Ms. Freda Ruth Murray-Bruce is the Director General of the Bayelsa State Investment Promotion Agency (BIPA), with the responsibility of attracting investors to the state. In this chat with UCHENNA NWAFOR, she explains the focus of the state government to include ensuring the development of critical infrastructure as a prerequisite to sustainable development and adequate incentives to attract investors. Excerpt:
What is the mandate of Bayelsa Investment Promotion Agency (BIPA)?
BIPA simply means Bayelsa Investment Promotion Agency. The agency is very important to the government. It was created by Governor Seriake Dickson, who appointed me as the Director-General. Bayelsa is an investment haven, and it is investment friendly, contrary to how it is portrayed to the outside world. The Governor has commenced a process of rapid human, infrastructural and environmental transformation, and we are determined to showcase our enormous potential. BIPA was created to facilitate and encourage investments into the state. The agency can be summarised into three parts. Our first focus is to promote the state to the outside world.
Bayelsa is the glory of all lands because of the enormous oil deposit it has. We are mandated to ensure that the state is seen by everybody as investors’ haven and a place to be. That is one of the critical functions of the agency. Another reason is to showcase to potential investors that there is an agency of government that is prepared to facilitate investment proposals. In the past, people had plans to do business, but they complained of bottlenecks. Government wants to remove that hurdle. We address investors’ enquiries; any information they need about Bayelsa.
An investor from South Africa, the High Commissioner for Trade and Investment, Mr. Massa, and I were on tour, trying to showcase the state. We helped them with logistics and the moment we acquaint with them, our job begins. We made sure that all paper works that needed to be signed are signed. We guide them in area of community relations and if they have any challenge, we address it. BIPA makes sure that any investor to Bayelsa State comes out successful. We work with them to get the company registered because we have strong relationship with Nigeria Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC), Abuja.
Is this not a duplication of function, considering what Ministry of Trade and Commerce Ministry does?
Government considered specialised agencies like BIPA for effectiveness and speed. Our job cuts across every sector, and we work hand in globe with all ministries and parastatals of government. Every investor wants to ensure there is enabling environment because it is essential for their investment, and BIPA provides the platform. At the first Nigerian Diaspora Forum in London, I made it very clear that they do not need to see the governor,
that there are processes and agencies that can handle their proposals to a point where they will achieve their project. At the same time, the governor created Bayelsa Development Investment Corporation (BDIC) to work in conjunction with BIPA. BDIC is the holding company for Bayelsa assets. If anybody is looking for a vehicle for investment purpose, BDIC is there. So, when they say we don’t want to work with government, we need a private entity, BDIC stands. Another critical thing that has been put in place is transparency.
The intention of the governor is basically to attract investment. It should not be a surprise that we have different investment bodies; the BDIC, which is an investment corporation and BIPA which is an agency. When we find willing investors, we take them to the BDIC for the paper documentation. This is because BDIC, though a government agency is private sector based. This is what we did with Infrastructure Bank when they expressed interest to invest in Bayelsa. We work together to make sure Bayelsa is covered. Whether we are 10 or 20 investment agencies in the state, the focus is to change Bayelsa State. I can assure you that we are not duplicating, but doing everything to bring in the needed investments.
What is the investment package of Bayelsa like? And how well has BIPA been meeting with its assignment?
Government is aware of the urgent need of power supply. In order to ensure that businesses that have high demand for power are adequately serviced, we are ensuring that power project will take the centre stage. It is very critical. We can undertake a kind of guarantee to ensure constant gas supply. Every day, we grow. Government will endeavour to guarantee energy supply based on the industries and the heavy duty machines they are bringing. We are also trying to work towards holistic incentive policies for each sector. So, in every sector, we will know clearly the incentives available. For now, we are working on case by case basis.
Every staff here is a desk officer to investors. We have departments for Education, Real Estate, and Oil and Gas. Everything is professionally done with accurate data and authenticity of prospective investor. We also write to all embassies because all the investors belong to one country or another. The best place to get genuine data on those who are ready to invest in Bayelsa State is to go to the trade office of the embassy.
We have received feedbacks from the Trade Councillor of the Spanish Embassy whom we have sent a mail to because they wrote us via e-mail intimating us of Spanish people who are ready to invest, and that we should give them information. We were also contacted by the British High Commission, and a meeting was arranged with Peter Carter, the Deputy High Commissioner; we met with him about two weeks ago and it was a huge success. They are not only willing but are sending their trade specialist to check and target all British company interested in doing business with us. All these are to make Bayelsa a great state.
What volume of foreign investment are you expecting in Bayelsa in the next few years?
We cannot tell at this time how much an investor is ready to put into the state. But I know it is a business decision that would be made after we have convinced them based on what is on ground. What Bayelsa owes the citizenry is to sell the state well and introduce an enabling environment with correct incentives. And once we have done that and showcase why we are better than others, the investors will come into the state. I can confidently say that the economic team of the governor are hardworking, focused,
passionate and determined on development. As a result, we actively canvass for investors all over the world. For example, just recently, the Commissioner for Trade, Investment and Industry, Hon. Ayakeme Masa and I were on the road with an investor from South Africa, who is willing to invest. But can I quantify it in terms of money, No. In the next two years, Bayelsa would have more investments than you can imagine. We only need to look inwards and understand that an investor wants,
aside from security, requisite infrastructure. So, the governor is making sure that we have the capacity and the infrastructure on ground. We are talking about the road to Agge and Oporoma. And we are trying to concession the Nembe-Brass Road, and reach the hinterland because we have lots of natural resources in those coastal councils, but they are inaccessible. Even the investors who are interested cannot access it. Our job, firstly, is to have infrastructures.
