An Amazon in the Saddle

By Maureen Chigbo  |

GOING by her calm demeanor and innocent look, one can hardly smell the passion she has for small and medium enterprises, SMEs. Neither could anybody who is just meeting her for the first time know that she is a fervent advocate for women advancement in whatever endeavour they are involved in. Her fervor for SMEs and women issues became apparent when Evelyn Ndali Oputu, who was appointed managing director and chief executive officer of the Bank of Industry (Nigeria) Ltd in December 2005, mounted the podium at the second SMEs Live Banking Panel, which was held in Lagos, Monday, November 4. She spoke with much passion about how the SMEs can overcome financial hurdles, leverage on their bright ideas to get loans to fund their projects which can make a change in the society. “SMEs are here because we can make a change. Last year, you made presentations to the banks. This year, we are moving ahead and you are going away from here knowing that projects can be funded. Bankers here have a challenge to tell the SMEs the missing link. It is not enough to have a bright idea but how to convert it to a profitable business which will lead to job creation… All of us believe in you. We are here to make sure that you succeed,” Oputu told a large hall filled with owners of SMEs, bank representatives and others.

Her understanding of SMEs as the engine of growth in any economy and the fact that more women are involved in the SMEs made her to embark on a paradigm shift when she assumed office as the chief executive officer of the Bank of Industry, BOI. The paradigm shift essentially means that the BOI from 2006 shifted all its resources into small and medium enterprises, which is where women mostly play. The paradigm shift saw the volume and quality of BOI’s risk assets improved phenomenally.  They grew by 2,329 percent in seven years to N238.04 billion by 2012 from N9.8 billion in 2005 while the portfolio at risk reduced to 15 percent from 65 percent over the same period. The bank’s profit similarly peaked at N2.5 billion in 2010 from N105 million in 2005. BOI’s balance sheet was also strengthened by the creation of many physical assets. The most notable being BOI’s new twelve storey complex in Abuja, that was built in eighteen months and its remodeled Lagos office.

Oputu, who began her banking career in 1976 with ICON Merchant Bank Ltd, was as a visionary leader who is very passionate about the SMEs. She joined International Merchant Bank, IMB, in 1982 where she was appointed general manager IMB Securities in 1989 and executive director in 1990. The slender, graceful and ageless Amazon, with an amiable but very firm disposition served as executive director at First Bank of Nigeria Plc between 1991 and 1997. She later ran her manufacturing business until she was appointed to head BOI.

Oputu, who is an alumnus of the University of Lagos and the Harvard Business School, was at Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York for her internship. In recognition of her outstanding contributions to Nigeria’s development, she was conferred with a national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger, OON, in 2008 by the federal government of Nigeria and an honorary Doctorate in Business Administration by Nigeria’s first private University, the Igbinedion University in 2010.

Oputu, who is very proud to be a woman, is not against affirmative action but detests mediocrity at any level irrespective of sex. On what she would like to be remembered when her tenure finishes in BOI and her next port of call, she quips “I’m a work in progress. What I will do, I don’t know yet. But it won’t be different from what I have always done, that is, ensuring that every Nigerian who wants to work, learn and improve himself can have the opportunity to do so.”

What Affirmative Action Is Not

Evelyn Oputu, managing director and chief executive officer, Bank of Industry, meets with Realnews editorial team of Maureen Chigbo, editor, and Anayo Ezugwu, reporter, for an interview centred on women empowerment, the bank’s paradigm shift in SMEs financing, Nigerians in the Diaspora and affirmative action among other issues. Excerpts: 

Realnews: Let us start with the event that took place today; I noticed you have a lot of passion for helping women to have access to financing which is denied them by the commercial banks. What actually led to the event that took place today?
Oputu: There are two separate things, one of them is women, which is the gender issue and the other one is the event that took place today. We all know what has happened to women all over the world. We are the last frontier almost as it where. African women are just at the bottom. Of the two billion poor in the world, 90 percent of them are women. We believe in the Bank of Industry that demographically which is 50-50, give or take one or two percent. And if you do not involve 50 percent of your population, your resource base and your access base in the economic activity you do not put yourself in a position to win, that is on one level. On the other level, if women don’t have economic power the journey to personal, self actualisation just won’t happen, so it’s on growth level and national level. And on a third level as you heard today, when you empower women you actually empower the entire family and therefore the next generation because most of the incomes and earnings from a woman’s activities go back into the family. When you look at it both from the socio-developmental economic perspective, I thought it was an imperative for the Bank of Industry to begin to look at that. The fourth one is that, when I came to the Bank of Industry, we started something in 2006 that we called the paradigm shift, which is shifting all our resources into the small and medium enterprises which is where the family business are, which is where the women play and which is where even the men play. And if we are going to go into that and we leave about 50 percent of the population, then it didn’t make sense for us. And we know that women having not played in the formal sector, mostly in the informal sector, don’t always understand how banks operate. So, we felt that we needed to have gender desk in the Bank of Industry. We set that one up in February of 2006 to address the needs of women and to actually ensure that they become part of the economic empowerment of the nation. So that is where gender programme started from.

