Coming from a fulfilling banking career, Akintunde Oyebode has been given the daunting task of reducing unemployment in Lagos State. He heads the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund which has the mandate to invest N25 billion. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports

It was getting close to midday on a Monday. I was waiting at the reception. An excited applicant was being taken through the check-list of items that should accompany his submission. I was eavesdropping on their conversation when the publicist of the Executive Secretary/CEO of the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund, LSETF, Mr. Akintunde Oyebode, who facilitated our impending meeting arrived. He beckoned and I followed him into a larger office, where everyone appeared to be busy. He introduced me to the Public Relations Officer of the organization who reminded me we met a while ago at a training seminar organized by a mutual friend. I was actually being taken to a cozier waiting room closer to Oyebode’s office. It was well past our meeting time. Eventually when he came in, he made me see why he was late and made sure he extracted my understanding before we proceeded with the interview.
That made an impression on me immediately. Here is a man who takes his assignment seriously. He was late for our appointment because he had to make a personal visit to some of the beneficiaries of the fund. Naturally, it provided a plank to start our talk.

“How bad is the unemployment situation in Lagos,” I asked. Oyebode relied on recent reports from the National Bureau of Statistics. “It is approximately 33% if I’m not mistaken, 32.7%, lower than the national average which is 40% but also worrying for us in Lagos. But I think Governor Akinwunmi Ambode had identified this even before we got any official confirmation of the unemployment situation in Lagos which is the reason why he set up the Employment Trust Fund.”

Oyebode was not one of Ambode’s early appointees. However coming on board before the first anniversary of the administration speaks to two things. The speed with which the governor wanted to tackle issue of unemployment and job creation which were key campaign issues and the confidence reposed in the man to execute the job. The LSETF was established by law in 2016 to provide financial support to residents of Lagos State, for job, wealth creation and to tackle unemployment. LSETF serves as an instrument to inspire the creative and innovative energies of all Lagos residents and reduce unemployment across the state. The Fund has the mandate to directly invest ₦25Billion in helping Lagos residents grow and scale their micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) or acquire skills to get better jobs. “The government contributes N6.25 billion annually. It’s going to be contributed over a four-year period. The government policy is that the fund will be started with N25 billion but the 25 billion is being passed on to us as a subversion N6.25 billion for four years up to 2019.”

For most of his adult life, Oyebode, an economist has worked around issues on SMEs; first as theorist or idealist at the Lagos Business School before he went into banking. He resigned as Head of SME Banking in Stanbic IBTC to take up this appointment. “My career has primarily been in banking and part of it in education where I worked at the Lagos Business School. But that is it really. One of the reasons why I was very comfortable taking up the challenge is that my experience at SME banking has exposed me to small businesses and their challenges. By the time I was leaving Stanbic, I have a loan book of over N25 billion and it was to small and medium enterprises, the kind of businesses we are trying to support here.”

Of course, working for a Pan-Nigerian bank with associates all over the continent poses a different kind of challenge, but the pressure in his present assignment is no less. The comforting news though is that he came prepared. So, the figures that he is confronted with are neither daunting nor confusing. For instance, an estimated number of one million people come to Lagos annually. That means, in terms of migration, 5 per cent of the state’s population is coming in every year.

Even as he was talking, the sheer size of the figures take an involuntary toll on him. He sits up, strengthening his back against his chair. “It’s incredibly difficult. It’s a challenge that we must live up to every day. If you think about our numbers, you must situate it in the context that there are many people migrating to Lagos who have no skills and no jobs. To keep our unemployment numbers below average, I think is something we must note but our responsibility now is to create jobs for the millions of people who are here and looking for a means of survival and a means of taking themselves and families out of poverty.”
I was surprised at how quickly he removed his jacket when he arrived the office earlier. I thought it was the heat from a routine inspection, but then he rode to the office in a car with air conditioning and was resuming work in a comfortable space, then I realized it was probable a psychological reaction to the weight of the office, because at the moment he was rolling up the sleeves of his white shirt and rolled around in his chair as his work identity card dangled on his chest like talisman.

Oyebode may have a distinguished board of trustees comprising highly respected individuals chaired by Mrs Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru, however, much of the criticisms, knocks and commendations are likely to go to his management team. Both Omoigui-Okauru and Oyebode are coming from highly recommended background. Neither of them invite doubts about their capability to carry out their assignment. And the thorough grasp and the honesty with which he approaches the job at hand comes out when I ask for the breakdown of the unemployment statistics in terms of age and gender. He admits there is some work to be done. “There’s still some work that we need to do to disaggregate that data. One of our biggest objectives is to ensure that there is gender equality. We just built a gender policy that cuts across our staff, programmes, how we treat women and if you look at all our programme, our loan programme for example, our target is at least 50%— in fact that has been raised by our governor to 60% — of our beneficiaries should be women. As of today, the number of our beneficiaries is 49%, in terms of value of loan that is 43% but we are definitely working to raise that. For our employability programme, 53% of the people we are currently training and hope to put in jobs are women and for our innovation driven work, we are starting at 33% but then we expect to raise that to 50% for all beneficiaries to be women.”

