By Josephine Agbonkhese
A dogged advocate for women and youth empowerment in Nigeria and Africa at large, Queen Zaynab Otiti Obanor is Founder, Arab African Economic Development Initiative, AAEDI. In this interview, she stresses that human capital development is the surest way to sustain long-term development in Nigeria and the African continent.
You have been touring countries in Europe over the years exploring business opportunities. What do you think is the problem with African countries’ economies?
African leaders would tell you that African states have all attained independence, but the truth is that the foundations of modern Africa – its leadership and institutions – are all still deeply dependent upon colonial economies. Most African leaders still don’t have proper understanding of economic development policies.
No African state in recent times has created and sustained mere 10 years’ policy of strategic development in any sector; be it agricultural, industrial or commercial. Economic policies are only as old as the political regimes that initiated them.
As soon as a government is out of office, be it by military coup or democratic succession, all the policies initiated by that regime are ousted by the incoming regime! The new government then goes to the World Bank begging for loans and handouts from other nations who have painstakingly developed their economies over the years.
Most African administrators are more interested in short term policies that will create results before their departure from office and, for this reason, the focus is often on infrastructural development contracts. The idea of socio-economic transformation, through far-reaching and long and sustained approaches, is largely uncommon.
But the truth is, no meaningful development can be attained unless a society shuts its doors, looks inward, creates and sustains economic efforts that last for decades until they finally bear fruits. Countries like China and South Korea are economies that one can learn from. Until African leaders learn to respect and sustain valuable and economic development plans across different administrations over several years, African countries will not make meaningful economic growth.
Beyond the leaders, what do you think private business and investors can do to help?
It is very important that individuals and businesses take the gauntlet and find ways to support the struggle. I have never believed that the government of any country can thrive successfully without the private sector. Perhaps where a government is lagging behind, independent business institutions can succeed and help build micro-economies. The most important aspect that must be given maximum attention is human capital development; education must never be ignored and efforts must be maximised towards skill development among the general African populace.
Women and youth must be given access to education and skill acquisition, sustained across generations and, after formal education, enterprise-based education must follow. I think African schools should now include enterprise development in their curricula as part of every study package from the smallest to the highest study level; churning out graduates who have no employment at the end of the day is not helping anyone.
Efforts should be to teach these young people how to access funding after school and how to set up enterprises based on their course of study. Access to funds for venture capital must be ensured and sustained, especially for women and youth. I believe that if Africans are equipped with relevant skills and venture capital, a gradual middle sector of fast-growing micro, small and middle scale enterprises will spring-up—that will go a long way in improving African economies.
As a person, what effort are you making to help improve the economy of the nation?
At our organisation, the Arab African Economic Development Initiative, AAEDI, we are documenting a wide spectrum of SMEs in need of growth capital. These form a part of the business opportunities we intend to present to our Venture Capitalist partners in the Middle-East and other parts of Africa.
What we do is to select businesses that have comparative advantages based on environment and demographic relevance and give them potential for success and growth into global businesses in future. After this stage, we will be working hand-in-hand with these enterprises to present their businesses in internationally-acceptable standards. Human capital development is therefore a compulsory part of our plan to achieve this cross-over.
You recently signed a new cooperation with some Turkish groups to bring into East and West Africa Global Hotel and Retail Chains. What was the inspiration behind this?
The hospitality industry plays a major role in every country’s development in terms of tourism. If I must travel to any country especially the ones I haven’t been to, the first thing I look out for are familiar names.
Indigenous brands are okay for the local market and for the tourist who wants adventure. But quite frankly, if we want to drive tourism, we must look at bringing global chains into the forefront to boost the hospitality and retail industry. There are people who travel to destinations just for the hotels; they want to experience comfort outside their home—it’s about lifestyle. Knowing the brand is trusting the brand, and the more hotels the better. There should be freedom and luxury of several choices. And Dubai has demonstrated how this could be made possible.
How long have you been working on this, and how long did it take to convince the investors and partners to come into Africa?
We have been working on this for about 11 months; there have been meetings back and forth, some of which are still on-going, considering that the interest of our partners cuts across more than a single country.
Does your organisation have any role to play in this venture?
While this is a personal business venture, we have also got the organisation involved as the main anchor. Though AAEDI is a not-for-profit organisation, its responsibility is to protect every project or business venture brokered through its efforts.
We are so far affiliated to the government of a few countries and, as you know, there are bureaucracies with regards to setting up businesses in any country. This is where AAEDI comes in as an umbrella to see that every project meets with the regulations of each of country and also protects its interest to succeed.
Knowing your involvement with humanitarian work, how do you hope to help with this new cooperation?
Philanthropy is at the core of most of the things we do in AAEDI and, of course, my personal quest to contribute my quota to improving these very important issues such as unemployment and empowerment.
So we have decided that for every project we embark on, there has to be potential for job creation for the citizens of that country. So, every foreign partner understands the importance of allowing the quota of local employees within that establishment to remain in balance with that of the expatriates.