The Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA) is an agency of the government of Rivers State of Nigeria. It was set-up to promote programmes and activities aimed at eradicating poverty, developing rural areas and empowering the youth. It is geared towards improving the human capital base of Rivers indigenes through target programmes, which include the overseas undergraduate scholarship, ICT training, Greater Horizon and Opportunities Programme, Overseas Technical Training programme among others.
Mr Lawrence Pepple, the Executive Director and Chief Executive of RSSDA, in an exclusive interview with Kingsley Okeke of the African Leadership Magazine, discussedthe impact of some of the programmes of the agency, including the recently-held Leadership, Empowerment, and Development (LEAD) summit. Excerpt:
One of the key objectives of the recently held LEAD Summit, organized by your agency, was to among other things provide a veritable and engaging platform for the discourse on harnessing youth leadership and entrepreneurship development potentials. Did this summit achieve this set objective?
Thanks so much Kingsley for this opportunity. I will say yes, the Summit met this objective. The Wife of the Governor Her Excellency, Justice Mrs Eberechi Suzzette Wike presented a keynote address on ways stakeholders can assist young person transform into entrepreneurs, particularly in a non-oil economy. She also focused on improving opportunities for young people to go ahead and become entrepreneurs through the enactment of policies geared towards promoting youth entrepreneurship, the Deputy Governor’s speech was on the Rivers State Amnesty programme and the opportunities it provides to build a safe and secure Rivers State while the other speakers, I would like to call them role models, dwelt on challenges faced by youths in becoming leaders and entrepreneurs.
There was an interactive session which allowed participants to interact with these role models and other invited speakers on topical issues on youth entrepreneurship. These speakers included the Regional Director of the Heritage Bank, the Platinum Partnership Bank that sponsored the event.
Human Capital Development is a key mandate of the Agency, how are you coping with the actualization of the mandate in the face of the prevailing realities in the country?
You captured it aptly! The current realities have had adverse effect on the implementation of various human capacity development programmes and projects of the Agency, just like any other MDA in the country. For us, human capital development is encompassing and multi-functional, and this allows us to drive it from a skills and non-skilled development perspective as well as educational and business development perspective. In building skills & capacity for business development, it will require that you expend funds for provision of business starter packs and other new start-up requirements.
Due to limited funds, we are not able to implement our programmes in this manner, but we have been innovative here. What we have been doing is use our goodwill to garner access to training and capacity building, as well as funding or single-digit loan funds. What we are doing with the LEAD Summit is a clear example of how we have been innovative on implementing human capacity development programmes. With the LEAD Summit, we have brought together business trainers and motivational coaches as well as business financiers under the LEAD Platform for the improvement of youth enterprise development.
Kingsley, we are currently discussing with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) to deplore their Enterprise Development Learning Curriculum for Business Start-up and Expansion Management in the State. They have approved two of our facilities (Songhai Rivers Initiative (SRI), Bunu-Tai Farm and Workmanship Technical Training Centre (WTTC), Bori as Learning Centres as well as the State will be designated a Learning Hub for the South-South. This is a great opportunity which we believe will improve business management learning for start-up and expansion in the State and adequately supports our work on business or enterprise development.
RSSDA is no doubt one of the state’s most strategic agencies saddled with the responsibility of championing sustainable development in the state. How is the agency under your leadership supporting the Wike-led administration towards achieving his mandate and electoral promise to the people of the state?
Obviously, our activities are aligned with the NEW Rivers Vision of His Excellency Chief Barrister Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, CON, the Executive Governor of Rivers State’s administration. The NEW Rivers Vision is a comprehensive development plan that guarantees improvement to live and well-being of the Rivers people through massive infrastructural development and improvement, sustainable human capacity and empowerment programmes, job creation as well as provision of social and health amenities.
Our programmes, as the sustainable development agency, are cross-cutting and ensure that the people and the State are developed in sustainable manner – utilising resources, adequately, for today without compromising its future utilisation. At the onset of the administration, the Agency was very much involved in the preparation of a State Development Blueprint, which is built on the NEW Rivers Vision.
