The Lunch Hour

The Lunch Hour, Dr. Jekwu Ozoemene, CEO, HIV Trust Fund of Nigeria

The English Graduate Who Rose to the Top of Finance

Jekwu Ozoemene is a finance professional whose experience traverses commercial, corporate, development finance, and impact investing. He has been Deputy Managing Director of Access Bank Rwanda and Managing Director and CEO of Access Bank Zambia. Jekwu has over 11 years of experience as an Executive and Non-Executive Director in both commercial as well as non-profit entities.  He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (FCIB), a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Credit Administration of Nigeria (FICA), and a Member, of the Chartered Institute of Bankers Scotland (MCIBS).

He is currently CEO, HIV Trust Fund of Nigeria as well as the CEO of the Nigeria Business Coalition against AIDS (NiBUCAA) and facilitates sessions in Strategy and International Business Management for Modular Executive MBA, MBA and DBA students at the Lagos Business School (LBS) Pan Atlantic University.

Jekwu is a University of Lagos graduate of English. He has obtained degrees in Business Administration and Finance from universities in Malaysia, and the United Kingdom.

He is a published short story writer, poet, and playwright. His works include The Anger of Unfulfillment: Three Plays Out of Nigeria.

People leave good organizations because of bad bosses. From the board’s perspective, it is important that you are a leader whom people are willing to follow”. 

University, Arts or Sciences?

I studied English at the University of Lagos. My dad had decided I should become an engineer while I was at Federal Government College, Enugu. I was not very interested. But to satisfy him, I had to offer science subjects in Senior Secondary School (SSS). So unusually for an English graduate, I studied subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Further Mathematics in SSS. When it was time to write the secondary school leaving examinations, I registered for arts subjects without my dad’s knowledge. 

Something similar happened to my older brother who was in the arts class. He switched to science subjects when it was time to write WAEC examinations and studied Geology at the university. I did an MBA at the University of Leicester and soon afterward, a DBA at the Binary University of Management and Entrepreneurship in Malaysia.

I also hold a Chartered Banker MBA from the University of Bangor, United Kingdom. I studied English because I was very good at the subject. But I got a job in banking and developed a passion for finance. I decided to immerse myself in the theory around what I was doing. This is why I acquired degrees related to that space. My father was a diplomat. He studied Political Science.  

What was the experience of studying abroad like for you?

I got the first shock after my first assignment. I put in the effort and I was confident that I did a pretty good job. But the professor called me to have a chat about my work. He told me that it was very important that I cited all the authorities whose work I had read while working on the assignment. He explained that this would provide evidence that I understood what the assignment was about before I begin to share my own thoughts on the subject. In essence, I needed to learn the rules before I try to break them. I was not used to this – separating the ideas you have gleaned from textbooks or articles from your own thoughts. 

Also, the examinations were open-book exams-you wrote the papers in your room or wherever you wanted and not in an examination hall. You are free to consult whatever material you want. It is not as easy as it sounds! You have to write three papers in a day so you need to have been familiar with the topics and know where to find your answers in that short space of time. This was quite a different experience for me. But this experience became the foundation for all the other academic journeys I embarked on. All the other degrees I got were outside Nigeria. They prepared me for what l am doing today.

What is the biggest lesson you left the university with?

That will be to follow your passion. But in following your passion, you have to be diligent and disciplined about it. I also learned that talent can take you far but there is a limit to talent. Every other thing is hard work. After graduating from the University of Lagos, I served with Chevron in their Public Affairs Department. This was very much in line with what I studied in school – English. But I later applied to Guarantee Trust Bank and got into their training school. 

Also Read: The Lunch Hour, Yele Oyekola, CEO, Duplo Business-to-Business Payments Solutions 

Then, GTbank used to have three to four months of Boot Camp. It was almost like an MBA Boot Camp and if you fail, you don’t get the job. I struggled for those four months. I still remember my scores for the first five courses- they were between 68 and 72. I was feeling very cool with myself. Then I saw other people scoring like 98, 97.5 etc. It was at that point that I realized that I was at the borderline. If I made a mistake I would slip. To make it to the bank from the training school, you need to score 65% in all your courses.

