Listen to the podcast here: Building the Future Podcast (Episode 16)
[00:01:14] Dotun: Many call her, “Madam Due Process.” A few refer to her as a voice for the voiceless. My guest today is Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili. She was vice-president of the World Bank, African Region, with responsibilities for operations in 48 countries, and a lending portfolio of about $40 billion. From 2002 to 2007, Dr. Oby worked for the Federal Government of Nigeria as Minister of Education and later as Minister of Solid Minerals, where she led the first ever national implementation of transparency in the oil and gas sectors. She currently serves as Senior Advisor for Africa Economic Development Policy Initiative, where she provides policy, expertise, and advisory support to African heads of government and their cabinets.
Dr. Oby has been recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and by the New York Times, as one of the 25 Women of Impact. She co-founded the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, following the abduction of nearly 300 girls from Chibok in Nigeria, in 2014. Few people have asked me why I’m interviewing Dr. Oby for this podcast – since she’s not a tech entrepreneur like many of my other guests. First, I need to say this: this podcast is not only about tech entrepreneurs. I believe innovation is not exclusive to startups. The African future will be built by an eclectic group of people who are shaping the continent through their thoughts, words, and actions. They will include artists, writers, innovators, entrepreneurs, sports people, and pop leaders.
Dr. Oby falls into the latter category. Secondly, for those who are familiar with her active Twitter handle, they’ll notice that she has a significant interest in tech entrepreneurship, and has lent her voice and influence in shaping some of the startup narratives in Nigeria. This interview was recorded live in Abuja with few people in the audience, so you will hear some background noise and low-quality sound in the first few minutes. I’ll like to say a special thanks to Kola Aina and his team at Ventures Platform, Abuja, for generously hosting us for this interview. I hope you enjoy this chat as much as I did.
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[00:04:47] Dotun: Dr. Oby, welcome to Building the Future.
[00:04:49] Oby: Thank you.
[00:04:50] Dotun: I’m going to start my question from the beginning a bit. Your dad has a significant influence on you. He’s a man that never takes nonsense. Now, let’s talk about his later years when he was working at the Nigerian Ports Authority, which is a pseudo-government institution which is corrupt and loose of laxity and laziness. How was he able to stand that as a man that doesn’t take nonsense in that kind of environment?
[00:05:15] Oby: One of my best stories of growing up was my dad continuously saying that the Nigerian Ports Authority has become the citadel of Nigeria’s corruption. He would say that and I just—I would be so puzzled by it, and I would talk about it with him. So, when my English teacher once asked us to make a complex statement, I got up, and I said, “You know Nigerian Ports Authority has become the citadel of Nigeria’s corruption.” [Laughs] And my English teacher was like, “What did you just say?” [Laughter]
[00:05:48] Dotun: Where did you get that from?
[00:05:51] Oby: And I said, “My Dad says that all the time.” But that’s to your question that what we see today didn’t just start. You can imagine how young I was, and I was hearing that. But he was a man who was so intolerant of bad behavior, especially of corruption, that he would physically fight it. [Laughs] Because you had all kinds of church rats—what do they call them? Port rats. That’s what they say.
[00:06:22] Dotun: Yes, that was what they called them.
[00:06:24] Oby: Yeah, in those days. So, he was so into having people behave appropriately, and he hated dishonesty, so he did everything to counter corrupt behavior. And if people sort of had a tendency toward thinking that everybody was up for a price, then my Dad would let you know that, you cannot purchase me. [Laughs] There’s nothing that you could ever, ever have that would make my Dad trade off his convictions and his belief. He brought us up not by speaking, but by acting. So, we saw the choices that our Dad made. In those days, if you worked at the Nigerian Ports Authority at a certain level, you were definitely really loaded. We weren’t loaded – not one bit. But what he did was give us so much in terms of values that we were loaded in the inside.
And we were so loaded in the inside that whatever we lacked on the outside paled. It really didn’t show. And it turned out that those of my Dad’s contemporaries in his work that were accumulating riches in all kinds of ways—I mean, public service pay has never been great, so, it’s never been a basis for becoming wealthy. It’s never been. But we had families that were wealthy on the basis of their own Dad been in the same place of responsibility as my Dad. But guess what? At the end of the day, we seem to have turned out better.
[00:08:07] Dotun: Yes, certainly.
[00:08:08] Oby: We certainly seem to have turned out better. My Dad always said, “I will not steal on your behalf. I can’t do that. But I’m going to give you the best education, I’m going to give you the best values, and I would give you my name. And should you make the mistake of dishonoring my name, bringing disrepute to my name, even if I have died, I would come from the grave with my walking stick, and I would give you the kind of knock that would take you out.” He was a credible threat. He wasn’t the kind of threat you said, my daddy is just talking. [Laughs] We’ll almost feel like, “He’s coming. He’s coming.” So, that was important.
[00:08:50] Dotun: What was his name?
[00:08:50] Oby: Pardon?
[00:08:51] Dotun: What was his name?
[00:08:52] Oby: My Dad? Benjamin Ojubonwu. Benjamin Umeh Ojubonwu.
[00:08:57] Dotun: I want to—going to take this next question about you are a chartered account, and you have a relatively good job working with Akintola Deloitte, and you probably become a partner, or you are heading towards that, or maybe you are a partner at that point, but you got involved with Transparency International that nearly got you in trouble with Abacha government. Then you ended up on exile, which was one of the most dangerous times in the history of Nigeria – exposing yourself to fighting against the military government while you were a mother, you have a good family, you have a good job. How much do you love Nigeria so much to risk all of that?
[00:09:37] Oby: Well, you would have to get a context to it. Even by the time we relocated to Lagos at the end of the civil war in 1970, we relocated, and all around me, what I saw was squalor. We’d lost everything, essentially. The war had taken everything from anyone who was from Ibo land at that time. And so, you relocated, and you had to rebuild your life—
[00:10:01] Dotun: To Lagos?
[00:10:02] Oby: –into Lagos. When we relocated, we relocated to my uncle, who had been a member of the Western House of Assembly, in those days. Actually, my dad’s first cousin. He’s well known by the politicians of that era, Fred Ebubedike, and he was quite well known in Western Nigeria. His home that we relocated to was in Ajegunle, and all around me, I saw squalor, and I saw that the suffering was much. But my uncle, my father’s first cousin, he fell middle class, within the—because he was a land—he owned landed asset—
[00:10:42] Dotun: In Ajegunle?
[00:10:43] Oby: –even in that place. There were facilities available to me, even living there, that were not available to the people I saw around me. And one of those kinds of facilities was the fact that I was able to watch television. In watching television, I would see other places, and I would curiously say to my dad, “Why is our place not like these places I’m seeing on television?” I was a very curious young person, and my dad would say, “It’s because of poor governance.” So, very early, I would talk about poor governance with my dad and discuss it, and I would say, “Why do we have poor governance?” And he would say that “When the people who lead countries don’t lead them well, things go wrong.”
