Omon-Julius Onabu takes a look at the maiden products exhibition and business fair held recently in Asaba under the auspices of the Delta State Job Creation Office

You know a ripe corn by its looks. This is an African adage which illustrates the evident features of maturity with the symbolism of a common agricultural product. Perhaps, this idiomatic expression aptly captures the mood at the maiden Products
Exhibition and Business Fair held last December in Asaba, the Delta State capital at the instance of the Job Creation Scheme of the Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa’s administration. At least 400 beneficiaries of the state government’s employment and job creation programme, particularly the Skills Training and Entrepreneurship Programme (STEP) and the Youth Agricultural Entrepreneurs Programme (YAGEP), were on ground to showcase to the world their various products and services.

The beneficiaries were trained and established in various enterprises including information communication technology (ICT), hair dressing and makeover, catering and confectionary, cosmetology, craft/homecare products, interior décor decoration and event management, electrical installation and repairs, fashion design and tailoring, shoe making, upholstery, welding and fabrication and auto-mechanic; and, the agricultural enterprises covered aquaculture, poultry, crop production, agro-processing and piggery.” Their diverse training and enterprises dictated the products and services exhibited by the generally young but enthusiastic entrepreneurs.

It was palpable excitement from several of the exhibitors who spoke with THISDAY during the two-day event, including partners in various cluster enterprises especially in the area of fish and crop production. For PPSP Cluster members, Hilary Ogboi, Mercy Owohm Okpugha Thank-God and Emmanuela Clinton, business has been both challenging and encouraging; but noted that it certainly has been an exciting experience being a young graduate farmer.

Among those who commended the scheme were Jane Nwabuwane and Arubayi Claren of the 2016 STEP ‘Batch A’, Ifeyota Edafe, Kemi’s Beauty Trends as well as Favour Farms (Fish Farm Cluster in Ugborodo-Okpe) members, including Morrison Idoro and cluster groups in Aniocha North and Patani. Interestingly, Dafe, who is a 2014 graduate of the state’s skills acquisition scheme and co-opted in STEP platform, today has 30 trainees in her business outfit at Okpanam, Oshimili North Local Government Area.

Peace Umukoro, a 2016 ‘Batch B’ STEPneur, has good news and only one advice for the unemployed young graduate out there still playing the doubting Thomas: “Just go and get yours whenever the application forms for the next batch are out. Your life won’t be the same again. I was a jobless graduate for five years as a married woman. That is better imagined! I was very reluctant, very pessimistic initially, but thank God I eventually made up my mind to collect the entry forms. Today, I can boldly say I’m in business and doing well with my ‘Emy’s Catering’ here in Asaba.”

However, some of the fish farmers complained about the high cost of purchasing feeds for the fish, which they stressed made nonsense of their sales as the price of the fish was not commensurate with the cost of production. They therefore appealed to the governor to intervene on their behalf towards getting the state micro and small scale credit agency to assist them to obtain necessary loan facilities for the business. Similarly, Ethor Odomero whose operations are in Oleh in Isoko South Local Government Area and some YAGEG beneficiaries complained about lack of equipment particularly for cassava processing.

From the foregoing, it is clear that the event is being seen by many observers as a true exhibition of the fruits of Governor Okowa’s youth empowerment in Delta State. Government activities and performance cannot be measured with the barometer of sentiments; any objective assessment must be based on holistic appreciation and analysis of relevant parameters such as government policies, budgets, pronouncements and tangible or even intangible projects and programmes.

If the quality and transparency of the commercial showcasing of the ‘STEPneurs’ and ‘YAGEPneurs’ are anything to go by, then the vision of the Okowa’s Job Creation Scheme is a dream come true. It was hardly surprising that the World Bank through its representative, Dr. Tunde Adekola, a Senior Education Specialist in the bank, has endorsed it for partnership and funding support. In his words, “Delta State is the only state that has demonstrated its commitment to skills development in practical terms. The World Bank will continue to support the Delta State Government in the areas of skills and technical development and will work with the Job Creation Office of the state government to strengthen the labour market observatory system in order to make Governor Okowa’s dream of re-creating the middle class a reality.”

