N-Power is bridging the inequality gap and lifting many out of poverty, writes Isabella Akinseye

It has been said that the Nigerian Economy is out of recession. But one would easier prove that the sun shines at night than convince the majority of Nigerians of this fact. This is because the standard of living post-recession, for many Nigerians, has hardly improved. Divining the indices of economic growth in Nigeria has always been problematic. For example the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate between 2004 and 2010 averaged at 7%. Ironically, the number of people living below the national poverty line grew from 69 million to 112 million within the same period. Growth in Nigeria shares an inverse relationship with facts on the ground, because wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few elite. In fact, every time you hear of economic growth, remember the cliché: the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. According to calculations made by a 2017 Oxfam report, lifting all Nigerians living in extreme poverty in one year would require $24 billion, an amount lower than the total wealth of the five richest Nigerians in 2016.

Inequality is a global challenge. In Nigeria, it’s a dance with danger, an irrationality that has nothing to do with a lack of resources, and everything to do with a political class invested in self-enrichment, and totally out of touch with the excruciating struggles of the people. “One day the poor will have nothing to eat but the rich.” This now famous words, from the 2012 Occupy Nigeria struggle, hints at the unsustainability of the current state of inequality. Tackling it head on is not only a moral obligation, but also a matter of collective survival.

Graduate unemployment and rural disenfranchisement bring the problem into starker reality. Today a university degree is becoming less and less likely to secure young people a job, their frustrations are a clear and present danger. The conditions that allowed for the stampede that claimed the lives of at least 16 people, in 2014, when about 6.5 million graduates visited recruitment centres for a possible job with the Nigeria Immigration Service that only had 4,000 vacant positions, are still very much with us. The poverty rate amongst Nigeria’s rural population is over 70%, and efforts to reverse this have been tokenistic at best. We have to find creative ways, in public policymaking and implementation, to open the door to millions of young people and millions of Nigerians living in rural communities, who have been shut out from being active participants in an evolving global economy. Initiatives borne of clear and concentrated thinking are a desperate need, and perhaps, this is where an examination of the current government’s N-Power initiative becomes necessary.

Rural Basin Development Authority (RBDA), Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI), Rural Electrification Scheme (RES), Agricultural Development Programme (ADP), National Directorate of Employment (NDE) and Better Life for Rural Women. Others were the Family Support Programme (FSP), Rural Banking Scheme (RBS), People’s Bank, the National Poverty Eradication Programme (NAPEP) and the Agricultural Credit Guarantee Scheme (ACGS). There has never been a shortage of policy initiatives aimed at financial and social inclusion in Nigeria. The devil has always been in the implementation. What makes N-Power any different?

N-Power was born against the backdrop of a global economy driven by information and technology, and perhaps this has influenced its thrust. In the last one year the initiative has set out on a national knowledge and skills acquisition drive, aiming to train 500,000 graduates in skills relevant to the global economy, and deploy them in key areas of public service. So far 200, 000 graduates have been trained and are currently working in the 774 local government areas across the 36 states of the federation in health, education, agriculture and finance. The ubiquity of the programme is a strong indication of its effectiveness with regard to financial and social inclusion. It has also established 250 centres, under its N-Build platform, for technical learning and business training. An examination of the programme, speaking with beneficiaries, including the graduate and non-graduate participants and the communities they serve, show that it has worked fine thus far. The transparency of its recruitment process, using technology, and the fact that it covers the entire country in an egalitarian manner, is working well to include hitherto disenfranchised Nigerians, without preference for gender. The deliberate inclusion of physically challenged applicants is equally noteworthy. Samuel Dapil, one of the beneficiaries I listened to, is a visually impaired participant of the programme who currently teaches in Mangu, LGA, Plateau State, as a Braille expert for Mathematics and Sciences.

Bridging inequality is about giving people opportunities, opportunities to learn a skill and make a contribution, opportunities to earn a regular income, and N-Power may be one of the few government initiatives in recent times, to attempt this at scale, with numerous N-Power beneficiaries in every one of the 774 LGAs; non-graduates learning new skills under N-Build and getting ready to run their own businesses, graduates happy to be connecting new knowledge to community service and earning a stipend that for many have become a lifeline. Over 45,000 previously unbanked Nigerians, mostly in rural environments, are now financially included.

What N-Power gets right is that we cannot foster economic mobility without education, and not the kind you get from the average Nigerian university, but the kind that gives you practical knowledge on how to create and trade value. Every Nigerian deserves the best and an equal chance to make the most of their talents and to realise their hopes and dreams. And if we want a more equitable society that leaves no one behind, then we have to find new ideas and strategies, particularly in public policy, to empower people with choices. What we need to do with policy initiatives like N-Power, that show signs of effectiveness and spaces for improvement, is insulate them from the brutal realities of politics, and ensure that they are improved and expanded. The programme does well in that it shows how effective collaboration between public and private sector stakeholders can help in lifting millions out of poverty if supported and nurtured.

The roles played by the Bank of Industry in funding and monitoring critical aspects of the programme, and Softcom, a wholly Nigerian owned technology firm working with private and public institutions to deliver transformational value, and who provide strategic and technological backbone to the programme, are worth mentioning.

Shared prosperity, according to a recent Harvard Business School survey, is the hallmark of a truly competitive economy. We cannot gain access on the world stage as a country if we continue to shut out a critical number of the population from the gains of economic recovery or growth. Programmes like N-Power show what we can do if we put politics aside.

Akinseye wrote from Lagos