At the end of the day, I came third from the back in that class. But I got into Guarantee Trust Bank. From that point, I said to myself that I would never find myself in that kind of situation. This was what informed my going back to school to do an MBA in Finance, a DBA in Banking, and a Finance Chartered Banker MBA. I promised myself that not only would I fully understand those principles and concepts and theories, but I would also be able to teach them at the highest level. I embedded myself into it. I pivoted completely from the person who studied English to becoming a banker.

Any teachers you remember for being a big influence?

Two teachers come to mind. My principal in Federal Government College, Enugu, and a lecturer at the University. I was not one of the most outstanding students academically. But I was the kind of guy that people liked to congregate around. My friends and I did all the bad things in school i.e., lighting cigarettes with naked electric wire, sneaking into female hostels, etc. When Chief Abia took over as Principal, in less than a week, he suspended me for gross misconduct. Shortly after that, there was a nationwide riot that caused schools to be closed and students were sent home. When schools resumed after the riots, the school appointed a new set of prefects. I was surprised to see that I was chosen as the labour prefect. Back then the labour prefect was the second in command in the school. The second most powerful prefect.

The principal called me to his office and told me he had wanted to make me the Head Boy. But he couldn’t because I had been suspended once. So, he made me the labour prefect.  When he noticed my confusion, he said “People follow you, but they follow you for all the wrong reasons. I need you to channel that leadership skill to leading people through the right path”. That statement gave me a new perspective and I realized that I could lead and bring people together for good reasons. That encounter is what I will always refer to as my Road to Damascus encounter.  I doubt that Chief Abia knows what he did to my life at that moment. To honor him, I give a yearly prize for leadership in Federal Government Enugu in his name. I started in the 2007/2008 session.

The school management asked me to endow a prize on the subject I was good at. But I could not pick a subject because I was not so focused on getting top marks. I recalled that transformation moment with the principal and I told the management that the prize would not just be centered around academic excellence. Rather, it is going to be about creating leaders. So, I tagged my prize “leadership prize”. The prize goes to the student who shows the most leadership potential. That was how the Chief Abia Prize for Leadership was born.

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

We grew up partly in Austria where my dad was working with the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). My parents separated in 1979. They never got back together. We sort of leaned more toward my mother when my dad died in 2002. As far as influence is concerned, my father had the most influence on me. My dad’s good and bad sides forged the person I am today.  My mom also had a significant part to play, but the fact that I lived with my dad during my formative years made his influence on me greater. 

My dad was a very intellectual person.  He was a leader, a writer, and also a voracious reader. As a child, my birthday present was always a book. This influenced me to study English. By the time I got into the university, I had read most of the classics including the Torah and the Quran as well as the Bible. This helps me today to relate very well with people of different religious persuasions. My dad had all sorts of books and he encouraged me to read everything. I still don’t understand why he invested this great effort in making me read. He did not do this with my other siblings. Not even with my older brother whom he wanted to study Law.

I am the second son and the fourth of five children. Whenever my father was leaving the house, he would instruct me to watch and write the headlines and summary of the 4 pm news. When he returned from work, he would go through and correct the grammar. Even the books he gave me on my birthdays were not just for me to read and enjoy. After reading the books, he would tell me to extract five expressions from each of the books and use them to write sentences. He would also ask me also to extract at least thirty new words from each of the books. Then, use those new words to write sentences. 

Talking about influence, my dad would wake us by midnight and teach us about perseverance and persistence. He would explain why you should keep trying even if it things are not working out. Those things we felt were a burden for us shaped us into who we are today. The influence my dad had on me is unparalleled. 

When did you leave home for good and what’s the biggest lesson you took with you? 

When I gained admission into the university in 1991, I moved to Lagos to stay with my older sister who was working with UBA.  At that point, my father’s fortune had changed. In Nigeria, there is no safety net. When you crash, you crash properly. He lost everything overnight so my sisters were the ones supporting me with tuition fees. I was living with my older sister in a face-me-I-face-you apartment in Surulere. You could touch both sides of the room if you stretched both hands. The room was really small. 

That period is the sort of a switch in fortune that destroys people for good. Things later improved. My sister got promoted and I got a job at Guarantee Trust Bank. My older brother also got a job with Shell.  The worst kind of poverty is when you have had something before and you hit rock bottom. A poor person knows no difference between having and not having anymore. We were a middle-class family. We experienced this change of fortune for some years. It was psychologically breaking.

