9 September 2012

Nigeria: A Winning Formula


Many jobseekers must be aware of the Youth Enterprise with Innovation in Nigeria, which they call YouWiN. This short form of the programme makes it sound like a lottery. And it couldn't have been an acronym; I can't see where "Enterprise" is represented in YouWiN. Well, let's forget the shadow and seek the substance.

According to the initiators - the ministries of finance, communication technology, youth development and women affairs - YouWiN is "an innovative business plan competition aimed at job creation by encouraging and supporting aspiring entrepreneurial youth in Nigeria to develop and execute business ideas".

Young people who wish to participate in the programme - and which jobseeker doesn't respond to job advertisements? - can visit their website at www.youwin.org.ng to read the soul-lifting pictures painted there. But it's too early for me to point at YouWiN as a success story. When it was launched last year, I said, "Yes, they are beginning to think and work." But I had my reservations.

Many such promising projects have failed. Judging by the way it's being flaunted in government-owned media, I predict that the programme will be hijacked soon - if it hasn't been hijacked already. Yes, we should be cynical; there's nothing connected to the Nigerian government that is straightforward anymore.

The first 1, 200 winners were said to have been recognised by President Goodluck Jonathan on April 12, this year. On that occasion, he reportedly felt satisfied with "the fair and transparent process that produced the winners" and declared: "A situation where a Nigerian must know somebody before he gets something ... must end. And we are beginning to demonstrate that even in our political appointments; some of the political offices have to be advertised for all Nigerians to apply so that we select the best."

No ambition could be taller! And that's the first reason we should be cynical about YouWin itself. On TV, I've watched one beneficiary after another praising the president in a speech likely written for them by presidential and ministerial aides. One said he "has brought sunshine into my life", followed by applause and the picture of a smiling President Jonathan. I'm sure that video clip will be used during the presidential campaigns of 2015.

Taking the president seriously on this issue is a risky gamble. I'm not ready to take it. Should we believe that the 1, 200 YouWiN beneficiaries were selected on merit? Maybe those who marked the proposals came from the Moon or Mars. And the scripts must have been taken to Mars for marking; once any creature from another planet touches the Nigerian soil, it gets tainted by the Nigerian factor. YouWiN especially is tempting: between N1million and N10million is given to each awardee, not as a loan but as a grant.

I feel an urge to apply for YouWiN, knowing that I stand a chance of winning. For two reasons, however, I won't: I'm not sure I still belong to the youth (the second version of the programme designed for women aged 45 or less has just been launched), and even N10million is too little for me to start any business now.

Back in the early 1990s, in Lagos, I used to write award-winning business plans. But it was frustration all the way - from the banks to ministers and to business moguls. One night, I watched a programme I had proposed on TV. When I enquired about the sponsors, I found it was a PR firm owned by the minister to whom I had submitted my proposal. I'm one of those who have suffered injustice in Nigeria; so when some of us talk about the country, we talk from experience.

The current administration will do well to make everyone win. Our education system should be designed to produce entrepreneurs, not jobseekers. We can create 120 million jobs by providing stable power, good roads and railways.

And I wonder what is in the YouWiN business plans marked by "an international business school". What business can run profitably on generators and expensive fuel? Many years ago, the BBC organised a competition similar to that of YouWiN. The winner, I think, was a Kenyan who said he would breed rabbits if given 500 pounds.

I have one more word for those who must take the credit or blame for YouWiN: The greatest employer in Nigeria today is corruption. In fighting corruption, allowance should be made for saving jobs. That is, when someone starts a war on graft.

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