The Business Year

Noble Egbert Pepple

NIGERIA - Economy

Together For More

Executive Director/CEO, Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency

Bio

Noble Egbert Pepple is the Executive Director/CEO of Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA). He is on secondment from Shell Petroleum Development Company Ltd, where he has worked for 26 years in a variety of functional and managerial roles in community relations, seismic exploration, external affairs, and sustainable development. He has a Master’s in Environment and Development from the London School of Economics.

"We made a conscious decision in the agency to work with international and local partners."

What were the reasons behind the establishment of the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA)?

The agency was established primarily to tackle poverty and to address issues around under-development in the state. It was established to focus development efforts on poverty alleviation, youth empowerment, and grassroots development. There was a realization within the government that more needed to be done to tackle the root causes of poverty and underdevelopment in the state.

You have a special program that focuses on education. Can you tell us more about your projects in general?

RSSDA was established by law, and the RSSDA Act gives us a very open remit. However, we recognize that we have limited capacity in terms of resources. Therefore, we had to prioritize certain areas of focus. Within the first six years of our existence our focus has been on human capital development, agriculture, and job creation. As you may know, Rivers State is a hub of the oil and gas economy in Nigeria. This is a high-tech industry that requires qualified manpower and technocrats. So it was important for Rivers State to be able to develop talented young people to feed the industry. The state decided to establish a top-class overseas scholarship program, sending out young men and women to some of the best schools around the world to train in the disciplines that would fit the industry, and other sectors of the state where there was a manpower gap. That’s the focus of our human capital development program. In agriculture, our focus is to use the sector as a vehicle to create jobs for young people in the state and to drive rural development. Agriculture also provides food security when it is done well. So our involvement in agriculture, which happens to be our largest portfolio, is focused on helping to drive sustainable livelihoods and grassroots development across communities. Our third area of focus, that is job creation, basically recognizes the challenge that exists not only in Rivers State but across the country, and probably across the world—the lack of jobs, especially amongst young people. Youth unemployment is high in Nigeria, and invariably in Rivers State. The agency is working together with other state institutions to drive job creation and provide skills for young people, to enable them start their own businesses in the SME sector. One way we do that is by trying to remove the bottlenecks that prevent small businesses from taking root in Nigeria. The foregoing is not an exhaustive list of what we do, as from time to time we also support projects and programs in areas such as health, water, and sanitation.

In what ways do you collaborate with other organizations or institutions?

We made a conscious decision in the agency to work with international and local partners, both within the development sector and also the private sector. Partnerships enable us to bring more to the table than we ever could as a single entity in terms of resources, expertise, and networks. When you work with a partner you have to raise your standards to meet those of your partner. We have to operate at a high level of integrity, transparency, and HSE standards for our partners such as Shell, Total, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the UN Development Program (UNDP); this enhances our own capabilities also. We are open to future partnerships. In fact, if you look at our annual report, we always begin with a chapter on what we have done through our partnerships for that year. That is a very important principle, and part of our strategy for delivering our programs.

Where do you see the main opportunities for private investors interested in partnering with you in the economy of Rivers State?

Rivers State has a very strategic position in the middle of the oil and gas region. It offers a locational advantage and a lot of opportunities for private sector international organizations that want to operate here. Amongst other things, the state has an international airport and a seaport. Over the last six or seven years the current administration has made single-minded efforts to upgrade and improve the state’s infrastructure. Today, Rivers State is considered to be one of the few states in Nigeria that is capable of becoming self-sufficient in power supply, because a significant amount of investment has gone into developing a reliable, independent, gas-based power infrastructure. Combined with the opportunities that the oil and gas industry provides, this presents enormous advantages for serious investors. In addition, Rivers State has also been in the driver’s seat with agricultural development investment. For example, a few years ago my agency established the world-class Songhai Farm, which provides a platform for developing the next generation of farmers. Then, we are also the State representative in a $140 million public-private partnership (PPP) initiative called the Agro Industrial Development Project, established between the LR Group of Israel and Rivers State. That initiative, modeled after the Israeli kibbutz agricultural system, is intended to develop a large mechanized farm with a cluster of model farming communities, and a major agro-processing center, together in an integrated agricultural project. Although it is a commercial project with a profit focus, the project is also focused around providing employment opportunities for as many agricultural entrepreneurs as possible. The value chain of the initiative will result in the employment of between 5,000 and 10,000 people through providing services to, or getting some benefits from, the initiative. Another PPP, the Rivers State Cassava Initiative, set up in collaboration with four private companies including DADTCO and Shell, and aims to take cassava production and processing to the next level. Our plan is to establish a cassava factory that offers a market for all of the cassava producers across the state. The project is aligned with the federal government cassava transformation program. The attractive thing is the number of cassava farmers who can, through the scheme, find a sustainable livelihood. In other areas, the state is also building a number of large fish farms, working with the Israeli firm ONIDA, as well as developing a 2,000 hectare mechanized banana farm with a Mexican company. Most of it is for export. Frankly, I do not know any other state in the country with such a clear focus on agricultural investment. We are not only starting new projects in partnership with serious international players, but also trying to revamp some big pre-existing projects, such as Risonpalm.

“We made a conscious decision in the agency to work with international and local partners.”

How can Rivers State and the federal government work together, from a regulatory standpoint, to provide more incentives so that you can perform even better?

Rivers State is sub-national, and there is a separation of roles when it comes to regulation. Certain powers reside with the federal authorities, and some with the state government. As much as possible, we try to tap into the broader national opportunities that are available, through incentives given to investors. We continually work with our partners to identify those incentives and to connect work to them. We talk with the federal authorities whenever possible. Within the state itself we look at areas where we can make investors feel welcome and empowered to invest in the state. I see a lot of scope to work with the federal agencies, and we will continue to do what we can to assist. In most cases, the federal institutions have been very forthcoming. Once they know that investors are genuine and are trying to do good work that aligns with the government’s goals, they are always going to support it.

How important is it for your agency and for the economy of Rivers State to collaborate with neighboring states?

While working with international companies and countries is important, I think that it is even more critical to have a collaborative relationship with the neighboring states. Whether it is in the area of peace and security, or common infrastructure, we are tied by proximity and reputation with the rest of the region. Also, if you cannot tap into the markets around you it will be much more difficult to pursue markets farther afield. If you take our cassava project, for example, it is the first of its kind in the entire region and we’re already looking for ways to enable farmers from other regions to participate in the project. Regional integration is very important.

© The Business Year – August 2014

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