This is one of the reasons I argue a key driver of corruption in Nigeria is the lack of a safety net. When someone gets to a position of power they try as much as possible to gather enough to take care of their future generations. Though having a safety net is not going to stop corruption completely.  But people would have hope that if they stumble, there is a safety net that will help them till they get back on their feet. I left ultimately home when I got my first apartment after I graduated from Guarantee Trust Bank Training School and I was posted to Port Harcourt. 

What did you learn from your first job?

I struggled both at the Guarantee Trust Bank Training School and in my first six months at work.  I had a boss Inanigo Douglas who is now Inanigo Ogufure. She was always upset with me. Oftentimes, she would threaten that she would tell HR that I could not do the job. She seemed to be frustrating me on the job. While my peers used spreadsheets for financial analysis, Inanigo would make me calculate those ratios manually with a calculator and pencil. I would then solve for ratios without the use of a spreadsheet.

She would make me write a credit from scratch, and give me the financials of several companies to analyze with a pencil and calculator. I despised her for that. But looking back now, I am glad she took that effort to shape me. If I teach you financial analysis once and you do not understand it, you might never understand it. The figures were like Egyptian hieroglyphics to me, so I had to break them down to the basic components to understand them myself.

There is a course in English called Practical Criticism. The course entails reading and criticizing poems, essays, novels, articles etc. My eureka moment was when I realized that financial statement analysis and credit analysis are like Practical Criticism. All you need to do is to change numerals for words or words for numerals. I understood there is a parallel between analysing a poem and analysing a company’s financials. Poems could also be difficult to crack. But there is a method to working out what or how the author was thinking, and how the thinking is constructed and conveyed. That process, that same method can be applied to financial analysis. 

So, if you are asking about the boss who influenced me the most, it is Inanigo Ogufure. She was a turning point for me.

Two or three things that you have learned in your career that they don’t teach in MBA programmes?

As you rise in your career, you have to be conscious of how the soft rules change. It is ok to be an activist staff at the entry-level but at the executive level, you need to focus more on the firm. It doesn’t mean your principles have changed. I have also learned that loyalty is important. I have learned that there is a minimum level of competence required to be a CEO. Competence will take you through the system to certain points after which other requirements are more important. Emotional intelligence counts. Loyalty to the system and leadership skills are also important. It does not help if you are a very competent person and your leadership style is toxic. You will poison the system.  People leave good organizations because of bad bosses. From the board’s perspective, it is important that you are a leader whom people are willing to follow. 

Is there any mistake you have learned from either in your career or generally in life?

Yes, I made a lot of mistakes and I learned from each one of them.  A daring person will make mistakes. Those who do not make mistakes are people who are not daring. I have made a lot of mistakes. Some have cost me more than I imagined.

What kind of books do you like to read and what have you been reading recently?

I am a member of a book club that mandates members to read at least one book every month. I read every one of the books. In May, I read The Boy in Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. In April I read The Son of the House by Professor Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia. March, I read The Perfect Nine by Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong. Earlier in January, I read Professor Wole Soyinka’s novel, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. I also read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Anything you love doing, you would find the time to do it. There are two things I do not joke with. I do not joke with my exercise nor do I with reading. I exercise as often as I can and I read as often as I can. 

About 81% of Nigeria’s HIV funding is from donor countries and foundations. Does this affect in any way the priorities of the campaign against HIV in Nigeria? 

Nigeria has a national HIV Aids response funded by the government. However, the challenge is that almost 90% of drugs in Nigeria today are imported. Even though about $500 million is spent every year on HIV Aids intervention, most of this goes to foreign organizations and pharmaceutical organizations that manufacture these drugs. Part of the new HIV Aids international response is to encourage indigenous firms to manufacture those drugs that people living with HIV use. Doing this will enable part of the money to come back into the economy.

If you are made Health Minister in May 2023, what is going to be your number one policy initiative?

I am not interested in being the Minister for Health. I am a finance person. My role in the HIV Trust Fund is a finance role.  However, I am going to approach this question from a financial perspective. The biggest problem that we have in Nigeria’s health sector is that most of the funding for health services is out of pocket. There is no way our health sector can grow if most of the funding is out of pocket. The health sector is not just our hospitals. We should have medical device manufacturers and clinical trial centers. The sector should have investments in telemedicine companies, drive medical tourism, and also have medical equipment manufacturers among others.