Realnews: It is good to include women, but what was the situation before you had the paradigm shift, was the situation so bad or just in between?
Oputu: I don’t think I should respond to that. I think you need to go the Central Bank of Nigeria to find out exactly the percentages.

Realnews: I mean in the Bank of Industry?
Oputu: Well, I will tell you to go to the Central Bank of Nigeria to find out the percentage of all the loans and advances that I have given in the banking industry that goes to women. I think it will be interesting to find out that what it was like before Sanusi Lamido Sanusi became the governor and what it is like now. And then, you will have a rough idea that it is actually an imperative if we are going to think about it.

Evelyn OputuRealnews: What has been the major challenges you face with implementing the paradigm shift?
: There were several. When you go into the SMEs space, which is what the paradigm shift is about, I will describe the paradigm shift a little further so that you will understand the depth in which we are going. The paradigm shift-we felt that as a development bank, development must affect the people. Our economic development must actually ensure that people feel it. The Nigeria that we knew and which we grew up in then, there was a middle class that existed and very gradually became eroded. So we wanted to re-institute that middle class. We wanted to always reinstitute faith and hope in our people by making them know that an institution that is owned by government cares enough to think about them. Secondly, we wanted to be able to actually lend to people who will meet certain criteria. And the first criterion was to utilise local raw materials. So, if you are setting up a business and there are imported raw materials and local materials, we will fund the one who utilises local materials first. The second criterion is that we have higher unemployment. We are 170 million people, a lot of them young people do not have jobs. So, if you are going to come to us, two of your coming for loan and one of the areas is in oil and gas, and the other one is in agric business. We are going to give the agric business first because he is going to employ more people, that is the second criterion. The third criterion, the one that is producing goods and services that would substitute the import bills, so that we will reduce the import bills so that the funds will now be generated to fix infrastructural issues that we have. These were the first three criteria that we used to say this is the paradigm shift. Why did we use that, because every naira you invest in this process, the numbers of people that are impacted are more? Not just businesses itself but also those that are producing raw materials suddenly begin to produce because they have more money. Those that will sell it and if you are producing and adding value to it, probably you will sell it to another primary manufacturer who would employ more people. So overall, with one stone probably, we will kill 20 birds. So, that was the paradigm shift. Now the kind of challenges we have were many. The first, of course, was limited resource base, as you know government agencies are not the best when average Nigerian is talking and it permeates into the entire society. What can they do? All the money is mismanaged is what you hear from the average man on the street. The other aspect is getting the entrepreneur themselves. The entrepreneurs themselves have been desolate so, in the first place they do not even believe. They don’t believe that you are really out there to do anything for them. And even when you meet those that are already there, manufacturing in Nigeria is very daunting. It is very difficult for them and they have all of these problems with infrastructure, double taxation and even those that have started production are just struggling along. They cannot go to banks because they don’t have proper papers for their property. They need to get C of O for their property. Some do have, so that is another challenge. They are quite few not just for us but for the entrepreneurs. But because we wanted to work with them, their problems became our problem. Again, we have to train them. They have to understand the difference between a revenue and a profit, to explain to them where the banks would look at them, this is the reason you don’t have proper papers, your documentations is not right, is not because, nobody wants to deal with you but because you don’t just fit. Trying to give them a mirror to look at their faces, that before you walk into a bank, even when you have to dress in a decent manner, you have to understand what they were trying to say to you. And you need to have financials, bankers to look at financials. You may have a bright idea but a banker has the responsibility to their shareholders and you have to understand how it works. The challenges were at different levels, getting money, getting them prepared, getting them to understand the rules of the game, getting them to understand the processes, getting the governors in the states where they operate to understand that they are your responsibility. If we don’t have money, you help us to help them. There were challenges but once you are able to break them down, you begin to find how you can resolve each of them. So, largely, we resolved most of them.

Realnews: Out there, the feelings are that not every person can walk up to BOI and get a loan, you must know somebody who knows somebody?
Oputu: That is not true. As a matter of fact anybody who says that obviously doesn’t know the Bank of Industry, which is what I’m saying that we do our best. But if you don’t believe us, then you have to sit down forever. If you don’t understand the rules of engagement, why should we help you? If you don’t even take the trouble to understand because we have a website, we have done everything, we cannot help you. We have programmed everything every week, you don’t listen, you want me to come to you with your spirit of entitlement, no. People that we engage in Nigeria which we will continue to engage, are those people who are trying. They are many. Of 170 million Nigerians, there are very many who want to work, who know. But for those who are sitting down in their homes to say nobody will help me, continue to sit at home please.