And then he’d say, look at the civil war, look at the squalor around, these are all things that happen when countries are not been led well.
[00:11:39] Dotun: So, you were able to connect between governance and poverty?
[00:11:43] Oby: Yes.
[00:11:44] Dotun: Rather than just people are not doing well for themselves – that’s why they are in that poverty.
[00:11:47] Oby: [Laughs] Very early. Very early on. The conversation with my dad now went beyond just conversation. Every time my dad read the newspapers like his life depended on it. So, I formed the same habit. We would read the papers, and then we would discuss. This was the context. And I recall that one of the times, I said to my dad: “When I grow up, I’m going to do something about this poor governance.” And [laughs] I was speaking like any other child would speak. So, going on to secondary school, going on to university, I was always so vocal about the issues of governance. And by the time I was a young professional, I was writing on issues of poor governance, because I could just tell that what it was doing was terrible.
Now, I was seeing more that countries could do well. So, why should I be in a country that wasn’t doing well?
[00:12:54] Dotun: And your response wasn’t to go into politics?
[00:12:57] Oby: My consciousness was very, very well formed about this matter of governance very early on. You can then imagine how it was that by the time I was a young professional training to be a Chartered Accountant in Akintola Williams Deloitte & Touche, I was already far into my passionate detest for poor governance, that I was [laughs] I was already well known for not liking poor governance. So, whether it was seminars at university or seminars by the time I was in the professions, I was a regular feature discussing issues of poor governance. It was not a surprise therefore that as part of the Africa Leadership Forum, the Transparency International was going to be formed, and I was one of the co-founders of Transparency International.
You can imagine going from a child saying why is there so much poverty around me to being told it’s as a result of poor governance to saying I’m going to do something about it, to then, over time, becoming a part of the first global body that decided to take on the same issue. So, sometimes, when I say to people that you must reinforce your children—there I was speaking as a child. How could I have known? There was no way I could have known that there was something called Transparency International that will come to pass sometime, but it did come to pass because my father affirmed anything that I said growing up. So, we founded Transparency International and brought global attention to the challenges of corruption, because corruption is a symptom of poor governance.
Poor governance is the broader concept, but corruption is a major component and symptomatic of poor governance. So, that effort was an effort that upset the status quo. I remember that when Transparency International, we decided that we were going to innovate on the ranking tool that would look at the measures of corruption in different countries, and there were three of us that were the youngest of the co-founders of Transparency International.
[00:15:23] Dotun: And its headquarters is in Berlin?
[00:15:25] Oby: In Berlin. So, it was Fredrik Galtung, [Joan Lambdstuf?] and myself. At at one of our meetings in Uganda, in those days, it was during lunch, and we were discussing, and [Joan Lambdstuf?] said, “Oby. Can you imagine a tool that would rank countries and compare the level of corruption in there?” And I thought, “That is fascinating.” But then I stopped, and I said, “But, no, it won’t have credibility,” I said, “because how can we measure the quantum of corruption in each of the countries for comparison–for comparability.” And then, instantly, we sort of said, “Oh, but wait a minute. How about if we measure the perception that people have of corruption in their societies, or that other people have of corruption in other societies. Maybe using that as a proxy, we can rank?” And we were so excited.
We went back to the meeting of the old—the co-founders of Transparency International were not our—as they say, “They are not your age mate.” [Laughs] They were not our age-mates at all; they were older people. These were like former presidents, ministers, top officials of international bodies, but we just had the privilege of having been part of this. So, when we went back and we said, we should do this thing to measure this, everybody was like, these young ones are not going to destroy this organization. What are you—just forget it. And they wanted to shut it down.
[00:17:03] Dotun: That was disruption in a way.
[00:17:04] Oby: It was disruption, but the old did not like the idea because they worried that if the credibility of the organization would be maligned in any way if we went in that direction, that would be the end of the effort of building such a coalition. But we persisted and made the argument that it’s the statistical methodology issue. Why don’t we get a group of experts that can really work on this idea, but there’s something to measuring this, because this would be a way to catch the attention of everyone that needs to do something to tackle corruption. And that debate raged on throughout our AGM in Uganda at that time. Eventually, we won, and the movement decided to set up a global council of statistical people, research people, economists, and all kinds of skills to work on what you today know as the Corruption Perception Index—
[00:18:10] Dotun: Which Nigeria doesn’t do well in.
[00:18:10] Oby: –of Transparency International. What you just said is what takes me to the answer to your question, because the first CPI (Corruption Perception Index), then measures the perception of corruption across countries, and Nigeria came out as a perceived most corrupt country in that index. And when that happened, the government of that era was so angry, they called me “Conspiracy International.”
[00:18:43] Dotun: They recognized that you were part of that group?
[00:18:45] Oby: I was not just a co-founder of the group, I was a member of the board of the group. I was the pioneer director of the group, and I had started to put together the Nigerian chapter of the group, made up of people like Justice Kayode Esho, Dr. Kolade, people like Eme Awa—the late Eme Awa, even Pat Utomi was part of it, then General Ishola Williams. So, it was clearly very annoying to the government. People think that—people see me today and they sometimes don’t realize that in a military government, I was advocating against corruption. I was saying to the government that through the Transparency International, we would try and locate all the stolen wealth of Nigeria. I would make sure that they are brought back to the people of Nigeria.
[00:19:38] Dotun: And that’s a dangerous thing to do at that time. At this time, maybe people just talk about you, but that time, there was a threat to your life?
[00:19:45] Oby: Yes, but as far as I was concerned, my dad always said that if you have a conviction, you must have the courage to stand for it. So, for me, I felt like this issue was a major obstacle, and we needed to do something about it. And I didn’t think that being lily-livered should be the hallmark of a person. So, I was prepared to stand for what I believed in. At the same time, we had a group called the Concerned Professionals. The Concerned Professionals had been a brilliant idea of people like Pat Utomi, Atedo Peterside, Sam Oni, Tola Mobolurin, other friends like Morin Babalola and a couple of us—Ayo Ighodaro. There were a number of us that became part of it. Over time, what was the Concerned Professionals about?
It was the first time that professionals who had hitherto not concerned themselves about the issue of governance came together to say, why would a well-conducted election be canceled? Why would it be annulled?
[00:20:56] Dotun: That was the 1993 election?
[00:20:57] Oby: Yes. Why? So, the Concerned Professionals group said, no, we must stand together and demand that this election that was annulled by revalidated, and the proper winner of the election installed as president. This body of professionals advocating for pro-democracy and saying we must restore democracy, we were also a target of the government. Over time, the high handedness of that government, it came after us so many times.
[00:21:30] Dotun: In what ways?
[00:21:30] Oby: We were beaten on the streets of Lagos. We were beaten. Oh, my goodness. In those days, they had something called, “Kill and go”. That’s the mobile police.
[00:21:39] Dotun: The mobile police.