The question then is how do you affect the demand so that these sectors can raise money from the private sector and fund their operations because this government spending X, Y Z.  What we spend on medical centers is far from adequate.  From a finance perspective, when a fund provider, a private equity firm, or a venture capital firm sees that there is guaranteed offtake, they will bring the money. Money flows to where there is value.  The argument that we have demand because we have over two hundred million Nigerians is wrong. We do not have demand. The demand is not effective. Over a hundred million of those people are living below the poverty line. 

The only way that population can be strengthened is when the demand from that population is made effective. And one of the ways to do that is through universal health insurance coverage. For instance, imagine if we provide universal health insurance coverage for about 40% to 50% of the population. The person bringing money to fund someone to invest in an ECG machine or a PET scan machine knows that when individuals walk in from the streets for such services, whatever the price, they will be able to pay because they are not paying out of pocket. They will pay by just presenting their insurance card. 

Also Read: The Lunch Hour, Professor Chris Ogbechie, Dean, Lagos Business School

The question is what form of insurance should we have to create this level of guarantee?  Most often, what we have is social health insurance. This focuses only on people who are in formal employment. On people whose employers are mandated to provide health insurance. But that is a very small pool. The vast majority of Nigerians who are not in formal employment are not covered. This is where tax-based healthcare insurance comes into play. We should invest a good chunk of all public and private expenditure on healthcare in paying for healthcare insurance for several people. If we did this, the person who has invested in operating a hospital would not need to detain patients that he or she has treated pending when the family can pay the bill.

I am aware the government has started something around expanding the health insurance pool. But there is so much more that needs to be done. This I believe can change the face of healthcare delivery across the entire country. But again, I am not planning to be the health minister! 

What is the best use of money for you? 

I like living a good life but I have never aspired to be a multimillionaire. For example, acquiring a private jet has never been my aspiration. This is the second phase of my professional career. Where I am now, I am committed to doing everything I can to impact my environment and my community. I have other non-executive roles in finance through which I execute those impact investment initiatives. I am looking at how to deploy in economic manner things that will have an impact on the environment, gender equity, and health. 

Achieving these I believe will give me the most joy and fulfillment. There is an Igbo proverb that says a community where only one person is wealthy is a community of paupers. This is not an ideology of state welfarism. What I have in mind is a situation where you place premium value on the life of every single citizen, everybody around you. Each of us has a sphere of control. So, within everyone’s sphere of control, you place a premium on everybody around you and try as much as possible to see how we can carry everybody along. Doing the right thing in my own little sphere is what I derive the utmost joy from. 

What is your favorite place to spend a holiday?

Wherever my family is.

Where do you see Nigeria in the next 10 years?

This is a very difficult period for Nigeria. We have an election coming up in 2023. Regardless of who emerges as the president in 2023, we are going to have a difficult five to ten years to come. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just pretending or does not understand where we are, from an economic perspective. The responsibility of leadership is to sell hope to the people no matter how dark the night is. 

The Igbo also have an adage that is a canal principle of Igbo ontology. The adage says “do not leave any of your kinsmen behind”. That is an idea I hope to see in the leadership that is emerging. The leader will ensure that when it comes to education, health, economic prosperity, the well-being of citizens, protection of lives and property, etc., we do not leave any Nigerian behind.  What I am sharing with you is not necessarily the Nigeria that I see in the next 10 years. I am sharing with you the Nigeria of my dreams. 

What do you consider the most important thing for us to do to get to this Nigeria of your dreams?

We will need some kind of social reorientation as a people. We need to focus on the things that are important and leave the things that tear us apart. What are the important things? How do you measure improvement? There is the human development index. It generally looks at areas like health, GDP per capita, education, number of children in school, etc. We need to begin to look at those things that improve the quality of life of our citizenry and take out things like religious sentiment. 

There are over 5,000 gods that humanity has and each person is claiming that their god is better. Why are we fighting over religion? Why are we fighting over ethnicity? We need to focus more on the important things that will improve the lives of the average citizen in Nigeria. Every citizen’s life must have value. We all see countries where their citizens are stranded somewhere and they will send special forces to go and rescue just one citizen. 

We see some situations where someone has an accident on a highway and a chopper airlifts the person. This is not a VIP, just a citizen like you and I. We need to get to the point where these basic amenities and services are readily available to every Nigerian citizen. Not because of your status or who you are. This is what will catalyze the Nigeria of my dreams. Every other thing will flow from there.

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