‘Creating an environment for new, existing industries to thrive is our priority’
Charles Udoh, the Commissioner of Information and Strategy, Akwa Ibom State, in this interview with FEMI ADEKOYA, explains how the present administration is driving its diversification agenda by consolidating efforts in reviving moribund industries and providing an enabling environment for setting up of new factories. To him, it is time to alter the equation of governance in favour of sustainable actions.
Despite being an oil producing State, what is driving the state government’s diversification agenda?
Akwa Ibom State is 30 years this year and in those years, the economy of the State, the larger part of it has been centred around government and you and I know that, if you must have a prosperous economy, you need to alter that equation such that the government will depend on the private sector and the economy will be private sector driven. For a larger part of those 30 years, the economy has been driven by the State government and government’s initiatives largely, therefore, you have so much pressure on government. The young graduates from school, most of them have aspirations to get into government circles, but the reality is that we cannot drive a successful economy that way, because resources are dwindling. There is so much the government can do in terms of employment among others. So Akwa Ibom State government under the leadership of Governor, Udom Emmanuel decided that it was best if we diversify the economy. To diversify the economy, we looked at certain things and we decided that there is need to anchor that diversification on industrialisation, tourism and of course, on agricultural development. For industrialisation, we also went further to ensure that our industrialisation drive was not done as it used to be. So we decided that the route to take was the one to attract investors to come into Akwa Ibom State and run industries bench-marked on international best practices. So we started a journey where we started creating an enabling environment from infrastructure which drives most industrialisation effort to security, to integrity and stability of governance. These are the cardinal points that drive the current industrialisation process in Akwa Ibom State whereby the government has consciously provided the necessary infrastructure to drive industrialisation.
If you take roads for instance, we are not just building random roads, we are building what we call economic roads, because we are trying to connect the economic nerve centers of the State. This is because If we are going to be successful as an industrial State, we must have good roads; if you are going to be successful as a tourist destination, you must have good roads; if your agricultural initiatives must be successful, you must have good roads.
So the government has invested heavily in terms of road infrastructure. Beyond road infrastructure, we are also very passionate about security where we invest heavily in terms of safety and security of the environment because we know that for you to get investors to come they must be secured and of course if you look at the governance structure of the State, you could see from the leadership cutting across all strata of the headship to every other person who works within, you could see that there is a conscious effort to grow the profile of the leadership of the State in a very organised and sustainable manner. Today we have Africa’s largest syringe factory in Akwa Ibom State that is 100 per cent private sector driven. We know that Nigeria consumes about six million syringes yearly and these syringes are imported from all over the world and interestingly, the only syringe factory in Africa before now was in South Africa and that syringe factory currently has a 95 million capacity, but we have built through foreign investment, a 400-million capacity syringe factory.
The question is how does this investment affect the life of a common man in the State? We have always promised that we want to run a people-oriented government. Our government has always promised job creation and poverty alleviation, now if you take the syringe factory in isolation, you will find out that beyond the direct investment, you will find out that there are opportunities for distributorship, for service provision and even within the local communities. My focus is to take this from an individual point of view and see the economic and social benefit of having these industries, but not just having the industries but how does it impact on the lives of people positively. If you link this back to the roads, we are ensuring that the road networks we are constructing in Akwa Ibom State are not unidirectional. We want to have a network of roads that link the industrial hubs and the agricultural. What we have also done is to ensure that cost of doing business in those industries are minimized as much as possible and this is why we try to have a concentration of them in different locations. We are not building industries like we did in the past whereby when the Governor leaves and the industries die. All the industries we are building and have attracted into the State are industries that are independent of the government. We want a situation where international associates will trust the leadership of Akwa Ibom State where they bring their funds and operate.
Are there legislations to protect these investments?
When you have an industry that is operating in an environment totally independent of the government, the benefit will be there for everybody to see by eight years time when the Governor is no more there. If you talk about the syringe factory I do not think anybody would come and see a thriving industry and shut it down because it is not government funded. They do not need government funding to survive, the basic thing they need is power and in eight years time they should be able to sustain themselves in terms of power; in terms of security they should be able to secure themselves too. What we have also done is that for the first time in history of the State all the roads we have built in the last two and a half years are built to international standard where all of them have side drains. We spend a lot building roads because we believe that in 25 years time from now, the roads will still be there. So in 25 years, the industries would have been more stabilized to run on their own.
Are there structures in place to ensure that policy somersaults do not affect investments?
If you remember that we had things like the automobile industry that we had proposed in the past but have not taken up because of some of the rules around it. The ones that are fully on ground, we looked at all the opportunities. For instance, the metering factory, we identified what they needed to thrive such as security, power and roads. This is all they need. There are no issues that are tied to the apron strings of the government to impede their progress if and when the current administration is no longer on seat.
What plans do you have for the resuscitation of many moribund industrial firms in the state?
We have resuscitated the paint industry. As regards the Oku-Iboku Pulp and Paper Limited, we cannot do that on our own, without the federal government providing what they need to provide. We are embarking on self-help project. Today Akwa Ibom is the largest oil producer, but we have zero federal government presence, not one road built by the federal government, not one industry built by the federal government. We maintain our own airport. For us to resuscitate some of the moribund industries in the State, we are not going to put government money revitalizing them. We are following the same process we are using for the new ones that are coming on board. We find an investor who is interested and do the necessary paper work and let them run like we did in the paint industry which is back on stream and the new ones we are doing. We are creating the business environment and finding opportunities so that when an investor comes we give them the land and they go about their businesses. Beyond the industries I mentioned, we are also working on a cattle ranch. We have an agreement with an investor from Mexico that is going to bring 2000 herds of cattle to the ranch, we are doing landscaping and once the land is ready, the herds will come in. the cattle are coming based on the trust and the agreement that we have had. With the ranch, we will have a meat, milk and yoghurt processing factory. All these are tied into the government’s promise to provide great jobs to alleviate poverty and create wealth.
Akwa Ibom has rich palm plantations. What are you doing to grow the value chain industries attached to the sector?
We are setting up a lot of palm processing plants and like I said agricultural development takes a bit of time. We have pockets of palm processing plants and we also have pockets of garri processing plants. If you remember when flagged off the 30th anniversary celebration of the State, we showcased the first set of commercially produced garri and bagged in Akwa Ibom State, now that is the way to go, all this will take a bit of time to really get the massive result that we want, because this was a sector that was abandoned for many years. We have massive hectares of cassava and rice plantations. We are also into rice production. These are areas in which we are focusing keenly and beyond the Ministry of Agriculture, we also have a technical committee on agriculture and food sufficiency that underlines the seriousness that we have placed on agriculture and food processing.
Are you looking at sector-wide incentives to drive investments?
The bureau on FDI in the State is working on a document that will soon be made public on investment incentives. There are so many areas of investments and that document once it receives the approval of the State Executive Council will be made public. We are not just building industries and attracting any kind of investor, we are looking at targeted industries that have market potentials. Every industry we have ventured into has huge market potential. They are high demand sectors.
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