[00:21:40] Oby: The police at that time was the worst you could ever imagine. We would do our marches, and it’d end up with serious beatings. Over time, people thought, oh, my God—and remember that we are talking about CEOs of organizations and in business, who ordinarily don’t care about matters like this. After a while, people said, “I’m not sure how far I’m going to be taking this beating.” So, people began to just—
[00:22:11] Dotun: To leave?
[00:22:12] Oby: To leave. And at some point, I had to lead the movement. I became the first woman that led the movement. We were determined, because we sort of thought, wait a minute, what was it that happened in South Africa? They resisted. They resisted. They didn’t just simply say, it’s okay to just take apartheid. So, our own was militarization, and we needed to resist. And especially because we were talking about the generation of people like me who had been awakened to that resistance culture through the apartheid by the anti-apartheid movement, which included us. Because we were made to contribute our Wednesday lunch money to the ANC. So, that also helped that consciousness by the time we were now older to say, your society matters.
You can’t just simply ignore things that don’t go well for someone like me. It was the first time I voted. I took it personally that my vote would count for nothing, and that the military Head of State would just annul the election. Where do you do that? That conviction that it was something worth standing against made us to stand against it. Now, at a point, the former President Obasanjo – who was also a co-founder of Transparency International – was taken into prison. And then, I was getting all kinds of threats. Going abroad, coming back became—
[00:23:55] Dotun: A big problem.
[00:23:56] Oby: It was a big problem.
[00:23:57] Dotun: At the airport?
[00:23:57] Oby: At the airport. And then, Transparency International got worried because the threat was so much, and our campaign to get President Obasanjo out of jail at that time was really tough. So, Transparency International said, we don’t want a situation where we also now have to start campaigning for you. We need your voice to be out here concerning the issues in your country.
[00:24:26] Dotun: Because the threats were real. There was Ken Saro Wiwa who was killed, and there was President Obasanjo in prison, Kudirat Abiola was shot dead in the streets of Lagos—
[00:24:33] Oby: Yes. I have to tell you about the day Kudirat Abiola was shot dead. When Kudirat was shot dead, my mom went off, literally, because I was leading some of our Concerned Professional members to the court.
[00:24:52] Dotun: To defend–?
[00:24:53] Oby: To be part of—we always went to court.
[00:24:55] Dotun: With Kudirat?
[00:24:55] Oby: Yes.
[00:24:56] Dotun: And she was going to court that day?
[00:24:57] Oby: She was going to court on that day. And then the then Consul General for Canada, Jerry [Olsen?], called me and said she had been killed. And when the news was all out there, my mom who was still grieving my father who had died—
[00:25:18] Dotun: About five or six years ago.
[00:25:19] Oby: [Laughs] She couldn’t take it. She just couldn’t. She went berserk. She said, “This cannot happen to you.” It was bad. It was terrible. It was the first time ever in our country that a woman was slaughtered on the street for something that she was standing for. It was a terrible moment in history for us as a country. A lot of the younger ones have not had the benefit of the story of the 90s, but ultimately, those stories would have to be told because they are important in our understanding the democratic process and the necessary maturation of the process. Anyway, Transparency International, so I had to leave for Berlin. I’d left for our office in Berlin and—
[00:26:07] Dotun: And you had to leave your family?
[00:26:08] Oby: Yes.
[00:26:09] Dotun: Which was a difficult thing for you.
[00:26:11] Oby: Of course. How could you even not die being faced with such a predicament? But the strength that came, came from my husband. My husband was just unbelievable, because my husband, from the moment that we had gotten married, he and my dad were a team. He and my dad were a team. By the time my dad was dying, I don’t know what kind of conversation they had, but my husband knew that without my dad, the day does not break well. So, I think he decided that the day would always break well because I’m going to be in the form of a dad also, and that made a phenomenal difference. The death of my father did not break me simply because my husband was—
[00:27:02] Dotun: Took his place?
[00:27:02] Oby: Took his place in a formidable way. So, he’s a man of strength. My husband is a man of immense strength. People think I’m strong; my husband is strong beyond anything you can imagine. He was the one. He believed very much in that pro-democracy fight, anti-corruption fight, and he would say to my mum: “Calm down. Nothing is ever going to happen to my wife. She is standing for what is right, and the Almighty stands with her all the way.”
[00:27:37] Dotun: A lot of people read what you are doing now with “Bring Back Our Girls,” and they just think, oh, she used to be in government, and she’s just disgruntled, that’s what she’s doing. They didn’t know that you’ve been at this; that the government—you being in government was part of a narrative of you changing things. It’s part of a protest in government as well. And what you are doing now is just a continuous narrative. So, I want to go into that place when you were away, you leaving your family and now seeing things from a global perspective. How did that change your approach to either governance or making a change in Nigeria?
[00:28:17] Oby: It reinforced my conviction that societies don’t simply change. Change is an evolutionary process and can be a revolutionary process. And that for change to happen, a few people must be determined that the status quo ante is not good enough, and that there was a need for there to be some form of disruption of the existing order, and that people needed to pay the price for it. If you wanted society to just continue in the way that you’ve seen it, then you are not going to do anything about it. But if you are strongly disenchanted with the way things are—and remember, telling you that as a child, I was worried about the squalor around me. So, that meant that in my mind, there was a consciousness that we didn’t have to accept the squalor and that we needed to do something about it.
And as I grew and realized that the instrumentality through which you could do much more about anything was the instrumentality of government, because my dad always said, “It’s because of poor governance.” And then as I grew and learned more, I understood that. Being abroad simply reinforced it, because I could see the difference between societies that function and societies that didn’t function. And then I would read about things that happened in some of those societies, and I was quite impressed at the fact that certain people had to pay the price, and simply say, we will not accept this as the way that we should be. We’ve got to change things. We’ve got to change the way that our society works.
I was always so enthralled by the story of Singapore, and how it diverged from our own story and the story of the rest of Africa. Because at the Africa Leadership Forum, Lee Kuan Yew had been a good friend of our President Olusegun Obasanjo, and so the Africa Leadership Forum often had the benefit of the wisdom of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at that time, and Lee Kuan Yew’s story showed clearly that leadership can make all the difference, because he got the same education as the education that a lot of the founding fathers of nations in Africa – modern nations in Africa – got, but it was something different. He had a very strong determination to prove to the [laughs] colonialists that they could—
[00:30:51] Dotun: Stand on their own?
[00:30:52] Oby: –create a great nation. There was this determination. There was this resolve on his part, and that resolve meant that he was prepared to pay the price for that to happen. So, I would look at modern Singapore and the strides that it was making, and then compare it with other countries that it gained independence about the same time in Africa, and I thought, there’s something that’s wrong here. All of that reinforced my sense that for as long as there were a number of us that would say no to accepting mediocrity as our basic destiny, then we could do something to change the status quo.
