The Lunch Hour

The Lunch Hour, Godwin Ehigiamusoe, Founder, LAPO Microfinance

Godwin Ehigiamusoe has a Ph.D. in Policy and Development Studies; he wrote his dissertation on microfinance policy instruments and financial inclusion. He studied Sociology for his first degree and started his career as a rural cooperatives officer.  He founded LAPO (Lift Above Poverty Organization) in 2010 in Ogwashi–Uku, Delta State. Under his leadership, LAPO has evolved into a network of mutually reinforcing businesses and social institutions providing services to and empowering Nigerians and Sierra Leoneans.

Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe stepped down as the MD of LAPO Microfinance Bank in November 2019. He is Chairman of the Board of Directors of many companies, including GOXI Microinsurance Company Limited, Nigeria’s first licensed specialized microinsurance company and Benin Medical Care, a medical and diagnostic facility in Benin City.

He has attended various leadership programmes such as the Financial Institution Programme for Enterprise Development of the Kennedy School of Government, Chief Executive Programme (CEP) of the Lagos Business School (LBS), the Social Entrepreneurship Programme of INSEAD Business School, and the Sustainable Finance programme of the University of Edinburgh.

Godwin Ehigiamusoe
Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe

Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe has won many awards including the Grameen Foundation’s Award for Excellence in Microfinance, 2006and The Professor Schwab Foundation’s (World Economic Forum) “Outstanding Social Entrepreneur, Africa”, 2010. He is the author of Understanding NGOs (1998), Poverty and Microfinance in Nigeria (2000) and Issues in Microfinance: Enhancing Financial Inclusion (2011).

Godwin Ehigiamusoe
Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe

University, Science or Arts?

I was actually admitted to study English language but I switched to Sociology. I found sociology to be a quite intellectual subject. I also thought that Sociology is a very wide, open-ended subject; it offers more options in terms of professional careers or further academic interests one could pursue after the first degree. I think my guesses were right because of the way that my career later played out. I did a Master’s in Development Studies at the University of Benin and studied for a Ph.D. in Policy and Development Studies at Ambrose Alli University.

What’s the biggest lesson you left university with?

Interestingly, the biggest lesson I left the university with was not from studying Sociology in the classroom but from the activities I was involved in on the campus. And the very clear lesson is that if you want to assess the level of development of any society, you should look at the conditions of living of the people at the mass or the bottom end of that society. By the time I was leaving university, I was very clear-headed about the fact that for any society to develop, it must be able to support and provide basic services like healthcare and education to a large number of people at the base of that society. This is integral to the processes and meaning of development.

Is there any teacher you particularly remember?

I take this to be the teacher that made the most impact on me when I was in school. I had a number of them right from the primary to the university level, but the one that always comes to my mind and that I mentioned in my book which was published last year is Mr. Bernard Osagie. He was my teacher in primary 5. He was quite interested in his pupils.  For instance, he decided that the name which I had been known by in school for almost five years was a nickname at best, it shouldn’t be the name I was registered with. The name was an informal one that reflected the circumstances of my birth but somehow that was the name I gave when registering in school.  He spoke to my father who agreed with him.

Godwin Ehigiamusoe
Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe

That’s how my name was changed. At least in the official school records. It was also Mr. Osagie that introduced his pupils, including me, to reading newspapers in primary 5. So even before I got into secondary school, I was more or less addicted to reading newspapers. And that helped me to be abreast of many issues in Nigeria and the world. I remain grateful to Mr. Osagie. Introducing us to newspapers at such an early age made me a lifelong avid reader. 

Who was the bigger influence on you, mom or dad?

Of course, my dad. I was the first son so I was quite close to him even from a very young age. I remember that I was the only one that would sleep in his room. Our house was a one storey building, he occupied the top floor.  He was a very strong believer and a lay preacher in the church. He did not only make an impact on me, but I think on the entire community. I admire his level of diligence and his accomplishments, at least at that level and at that time. He was a successful rice farmer. He was able to complete the house we lived in three months before I was born.

When did you leave home for good and what was the best lesson you took away with you?

I effectively left home at the age of 12. I left to stay with my uncle. This was my dad trying to prepare me for life. There was this belief that a firstborn staying with his parents is likely to be brought up as a spoilt brat. So, I had to go and live with my uncle who was also a nice person. But as I said earlier, my father was a very devout Christian. I noticed his devotion to God even as a very young child. He was also a very diligent person. These qualities had a strong impression on me and shaped my own worldview and character. Becoming a devout Christian for me was not through the experience of a crusade. I don’t have a wonderful story of conversion to tell.  I was more or less brought up to be a strong Christian because I was deeply influenced by my father, someone I was very fond of from early in life. He was a very diligent and hard-working person. I grew up in Igueben which is about 50 kilometers from Benin. It is now the headquarters of Igueben LGA in Edo State.

