(SPONSORED): Jobs in Nigeria: How the government can mitigate job losses during and after COVID-19

According to Nigeria’s #1jobsite – jobs.delon.ng, Nigeria’s minister of labour in December 2019 was quoted by the News Agency of Nigeria (NANS) as follows in December 2019“…it is projected that the unemployment rate for this country will reach 33.5 percent by 2020, with consequences that are better imagined, if the trend is not urgently reversed.” This statement was made at a time the federal government could not have imagined a COVID-19 pandemic. As of today – 23 May 2020, that number may actually be close to 50 percent. In our interview session today, I will be discussing job challenges in Nigeria during and after COVID-19 with the author of a leading book on Nigerian politics and policies “Liberating Nigeria: A Guide to Winning Elections and Reviving our Country” and founder of the #1 Nigerian political forum “Liberating Nigeria”– Debo Onifade.

Debo Onifade is an engineer, entrepreneur, author, and soccer coach. He does not like to be called an analyst or activist though he shares a lot in common with many of them. He simply refers to himself as a policy enthusiast and digital community organizer. Debo, you’re welcome to our interview today.

Debo Onifade: Thank you very much.

Question: Though many of your recently published articles and television features have focused a lot on politics, you actually devoted nine out of the thirteen chapters of your Nigeria book “Liberating Nigeria: A Guide to Winning Elections and Reviving our Country” to policy discussions. Only the first four chapters were fully dedicated to politics, but those of us that know you well know that you have written a lot more on policy in the last several years than politics. I hope you are fine that we will be talking today about government policies in relation to mitigating job losses during and after COVID-19.

Debo Onifade: Yes I have written and spoken a lot more about politics in recent times than policies because I realized that no matter how nice our policy ideas are if we don’t get the right people to power, we’re just wasting our time and engaging in academic stories. Nigerian masses must come together to defeat their oppressors from 2023 upwards, and I want to play my own part in organizing those educated ones in the internet or digital space who just like talking but never vote. This group is big enough to influence election results, but we just need to get a high percentage of them out to vote and participate in politics. My view is that the revolution in Nigeria is not the solution and that the only plausible way to liberate Nigeria is to organize ourselves to win elections.

Having said this, I still write about policies and am excited to talk about jobs in Lagos and other parts of Nigeria today. I recently wrote about how the federal and state governments can provide universal free healthcare to all Nigerians on the Vanguard newspaper. And a few other online media republished the article. I also wrote about how the Nigerian government should prioritize homegrown solutions in their COVID-19 responses and this has also been published by several online media in and out of Nigeria.

Question: Thanks a lot. I believe you are fully aware of the enormous job losses that Nigerians have been experiencing in the last few months. Even those people that have not lost their jobs are very scared of getting sacked soon. Federal and state governments have been talking a lot about palliatives, but aside from the recent pronouncement from the Central Bank that they reached an agreement with the banks not to fire staff at this time, we haven’t heard much from the government about their strategies to mitigate job losses. What is your view?

Debo Onifade:  Mitigating job losses or protecting workers’ salaries have been major points of discussions in several countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, etc. In Australia, the government has been giving money to several companies to help offset salaries payments for some of their staff and prevent their lay-off. The UK granted small business loans to many small businesses. The United States has probably done a lot more than any other country. They gave direct cash to many people, loans to small businesses, but more recently they have been offering debt forgiveness for their paycheck protection loan program to small businesses.

In Nigeria, we had a scenario where some companies that have fired or will inevitably fire staff soon, donated money to the government, and the funds were accepted without any negotiations about impending staff rationalization. Whether these companies are doing this out of kindness or public relations, they will get a chance to deduct the donation expense from their taxable income. But a government that cares about job losses should simply thank these companies and politely refund the money with a mandate to spend it to sustain a six-month salary payment for some of their staff that would have been fired.

The government needs to remind these companies that the same tax-deductible charity expense opportunity they will get from donating the funds to government is applicable as tax-deductible salary expense if they use this money to pay salaries. Unless these companies just want to show off for public relations benefit, there should be no reason to decline government refund. And this settles the matter.