[00:31:34] Dotun: Talking about Lee Kuan Yew and actually the trajectory of South East Asia–not just Singapore, but Malaysia, I have a theory, and this is one of the questions I want to ask that is related to many of the people here today about tech entrepreneurship. In the 50s and 60s, the urgent question of the generation was how to beat the takeaway colonialism. So, anyone that is—the most brilliant minds applied their mind to getting the country out of colonial power. And then, in the 70s, the brilliant minds were applying their mind to getting rid of military dictatorship in Africa – which you also played a bit of part of.
And now, we don’t have colonialism, we don’t have a military dictatorship, we still have corruption which has always been with us for a long time, but I think one of the urgent questions of our time now, for our own generation, is to be able to leapfrog economically using technology. Because we now have access to technology; it’s democratized. We know that we have the same access—we can have the same access to education in terms of thinking and liquidity of thought almost similar to anyone anywhere in the world. What would you say to people here who are applying their mind to things and want to build the future, change the life of people around them? What would you think will be the best way to approach it, and from everything that you’ve seen as well?
[00:32:53] Oby: I normally answer this kind of a question through two tracks. The first track is the track where I say that your generation and the generation after you, or the younger generation – Generation Next – are not encumbered. The generation before us, the generations before us were encumbered. They were encumbered by colonialism. Our generation was encumbered by the governance. Dictatorships, military rule and all kinds of aberrant rules that existed on the continent, and then corruption – systemic corruption. And then the underperformance of Africa, it was an encumbrance also. My generation all the way to the generation that secured the independence are often people who carry one albatross or the other.
So, I say to your generation, you don’t carry the same, because there are many of the people in your generation, if you say anything about colonial rule to them, they sort of look at you like, colonial rule? Like there was a time some white people were all over here and being called masters? They can’t relate to it. It’s in the distant memories that don’t in any way link to them. So, their mind is clean of colonialism and the kind of mindset it could give a person: the subservient mindset. That feeling of being less than, that it could give a person, they don’t have it.
The dictatorship where you are supposed to simply say, “Yes, sir,” except of course, if you are a crazy Oby Ezekwesili that refused to be intimidated by the—even in those times that we once woke up, and they had sent military people to our schools, and they had Koboko-wielding military people who were supposed to make us disciplined, because school children had become totally unruly all over the country. So, they came with their Kobokos, and one of the times, I had to just walk up to the Mr.—Captain Obembe or so that was sent to my own school, and I said, “The day you use that Koboko on anybody again, you would know that some of us can use Koboko on you.” [Laughs] Except of course, if you were that inclined, what you did under military rule was simply shut your mouth.
In fact, in those days, some people would say to my mom and to my husband that, “Oh, my God. Oby Ezekwesili. Can she just leave these people alone?” And my husband would say, “Why would she leave them alone? Since you have decided not to speak, she speaks on your behalf.” So, if you are not encumbered by all of these things, and you find yourself as the generation that is now in a democratic dispensation that is the longest that we’ve ever had—this is the cycle of democracy that is 17 years, or is it going to be 18 by October, continuously. The other cycles of democracy that we knew before your own time now were an average of five years. Five years. Now you’ve got 17 years. So, we’re learning how institutions of accountability, of probity, of voice, of the right of citizens to know, all of that is for you.
It definitely changes the equation.
[00:36:36] Dotun: So, what can we do with it?
[00:36:38] Oby: You can do so much with it that I see some of you already trying to do. On that track one is your own ability to know that your context is so much more clement than the context that we had. Just that sense of appreciation of how much more enabling–even though it is still difficult, relative to our context, you have a better context. Openness is an important principle for creativity. An environment of accountability is a better context for you to have your own voice and to determine your own outcomes at a certain level. You need to appreciate this context, because if you don’t, then you will disdain every effort that went into giving you this context. And I see a lot of young people that are disdainful of the context that they’ve found themselves as though it were something that nothing went into it.
A lot went into it. Blood. You just talked about Ken Saro Wiwa. I mean, why should that man have died? His blood is part of what gave you your today. Don’t ever be disdainful of what it took to get us to a place where we actually have 18 years of democracy in our country. That’s track one. Track two is that there have been different revolutions in the world, and we’ve had the agriculture revolution. The agriculture revolution happened, Africa was not part of it. Then we got the industrial revolution, Africa was not part of it. And then recently, we find ourselves with the Information and Communication Technology revolution, and Africa for the first time is part of a particular revolution – in terms of how the world works.
[00:38:47] Dotun: We’re part of that revolution.
[00:38:48] Oby: We’re part of that revolution. See what our being part of the ICT revolution did. It coincides, analytically, with the time of Africa’s offtake into growth levels higher than the usual 3% or -1 that it used to record in GDP growth.
[00:39:18] Dotun: In the 70s and 80s?
[00:39:19] Oby: In the 70s and 80s – and even the 90s. So, as soon as Africa became a part of this ICT revolution, a lot changed for—
[00:39:31] Dotun: You think the ICT revolution is one of the reasons why we have the Africa rising in a double digitive–?
[00:39:35] Oby: It is correlated.
[00:39:37] Dotun: Not just the demographics and the young Africans coming, and then more access to wealth and disposable income?
[00:39:43] Oby: It’s also the integration and the productivity that it has given to the demographics that you have to look at. At the World Bank, I was very intrigued by what ICT could do for the continent. So, I did assemble my team to do a special study on The Transformative Capabilities of Information and Communication Technology for The African Economy. So, you’ve got this correlation of a take-off of economies, because it creates the basis for structural change. And you know that structural transformation is more important to you than just mere growth. Structural transformation is about productivity. You go from low productivity activities to higher-end productivity activities. There are certain kinds of services that are low productivity services on the continent.
It’s still the higher component of GDPs, but as you have introduced more of ICT and access to solutions that are technology-based, we have seen the productivity of services in Africa beginning to rise, trend up. Now, that’s important because what it means is if ICT has managed to generate this level of impact on the continent economically, and we have also seen gradually democratically, as in, the political systems are learning what ICT could be, what is sure tells us is that the integration of ICT to important sectors in ways that will make ICT not marginal to those sectors but—
[00:41:38] Dotun: But integral?
[00:41:38] Oby: –integral to them would boost Africa’s productivity exponentially.
[00:41:42] Dotun: Let’s go to examples of that. Examples of where you can use, in your words, ICT to innovate sectors. I know there’s been a lot of talk about agriculture, but let’s deep dive into some of those examples that you think—
[00:41:54] Oby: I would say that there’s absolutely no sector that ICT cannot change efficiencies because it’s your gain in efficiencies that’s your definition of higher productivity. So, if you looked at the energy systems, there’s a lot that ICT can do differently for community energy solutions. ICT, it can create a new set of solution. Whether you are talking in terms of the generation of power, or you are talking about its transmission and its distribution, ICT integral to it can change the access and availability, as well as the management of power at the community level. Whether you’re talking about the health systems, ICT can absolutely change the way that the health is managed. And you know that for productivity or for a population, you need the health systems to function.