What was your first job and what was the main thing you learned while at the job?

I first worked as a Rural Cooperative Officer; this was a very deliberate choice. During my undergraduate years, I was a member of a students’ society that was focused on development questions.  I was President of the society in my final year. We organised symposia and workshops for students, inviting academics and development experts to share insights on the economic challenges people at the bottom of society faced. I learned so much from these engagements.

Also Read: The Lunch Hour, Olu Akanmu, President, OPay-Nigeria

By the time I was leaving the university, I was ideologically clear that meaningful development must begin from ordinary people; development will happen when you empower ordinary folks to improve their own lives and do things for themselves. So, when I graduated, I opted to join a cooperative movement. Also, I had gotten an insight into what cooperatives do when I did a vacation job with at the offices of a cooperative in Benin in my second year.

Godwin Ehigiamusoe
Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe

>>>You are Reading: The Lunch Hour, Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe, Founder of LAPO Microfinance

A cooperative is a social and economic association of people with limited means who come together and pool their limited resources, and from that pool, members can draw to meet their respective needs. I found this quite intriguing and it aligned with my concept of what development should be. So, instead of being an administrative officer in the civil service in Benin City, I decided to find rural cooperative officer job. I was fascinated with cooperatives because I realised that it could be a tool to transform the rural economy if you want to. The experience of working with cooperatives in rural areas eventually led me eventually to establish what is today known as Lift Above Poverty Organisation (LAPO), which is essentially about working with ordinary people and providing them with the means i.e., credit to improve their conditions of living.

Who’s your best boss ever and why?

I have had very good bosses but Mr. Cletus Ewatan should get the credit of being the best. He was a top cooperative officer. He was quite passionate about the power of cooperatives to bring about rural transformation. Everyone who knew or worked with him would readily agree to this. He was also a great mentor to me; even after I left the service, he continued to be an inspiration to me as I started laying the building blocks of what we call LAPO today. 

Mention two or three things that you learned in your career that they don’t teach people on MBA courses

I think the first thing I have learned is that every challenge or problem is surmountable if you devote adequate attention to it and you tackle it with diligence. This is true on a personal level, at the corporate level, and at the national level. There are many examples of nations that had very serious social, political or economic challenges, often a mix of these, but they came up with frameworks to address the challenges and surmounted them. Secondly, I have found that people judge others by their own standards. Therefore, if you are pursuing any goal, either at a personal or corporate level, you should be very careful not to be distracted by criticisms that may be uninformed or not well-intended. This helps you better focus and move ahead.

What are the two things you prize the most when you are hiring people to work with you?

Enthusiasm. I have found that enthusiastic managers availeth much if I were to use the Bible language. So enthusiasm for me is number one. You must be able to come out with effervescence.

Godwin Ehigiamusoe
Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe

>>>You are Reading: The Lunch Hour, Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe, Founder of LAPO Microfinance

I am fascinated with people with a can-do spirit. And of course, integrity is important. I think that cannot be overemphasized. In whatever you do, no matter the skills you have, no matter how intelligent you are, if all is not laid on the building block of integrity, everything will collapse.

What’s your favorite type of music?

I love music that highlights human failings, human weaknesses, and our weaknesses as human beings. The sort of music that goes further to present what could be a response or a solution to bring about a better life for everyone. And I would think that Reggae music is the closest to this description.

Also Read: The Lunch Hour, Andrew Nevin, Chief Economist at PwC Nigeria

What kind of books do you like to read?

I need to tell you that one of the addictions I have is reading. I told you that from primary 5 I started reading newspapers. I am a compulsive reader and of course, the type of books I like have always been changing over time. When I was young, I read a lot of African novels. I can tell you all the titles by Chinua Achebe. I have read all the titles by Vincent Ike, John Moyin; I read almost all the books from African greats. When I started my journey as an entrepreneur, I started reading biographies, business, and motivational books. The best lesson I have learned from reading books about business and which has really influenced me is that the first casualty of the success of many people is their family. You need to consciously find time for your family as you pursue success. I now read mainly biographies and books on leadership.

What book are you currently reading?

I am reading ‘My American Dream’ by the late General Colin Powell who died last year. I am reading this biography a second time. It is exceptional, one of the most well-written books I have read. It highlights the challenges of African-Americans climbing the ladder in the US military. It is quite an insightful book.

How has microfinance improved financial inclusion? 

