Mr. Gabriel Ukpeh is the Chairman, Akwa Ibom State Technical Committee on Foreign Direct Investments.
In this interview with Nosike Moses, he discusses the numerous investment opportunities awaiting investors in Akwa Ibom. Excerpts:
What are the main objectives for establishing Akwa Ibom State Technical Committee on Foreign Direct Investments?
When Governor Udom Emmanuel assumed office in 2018, one of the major thrusts of his administration was industrialization, and to achieve that, he established three committees. One was on a deep seaport; the deep seaport is critical to the industrialization of the State and hopefully, construction will start in the first quarter of next year.
The other committee he set up was on agriculture; he said, “We must provide food for our people,” we cannot be buying food outside for our people. The third committee was on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and he invited me to head the committee on FDI. My job is to act as a liaison for investors when they come to Akwa Ibom State; work with them until they start business in the State.
What successes has the committee recorded since it was established?
We have recorded a lot of successes; we have the largest and best flour mill factory, we have the largest shipbuilding company; we have opened up in terms of shopping; we have a large shopping mall there. We have gone a long way in terms of integration; we have started palm kernel crushing; we are doing cassava crushing and many agricultural things are going on in the State.
We have the $1.4 billion ammonia plant going on in Ikot Abasi. There is the Sterling Company which has 12 companies in different areas. A company is partnering with the International Finance Corporation to start a methanol plant. We have the largest reserves of oil and gas in the country; anything oil and gas, we are in it.
The Bua Group is coming in to start a refinery in the State; they have signed an agreement to build a refinery and petrochemical plant. A lot of things are happening in the State and these things take time to come to fruition; it is not an overnight thing.
It takes time for the decision to be completed; financing to be done; technical issues to be sorted out; plants to be manufactured and brought into the country installed and started. The government of Udom Emmanuel has started the solid industrialization of Akwa Ibom State.
What specifically has the committee done to attract foreign investment to the State?
That was the question I have just answered; I have mentioned the things the committee has done and a lot more investments are coming to the State. Companies said they want to come and start operations in the State. Somebody said they have a poultry business and they want to come and start; another said they have a petrochemical company and want to set up a branch here; there is a company that manufactures deep freezers, they want to come and establish here; because of the long maritime asset, they want to come and start a cold room business in the State. They want to start processing fish in the State.
What action is the government taking to ensure adequate power supply in the State?
The governor has a project, “power for all by December 2021”, as we speak, Akwa Ibom is the only State that has its power plant; it has 191 megawatts. It is supplying 120 megawatts per day and the government has guaranteed that any company that comes will get power 24/7. Without power, we cannot do anything.
What other areas is the government working to enhance the activities of investors?
Another area the government is working on is security. We have an Israeli company that set up a Safe City in Uyo, the capital city where there are cameras everywhere. This will be expanded to all parts of the State, especially the free trade zone area. This is in the bid to attract investors.
What other things are you doing to ensure that investors have a friendly environment to operate in?
Investors have a conducive environment to operate; the government is providing that in terms of utilities; there is adequate electricity; adequate security is there; good road networks are there. Accessibility in and out of the state is there; they can ship goods in and out of the state freely.
Ibom Air is there; they can ship out their goods out of the country through the seaport and jetty we are building. Those things provide an enabling environment for investors in the State. We have a one-stop committee headed by me, so they do not have run-around ministries; they just work with me and start their businesses. We have a governor that understands the language of business; so they can come and discuss and if we have an agreement, off we go.
Will this translate into youth employment for young people in the state?
The essence of industrialization is not just to improve the economy; it is to create jobs. If you cannot create jobs for the people, why are you in government? That was why the governor took industrialization and he is creating more jobs and not only that, he is tinkering with education not to produce just administrators, but also to produce entrepreneurs, who can start their own businesses.
Between 2015 and now, well over 20,000 SMEs have started in Akwa Ibom State. These are people who have started their own businesses and are employing others. That is encouraging; many economies depend on SMEs; SMEs are the backbone of any economy.
Between 2015 and now, over 50,000 SMEs have registered in the State to pay tax. That means they are doing business. That area is one big aspect. He has turned the education system around such that if you come out of secondary school and cannot further your education, you can start your own business other than sit down doing nothing.
Tinkering with the vocational institutions and the entrepreneurship schools, graduates can go in there for six to nine months and acquire skills in a particular area, become an entrepreneur and be useful to society. The governor is streamlining things so that when graduates come out they are well tooled and get into the industries that are being set and the employment they need is being provided.
What are you doing to protect local investors?
The good thing about not just Akwa Ibom but Nigeria is that the market is huge. We have a population of over 200 million people; the market is there. Nobody is producing enough to satisfy the market. So whether you are foreign or local, there is a market for you.
Whatever you produce will be taken. For instance, even though we have palm oil, we still import palm oil; over 9000 tonnes of palm oil is imported into the country annually. If a local person decides to produce palm oil, he has an advantage because he will sell to industries at the price the foreigner is importing.
Despite the chickens we produce in the country, we still import chickens; the local farmer is producing on his farm and the foreigner comes in, the market is there for them. The market is there and can absorb the products. The problem arises when the market is saturated and people start looking at quality. Some people believe that the local chicken is better than the foreign one and they buy it. The market is there.
What is the government doing to reduce the incidence of multiple-taxation in the State?
That is the essence of having the ease of doing business; if you establish the process and the tax regime is not friendly, it becomes a problem. I know that most State governments have various taxes; local government areas have a radio, television, and other taxes; if the government can tax you for the air you breathe, they will do so.
I think we need to move away from that and do what other countries are doing. While we are reducing Value Added Tax, other countries are not reducing it, they are banishing those things. They are doing so because they know that if they banish them, foreign companies come in and start business and they just focus on company tax.
The companies will provide jobs and that is okay. They will ginger and open up the economy. There is a larger benefit to the country by reducing taxes and attracting investors. The thing about Akwa Ibom is that with the free trade zone that we have, everything about tax is gone.
So all the companies should move to Akwa Ibom free trade zone; it has 50 hectares of land, semi-developed, located there; no tax regime at all. No company tax, no import duty, there is import waiver on anything they import and they can sell them in foreign currency. There are many advantages in the State. Many of the challenges they face in other States can be solved by relocating to Akwa Ibom State.
Speaking of having a conducive political climate in the State? Will there be the sustenance of these laudable developments when a new government takes over in the State come 2023?
The meaning of Akwa Ibom is God’s State. We have been lucky and God has been with us from the regime of Obong Victor Attah, who set up the future of the State. He set things like Ibom Power and the Airport; these are the foundations for industrialization. The governor after him focused on infrastructure and made sure that the road network was good.
Julius Berger was working in Akwa Ibom rather than Lagos. So most of the infrastructure has been laid. Our stadium is the best in West Africa; our specialist hospital, you cannot find the equipment there anywhere else. This regime has come in and built on that and is working on industrialization. It is a progressive thing.