EZRA YAKUSAK, the new helmsman at the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC) read law for his first degree at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and obtained M.Sc and Ph.D in commercial law at the same university. He joined the NEPC as a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member, and rose through the ranks to become the head of the Council. In this exclusive interview with a BusinessDay team led by BASHIR IBRAHIM HASSAN, GM, Northern Operations, Yakusak discusses his past contributions to the council, and for the future, building the capacity of staff to deliver on the Council’s commitment to strengthening the non-oil sector.
There was seamless transition of leadership in this organization, unlike some organizations where succession is acrimonious. How did it happen?
It happened because the government knows the importance of this organisation. It does not need any vacuum for even an hour and they know that this organization is key to the survival of this country. We cannot afford to leave even a one-hour vacuum. Someone does not need to like you always, or your place of origin. When someone is competent their work will speak for them.
Was it a coincidence that the previous CEO is a lawyer and you are also a lawyer?
I will not say that this will serve as a precedent because I am not the appointing authority, but what I will say is that lawyers are better managers and administrators in any organization. Lawyers look at issues from all angles.
In an organization, the fact that you offended me does not mean that we are enemies. For a lawyer you are different and your offense is different.
What is your motivation for the work?
I have had the opportunity to talk to staff on the need to have the right attitude towards work. I have stayed sometime in this organization. This organisation pays my children’s school fees. I have kids that have graduated from the University; the car I have I got it from salaries and other allowances from this organization. So it is only fair that I put in some measure of hard work, truthfulness, commitment and integrity into my work for an organization that brought me this far.
People complain about the country, but if we can do our best anywhere we find ourselves as civil servants and citizens, it will be better for us.
What value do you intend to add to the activities of the NEPC, especially to the non-oil export initiative, which is the primary mandate of this organization?
I will share my vision with you when I meet with my management staff. This is my second or third day in office. But I need to say this. First and foremost, from the personnel, we need to ensure that they are well positioned for the job they are doing. I know about 95 percent of the staff here, because I worked in admin. I know their strengths and their weaknesses.
So what I intend to do is to ensure that they are properly positioned and placed, as regard capacity building, because if they are not trained, they cannot go out there for campaigns. Export promotion is about campaigns, it is about branding. You are promoting your country out there. So if you do not know what to do, you cannot do what you are supposed to do. So we have to empower our staff, and encourage them.
My appointment brought so much hope and rekindles the fact that if you are hardworking, you will be recognized
Could you tell us about some of your contributions before this appointment?
I introduced the ISO 2015 certification programme, which is about making efforts to enable exporters get certification on key products in order to get acceptance in international market. We sat down and agreed to submit ourselves to such certification. When the idea came, I had to drive it. Right now, we have different courses ongoing, with consultants, in liaison with Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON), taking us through the processes of certification.
During the lockdown compelled by the Coronavirus in 2020, instead of exporters coming physically to collect their certificates, as the head of trade information, I introduced the idea of e-registration of certificates, to minimize the risk of exposure at headquarters. Indeed, we digitalized a lot of our operations, with exporters staying in the comfort of their houses and registering and getting the certificate.
Also, being the head of trade information, I felt the need for us to have a directory of exporters. With the approval of the former ED, we introduced that. It shows you the names of exporters, their addresses and the products they export. We are working to expand that program now and give it to all embassies, and we must make sure that these companies can be verified, to ensure trust and the genuineness of such companies.
However, the most important to me was when I was with the administration and human resources department. For the first time in the history of this council, we trained the entire workforce. I also set up the legal and pensions units as they today.
What is your assessment of the present situation of Nigeria, in terms of export trade and how are you planning to deal with export rejects?
The challenges of non-oil export are related to the Nigerian economy and the state of the infrastructure. You cannot say that you set up an industry to export and you are using generator while your competitors are using cheaper sources of power. In addition to infrastructural deficiency, there is also lack of technical know-how on the side of the exporters.
We are going to have a ceremony here next week to hand over certificates on hazard analysis control points to seven exporters. We started with about 40 exporters but the others could not meet up the criteria and had to drop out.
Once you have these certificates, you can export any product out there without the issue of export reject, but without the certificate, nobody will buy from you. So we are expanding our tentacles. We have many other certifications to promote the right practices among exporters because, right now, people are cautious what they buy, what they eat and their health. So, without such certification, we are not going anywhere as a nation and as an organization.
What is your take on the issue of cocoa production in this country?
For me cocoa is one of the best products we have in this country, but my problem with it is that I wish our businessmen can invest in cocoa by adding value to it. This idea of exporting cocoa to other countries, and they process it to chocolate, then we will now buy it at a higher price, I think it is unacceptable. Why can’t we have industries that produce cocoa into chocolate and export?
One thing people don’t know is that we have a scheme called export expansion grant, an incentive set up by the federal government. Once you apply and you show that you can add value, we will give you about 15 percent of your total export. I know that the capital is big and I think if we can do it, we will change the trajectory of cocoa because it is like we are at the mercy of these countries.
What is your message for the young people out there, seeing how you rose from an NYSC member to the position you are today?
There is reward in perseverance, hard work and patience. Most times people want to make it quick, and so they jump from organization to organization. But when I came here I remained, as a matter of fact I am a lawyer, I could have gone for legal practices. In fact, I had other offers but I refused but got stuck here, even to the point that I was writing my Ph.D citation on export promotion.
That is my heart and exposure, but then one of the things I should say is that with me as an example, there is hope. My appointment brought so much hope and rekindles the fact that if you are hardworking, you will be recognized. I served the past executives with my heart, I have worked with them, and I have been the legal adviser for over 15 years. I worked with the board members, chairman of the board, and the chief executives. So to the youths out there my advice is be honest, hardworking and one day you will be recognized.