Also, since state governments have access to the BVN of all tax-paying workers, they can offer incentives to companies that can be monitored through BVN. For example, a state government can offer appropriate tax relief to companies that kept paying all their staff during the COVID-19 crisis despite the significant business loss. And this can be easily monitored through the bank accounts of the company and its staff, to verify that the company indeed paid within the COVID-19 period and that their business made huge losses. That is just a random thought from me, but the bottom line is state governments must be super creative about ways to mitigate job losses during this period. It will ultimately help us reduce how long our recession will last.

The federal government recently announced plans to scrap some parastatals. This will inevitably result in the mass retrenchment of redundant staff. It is long overdue to promote efficiency and reduce wastes, but now is not a good time to do this. It will significantly worsen the scarcity of jobs in Abuja, and that’s dangerous at this time. I suggest the federal government should delay implementation until the COVID-19 is over and the economy is back to normal.

Question: What industries do you think will keep growing or start growing soon despite the COVID-19 crisis?

Debo Onifade: The first one that comes to my mind is the small-scale fashion design or tailoring across Nigeria. Consumers will continue to buy face masks for the next one or two years, and this is the right time for our government to ban the importation of face masks. Whether it is cloth, surgical, or N95 face mask, we should be able to produce locally in Nigeria. Nigerian tailors and fabric manufacturers will enjoy this opportunity for the next few years because COVID-19 is not likely going away soon. There will also be good opportunities for face mask online sales in Nigeria.

Many farmers are losing money because they could not sell products that usually sell out immediately after harvest. These farmers never had the need to invest in storage or aggressive online marketing, but whether COVID-19 sticks around for a long time or not, many of them have learned that there is a need to enhance capacity to store agricultural produce for longer periods of time just in case sales are delayed. They also now know that they need to expand their marketing strategies to include online options.

My view is that the farmers will get third-party businesses that will venture into storage and online sale of agricultural products so that everybody benefits. These third-party companies will earn income for helping the producer and prospective buyers store the produce and market more aggressively online.

Also, I believe software development, telecom value-added services, and digital marketing will continue to create and sustain jobs within the next two to five years.

Entertainment – especially on Instagram and youtube have done so well in this period because Nigerians needed to be entertained. This will continue to be a good business beyond COVD-19.

Secondary school teachers should also take advantage of online resources to find private students seeking complementary tutorials for exams.

I also believe this is a great opportunity for our pharmaceutical and herbal industries to really grow their businesses. They should keep up the pressure on the government to test local herbs and certified for COVID-19 treatment. Once they get approval, they should seriously lobby the government to create an economic policy that will make it very difficult for importers to bring in competing products to Nigeria. We should produce herbal supplements and pharmaceutical medicines locally to help cure or prevent COVID-19. Even if we settle for chloroquine or hydroxyl chloroquine eventually, we must ensure they are manufactured in Nigeria. Herbal supplement online stores and local retailers will create jobs for many people, and the pharmaceutical manufacturers that will produce chloroquine or whatever medical product are approved for COVID-19 treatment will also hire many people.

What about hand sanitizers? I believe Nigeria has what it takes to manufacture hand sanitizers. We will not stop using sanitizers anytime soon. So there will remain a huge market for it in Nigeria. The government must provide all the necessary support and incentives to help ensure hand sanitizers are manufactured in Nigeria.

Question: In a recent interview about IT jobs in Nigeria, our guest talked a lot about opportunities in the telecom sector, software companies, as well as power solutions companies in Nigeria. You also talked about telecom value-added service and software development. Since your background in engineering, I believe you can expatiate more on this and tell us how Nigeria can create and expand job opportunities in this technology industry.

Debo Onifade: I like to talk a lot about software development since this has been my career area in recent years. I believe you can also identify well with this topic since you work for a top software development company in Nigeria. Software development is one of the fastest-growing technology career fields in Nigeria today. But for us to create more jobs in this field, I have some advice for young Nigerian software developers. First, they must stop over-hyping their abilities, and spend more time improving their skills and learning the business side of software development. We keep talking about the need for Nigeria to earn foreign exchange by exporting our services to the rest of the world. In the area of software development, the Asians are doing a great job for themselves and their countries. But Nigerian developers are lagging behind a lot. When foreign customers approach experienced Nigerian experienced developers, the Nigerians usually charge higher fees than their counterparts in Asia. And sometimes when I talk to these young developers, they don’t agree they are expensive. They compare themselves with developer fees in Eastern Europe, the UK, and the United States. And I tell them that this is laughable. They need to compare themselves with the right people – the Asians and work hard to compete aggressively. If Lagos or Abuja is too expensive to practice your software development freelancing job, you need to move to cheaper locations like Ogun State, Oyo State and other states since what you’re selling is your skill and internet has improved in a few other states across Nigeria.