You need the health systems to function in the way that you can prevent more than you need to cure. And that the cost of health can be radically reduced because you have integrated the ICT solutions into the way that health of people, of children, of women, of men, whether they are the infectious diseases, or they are the contagious diseases, or they are the non-communicable diseases, whatever it is, there are solutions that ICT can give. Or you talk about education. The delivery of education today is disrupted. We’re just not accepting it.
When I was Minister of Education, by just the grace of God and the sheer insight that I had – because I’m curious by nature – I was already seeing that if Singapore was attracting this level of interest from corporations like Intel and Cisco and the rest of them, then we needed to position ourselves for this. So, I went after them. I went after Cisco, I went after Microsoft, I went after Intel, all of the CEOs became people that I knew because I was persistent that we were going to disrupt our own education, and position our population in the kind of the way that we would be at the cusp of any new thing that was going to happen in the world of technology. Cisco and Intel and the rest of them were actually going to set up academies in this country, as part of our education reform.
Now, what all of these point to about these eras in the revolution of the way that the world has functioned and grown, economically, says to us is that, your generation can completely ignore the obstacles that even countries like India and China had to contend with for their own economic—rapid economic problems.
[00:45:12] Dotun: So, we can leapfrog better than–?
[00:45:14] Oby: Phenomenally do that. Because, think of it, beyond ICT today, we are not talking deeper one, we are talking deeper things of the robotics, and the Internet of Things, and the Blockchain technologies, and we’re talking about Simulation Science, and we’re talking about Big data, we’re talking about Artificial Intelligence, I mean, just think of the world. The complete [seed?] change that this world that we’re getting into brings. So, here you are with absolute freedom from the things that hobbled my own generation. Here you are looking on yourself with certain level of education as capable, much like any other young person anywhere in the world.
And here you are with the entire world wondering what would happen in this second machine age that we’re entering into, in this 4th industrial revolution that we all need to adapt ourselves to. You know what? The winners are not yet determined. It could be the young people of Africa that would form the cluster of the winners of this new thing, because everyone is almost starting at the same time. So, what needs to happen is for your generation to just embrace this: what I call a certain level of fearlessness. There is a fearlessness that you must have that would make you question everything that is around you, because you believe that you can do incredible things. That fearlessness must be part of you. I find you people too fearful.
You’re fearful of somebody not liking you; you want to be liked. You like that thing where somebody presses like. You sometimes amaze me at your sense of – what do you call it – the things that are on the surface. There’s some shallowness, and yet, you can be deep, because your generation can be deep. But then, I see some—I’m looking for the right lexicon to describe what I’m trying to say, but it is that part of you that is so—there’s some vanity. You can’t do great things and be a person of vanity. Who cares what brand of handbag you are carrying? I care what’s inside the handbag, not the brand of the handbag. This generation of Africans can actually say, Africa can claim the 21st century. This is about solving the problems of the world.
The world, right now, does not care what the color of the person who is solving the problem that is killing everybody is. Just tell us you can solve the problem. Leadership is up for grab. Global leadership is up for grab, and our children – and the continent – having being given some level of education must take full responsibility for this new thing that we are getting into, because on your back, you must carry the rest that are currently excluded from the kind of opportunities you’ve gotten. If any of you, he has been able to get as much as a university education, you should quit thinking about yourself. This is not the time to think about yourself; this is time to think of yourself as someone who must be the leader of thousands, the leader of hundreds, the leader of millions.
Because you are saying, if I can disrupt something positively, I will take with me so many more people. Imagine. I was so sad yesterday. I had talked about Nehemiah and the Nehemiah leadership qualities, and I had said to those who follow me, “Read the book of Nehemiah, and see how this man carried a burden.” And because he carried a burden, he went forward to solve a problem. And then, one of the fellows—one of my followers came and said, “Oh, well, I’ve read it. I am now waiting for an opportunity too.” So, I tweeted back at him, and I said, “You are waiting with the myriad of problems all around us? You are waiting for what opportunity?” Leadership is not a title; it’s not a position. Leadership is about solving problems.
There are so many problems that you all can solve simply because of the power that your own context in which you are developing has given you. The power of knowledge that you have. Knowledge is at its cheapest than it has ever been since the history of humanity. The kind of access to knowledge that you have should make you problem solvers of as many things as possible. Don’t live this life where you are thinking about what have you done for me lately. I don’t need to do anything for you. The fact that your parents have been able to sacrifice and give you a certain level of education, go ahead and do something. Do something phenomenal for as many people—for communities.
Solve problems that are around you. Rise in your strength, and know that you can. There’s nothing holding you back. Absolutely nothing is holding you back.
[00:52:32] Dotun: Let’s talk about this. There are two tracks to what you just talked about now, and one of them is the macro level, because we cannot exclude the fact that there are some things that need to be in line and in place for some of these entrepreneurs or young people that are trying to solve problem, like infrastructure, like governance, availability of resources. I think it may be good for you to speak into that macro level as well, because a lot of people here are building companies that want to—or listening to this podcast are building companies that are actually solving problems, but they are handicapped sometimes with the infrastructure.
[00:53:09] Oby: I hate that word: handicapped. I hate the word handicapped. Nothing should ever handicap you. No matter what constraints you identify as standing in your way, you must know in your mind, you must have a mindset that says, I will do what is necessary to overcome the constraints. Because a constraint is put there to test your determination to succeed. At the macro level, what do we see as constraints? The policy environment, the physical environments like pretty cool infrastructure necessary for doing the things that you do at lower cost, or even the terms of human development that can—
[00:54:00] Dotun: Yeah, talent.
[00:54:00] Oby: –be a constraint in finding the kind of knowledge that you need in order to do what you need to do. But I dare you to find out whether some of the people you envy in other countries that have gone ahead of us had perfect context in which they dared to do some of the things they did. This idea that somebody must create a perfect environment then I will become an entrepreneur, that’s an oxymoron. An entrepreneur is not someone who had a fancy environment, and then did good business. That’s not entrepreneurship. That sense of ability to overcome obstacles and make something that is a solution to the need of society, that’s what makes you an entrepreneur.
If the macro is to be dealt with, if solutions have to be found to the macro-context, then you need to say to yourself, should we ignore our responsibility for shaping also that macro environment? Today’s world that you are all living in is no longer the world where business people minded their business. Business people now know that the political and policy context can affect their business. So, it means that you have to be policy entrepreneurs also. Policy entrepreneurship becomes a part of what you do.
[00:55:34] Dotun: What do you mean by policy entrepreneurship?
[00:55:35] Oby: Policy entrepreneurship is that you are going to use your knowledge of the sector that you are operating in as a basis to engage the other side, which is government, on why it needs to play certain roles. And you need to give them an incentive for playing that role. For example, the government of Nigeria must create between 3-4 million jobs annually, because that’s about the size of young people that enter the labor market annually. Today, only 10% of them are going to be absorbed into any gainful employment because the private sector – the economy – is not expanding as rapidly as this number is growing.
