Mr. Emeka Okafor is the Managing Director, Connect Nigeria, an outfit planning the 8th edition of the annual ‘Connect Nigeria’ business fair. The fair, which promises to attract stakeholders and industry players from the Information Communication Technology (ICT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Agritech, Fintech and many other businesses is scheduled to hold at the Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos between 6th and 7th March. Themed:‘2020 Vision,’ the business fair according to Okafor is the largest SME gathering in Nigeria and would feature a conference and business exhibition simultaneously. In this interview with DAYO EMMANUEL, Okafor said Nigerian government should support SMEs with enabling environment because it cannot employ 70% of the Nigerian population. He said if SMEs are strong enough, they would employ many Nigerians and create prosperity for all. Excerpts:
How do you advise the Nigerian government on necessary support the business community should have to turn the economy right side up?
The situation in Nigeria is peculiar. When the government sees the potentials of small businesses growing into conglomerates, I hope they will start supporting the small businesses. As at now the businesses don’t make enough money to get the government interested. Since we started we actively engaged several government agencies for sponsorship, we made sure that small businesses can learn to give their outfits enough strength by learning from people who had already established businesses and grown from start-ups to big businesses. But one thing I do emphasise the government should do is that let them realise that in this nation, no government can give employment to 75% of our 200 million people. The government can’t and not even the big businesses can. But small businesses employing two to ten people or two to 20 people are the one that will eventually employ the majority of workforce in Nigeria. If this is not done, unfortunately the catastrophe is waiting to happen as you know the old saying that the idle hand is the devil’s workshop. A lot of things will happen right now and a lot of people are still helpless and when there is no hope, a lot of negative things are going to happen but the business fare which we are planning we hope to get thousands of young people who will have to start their businesses it will eventually lead to entrepreneurship revolution which is a good thing where everyone is interested in having start-ups employing two people which is a way to start their own business. If the government is interested in the SMEs they should encourage them through fares like ours, a lot of Nigerians will be better for it.
About seven years ago, there were about 17 million SMEs in Nigeria according to a survey, how do you think the government can encourage these people because if 17 million SMEs employ two people each, 34 million people are employed, don’t you think so?
Right now one of the things we found in our research is that a lot of businesses do not want to divulge their information because they are afraid of taxes. They believe that what the government wants to do is to just tax them whether they are making money or not. They are afraid of the government levying them, they would say the government will collect land use charge, radio tax and so many taxes and some people would start hiding. Some businesses are under reporting what they are doing just to evade tax. What it means is that companies get grants or loans and become big businesses they fail because of under reporting because they don’t want to pay taxes. One of the things the government can do is to give a tax break to certain businesses, some businesses are having problems in Nigeria whether transportation, logistics, agriculture, medical, education etc. If government says take five years to do your business, we believe in you and we just need your report. It could go a long way. We need proper data to grow businesses in Nigeria. We don’t have data and everybody keeps throwing figures about. SMEDAN says it is 3.7milion SMEs operating in Nigeria, some people say they are 37million, it is not viable, they don’t even call them businesses, they are traders but all these don’t make any sense if there is no people policy to grow these businesses. Imagine what is 75% of 200 million people? It is a whopping 150 million and most of those running them would be less than 25 years of age. This is a viable business community, not just for the entrepreneurs but for consumers. If they are given the right environment they need, they would not only build viable businesses but the consumers will have enough money to buy from these businesses. No matter how successful a business is, if the business cannot sell its goods and services to the citizens, it will go under in less than three to five years because nobody is buying. No matter how good it is because if people are living under a dollar in a day, after eating what can you afford? A lot of businesses in the western world make some of the citizens of their country well to do because of what they can afford. They give services. iphone sold 190million telephones last year, that is at about one iphone to a Nigerian and those phones go for as high as $1,000 but they sold 190million units. If a Nigerian invents a better phone than an iphone how many Nigerians can afford to buy? So it is a cycle, it is an ecosystem. If the Nigerian government supports the businesses and decided to do away with certain taxes so that businesses can grow, it will be a welcome thing to the world of small businesses in Nigeria.