So our programmes, so far, have all stemmed from the Development Blueprint. For example the LEAD Summit is targeted at increasing Youth Entrepreneurial base of the State, we are concluding partnership discussions with a number of private sector and international development actors to create opportunities that will improve human capacity and agricultural development, we also working with State MDAs to drive various opportunities, through synergy and resource leverage, for the economic empowerment and elimination of social deprivation of the Rivers citizenry and we also exploring new partnership frontiers with international development agencies and donor organisations to implement projects in line with His Excellency Governor Wike administration’s NEW Rivers Vision.
At moment, we have received funding and support from the Department for International Development (DFID) through its Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme (NSRP) to conduct a State-wide labour market assessment of youth skills gap from a demand and supply stand-point. The outcome of this assessment will guide future planning of interventions around young people.
Upon assumption of office, the present leadership in the state was reported to have cancelled all oversea Scholarships. Some analysts have maintained that this approach would be counterproductive in the long run; how would you react to this?
Firstly, Kingsley I wish to state that the Scholarship Scheme was not cancelled, it was only re-assigned to another Department of Government that is in charge of scholarship administration in the State – I mean the Rivers State Scholarship Board. Let’s not lose touch with the fact that RSSDA is an interventionist agency and every area where it implements an intervention, has a corresponding and existing MDA that has been set-up to administer work in that area, so if the Governor directed that the Agency’s scholarship programme be moved to the Scholarship Board, then that is very much in order.
Secondly, when we review the cost of the scholarship vis-à-vis the present economic situation, it become clearly that it would not be sustainable to continue with the programme bearing in mind the dwindling resources and fast-ascending value of the dollar against the naira, in which the scholarship programme was dominated. In fact, a number of times while reviewing the past years’ budget; I noticed that the actual expenditure usually exceeds the budget figure and this is due to mainly foreign currency fluctuations.
So, as a Sustainable Development Agency, RSSDA had already suspended scholarship awards since 2014, before the end of the last administration, because it could not meet the commitments of new awards alongside existing commitments. Currently, we are supporting the returning of 159 final year students that recently graduated under the Scholarship scheme, while 328 students that are in lower levels are being processed to continue the Scholarship scheme in local universities in Nigeria.
The Lead Summit was also designed to prepare youths that will transit from job-seeking to job creation, how would this target be actualized in the short, medium and long term?
This Summit was organised in partnership with our partners Second Opportunity African Foundation who will the implementers of various programmes and projects that we will jointly plan. As you know, RSSDA had implemented various youth-targeted entrepreneurial development schemes which include the Promise Franchise, Pottery and Leather Works development, various streams of enterprise development support that involved the provision of enterprise/business starter kits, training & capacity building, and mentorship and hand-held coaching. Recently, we organised and supported women groups (both young and old) to form cooperatives and access the CBN’s N220Billion MSME Loan Fund, so we intend to utilise this experience will working partners like Heritage Bank to provide low- or single digit interest rate loans for youth focused enterprise/business start-up or expansion.
At the moment, we at the drawing board with our partners the Second Opportunity Africa Foundation for the conceptualisation and design of a capacity building Specialist Programme that provide certification and accreditation for young people. Don’t forget that we are trying to encourage youths to go into enterprise development but not at the detriment of available youths that will take-up white collar jobs.
There are various ventures under the RSSDA, most of them under PPP arrangements. What are their levels of profitability and what are you doing to ensure they are sustainable?
The Agency is in partnership with a number of private sector actors in JV or PPP arrangement, like you mentioned, to drive economic development and social improvement in the State. Companies were incorporated and activities are picking up. These companies are still at infancy and so we cannot adjudge their profitability, although on paper, there are all profitable ventures and that’s why we entered into those partnerships in the first place.
Currently, we exploring and working with potential partners to invest in some of the projects or ventures that we have which are not PPP or JV- driven. The Songhai Farm and WTTC are on the front-burner for private sector participation so as to improve their levels of profitability.
Once again thank you for this opportunity.