Now, this kind of a level of gulf between the number of jobs needed and what’s available means that everyone of you who’s got some idea that would enable us generate five jobs, you’ve got a strong reason to be heard. In an environment where you understand how powerful you become because you have the capacity to create five jobs, all of you that have capacity to create five jobs will come together, count your five—if we said five jobs for everyone of you in this room now, that your idea is going to create, at least, five jobs, there are probably about 20 of us in this room—or 25, and then 25 x 5 would give us what? Will give us—pardon? 125 jobs. 125 jobs. Somebody might say, what is that? But think of it.
It’s just 25 of us creating that. Imagine if we succeeded in being able to use that as a basis to say, okay, the city of Abuja, for us to create 125 jobs, these are the kinds of policies that would be necessary. And we didn’t individually just go to our rooms and complain, but we actually became a coalition of voices for the necessary policy changes that would enable us create the 125 jobs. Do you see it’s a different kind of engagement? It’s a different kind of engagement. That’s the world that you are in. This is the kind of engagement that I see in other economies that I do—
[00:58:04] Dotun: You mean engagement between the entrepreneurs and the government?
[00:58:07] Oby: Especially the younger generation of entrepreneurs. They are not sitting idly and—
[00:58:13] Dotun: Which economies are you talking about? Is it the Asian Tigers economy?
[00:58:15] Oby: In Asia, you see quite a lot of that. My famous country is, of course, Singapore, but even in places like Vietnam, you see that. You see the young understanding the convergence between private sector productivity and sound policy. They are understanding it, they are building the voice of business as an important part of the collaborative partnership process with government. It’s either you people get lost in your world, or you engage in a way that is not productive. So, you sometimes say you see people not engaging analytically in the conversation on policy. Engage in it in a way that’s analytical, that gives the other person the reason why they must listen, because you are solving a problem that should be important for them.
[00:59:13] Dotun: In a way, you’re actually preaching to us here about your life, in the sense that you are saying entrepreneurship can be a form of actively engaging in governance. Dr. Joe Abah, who recently retired from government said—he tweeted something recently, which I find very, very interesting. He said, “You can be dispassionate about politics, but you cannot afford to be dispassionate about governance.” You are saying that entrepreneurship can be a way of us changing and shaping governance as well?
[00:59:40] Oby: No, I know it clearly that not everyone is called to politics, but every citizen is called to governance. If you are in an environment of poor governance, there’s only an extent to which you can go. Businesses in Nigeria that could be continentally competitive are not continentally competitive simply because of poor governance in sectors that they operate in. For them, the issue shouldn’t be is it PDP or APC, it should simply be I need good governance, because with good governance, my business would be competitive. We would be more productive. That should be the kind of self-enlightened interest that should drive your engagement on issues. Forget—let the politicians do their politics, but the real issue for you is governance.
Of course, people would say that it is through politics that you then shape governance, that’s true, but guess what, if you focused on governance and demanded the right kind of governance, it will begin to influence the quality of your politics. But if you’re spending so much of your time on the politics, you’re killing yourself, dumbing down on your own prospects and possibilities, and that’s just not good enough. The other thing that I wanted to say on this particular issue is that Africa must through your own generation refuse to agree with the rest of the world that simply because it’s in Africa, average can be considered excellent. Average is not excellent; average is average.
Don’t allow the world to clap for you because you are an African, because you manage to speak some good English. No, it’s not sufficient. If they would not clap for themselves for speaking good English, you must not accept and feel like you are a champion because some Oyinbo told you, you spoke good English. No. No. Average is not excellent. Your generation, sometimes, you celebrate too quickly. You celebrate too quickly. Someone does something and then people talk about it, and they think they’ve arrived. Come on. You haven’t. What’s ahead of you is phenomenal. You got to keep moving. Don’t even accept where you are as okay. What you’ve done, that’s good, but that which is best is ahead. Don’t settle.
I see young people, they quickly settle, and then they just throw their hands around like I was on CNN. Oh, yeah, CNN is your index of great performance? Please. No, there’s much more that you carry. I don’t want this mediocrity that has defined the way that my generation and the generation before us assess everything to be your lot. You must have what I call a persistent sense of creative dissatisfaction. It has to be your mindset. Your mindset must carry that persistently. Creative dissatisfaction. Today is not good enough; it has to be—not even better, because there’s a place called better that consigns you to mediocrity also but best. You can walk toward it. Your generation must not like the way Africa is.
[01:03:28] Dotun: I’ve got one final question for you before we go to the fire round, and that is you are involved in a way or affiliated to the tech ecosystem in Nigeria. You are the champion of many of the startups, you actually clap and encourage and—whether openly and even privately as well. What is your take about the growth of the tech startups in Nigeria in the past three or four years?
[01:03:56] Oby: I think it’s been wonderful, but I am creatively dissatisfied, because I believe that the capacity you all have to lead this continent, I mean, you have so much in you. Why are you scared of failing? Why are you scared of anybody laughing at you that you didn’t succeed? Don’t be scared. Don’t be afraid. Just go, go, go. Honestly, the talents that we need to even disrupt that which has disrupted is inside of all of you. I don’t know why you are thinking that you need to be validated by some externals.
[01:04:39] Dotun: Do you see that a lot?
[01:04:40] Oby: I see a lot of that. Someone’s like if somebody from abroad says what I’ve done is good, that’s when it’s good. But it doesn’t have to be like that. There are some of your solutions that the rest of the world will not use, but it would be of value to the people in Makurdi right now, would be of value to the people in Niger, would be of value to the traders in Balogun Market. It would be of great value to people in rural communities; go ahead and do it. Can you just understand that there’s so much you are carrying? I don’t know. I feel like—there are days when I feel like screaming from the mountaintop, “All you young people! Do you know what you are carrying?” You are carrying so much.
I look at the tech community in Nigeria, and I see the strides that you are making, but now I see comparing each other with one another – kind of – syndrome. When you do that, it’s almost like rats in a race. They are rats; they can’t be lions. Because for rats to be in a race, they all have to be rats.
[01:05:51] Dotun: You mean we can potentially reduce our capacity to do big things by some of those—
[01:05:57] Oby: You can do both big things and you can do many—
[01:06:01] Dotun: Many things.
[01:06:02] Oby: –initially small things that then grow to scale. I think that there is this complacency and sense of achievement that comes with having been recognized to have done something.
[01:06:14] Dotun: Presumptive El Dorado.
[01:06:15] Oby: It’s so limiting. It’s very limiting. I mean, think of it this way: what is tech? I think tech is solution. That’s my simple definition of it. Now, if you did a diagnostic into the number of problems that we need to solve, then it means that as many of you as possible can define tech solutions. There is practically no problem that we have, practically no problem that we have, that you all cannot sort of say, how do we get together and design a solution to it? And you become so prolific. Many of it will, of course, not come to maturity, but the prolific way that you are finding those solutions mean that the number that would survive would be higher than what we have now, and the impact that they would have would be really great.