Evelyn OputuRealnews: You talk about governors being involved, how much cooperation do you get from them?
Oputu: Very much, we have received many, at this point in time like 50 percent of the governors today are working with the Bank of Industry. What they do is very simple. First, we sit with them and explain the model and some of them have given us a billion, some gave us 500 million, some 250 million and some 100 million Naira. And what we do, for every amount you give to us, we match it exactly with the same amount and we go to that particular state; we make sure that their own cooperative society will do the training and we begin to lend to them in that particular state. So, when you say you have to know someone at the Bank of Industry, I tell you who ever told you that is a liar. Do you know how many millions we lend every day and every year, we can’t know them. So, what we do, those governors we go to them and sign an agreement with them and concentrate all of those funds in that particular state and this changes the look.

Realnews: Can you mention some of these states?
Oputu: I’m going to start it with the first that did it, Osun state. We have Ondo, Ogun, Ekiti, Oyo, Kogi, Kwara, Niger, Delta, Edo, Cross River, Gombe, Kano and Anambra states. Yes Anambra was the first governor that we started this process with.

Realnews: And you have quite a number of projects there?
Oputu: I can’t remember them and that is why when you say… We are doing a lot of work with these people. We actually have an office in Awka.

Realnews: How did the idea came about to involve people from the Diaspora to come over here to invest?
Oputu: The Bank of Industry started that with a young woman. Unfortunately, I don’t know what has happened to her. Her name is Tokunbo Chiedu, she operates out of the UK. She saw what the Bank of Industry was doing here and she invited us. As a matter of facts that guy sitting over there, at the head of the table came from the Diaspora. He was operating his business in Ireland. We met one who was operating his business in the UK and he was buying his products from Latin America. He showed us all the things he was doing; ours was just to weigh-in because this is a business that will come out well. So, we said come to Nigeria and setup.  That particular one is from Ondo State, so we took him there, we talked to the governor about giving him land. We met another from Imo in Indonesia, he does garmenting. We brought him here but he didn’t stay, but others stayed and they are into fish processing. They are doing fish processing and exporting. For us, the diaspora people have two things; they have acquired skills that we don’t have. They have exposure to the market and they can impact on our country. It is not even peculiar to us; if you look at the state of Israel that has changed in the 70s and 80s, there was a master plan and they changed their country from the diaspora to ditto-China and ditto-India. So, we thought that we could do this with the diaspora people. But we did it on our own; it always has much attraction when you do things alone. And Western Union that has been in Nigeria for a while, has so much money, they look on the diaspora. But they are not alone. There are many companies in Nigeria that have made a lot more money than the Western Union. So I’m not going to be here talking about Western Union; all I can tell you, because I’m not supposed to promote them, is that they have displayed a certain sense of responsibility towards Nigeria and Africa. And therefore, they looked for the our people in the diaspora who had innovative ideas that can impact on the continent and they brought them together and talk to us because they know that we are on that space. We operate in that space of trying to get Nigerians anywhere we can find them to produce here, to impact on our economy, to ensure that all the teeming young people get jobs. But as I said before, it is only those who are willing and ready to work, not those who sit down in their homes and criticise. Those are the people we are looking for and when the Western Union told us about the Diaspora programme we jumped at it because that’s our space.

Realnews: The SMEs, have they really affected the unemployment situation in the country?
Oputu: Well, it depends on how you look at it because we can say we have a 150 million unemployed people right now and the Bank of Industry has been able to remove two or three million out of it. Has it impacted on it.

Evelyn OputuRealnews: In a way.
Oputu: So you have answered your question.

Realnews: What would you like to be remembered for when you finish your tenure here and what else do you want to do?
Oputu: You know, I’m a work in progress. What I will do, I don’t know yet. But it won’t be different from what I have always done, that is, ensuring that every Nigerian who wants to work, learn and improve himself can have the opportunity to do so. That is what I like to be remembered for and that is what I like to continue to do.

Realnews: Including women in the programme of BoI, is it because you are a woman or just something you felt should be done?
Oputu: Why shouldn’t I do it because I’m a woman? I think like a woman. I’m a woman and I like being a woman. I have no apologies for that and when I see the other women who are not empowered, I feel for them. In the past, the attitude used to be that I’m the only woman here, it’s almost a thing of pride. No I don’t like it. I think there should be more women everywhere, women who can deliver, women who can stand neck-and-neck with men and do justice to their work. Not a tokenism. Not women who are there because they are women. Women we support in the Bank of Industry are women who can prove themselves at every level.

Realnews: You talked about tokenism, are you against affirmative action?
Oputu: No I’m not against affirmative action. I’m against mediocrity at any level male or female. So, what I’m saying is that there are good women everywhere and therefore affirmative action should only throw up the good ones and we should not use affirmative action or federal character to turn the nation into mediocrity.

— Nov. 25, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

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