to any part of the world. I’m looking at the centrality of the location and the fact that there is also government presence in Abuja. I retired from a government agency and I know that there is a higher voice there than anywhere else, that’s why I positioned it in Abuja.
Talking about retirement, you were once the acting MD of NIWA, there are lots of expectations and responsibilities on the agency, but they have lost lots of their experienced hands, and the agency doesn’t seem to be achieving much. How could this be addressed?
Well, that challenge will be addressed by both the government and the individuals in the agency. You cannot give what you don’t have. When an agency is turned into a place where people are being rewarded when they lose elections or for patronage then the focus and main objective of such agency is lost.
I’m even surprised that the other agencies are still standing, but NIWA has been singled out for political patronage. It is basically garbage in and garbage out and such a system will not last because there is no focused leadership. You cannot expect to get a different result if you’re doing the same thing over and over again. People will definitely retire, so they have to go but there should be a structure to train and retrain. There should be knowledge transfer and the workers should also make efforts to improve themselves.
Why is the government not looking at raising people from within to be in charge of that agency? Why is NIWA always inundated with people from outside? There are lots of questions to be asked and until those questions are addressed we are not going to get any positive results to address the numerous issues.
On NIWA’s activities, the regulation of barge licensing has become a major issue. We have too many barge jetties clustered around several places in Lagos becoming a logistics challenge. Can we prevent this?
People begin to wonder if there actually is an environmental impact assessment, how do they go about it. It is not only NIWA that gives this license, even though they should be the only one. It’s not only a NIWA challenge, it is a Nigerian challenge. It is a problem of multiplicity of agencies, yet, lack of regulation. There is no identified body that regulates all this activity. For instance, if we’re talking about the port regulatory body, we talk about Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC), who then is regulating inland waterways, it ought to be NIWA but LASWA, Solid Minerals are all there also to issue licenses. Solid Minerals at a point took over because you cannot do land dredging without getting their licenses.
There is confusion and this confusion will continue unless there is a roundtable discussion. Nigeria lacks focus and this is a national problem. So, we all need to stop worrying about it or praying about it, but do something about it. There’s a limit to what prayer can do for you. Let’s get into action because the lack of focus is a national tragedy.
When you look at other countries of the world or private organizations and individuals, who are focused; you can see what they have achieved as opposed to people with no focus. That is what Nigeria is suffering from. At a point the Navy will jump into it, since they know there is some food for the boys to eat. Solid Minerals will go in there; LASWA will go in there, they’re not going there for Nigeria, they’re going there for themselves and until this stops, the problems will continue.
As you launch your Bag Academy it reminds of a statement you made last year amid COVID -19, you stressed that there is a need for a state of emergency in export trade in Nigeria and urged the government to build entrepreneurship skills. How relevant is that statement to Nigeria today?
I still stand by that statement I made last year and that’s why I’m playing my own role. I’m focused and I’m giving my contributions. I am determined to raise an army of artisans that can match any Chinese producer of bags, any producer from Kenya, Ghana or US, or anywhere in the world. That is my aim and focus. If I’m able to do that in a year or two years, I’ll be satisfied and fulfilled.
Government should boost the study, practice and entrepreneurial skills of textile and garment manufacturers at technical colleges and also key into the 10-year expansion of the African Growth and Development Act (AGOA).
I want a situation where when Nigerians migrate to other countries of the world but instead of sweeping the streets, they will be looking at opportunities to get a better job like working in a bag making company and they will go in with a certificate in bag production.
Can you imagine if we stop bringing in bags from London, China and other countries and we have made-in-Nigeria that we are sending out? Do you know how many jobs that will create? Since I retired from Civil Service, do you know how many people are under my employment? People talk about Micro, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (MSME), but they should come and consult me on this.
People are looking for how to make billions before they can step out to create a micro industry, you don’t need billions; all that is needed is to be focused. Nigeria is in a focus deficit. At 70, I can categorically say that Nigeria as a nation is not focused and anyone can challenge me on that.
On a lighter note ma, you shared your life experience from the civil war in Nigeria and how it has humbled you. You turned challenges into prospects and became successful, but when and how did you make your first N1 million?
My first N1million was made in 1990, though I was still working but I saw an opportunity in importation and decided to take it. I got involved in the importation business and to my greatest shock with what I put in and what I got out. It’s still a shock to me today.
While people are crying you cannot be doing this and that, all those rules and regulations, where are they now? People are having farms and still going to work. In Imo State, the former Governor, Rochas Okorocha was encouraging people to embrace agriculture. He directed them to spend half of their office time farming. The truth is that you can be a millionaire from your bedroom, if you’re focused.
You’ll be celebrating your 70th birthday in a few weeks, tell us about it?
Yes, my birthday will be celebrated in church 18th February, because that is the real day for the celebration. It will be a two-hour event with lots of merriment and gifts but no dancing. It would take place at St. Charles Borrowmeo Catholic Church, 1004 Estate, Victoria Island, Lagos by 2pm.
What word of advice would you give the younger generation?
What I can tell the younger generations is that, firstly, they must know what they want and it still means for them to have focus. They must try their best in any field of endeavor they find themselves, they must strive to be the best. They shouldn’t get discouraged by the little money at the beginning of their businesses or career, but always endeavour to improve the end product because money will follow. Whatever service or product you’re providing, be patient; young people are always in a hurry.