Your time is not the time when problems are solved in traditional mode, so there is a fair sense of urgency that is still lacking, even in your generation. How about if even your community—and I don’t know how well of a community you are because I see something that is prevalent in my generation and the generation before us that I also see in your generation, and it upsets me to no end.
[01:07:35] Dotun: What is that?
[01:07:36] Oby: Peer envy.
[01:07:37] Dotun: Isn’t that human?
[01:07:38] Oby: Peer envy.
[01:07:39] Dotun: Isn’t that human—more inherently human than generational?
[01:07:42] Oby: Well, there’s a certain level of it that becomes unhealthy for the growth and development of any society. Because what it would do is that it would stand in the way of the kind of social capital that you need in order to collaborate for you to get collaboration. You’ve got to throw away this whole peer envy thing, and learn how to—the world that we are in, it’s not the—it’s okay to start small, but small is no longer beautiful. So, what it means is that you must have a mindset of collaboration. When you guys have that mindset of collaboration, imagine if you had a system for getting together and saying that every year, we want it to be that there are, at least, 20 big ideas that come out of Nigeria.
You set certain kind of big ideas targets. There’s nothing that says to me that you can’t accomplish it. There are many of you that have been in school environment with some of these ones that get to do really big things. Like they said to my generation, “Dem get two head? Dem get two heads?” I should ask you. Those your classmates that have gone on to do really big things. Think of it. I think you can do more. I always say to my children and then the people that I mentor that I see myself in the form of a coach. A coach does not tell you all the sweet things you want to hear. If I came here, and I want you to clap for me, I would say, oh, you guys have done such fantastic things.
After you, na sugar cane or something. [Laughter] But in doing that, I kill where you are going, because you will settle. You will regale in that adulation, and yet, there is so much more that’s in you that needs to be unleashed. So, I throw it as a challenge to the tech community, particularly Nigeria, that you are drivers of a new Nigeria. Economically, socially, politically, in governance, you can just disrupt everything that is disruptable. Why accept the status quo? Why? What I know, I already know; I want to know what I don’t already know. That should be your passion. You should just kick everything that needs to be kicked and just get the best going. Get the best going.
[01:10:22] Dotun: I’m going to end with these two series of fire-round question. Normally, I will ask if you are a business person about your growth metrics, but I’m going to skip that. I’m just going to ask you because I know you are a book person. Which book are you reading at the moment?
[01:10:35] Oby: [Laughs] I just stood the other day, and I was looking at some of the books on our shelf, and I was ruminating about the kind of role that different books played in my life at different times, and then I started feeling bad because I said, “Neither Chine, nor Chuba, nor Chidera is interested in any of these hard prints.” [Laughs] These books are just going to [laughs] just be here like this, until maybe somebody who cares to read hard print [laughs] gets them. But I found that I didn’t want to read any of the books that I had bought recently that I hadn’t started reading. I wanted to go back again and read. Lee Kuan Yew’s Third to First World.
I just sort of said I’m going to do a reread of this, especially in the light of the fact that he has died, and I’m looking out for Singapore and saying, are the telltale signs of the fact that this man died with the vision of a great society. There have been one or two things that have happened amongst his children. They’ve quarreled openly and all of that – disagreed in a very unhealthy way, made global scandal and all of that. The Prime Minister and his siblings quarreling with him. But I see that what has happened is that in his death, many more Singaporeans are wanting to understand what it was about that man that enabled them to come from so low to the life that he gave to them.
So, reading From Third to First World is getting me to seeing how truly one individual can create a nation of people who are determined to produce the best society economically—
[01:12:54] Dotun: One person.
[01:12:55] Oby: Just one person. For me, any of you sitting here saying I’m one person, I dare you to go and read the book that I am going back again to read.
[01:13:08] Dotun: Lee Kuan Yew’s—
[01:13:09] Oby: Lee Kuan Yew’s From Third to First World. It remains so relevant for us as Africans, because Lee Kuan Yew always wondered why African countries were not able to overcome.
[01:13:27] Dotun: With abundance of opportunities.
[01:13:29] Oby: With abundance of possibilities that our respective countries have that Singapore did not have or does not have at all. It always surprised him. He always talked about his disappointment in African leadership. So, taking my copy of From Third to First World to read again is making me see some nuances that I missed the first time that I read it. That’s the book I’m currently reading.
[01:14:03] Dotun: That’s interesting but—
[01:14:04] Oby: Because we must—we must get out of this rut. We just have to.
[01:14:08] Dotun: Which startup is getting you excited at the moment?
[01:14:12] Oby: [Laughs] Am I permitted to be—am I permitted to be [laughter]—
[01:14:18] Dotun: I know I’m putting you—
[01:14:18] Oby: –to be a mom? [Laughter]
[01:14:19] Dotun: I know I’m putting you on the spot. So, yeah.
[01:14:22] Oby: Am I permitted to be a mom? [Laughter]
[01:14:26] Dotun: I know. You have a favorite football club, and even though a lot of people here have different ones, so, I know you can [laughter]—okay, you can pick three or four. Or sector. Okay, let’s go for sector.
[01:14:39] Oby: Yes. I love some of the things that I’m seeing in the education sector. I love quite a lot of things that I am seeing in the education sector. Learning outcomes are so important. Learning outcomes are so—
[01:14:59] Dotun: Technology startup doing that?
[01:15:01] Oby: Yes. Learning outcomes in a school system—in the university system, it’s the learning outcomes that you really are targeting. If you did everything, beautified the school, did all kinds of things, new instructional materials, new curriculum, all kinds of things, but learning outcomes are poor, then you have not in any way disrupted education. And what is that one factor that has the most impact on learning outcomes, it’s the quality of the teacher. I saw recently, some program where—I think it’s a startup. They find quality teachers that they provide to families for teaching children – individualized teaching—
[01:15:51] Dotun: I can mention one of them. They used to be part of cohort here: Protégé.
[01:15:55] Oby: It’s probably the one that I saw. I am so fascinated by it, because what it means is that there are many of you who would have downtimes that you can use, you want to do some—you want your halo effect. Not just making money, but you want a halo effect. So, you sign on to that kind of a startup, and you can go teach a group of children the sciences. For example, if they decided that their main thing is STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics – and they were focused on making sure that we would have many more children loving the sciences and mathematics, do you know what that would mean? That some of you, they are just—they are not many. Most of the teachers left in the classrooms have not upgraded their skills.
They may not even have the kind of access to cutting-edge knowledge in the sciences that you have managed to have, because of the level of access and exposure that you’ve gotten. But because you are deployed to other things, you are not going to be in the classroom, but that kind of a startup gets like two hours of your time every two days or three days, and you’re ready to devote it to teaching and raising the quality of learning outcomes in the sciences. I’m excited about it, because then we know we are going to have many more girls that would love the sciences and mathematics, because it can decide that it would do a special program that will target girls for STEM. That excites me to no end. Teacher quality, teacher availability, any startup that focuses on addressing that would get me so excited.