Microfinance or micro-credit as we used to call it several years ago set out to create access to a range of financial services for ordinary people who ordinarily were excluded from the mainstream financial system. Forty years ago, ordinary people did not have access to institutional credit i.e., to borrow from banks. They were considered “unbankable” because they do not have collateral and other requirements required to assess credit applications by banks. Microfinance gave access to this set of people to institutional credit, which is considerably cheaper than virtually all forms of informal lending, without collateral. If you considered the vast number of microfinance banks and NGOs that lend money to very poor people across developing countries today, you would agree with me that today microfinance has enabled the inclusion of not an insignificant number of people who were excluded from the formal financial system. Microfinance banks and institutions have to a large extent greatly fostered financial inclusion.

Have you encountered people that have been impacted by LAPO’s lending?

So many people say very moving things about how little sums they borrowed from LAPO have enabled them to establish or grow successful businesses that have sustained their families, trained children, etc. But I have found one or two really touching. About seven years ago, I was attending a wedding reception in Benin. I had to stay till the end of the reception as I was the Chairman. As the last guests were leaving, a middle-aged lady came to me and whispered into my ears “you lifted me out from the pit”. I was looking at her, a little bit confused and she quickly responded, “I am not a relative, I am a LAPO woman”. This brought tears to my eyes. We also once hosted a customer’s forum in Owerri and we had people from other places in the region attending. I went out during the break, and one lady led three or four other women to where I was standing and said, “Sir, I have vowed that the day I see the founder of LAPO, I would lie flat on the ground and thank him for what he has done for Akwa Ibom women. Sir, can I do it now?” Of course, I did not allow her to do that. There are several situations like these but I was very moved by these two. LAPO Microfinance Bank has close to 7,000 staff, and for the entire LAPO system, we have over 10,300 professional staff, excluding the drivers and the cleaners.

How long has LAPO been in Sierra Leone sir? 

We have been in Sierra Leone for 13 years. And we were more or less the first in the country and we remain one of the leading microfinance institutions.

What’s the best use of money to you?

Godwin Ehigiamusoe
Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe

>>>You are Reading: The Lunch Hour, Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe, Founder of LAPO Microfinance

It is simply meeting the sort of needs that condemn people to a lifetime of adversity if they are not meant. Think of giving scholarships to children who would never have gone to school without the scholarships. Many Nigerians who would have ended up being very brilliant engineers, surgeons, business people, etc. missed the opportunity to get an education because their parents lacked the resources. The best way to use money for me has to be saving young Nigerians from this fate. Supporting an aspiring entrepreneur or a business person to create a great product, service, or business that would impact society with the required resources is also a great way to use money. My case is an example. When I started LAPO, it was almost nothing. I gave N100 each to three women in my church, but I had the good fortune of finding an institution to support me. Nothing better could happen to a young person than having the financial resources to support his or her dreams. I think that the best way to use money is to help people realise their potential and ambitions.

How do you think the government can help institutions like yours do better in meeting the policy objectives of financial inclusion and poverty alleviation?

LAPO is a development organization rather than a bank and the government of course is the key driver of development. There is a great scope for microfinance institutions like LAPO and the government to work together in expanding access to financial services for poor people. We still have a lot of people, especially women, who are very active in the rural economy but who do not have access to financial services, especially credit. They have a very good record of paying back when we lend to them; governments would be driving rural development in a very sustainable way if they partnered with us to extend credit to such people. LAPO also provides education and healthcare services to the poor; these are quintessential public services. We found out that healthcare could be one of the biggest escalators of poverty. Many people spend the little resources they have on expensive private healthcare; they could have invested the funds in improving their lives. This just makes poor people poorer. The cost of educating children also pushes poor people deeper into poverty. The fees poor people have to pay in private schools should really be used to enhance livelihoods and living conditions. They should have access to public schools that are very affordable if not completely free. Many poor people have to borrow to send their children to private school this term-they have not even repaid what they borrowed last term. We could avoid all this if the government provided quality and affordable education. My generation did not attend private schools or pay to get degrees from private universities.

Do you think the government could deliver healthcare and education through contracting private sector providers or the government should keep trying despite the continued risk of quality-depleting leakages?

I wouldn’t have any difficulty in making my choice. The government should directly provide those services to the people. The core responsibility of any government beyond providing security of life and property is the provision of the two core social services, i.e. health services, and educational services. It is left for the government to put in place a structural framework that will ensure that resources deployed into those areas are efficiently utilized. LAPO got involved in providing education and healthcare services to close the cost-quality gap. My idea was to provide the sort of education I received several years ago to poor Nigerians. So, I told my management team- we will not pretend to be an “international school”, so we don’t need blazers and ties.  What we need is a simple structure where children can receive instruction, backed by a solid administrative underpinning. Parents know that if their children fail, they have to repeat, and if they cannot, they have to go elsewhere. Providing quality education or healthcare to the poor is not rocket science, it’s quite simple.

Oluwatomi Otuyemi

Oluwatomi Otuyemi, a Geology graduate from Crawford University, has 5 years experience in corporate corporate communications. He has a passion for storytelling, and investigative reporting.

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