October 25, 2015

Why we are showcasing Finnish firms – Suomela-Chowdhury

Why we are showcasing Finnish firms –  Suomela-Chowdhury

Pirjo Suomela-Chowdury

The Finnish Embassy in Nigeria and the Finland Trade Centre have concluded plans to showcase Finnish firms and their products in Lagos, in the first week of November with a view to strengthening the business relationships between Nigerian and Finnish companies.  In this interview, the Finnish Ambassador to Nigeria, Pirjo Soumela-Chowdhury explains the idea behind exhibition. Excerpts:

By Victoria Ojeme

Your Excellency, how would you describe bilateral the relationship between Finland and Nigeria?

The relations are good and strong, and actually very long, too. Finland established its first sub-Saharan Embassy in Nigeria – in Lagos in 1963, then later on we moved to Abuja. At the same time, the relations could be more intensive – and that is the core of what I am aiming at during my tenure as Ambassador of Finland in Nigeria. There is still potential for  more in the relations.

What aspect of these relations are you focusing on specifically?

The most central focus of our work is in promoting trade and economic relations. There are already several Finnish companies doing business in Nigeria. Nokia in the communications field and Wärtsilä in the power sector are both big global players that are present all over the world, and also in Nigeria. Many other companies work in Nigeria through a local representative.

Meteorological   technology

In infrastructure development – a very important area in Nigeria – one could mention KONE which produces escalators and lifts – or Vaisala that makes very specialized meteorological technology, present in many Nigerian airports. I recognize, however, that the relations between Finland and Nigeria could be much more active than is presently the case. My aim is that the still rather modest trade volumes between our two countries will grow significantly in the future. I am very hopeful in this respect, as interest in Finland towards Nigeria is definitely growing.

One area that we are closely looking at is health and wellbeing, and how to promote trade relations in this area that clearly is now very topical both in Finland and in Nigeria. There are some Finnish companies already working in the health sector in Nigeria, and I can see that there is a good deal of interests among other Finnish businesses. In fact, we are organising a business event on health and wellbeing in Lagos  on the 3rd  of November. There will be some Finnish businesses present there. At the same time, it will be a more general discussion and exchange of views on issues of health and wellbeing. Along with trade and economic relations, of course it is also important for Finland to foster good political relations with Nigeria – which is an important regional and global player, and for instance very active in the United Nations. Over the last few years, there have been several high-level visits between our countries, and I am confident we will continue on this path.

Nigeria is yet to achieve its universal health basic needs and services. How does the health care system work in Finland?

Health is indeed a very essential and important aspect of every society, and also a very important issue personally to all of us. Challenges and solutions may vary from country to country. My knowledge and experience is on how we do things in my country. In Finland, the system is based on publicly funded universal health care. Municipalities are responsible for providing healthcare services, for instance running the local health care centres. These services are financed with tax money, along with some small and very affordable user fees. In health, there is also a private sector, but its role is much smaller than that of the public sector. General health policy in Finland is decided at national level, with the ministry of health and social affairs as the highest authority. Obviously, we have a very comprehensive taxation system that ensures revenue for public expenses like health services.

What are the details of the health and wellbeing event that Finland will soon be organizing in Lagos. What are your expectations? 

The Embassy of Finland is organizing this event, November 3, together with Finland Trade Centre in Lagos. We have been planning it already for some time now, and it is one of the highlights of our activities in Nigeria this year. In Nigeria, we have a special focus on health and wellbeing, which is something that we have identified as an area with a lot of potential and interest in Nigeria as well as in Finland. There are already Finnish companies working here in this sector, and many others have interest in entering the Nigerian market.

Special focus on health

In the event, there will be Finnish companies present, so that participants will be able to take a first-hand look at their expertise and products, and to get an idea of the kind of things Finland has to offer. But perhaps even more importantly, the event will provide a platform for a more general discussion and exchange of ideas on health and wellbeing. There will be a Professor from Finland who is an expert in the so called non-communicable diseases – conditions such as heart and coronary diseases, diabetes and cancer. These illnesses are more and more prevalent in Nigeria, too. In Finland we have a lot of experience and expertise in this area. Some decades ago heart and coronary diseases used to be a very big problem in my country, and we put a lot of effort and research into looking at the causes as well as prevention. It was found that diet and other lifestyle issues played a big role, and that by making changes in them you could prevent a lot of these diseases. In the Lagos event, we will also have a prominent Nigerian expert – Dr Kingsley Akinroye who is the Executive Director of the Nigerian Heart Foundation – and also Honorary Consul of Finland.  I look forward to a very fruitful meeting, with lots of networking, and a lively discussion on issues of health and wellbeing.

What is Finland doing to support efforts to promote healthcare outside Finland?

As a member country of the European Union, Finland is supporting development efforts worldwide, including in Nigeria. We are also strong supporters of the United Nations system, and channel development finance through many UN organizations, including the UNAIDS, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and WHO, as well as through the International Financial Institutions. In Nigeria we have also supported some NGO projects in the area of health – for instance in Ibadan in Oyo State a school health project. Finland is also active in, and chairs this year, the so called Global Health Security Agenda initiative which aims at preventing infectious diseases and responding to them effectively.

 Nokia is the most famous Finnish brand in Nigeria. What is their presence in Nigeria and how many Nigerians do they employ? 

Nokia is indeed a very successful Finnish company, and one could say even very much part of the Finnish identity. They now focus on the network business where they are important players in Nigeria, too. I have visited the Nokia office in Lagos and have met their Nigerian staff. In addition, there must be lots of Nigerians who in one way or another, more or less directly, have been involved or employed in different Nokia projects. For exact numbers of course you would have to ask Nokia themselves.

Let’s talk about education: the Finnish education system is known for its high quality – how does it work? 

It is true that the Finnish education system has been quite a success. The international fame that it has acquired in recent years happened without us advertising it. What happened is that our schools produced high quality results, according to international rankings, which then became highly publicized. Perhaps the most important one of those where Finland has done well over several years has been the PISA ranking that measures the skills of 16-year-olds in areas such as literacy and mathematics. The two things I always bring up as success factors of the Finnish education system are: firstly, equality of opportunity – high quality education is available free of charge for everybody in Finland, no matter what your social status or where you live in the country.

Teacher training

Secondly, I always mention teacher training. In Finland teaching is actually a very popular profession, so you have very good students applying to universities to study to become teachers. Entrance to universities is in fact quite competitive, and some prospective students might apply many times before being admitted, this also goes for teacher training. Another important thing is vocational education which does not always get enough appreciation. In Finland vocational education is actually quite popular, and often students with good grades choose to study in vocational institutions. For a labour market to function well, it is very important also to have enough people with vocational skills – not just university graduates.

What lessons can Nigeria learn from the Finnish education system?

One has to recognize that situations and challenges are different in different parts of the world, and that therefore solutions might have to be different, too. The things that have worked in Finland are free high quality education available for all, good teacher training, recognizing the importance of vocational education, and also life-long learning. In Finland, there is also a very strong appreciation for education and learning in general – as of course there is in many other countries, too, including in Nigeria I understand.