Then, in health, I see a number of startups that are interesting. I see those startups that empower, especially women, to have the data—to be able to gather data on the features of their own health. That’s an exciting one, because there’s nothing like being able to be a master of your health or a mistress of your health – as the appropriate word would go. That they were not paying—things that they were not paying attention to before, they are recording. They are recording, so you can prevent a lot of the things that come on women at the time that they least expected it. Those kinds of data generating, your life in your hand with the help of God kind of startups in the area of health, especially that goes to health of women and health of children, they are interesting for me.
[01:18:45] Dotun: There’s huge opportunity in data by the way in Africa especially.
[01:18:48] Oby: Oh, huge. Huge. And then I also like the startups that provide financial literacy. Financial literacy startups are very important, because think of it, my team at the bank once did a study that showed that by giving women equivalent financial knowledge as their male counterparts, you improved their productivity by as much as 60%, and then they would outperform men in similar businesses. Very, very interesting piece of data. So, financial literacy thing can enhance productivity. It can enhance the quality of decisions that business people are making, so that they can grow from small—they can grow from micro to small, and then they can go from small to medium. Financial literacy is so important. It’s so important; it’s empowering.
So, startups that do that are huge in my mind. Those things matter for really raising the productivity of society in general, because the more productive our women are, the better for our society. Because the kind of workforce that is dormant because of all kinds of constraints that limit women, we can remove those barriers through solutions that empower the women. We would unleash more productivity into our existing low productivity, and it will be good for all of us. I love startups that are also trying to make certain functions of government irrelevant.
[01:20:37] Dotun: For example?
[01:20:38] Oby: I put it this way. We did a study when I was at the bank. It looked at this whole doing business indicators, and found that the barriers that government faced to tackle the most were often the ones that mattered to big business. And so, they forgot the small businesses, because countries want to attract big investment from abroad, but big investment from abroad has a certain level of jobs that it can create for you. If you remove the barriers for the small businesses, then many more people would be able to do business and be productive. They are the ones that will create the five jobs that we talked about. 75% of jobs created in the Singaporean economy are by small businesses.
So, if I saw a startup that just takes over, managing all of those things that would have consumed the small business owner because they are trying to break their head through bureaucracy.
[01:21:48] Dotun: Yeah.
[01:21:49] Oby: [Laughs] I love those startups.
[01:21:50] Dotun: And they create efficiency where none exists.
[01:21:52] Oby: They create efficiency. The small business person can simply face the business of doing business, while someone else is addressing those things that make government irrelevant in the life of that small business owner. And then final thing is that we must have those tools that enable even the illiterate amongst us have a sense of connection and voice to how they are governed, and that’s why I’m a great champion for the work that Seun and his crew do–
[01:22:27] Dotun: Seun Onigbinde?
[01:22:29] Oby: Seun Onigbinde and his crew do with budget, and well as CODE – the work they do in tracking spends and all of that, because government still remains the most potent and important instrumentality through which you can achieve scale of impact in certain interventions. And if we don’t get government systems to work, it’s going to be a tough one. It will be a tough one. So, accountability startups get my high five.
[01:23:01] Dotun: Naturally?
[01:23:02] Oby: Any day. I love the fearlessness with which they go after the issues that they are focused on.
[01:23:10] Dotun: I have a sense that you would have been doing that startup if you are in our generation instead of doing Transparency International. If it was now that you are in your 20s, you would have been building a startup like that.
[01:23:22] Oby: I probably would have built 20 of such. [Laughter] I probably would have, because I am so impatient for us to get a better society. I think that we should stop being okay the way we feel, because look, I’m a Pastor’s wife, and maybe that’s part of why it is like that for me. Because I remember when I was in government. My colleague, the Minster of Agriculture, in those days would come and in cabinet meetings, he will try to sort of present a picture of the great impact we were having in Agriculture, and I would fight him and say, “No, please, don’t say this.” I went to the market because even as a minister, I used to go do the shopping at the market for my family, and I would see that yes, we were trying the right policies, but it was not immediately affecting the micro – meaning the food prices for the poor that I saw where I was buying my yam, or buying my tomato, or my onion.
So, connecting policy to result and to outcome was always a source of great—
[01:24:49] Dotun: Frustration?
[01:24:50] Oby: –frustration for me. So, I never wanted us to celebrate just the policy, I wanted us to be interested in the outcomes. Of course, my boss in those days would laugh. My colleague minister would say something like, oh, you’ve got to protect me from my colleague, Oby Ezekwesili. And my boss would say, “I should protect you from Oby Ezekwesili? You are a man; you are asking me to protect you.” [Laughter] My boss was a very interesting boss. He said, “You are not ashamed?” [Laughs] “Oby, go ahead. Speak. Afterall, I know that you and your husband are church rats because [laughs] your pastors, and we know how you go and haggle at the market.” [Laughter]
Why is he saying this? He’s saying this because truly, my feedback was necessary for us to be able to know that you can be cocooned while you are doing governance, and not understand what the situation looks like. Well, it was then; it still is now. Because as a Pastor’s wife, I still have members of congregation whose lot did not see improvement yet. So, for them, you and I cannot afford to be complacent. We can’t afford to say everything is okay. How can we have people who live in the capital city—you need to go just 15 minutes away from some of the most fabulous houses in the city, and you will meet squalor. We shouldn’t be okay. We shouldn’t be fine. We should be so impatient to change this situation. We should be angry that—I am definitely very angry.
At the time I was Minister of Education, I was driven by data. I showed a lot of the data to the country, and the number of children out of school – that should be in school at that time – was yet about 7-8 million, and I said education was in crisis. 10 years after, we are now at 12-13 million or thereabout. Why? We should be impatient. Because I’m also an optimist, I guess impatient optimist will describe the sense that I believe that all of us should have – or the people that I believe we should all become. We shouldn’t be comfortable with where we are, because there are too many excluded from the benefits of any progress that we made at all, and that’s not good for a society.
We cannot afford exclusion; we must be an inclusive society. We must be a society that understands that equality of opportunity is what we need in order to enable many more to have the kind of benefit that I have had, that you have had, because we got the best education that has given us the level of knowledge.
[01:28:13] Dotun: That’s a wonderful place to stop. It’s being a pleasure talking to you. I think it’s even more than I imagine it; you are such a brilliant voice for our generation and for more generations to come. So, everyone, give it up for Dr. Oby. [Applause]
[01:28:53] Dotun: Hey, everyone. Thanks so much for listening to this episode. I hope you enjoyed the show. Before you go, I have a favor to ask you, and it will take 30 seconds of your time or less. It will mean a lot to me. If you like this podcast, you can easily let me know by going into iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, or wherever you download the podcast and subscribe. You can also go to our website: thestarta.com, and sign up for our newsletter. It will be a huge favor to me, and it’s really simple and easy. If you subscribe now, it will help us a lot. Thanks.
[01:29:35] [Music Outro]
[01:31:08] [End of Podcast]