The other states of the South-South have more infrastructures because they are older. But we are running fast to catch up, and when these investors see that we have established the needed infrastructure, they will say YES, we are ready. In two years, Bayelsa will not be same again. When investors come in, they will say this is a city that is alive. And once a city is alive, there will be growth.
How would you convince market women and youths in Bayelsa that the investment drive will be to their benefit?
That is one of the easiest things to do. We will tell them that with the arrival of investors and investments, there will be up to ten industries in the state. That automatically equate to more people coming in from both within and outside. And those industries will bring more people that are interested in those products. For the market woman, more people will mean more patronage for her goods. Then, from the area of governance, if you have much people here in the state, it means more payment of taxes.
We can see that the governor have started using the improved funds to change the face of development. Markets will be rebuilt, and the market woman will have more customers accessing her goods. And the people will have access to her, and she would make more money. It is a runoff effect. I am confident that we can convince every one of the multiple benefits; from the graduate looking for job and the government which is determined to put in much specialization through partnership. Instead of roaming the streets, this partnership will create employment and change the lives of the people of the state. You might not see it now, but as far as I know, an investment for me could be someone bringing in a nice entertainment package. It is something that will meet everyone’s needs.
What difference do you think your investment drive would make from the past effort, when we had port folio investors swooping on the state?
This time, it would be different. And I appreciate the fact that when people are disappointed in life, they close up. It is normal. But also in life, you always have to give room for hope. I am not sure you have seen any other government like the Seriake Dickson-led government. But I know that the crop of people the Bayelsa Governor has put together is not the same as those of the past administrations. First of all, we are high technocrats, and we are determined to make a difference.
Let me tell you a personal story. Someone asked me why I left Abuja for the state, and how I would cope. I told her that what I see in Bayelsa is the same as I have seen in Abuja and the London we all go to. So when I entered Yenagoa, the image could not go away. Every day, I work to make that image a reality. That is why I am here. And that is why anyone out to make a difference is here too. I can only appeal to people to give us a chance. Our work is thankless, but we work hard because Bayelsa belongs to all of us. I am from Akassa, and I want Bayelsa to change. If Bayelsa has to change, it has to take contributions from each indigene. Allow us do our work and showcase the state to the world.
How many of the local investors and SMEs are you bringing into the investment drive of the state?
This is one of the recommendations the BIPA made to the state governor. We suggested that on every investment visits we make, one or two local investors should accompany us. We are working with the Yenagoa Chamber of Commerce. We try and know these people and build them up. We want to build them up to a level where an international investor is willing to invest in them. We can enhance their SME capacity and use joint ventures with high network individuals while enhancing local capacity. These will expose them and make them gradually become active.
What are the incentives on tax?
Yes, based on the level of investment, certain investors would be given rebate. We are starting afresh. We are doing our best to put in certain incentives and policies to encourage investment. In the interim and where there is the need for rebate, it would be given. But it is not for everybody. If we don’t start collecting revenues from businesses and civil servants, it won’t be balanced. I think it should be both ways. Everybody who comes into Bayelsa, pays tax where they come from. It is not abnormal to tell them that they have to pay tax.
What is the future plan for investors in Bayelsa?
One of the great things we have as a result of our data base and trips is the list of people ready to come to Bayelsa. While we can capture some by general conversation, others, we need to invite and see in a forum. When we were in Geneva, we met the Saudi Arabia Development Fund Group, and the gentleman who represented them said the moment Bayelsa is ready do an investment forum in the state, they can come up with as many business groups as possible, and are ready to come to Nigeria and do business.
At the same time, a Swiss National has promised to visit this September with different representatives of companies to Bayelsa for an investor tour. So, our next step is the hosting of the Bayelsa investment forum here in the state. It is a critical step for the state because this would be the first of its kind due to the network of business interest and connections we are building. The people from all countries are so interested and thank God for the data base. We now have a long list of names to attend to.
We have created a data base in-house of investors. We have sectoral booklets on our strongest areas which include agriculture, aquaculture, rice, healthcare, manufacturing, energy, education, infrastructure, aviation and ICT. The governor is very interested in aviation, and we are focusing on ourselves as a tourism hall. We have natural mangrove, creeks, the Atlantic Ocean, amongst others. Some are interested in Eco-tourism. This is critical to the state because this is going to be the first of its kind.
Another one is hosting the Diaspora forum as soon as possible. We are also planning on a sensitization road show. It’s imperative for this agency, in spite all the works we are doing, to find communities or youths who would want to stand as obstacles. We will showcase the natural resources they have in their community so that they can understand that they are sitting on money and be friendly with investors who come to tap into this business opportunity. This will create many jobs.
Security of investment is paramount to every investor can Bayelsa guarantee this?
We have put in place the best security system in the state. We have the JTF and others working with us to protect oil and gas investments in the state. We are working assiduously to ensure they are addressed. Another critical area of BIPA is to showcase to everybody the issue of security. Bayelsa State is now one of the most secured places in Nigeria. We have the Operation Doo Akpo with very advanced technology. Recently, the state government signed an agreement with Chinese company to install CCTV camera all over the state. If you come to Bayelsa, you are safe and secured, and we will guarantee your investment.