Our Nigeria Country Manager Jiru Bako chats to Jonathan Tanner about his time with Crown Agents, the development challenges faced by Nigeria and the potential for meaningful change moving forward
You’ve worked for Crown Agents Nigeria for 12 years. Can you remember the moment in your life when you first heard about Crown Agents?
I first heard about Crown Agents while working as a community pharmacist. My boss at the pharmacy told me about the work of Crown Agents. She always had inspired me with the courage to go for a job with an international organisation. One day she came into the office told me there was an advert. That was the first time I ever heard of Crown Agents. Of course after that I went to the internet to read about Crown Agents and was inspired by the ethos of transforming the lives of the most vulnerable people around the world.
Now that you’ve worked in Crown Agents for 12 years, what work have you done in that time and what have you most enjoyed?
I think I have done a lot. When I joined my title was assistant commercial manager, when I started work I was a technical manager. I was a technical manager for years until I moved to my current position as country manager. My background is pharmacy so I was looking at medicines and hospital consumables during my time as a technical manager. After a while I decided to educate myself further so I started teaching myself how to look at laboratories: laboratory equipment, laboratory agents, rapid diagnostic test kits and all of that which was fascinating.
What for you is the most exciting thing about being country manager now for Nigeria?
I am excited by the fact that Crown Agents Nigeria is headed in a new direction. The office was originally built around deliveries. We are also known for doing fantastic training and professional development and for a while we were getting over 400 delegates annually for training. With new rule restricting overseas training and of course the recession in Nigeria we decided to look at other ways to grow our office into the other pillars that Crown Agents works in. These include humanitarian and stabilisation, a pressing need given the current crisis in North-Eastern Nigeria. Governance because it is one of the three points that the current government won elections on. Finally health, an area of expertise for us given our previous project on neglected tropical diseases.
And what do you think your team here in Crown Agents Nigeria are uniquely positioned to provide?
I have a wonderful team here and it always amazes me how well they interact with clients and prospects because of the knowledge they have. I am lucky to work with these people, they are unique and I feel very happy with my team.
Taking a step back to look at Nigeria, every country is on a journey in development. I think the UK is on a backwards journey in terms of development at the moment. Where in its development journey would you say Nigeria is at the moment?
It’s very basic. Nigeria has been a receiving country for a very long time to the point of getting spoilt, receiving donor funds . There is a better understanding now that we need better homegrown solutions to fix homegrown problems, that is the level we are at. We are very far away from getting to the point where we can beat our chest and say yes we have made it in development terms.
What do you think are the biggest opportunities for Nigeria as a country at the moment?
As a country we are at a point where very minimal changes would look massive. We are a country of about two hundred million people, yet the power situation is horrendous. We have 3100 megawatts of electricity which is nothing, it won’t even run a city. Yet that is what a country of two hundred million people are surviving on. Electricity is the backbone of every civilised society. Our rail system is completely moribund, infrastructure is non-existent, the health indices are amongst the worst in the world. Pick one of those, make a deliberate minimal change and you would see a result.
For example, electricity is a massive opportunity. There is already so much investment in generation, there’s a lot of investment in distribution, there is zero investment in transmission. Transmission is not sexy, nobody makes money from transmission. Invest in this and it could be transformative. We have already seen real change through our solar projects in Lagos and Kaduna state.
The opportunity to explore solar further really excites me. Nigeria is at that point where a bit of honesty, a bit of integrity will create massive results. It’s a unique position.
That’s a great way of using challenges to show an opportunity. What are the other ways that challenges prevent progress or have historically prevented progress?
It’s not a hidden fact that governance has been a massive challenge in Nigeria. Corruption has been the bane of this country for a very long time and the corruption has been there from immediately after independence in 1960. If you listen to the speech of the very first coup you would think that you are listening to the same problems that the country is facing today. There is just no single change from all of that which is a huge shame. Corruption is a massive thing because nobody is held to account for their actions.
What is happening in the North-East is horrible. There has to be development, we need to start thinking about infrastructure, schools, primary health centres and focus on proper policing in those areas, we need to start thinking about portable water for people. We are not talking about large investments but deliberate off-grid investments for particular areas. And Nigerians are resilient, they are very resilient people. They will go on with their lives. But the major issue is that if you don’t take action there will be a major disconnect. The current disconnect is leading to huge mistrust between the people and the government — when the government is trying to tell people what is happening, when the government is trying to celebrate achievements people do not believe them.
Poverty moves with prosperity. If there is not one there would not be the definition for the other. It is literally like light and darkness. You have light so what is darkness? Simply the absence of light. It’s the same thing with poverty and wealth. If the wealth is there, if you have all of the things that make life look good the absence would be poverty. In Nigeria there is a massive chasm between the poor and the rich.
Thinking about it with your Crown Agents hat on of those opportunities and challenges which of those excite you most knowing what Crown Agents is capable of?
Infrastructure is massive, Crown Agents was involved in laying rail lines in Nigeria. We were involved in bringing locomotives into Nigeria but I think we have moved away from all of that and are looking at different areas.
For me the number one thing is health, possibly because of what I did when I was practising pharmacy. When I looked at people’s faces, from just giving them 18 tablets of paracetamol it was like you were giving them life. With Crown Agents I think of what we did last year with neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) where we provided NTD treatment for almost fourteen million people. Health is an area at the moment where Crown Agents can get involved and changes can be easily seen.
I am going to remind you about the language of the proximity of poverty and prosperity in Nigeria before I ask you what success for Nigeria over the next five to ten years may look like.
We are working closely with our partners in Nigeria to offer development solutions that are tailored to the local context. As I’ve mentioned, I would love to expand the range of solutions we are working on. I want to ensure that Crown Agents are at the front line of the most pressing issues Nigeria faces today, such as the crisis in the North East.
I want a situation in five years where you would walk in and meet at least twenty five people, and every single person you speak to would be linked to a project. As projects come to an end people should be focused on winning more business because the more business you win, the longer you will be in the employment of Crown Agents. In short, we want to move from being a delivery winning office to a business winning office.
What is the ideal Crown Agents Nigeria project? What impact is it having in the world, what does it look like?
For me the ideal project should plug into our core motivation here at Crown
Agents, transforming lives. The project should be transforming lives in whatever way. It is helping to free up resources so that primary healthcare centres will be built, so that primary schools will be built, so that people will have better livelihoods.
Or it could be project management, where we are working with companies to see what can be done for the North East. Our involvement in the North East would ensure that the right things would be done and the donor funds which are actually taxpayers money would be spent properly for the right reasons, for the right effects to be seen. It might be a focus on anti-corruption, which is again something we are looking into with a partner. We would see how we could put institutions in place, proper institutions that would fight corruption. That would be a long-term thing so it would definitely be multi-sectoral. Or would it be something like setting up the debt management office, where we helped the country to gain debt forgiveness and free up resources for infrastructure. For me, it always comes back to transforming lives.