Thirty-three (33) years ago, Dr Stella Okoli, founded Emzor Pharmaceutical Industries Limited, where she serves as the Chief Executive Officer. The company has since grown footprints in Liberia and Sierra Leone. As a consistent advocate for young people’s engagement in the Nigerian manufacturing industry, the Vice Chairman of Manufacturing Association of Nigeria, discusses her passion for young entrepreneurs; business survival and succession plans, among others, with RUTH OLUROUNBI.
You have been canvassing for young people’s entrance into Nigeria’s manufacturing industry for a while now. You just said now that the industry needs more young people to operate in it. From your perspective as entrepreneur who has been in the industry for more than 30 years, how do you think these young people can be motivated into coming on board?
Thank you very much. As you know, there are millions of young Nigerians looking for employment and unemployment in Nigeria is a time bomb waiting to explode. The most important thing here is that all our young ones don’t all don’t have to have jobs; they can be directed to starting businesses from their skills.
Now, you will see that I mentioned skills. And this is an area that I strongly believe that we can help our young people, we can teach them the skills they need in the manufacturing sector.
There are a lot of stories going around that many of our graduates are not employable maybe because they were not taught what they needed to be taught in schools, I don’t know. But if we can provide capacity development programme for these young people, this can go a long way. When we employ people, we are looking for knowledge workers because they’re very important. They are the ones we believe can move the companies forward.
You need your staff to ask you questions all the time, you need somebody curious because they learn and as they learn, they improve and as they improve, everybody is happier – they’re are happy that they’ve come on board, they understand they’re valued, their opinion counts and all. We are not doing well in this regard in the industry and that is very sad.
If you go to owode, you will see the industry that has come up there. The pure water industry has given birth to another industry in owode, the water treatment plant, which has started growing and we can harness them, use that model, bring some young people, and teach them how these things. If you go to Ladipo market, you will be amazed at how cars are fixed there. If those boys can be helped in that direction, they can do well and even improve the economy of the country.
We used to import stainless steel chairs but we now found out that some people are making it in Ojuade market here in Lagos and they are better than the imported ones. So, there are so many things we can do to help our young people. Everybody doesn’t have to employed, they can start their own business and become employers of labour.
And there are many ways they can be helped – single digits loan, low interest rates, and special window for the manufacturers – because it is really at the heart of the government to help manufacturers but being at the heart is one thing and doing it is another thing. So need it to be done. And also, you can’t really progress without exporting your goods; therefore, all the regulatory bodies/agencies must meet and work together. There should be no boundaries; they should work together for common good. The job of the regulatory agency is to make sure that the industry is competitive to international standard, so that at the end of the day we can have movements of different types of manufacturing products from Nigeria to the different parts of the world.
We’ve discussed several challenges facing the manufacturing industry – from lack of access to forex, to policies and several issues crippling the industry. Moving forward, what do you expect from the stakeholders in making sure that the industry not only survive, but it is also made attractive to the young people?
You know that the industry is very difficult in the third world country because industries are not sometimes understood because it is the job of the government to make sure that the industries survive. They plant industries in different countries and they make sure that they survive. Some of them do clusters. These are planned effort. So if there are manufacturers, they should be helped and there are so many ways to help manufacturers – by ensuring they get forex, by ensuring that they get loan in single digits, and by ensuring that the government patronises them. Because right now, we are cash strapped in our industry and that is because we gave the government goods three years ago, when the government had no single antiretroviral drugs and there was an appeal for us to please help produce antiretroviral drugs.
Now, as patriotic people, we forfeited our Christmas holiday and flew in the materials for the drugs, produced them and met the government’s deadline for December. Till today, the government owes the pharmaceutical industries billions of naira for three years! We have written letters, met with the government, etc, yet no results. In a situation like this, people are closing shops and it is not easy. People are scaling down, there’s the day you have material, you open, the day you don’t have material, you close.
How do you deal with your staff? How do you motivate them? What do you tell them? How do you plan? So it is affecting manufacturing very badly and that is why we are saying there should be a policy that understands what manufacturing is all about and do everything to ensure that Nigeria industries survive, because they’re the employers of labour.
I’d like to ask, the economy being volatile as it is, what are your recommended survival strategies for business?
Obviously, the first will be cost cutting, streamlining the product lines and engaging with the government at all levels to ensure that companies, their owners and manufacturers are assisted in providing the enabling environment for businesses. Also, I want to plead that everybody should come on board because coordination of all the ministries, agencies and stakeholders is paramount for the understanding that the challenges are very high and we must work together.
You mentioned patriotism as one of the fundamentals to your continued business success. Is this a recommendation for young people especially coming into business?
Absolutely! Patriotism is the backbone of any industry around world. Go to America and ask them, they will tell you they are Americans first. Patriotism is something that should be learnt here in Nigeria. What is patriotism? We have to teach it so that people can understand it, because people will soon disown their countries and say one thing or the other. By God’s grace, throughout my life, I will always be patriotic to Nigeria. For our people, this is very important, love your country please.
As a manufacturer and entrepreneur in Nigeria, you will notice that so many businesses, especially those in form of sole proprietorship have very serious succession challenges. Looking at your own structure, it seems you have been able to take care of that. How have you been able to do this?
(Laughs). Thank you very much. We are very passionate about what we do and what we teach people is passion. We like people to sing on their way to work, we challenge them to be happy and sing on the way to work even though the environment is challenging for business. We also emphasise dignity of labour and then we invest in young people. Also, flexibility is one of our practises on daily basis. For example, when we need to get things done and we are brainstorming, you will be surprised that the best answers come from the young people. We also ensure quality assurance, so we are very resilient with our renewed effort to perform. Performance management has become so very important. We also tell our workers to not give up, just keep at it, and keep trying. I learnt from my father that hard work does not kill. And I say this severally, the only one that kills is laziness, or is it not true?
Succession planning everywhere is very difficult because you may have an idea and you know these young people are wonderful with great ideas, they may not toe the same line as you so you have to bear that in mind. And when you’re running a company, you make sure that everybody is on board, is carried along and you’re transparent in what you’re doing, you teach people everything that you do, at least you try. If you run the company in a transparent manner, you find out that there are people that will always believe in the company’s vision and will buy into it. It is important that people believe in what your company stands for and your practice is such that encourages succession to keep the company going. Your practice should be such that encourages trust in your workers, that whether you are there or not, your people know what to do.