Declaring the exhibition and business fair open, Governor Okowa noted that a number of the young entrepreneurs “began their journey less than 15 months ago when they completed their training programmes and were handed their starter-packs. Some of them commenced their businesses for as short as six or nine months ago. Indeed, theirs is a remarkable story of industry, diligence and determination to succeed.” He expressed optimism that the job creation programmes of his administration will ensure diversification of the economy, and attributed the success of the entrepreneurial scheme to “rigorous planning, discipline, focus, painstaking selection process, stringent guidelines, prudent management and commitment to set goals.”

While expressing delight at the encouraging prospects of achieving the ultimate goal of the schemes, Okowa admitted that the journey had been smooth-sailing all the way. “We had to brave the odds and refused to accept the notion that the average youth in Delta State was not ready to jettison the rent-seeking mentality and the prevalent culture of entitlement. However, I am happy to say we are inching closer towards our goal of economic diversification through our STEP and YAGEP, as the beneficiaries of these programmes have the capacity to enhance the business competitiveness of the state economy thereby enabling it to withstand external shocks that may arise from vicissitudes in the oil market.”

According to the governor, moving forward especially in the light of the orchestrated gloomy future of oil and gas industry, the need to explore several potent job creation options has become imperative. “Globally, it has been established that certain economic sectors and activities hold the highest potential for job and wealth creation for the economy; these are agriculture, agribusiness, agro-based industries, vocational skills-based micro enterprises, cottage enterprises, small and medium scale enterprises as well as public works such as environmental sanitation, housing and road construction,” Okowa noted. “In fact, interventions in these sectors are generally cost-effective and go a long way to reduce youth unemployment and poverty while ensuring social inclusion, positive economic growth and sustainable development as has been observed in many countries in South Asia, South East Asia and Latin America.”

State Commissioner for Economic Planning who is the Chairman, Steering Committee on Job Creation, Dr Kingsley Emu and the Chief Job Creation Officer, Prof. Eric Eboh, said that the exhibition would provide the beneficiaries of the skills acquisition programmes the opportunity to make vital business contacts, create business relationship with investors and communicate their business vision to financial institutions. An intensive monitoring and mentoring system has been put in place in that direction, Eboh pointed out.

Erstwhile governor of Delta State and a special guest at the event, Chief James Ibori, was apparently overwhelmed at the magnificent array of boisterous young entrepreneurs as he mounted the podium amidst a thunderous applause. He could not hide his feelings. “I will continue to pray for you and your administration because of your tremendous achievements so far,” Ibori declared. “I am particularly happy that you focused on providing jobs for our youths. When you and I must have gone, they are the ones that will be here to take over from us. They are certainly the leaders of tomorrow!

“I deeply appreciate your administration’s huge investments in our youths, which is why I am here today to give you my support and to say that you have truly done well. Deltans did not make any mistake in voting you as their governor. You have lived up to expectations and you deserve my support and sincere commendation.”

Another dignitary, Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State, was similarly full of commendation for Okowa’s youth empowerment and wealth creation schemes. Speaking with newsmen at the Cenotaph, the governor admitted that his state had a lot to learn from the successful initiative of the Okowa administration especially regarding the youth entrepreneurial and agricultural empowerment programme of the Okowa administration.

Against this background, Okowa during a media parley on Monday, December 18, 2017 disclosed that at least 500 potential entrepreneurs were in the wings preparatory to stepping on the stage as the next batch of STEP and YAGEP beneficiaries. A move that further assured the people that the economic diversification policies of the state government through the instrumentality of its job and wealth creation programmes are obviously not a mere flash in the pan.

In the words of Okowa, “Through our flagship Skill Training and Entrepreneurship Programme (STEP) and Youth Agricultural Entrepreneurs Programme (YAGEP), we have achieved what many thought was unthinkable; after two programme cycles, 2,324 previously unemployed youths are now small business owners and employers of labour.” He stressed that the tempo of progress would be sustained.