One of the good things about Oyebode’s assignment which has helped him to hit the ground running is that he is not walking alone. Even before he came on board, he convinced himself that despite a fulfilling career background, his preparedness to give it the best shot of his life, a load of very useful contacts and a supportive principal, he was going to need more, after all, there were lots of equally qualified people that the governor could have chosen from. Lagos already had various skill acquisition centres which a small but powerful lobby wanted the governor to retool and reposition instead of establishing the LSETF. Oyebode thinks those who are pushing this position may have been misinformed. “There is a remarkable difference. Skill acquisition is one part, it’s a subsect of employment. In fact, I will give you an example just to illustrate. We are going to train up to 10,000 people over the next 13-15 months to learn 19 different trades and then we help place them in jobs. We are working with the Lagos State Technical and Vocational and Education Board. They have training centres. Our students go into LASTVEB Centres to get trained and we help place them in jobs. The training and skills acquisition is one leg of employment. Also, some of the guys who have been trained in different skills acquisition centres are faced with the challenge of no access to capital after training. What we do is that when they have been trained and certified, we provide start-up capital for up to N250,000 to start the business. So there’s a very clear distinction between what we do and what the skills acquisition programmes do. LASTVEB is a partner. We have a number of other partners. This morning, I have just gone to do some visits, to inspect some of the training programmes. We are working with HCDC for garment manufacturing. They have worked with Export Promotion Council in the past. And another company called House of Henry in Ajah who also run a garment institute. In fact, right now, I just went to one of their sites of one of our partenrs in construction, a multi-storey car park. Our guys are there in class and also learning on site. For hospitality we are working with Wave Crest and the Nigerian Institute of Hospitality. We have partners in the medical and health support roles. For entertainment we are working with Afrinolly and Rancoteur Productions. We are working with both private and public institutions. Ultimately, apart from training and placing people in jobs, our objective is to deepen the quality of vocational learning that comes to Lagos state. Overall, we are working with a company called that has provided the curriculum, master trainers and technical support for the matching platforms because at the end of this programme we are going to have a management information system platform where the people we’ve trained, host their profiles and employers can also go there to see if there are matches for people who they want.”

Like many Ambode appointees, Oyebode’s confirmation process was incident-free. If his way to the office was without any hurdle, he most definitely would need a machete to cut a path for himself, as a pathfinder. So far, the challenges have been easy to surmount. “Some of the challenges will be things like awareness. How do people know who we are and what we do? How do we get to the people? How do we ensure that the programme is devoid of any bias? But we’ve remained steadfast, we are transparent, we have a set of values that we live by. How do we hire the right people? I think we have the right people in place, fantastic team. We have a great board of trustees that provide us with strategic direction oversight. The challenges that you normally faced have been reduced by the quality of people you have on ground. Most importantly, we have a governor who has visualised this institution. His vision for what we should achieve is very clear and it helps you when the principal has visual clarity to execute because it is already clear to you, what success should look like. I’m also dealing with multiple stakeholders who want different things, expect different interventions, it’s also quite challenging. Ultimately, I think the biggest challenge is how to put most of the 20 million people in Lagos to work and how to lift people out of poverty.”
Oyebode was lucky to have parents who funded his education. From the university, he went to work in a family business with an aunt who gave him money to transport himself, at first, but later paid him a full salary.
Incidentally, it was a certain gentleman who gave him a ride to work everyday that told him about the opportunity at the LBS. Recalling that he always strived to earn income outside his pocket money, he told me, “As a student I used to co-host a TV programme, a football show on MiTV with a good friend of mine called, Bestman Nze.” Oyebode may not have hosted a football show since he left the university, but the game helped to shape his life and in his own telling, he is still a fan of the game. Unlike most, his allegiance is to the Nigerian team, Shooting Stars of Ibadan.

