By Prof. Yemi Osinbajo
Most of us are here to support a dear brother and friend of many years, a very insightful columnist, Azubuike Ishiekwene.
But I am also here to support a dear brother and friend of many years who many of us call Azu. Azu has always stood for something; a strong social conscience, strong values and sound ethics. He is a man who has consistently shown strength of character which brings me to the theme of this commemorative lecture; “Why Start-Ups Fail And Strategies To Save Them”,
Without meaning to pre-empt what l know will be an eminent, and erudite presentation by Mr. Ncube, let me say that the success formula for a start-up, whether it is in the business of starting a newspaper or landing a robot on mars 350 million miles away are essentially within two broad issues that will ultimately determine success or failure. One will be an enabling environment and the other will be concept; in relation to what I just mentioned about Azu, which is strength of character.
Strength of character is what l find very fascinating because it is an attribute that is so important, so crucial, yet so hard to find. It is the patience to do routine things properly, everyday; the focus to start and finish a project. And all of that involves some adherence to values, sound moral principles and to principles, even sometimes when those principles work to your own disadvantage.
You must excuse me if l sound like a preacher, but commitment, focus and values are everything. Anybody can start a business or any kind of enterprise, but the truth is that most people will never see it through for a variety of reasons. But in several cases just as in a daily drudgery of building a business, most of course are unprepared.
One of the most amazing facts for me on assumption of office as Vice President was the sheer number of abandoned projects in every ministry and government agency; such a sheer number of things that were started, but never completed and have remained uncompleted.
Another amazing fact for me was just the sheer number of excellent ideas that are available to you every single day. As a matter of fact, l do not know and l had always assumed and I suppose many of us assume, that there are not enough good ideas, but there are just an incredible number of great ideas.
I attended a lecture just a couple of months after l was sworn in and before l got back into the car from the lecture, l had thirteen bound proposals from different people. They were well bound, well prepared proposals and practically about any subject that you could imagine. And l read these proposals every day. There is absolutely no shortage of good ideas in Nigeria. As a matter of fact, what l do is that any time l think about anything, when anything occurs to me, l just call up the right ministries and always invariably somebody will answer. Our problem really is never (that we are ) short of great ideas, well thought ideas; the question is how to start and ensure that you finish.
Sometimes, it’s just being unprepared and that has applied to individuals and to business, just being unprepared. I remember a lady who worked with me while l was in the Ministry of Justice in Lagos State. A woman of great faith, she had been believing God for an opportunity to go abroad to study, to do a Masters in Law, in a particular area of Law, and she believed that one day this would happen.
Indeed, the day came, it was the United States of America Embassy that eventually offered about three different scholarships in three different disciplines and everyone was so excited for her because she had practically told everybody that she wanted this particular opportunity to go abroad.
This came on a platter of gold and she didn’t have to pay as it was on scholarship, but the US embassy gave us just two days to bring all the documents. So, l asked her for her passport, but she didn’t have a passport and she had never bothered to get a passport. To cut a long story short, we missed that particular opportunity because we couldn’t get the passport and sort out every thing within two days.
But what was amazing was that here was someone whose life, as it were, was totally devoted to this objective of going abroad to study and yet when the moment came she was just unprepared because she just couldn’t get the passport. I suppose it is a failing, that we have not just in an individual but also in business; just quite not being ready to do what needs to be done.
How about integrity, that overused and abused but that relevant concept whenever we’re building a business on ethical principles. Does integrity pay in a corrupt environment?
In my practice both as an Attorney General and later as a litigator in corporate life, l found several examples that clearly demonstrate that building a business on sound ethical principles will look stupid in the short term, but eventually does make sound business sense.
I am sure many of us who are here who are active professionals in the past thirty years or so, are familiar with the rise and fall of many banks in Nigeria. Many of those banks were rated the largest in assets size and deposits for several years and suddenly they failed….of course many were involved in several sharp practices. Many relied on the network of bribery of public officials to attract public sector deposits. Those who didn’t do those deals looked foolish at the time. There was a particular popular Nigerian bank whose name of course l will not mention, whose founder decided from day one, that they would insist on high ethical standard and they did it. Everyone probably know that bank in the banking industry.
So when the CBN cracked down in 2009, most depositors, mostly corporate and individuals moved to that bank in one of the most dramatic flights to safety that we have seen in corporate life in Nigeria. Clearly, the reason why most people moved is because they suddenly realized that well, this bank may not have looked very good, but they realized that the safety of their resources was best assured in that particular bank and of course the bank had continued to grow from strength to strength.