Sometimes they are just unnecessarily arrogant and turn down many jobs. I tell them that there are two major advantages of reducing their prices to out-compete some of their Asian counterparts. First, they will get more jobs, and this will give them the opportunity to practice a lot more and improve their software development skills. Second, they will get so busy that they will need to hire student developers or other young upcoming developers to assist in completing tasks. When they hire people, they are creating jobs and giving opportunities for younger developers to learn. They all earn income, Nigeria’s export earnings rise and our economy grow. This is what the Asians are doing. They charge so little to get very busy. And when they get too busy, they hire young guys and girls to join their team. And they all grow together.

The other advice I want to give to Nigerian software developers is that they must continue to aggressively improve their skills in order to compete with the Asians. I observed that many Nigerian developers exaggerate their skills and I always encourage them to stay humble as they keep learning. Sometimes we just have to act like the Chinese – who typically downplay their skills while they are learning a lot from others.

Question: What do you think generally about online jobs in Nigeria?

Debo Onifade: It is great that many Nigerian companies were able to allow their staff to work remotely during this COVID-19 crisis. But I really do not think we will experience significant expansion in local online jobs in Nigeria within the next few years because of our power infrastructure. The Internet has improved a lot in Lagos, Abuja, and some states, but the power supply has not significantly improved across Nigeria. Except you live in an affluent estate in Lagos with 24hrs power supply as arranged by the estate, or you’re just lucky to be living in an area with good power supply, you will struggle to a productive remote staff working at home 8 am to 5 pm. Even when you have a generator, you will have different issues that will affect your consistent productivity. So I think that most companies will ask their staff to fully return to the office when COVID-19 is over because of this challenge.

In summary, I do not see growing opportunities for local online jobs in Nigeria in the next few years.

Question: Since parties will not hold anytime soon, how do you think people in the entertainment field, photography jobs in Nigeria, and fashion design will cope?

Debo Onifade: It is very unfortunate that many industries in Nigeria will suffer for several months even after COVID-19 is over. I do not believe that parties, entertainment shows, and big religious events will return anytime soon. Therefore, my advice to people in these industries is to find ways to temporarily diversify into other things that can earn them income for the next few months as we all wait for COVID-19 to be over by God’s grace.

Question: What is the immediate future of manufacturing jobs in Nigeria?

Debo Onifade: I must confess that the future of small-scale manufacturing in Nigeria remains very bleak. The big ones will continue to do well. Nestle, Cadbury, Dangote, the Coca-Cola, Breweries, Unilever, and so on will continue to do well. But for our economy to grow and produce many jobs, we need the smaller ones to also do well. I talked earlier about manufacturing hand sanitizer, herbal supplements, and face masks in Nigeria. I believe the COVID-19 crisis should motivate us to make these happen, but in general, we cannot push everything to the multinational manufacturers and Dangote.

I suggest that state governments should open industrial corridors in their states where 24-hr power supply, cost-effective land, security, and other important infrastructure can be provided to encourage small-scale manufacturers to set up. Even if they have to be subsidized, it is fine because subsidizing local production is always far better than importation. Manufacturing will not only create local jobs, it will enhance export earnings for Nigeria.

Question: Finally, what is your view about agriculture?

I talked a lot about agriculture in my book and recent essays. I believe this is the most important economic policy area for federal and state governments. If we can locally produce enough food for our entire population, that will produce millions of jobs and help us cut down a lot on imports. Nigeria must take agriculture as a national security issue and make it our number one economic priority. Agricultural exports will also help us earn huge foreign income and enhance the stability of our currency rates.

Question: Thank you very much for speaking with me today.

Debo Onifade: It was my pleasure. Job creation in Nigeria is my favorite topic because I always feel very sad about the rate of unemployment in Nigeria. I hope our politicians will start taking jobs more seriously from 2023 and I hope the ones that do not care much about jobs will never win elections again.

 

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