That is strange for a Lagosian. He explains. “Football in Nigeria in the 80s was very tribal. The Igbo people in Lagos will support Rangers. The Lagosians support Stationery Stores. Other people support Shooting Stars. As a young boy, it’s a very funny story, the person who really introduced me to football was an Igbo man who worked with my mum. He was a big fan of ACB. So, the first club that I supported was ACB. People always looked at me like ‘what is wrong with this Yoruba boy? Why are you supporting ACB which is an Igbo club? I’m like, I like Nwosu, Odiaka, they are very good players. Over the course of some time, a lot of my family members were Shooting Stars fans, and because Ibadan wasn’t too far, we used to go there to watch games. I started following 3SC and of course, I like the 3SC history, the Muda Lawal, Adegboye Onigbinde. They had Felix Owolabi. There was a rich history with 3SC. Sadly, 3SC is struggling a bit today, but one of the things I hope to do in future is to go out there and say look let’s have a Fan Trust to manage this club properly. Globally, I have supported Manchester United for over two decades. Sports is something I feel that Nigeria hasn’t fully commercialised. If you think of Enyimba, Kano Pillars, these clubs have incredible support. It’s ridiculous that we can’t sell 200.000 jerseys of Kano Pillars or Enugu Rangers. I know many people who support Rangers, they don’t even know where to buy the jerseys. I have been asking for a 3SC jersey for over a year and I don’t still have one. I think there’s a lot more we can do in sports, and it also fits into this job creation conversation. One of the things that we are doing with Lagos state government is trying to build a lot of recreational centres and this is a way of taking people out of poverty. Not everybody is going to work in a bank, in entertainment, journalism, how many newspapers do we even have? But sports is something that if you are very good at it, you can always create job opportunities for yourself. It’s obviously an area that I’m very happy that the state government is focusing on.”

By any calculation, Lagos is a melting pot for the ethnic groups in Nigeria, so what is the description of a Lagosian who qualifies for a LSETF intervention? Oyebode answered that even though there is no cap on it, two things must shape the applicant. The most important thing is that you reside in Lagos. There is nothing bad if you are running a business in Aba and you think that Lagos is where you should be. “We don’t mind as long as you are running your business in Lagos. The second qualification is that paying your taxes in Lagos, then you should benefit from the fund.”

Considering that the average Nigerian sees government fund or property as a national cake to which he should help himself generously, given the chance, repayment of LSETF loans should be a headache to Oyebode. “It is still very encouraging,” he says. Sensing that I was going to dig deeper, he volunteered more information. “Our loss rate is significantly below 10%. People are paying. I have been a lender for a while, you succeed when you are careful in the selection of people. One of the reasons why some government schemes fail with all sense of humility and due respect to those who ran these programmes is if the selection falls apart, you can’t expect people to pay back. If there’s no rigour in selecting people, if you don’t pick people in an unbiased manner, if people feel they have to be an APC member to get a loan, or to be a Christian or Muslim to get a loan. When we start using unfair metrics to select people, it also reduces the willingness of people to pay because they will feel that it’s because I’m an APC member, or because of their political appointment that they get the loan. The only thing is that you must live in Lagos. Whether you are Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa,n Kanuri, Efik, Ibibio, we don’t really care. As long as you run a business or intend to run a business, and you meet all our requirements, you have your LASRRA, tax registration, for those who are running businesses, they have their tax statements, they have their company incorporation document, we do our assessment, call you for an interview, you are clear about what you want to use the money for, how you are going to pay back, what we do is pick the best of them. It’s very merit-based. If you come tomorrow and say why wasn’t I selected, we will say your business was good but we could only do 30 and 30 businesses, in our opinion, were better than yours. We can defend it.”

Perhaps the most instructive part of the LSETF agenda is fundraising. We were almost rounding up the interview when the issue came up, but he was willing to dwell on it. “The reality of the situation is at 32.7% unemployment, the funding you need to solve this problem is not going to come from the government alone. We have disbursed approximately N4.6 billion to 5,600 people. When people have seen other people receive loans, you can imagine that the applications are going to be a lot more. Our training programmes which we are in partnership with UNDP is costing us the equivalent of $4 million which will be training 10,000 people. All of these things we are doing cost a bit of money. We are also looking for private investments and donor agencies who are willing to partner with us which is why the institution is transparently run. We have a whistle blower hotline. If anyone wants to report, you can call. We are audited by KPMG professional services. The board is fully in charge of oversight and has credible members. There are certain individuals who have approached us that they want to solve a problem. We have a gentleman, Honourable Wale Raji who is in the Federal House of Representative from Epe. He wants to support women in Epe. He brought some of his own money to match us and we have given loans to about 200 women and most of them are paying their loans back. We are also talking to a family at the moment who is trying to set up a memorial fund, in memory of their daughter who used to work in the development space, working with SMEs and died in a plane crash a few years ago and we should be able to announce that soon once we finalise with the family. For corporates, for example, we are talking to Rose of Sharon Foundation to collaborate with us on some of the work they do for women and widows. We have started talking to like Unilever. I believe that there are two or three other corporates that are saying ‘come and support, let’s do something within our value chain’. Dangote is a partner on our employability programme where they are saying to us ‘if you give us the right set of people, we will hire them and put them in our refinery projects’. This is a problem that we all have to solve. When you go home this evening, people will knock on your window begging for some money, we have to take these people out of poverty and find a future for them.”