So, there is a clear sense in which trustworthiness is still the best currency in business and all over the world entities that have been able to maintain trust, that have been able to show themselves to be trustworthy, have proved that integrity is still the best policy.
I spoken about two things, the strength of character, the ability to start and finish as well as integrity. But there is also this question of an enabling business environment, creating a right business environment; that essentially is the business of government. It is the business of government to create the right environment for start- ups, the right environment for doing business.
The problem in most cases and that which we have experienced in Nigeria is that approval processes are needlessly difficult. Bureaucrats generally get cuts in seeing the process as an end in itself and not as a means to an end.
So generally speaking, a bureaucrat sitting at his desk just sees the whole processes as his daily work that he doesn’t have to rush. He does not have to be necessarily accountable for everything would take its time. lf you want an approval, it could take you three days, three months depending on how he feels.
The bureaucrat does not believe that it is his responsibility to facilitate the business and of course this is compounded by the fact that very quickly, all of these processes become toll gates for corruption in one way or the other.
So, the public official really does not necessarily see himself as being involved in the business of growing private enterprise or growing business or creating jobs. But there is of course a direct link between his own job and successful businesses because businesses pay taxes and taxes are where the bureaucrat is usually paid from. But of course with oil money, tax is de-emphasized.
But the most important thing is that government must and it is the business of government to find the political will to ensure that it creates the right atmosphere and the right environment for doing business.
One of the chief aims of the current government is in creating an enabling environment for doing business and some of us will be familiar with the fact that about a month ago, President Muhammadu Buhari inaugurated the enabling business environment committee which l chair. The mandate of that committee is the mandate which was given to the Honorable Minister for Industry Trade and Investment -that Nigeria must go up on the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking. I think that the mandate is to go at least fifty spaces before the end of 2017.
Now, how would that happen? How will it create that environment?
The first step that we have taken is to directly involve the private sector. So, the private sector lead of the project is a gentleman who is the head of KPMG Nigeria and who will be working on this project practically on full time for the next couple of weeks. The secretariat itself will be one that would be challenged with finding out what needs to be done. It would be challenged with questions like, what are those important processes that need to be simplified or in some cases completely excluded so that business can go on easily.
One of the critical issues especially for foreign businesses is being able to get visa to come to Nigeria. I remember speaking with the Ambassador of one these western countries and I complained that it was getting too long for Nigerians to get their visa to go abroad, business men or whoever it was. But the gentleman politely reminded me that it takes possibly double the time to get a Nigerian visa to come into Nigeria for any business man coming from his own country.
The truth of the matter is that our processes are far too difficult because it takes all manners of bottlenecks and there is a need to free up those processes. Most countries that have succeeded in attracting foreign investments perhaps take a second look at their processes before inviting people into their country. One of the important innovations that would be introduced is that of getting visa on arrival.
Now, the visa on arrival process is one that is already in the regulations, but usually involves people applying ahead of time and then pick up the visa. But the actual business on arrival process that would free up the process, is one that once you arrive here, you are able to get your visa on arrival. You apply on arrival and get it on arrival.
Business registration is also a process we believe must be much faster. The President is generally working on a set of regulations for ensuring that business registrations and business approvals do not exceed a certain time frame that would be prescribed by a presidential order.
Generally speaking, what tends to happen in a lot of business approval processes is that a government agency will ask you for a certificate or for some kinds of documents that are to be found in another government department. One of the ways we have tried to streamline the process is to ensure that a government department does not ask you to get a certification or some other certification from another government department. It is the business of the relevant government departments to talk to each other and facilitate the process for the investor.
Access to credit, land registration and land reform are some of the other issues we are looking at and we are talking to state governments, because ease of access to land is a very important issue especially in the major commercial capitals of Nigeria. In those major commercial capitals, one of the major problems which are being experienced is access to land and when they have access to land then they can have easily have access to approvals and Certificate of Occupancy and all of that.
And at the meetings we held with some of the state governments, in fact at one of the retreats we have held with the state governments, one of the critical issues which we discussed is how to facilitate access to land and how to facilitate government approvals. Certainly, there are measures to facilitate business and to ensure there is ease of doing business. As l said, Government is committed to ensure that it is easier for people to do business and have access for all the different facilities that would make it easy to do business in this country.
It is a special pleasure as I said to be here to present the “The Interview” l want to say that what we have seen of publications and what we have seen all over the world is that they do have great difficulties in staying alive. l think what is important here is that those who are behind this publication, have shown consistently through their careers, especially their careers in the print industry and communication in general, that they have what it takes to stay the course. They have what it takes to ensure, to see this through and they have all it takes to start and to finish. So, I am extremely pleased and honoured to unveil “The Interview”.