Interview with the Managing Director of LAPO

LAPO Promotes Access To Financial, Health And Social Empowerment Services

Mr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe is the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of LAPO, a pro-poor microfinance institution with operations in Nigeria and Sierra-Leone. An experienced microfinance practitioner and author, Ehigiamusoe who began his career as a rural cooperative officer has won several local and international awards amongst which are the Model Entrepreneur Award - Nigeria in 2008, and the Schwab Foundation’s Outstanding Social Entrepreneur for Africa Award in 2010. In this interview with James-Wisdom Abhulimen, he speaks about the progressive development of LAPO over the years, milestones, challenges and microfinance practice in Nigeria. Excerpts:         

What factors influenced the establishment of LAPO

The establishment of LAPO could be attributed to a number of remote and immediate factors. The remote factors include my ideological orientation towards development. As a young university student in late 1970s, I developed a perspective to development which states that meaningful development would only be possible if a large number of persons at the bottom end of the society are empowered to be involved in wealth creation. Many of my friends back in the university days see LAPO today as a practical expression of the ideals I propagated then. Second, was my engagement in the cooperative movement. I saw the cooperative movement as a veritable vehicle for rural transformation and self-reliance. However, my disillusionment with the manner cooperative societies were managed set me thinking of an alternative approach. A prime and immediate factor for the establishment of LAPO was the economic crisis of the early 1980s which culminated in the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) by the Federal Government of Nigeria. The key elements of the programme were the devaluation of the naira, workforce rationalization in the public service and the removal of subsidy from social services. The cumulative effect of these measures was a surge in the spread and intensity of poverty. Finally was my contact and relationship with Professor Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh. Professor Muhammad Yunus has been a source of inspiration to us.

What factors enabled the growth and development of LAPO?

In dealing with the challenges in our operating environment, certain factors have been enabling. First, is the presence of committed people. Right from the onset, LAPO has benefitted from the commitment of young Nigerians who believe strongly in the ideals and future of LAPO. I am always amazed at how my colleagues transverse urban slums and hamlets to deliver financial services. We have tried to sustain this uncommon commitment. Another factor is the nature of our services. We provide financial and social empowerment services which meet the needs of a large and critical segment of the society. Third, is the financial and moral support we receive from local and international agencies. Related is our prudent utilization of such support.  Fourth, is our commitment to innovation and institutional sustainability. We have made contributions to the emerging microfinance sector in Nigeria in the area of client engagement and strong but flexible service delivery institutional structures and procedures. LAPO’s internal operating systems have been able to effectively engage our operating environment. Lastly, for emphasis, is divine intervention. LAPO has benefited from divine intervention in addressing the challenges of growth.

Are you satisfied with the growth and performance of LAPO over the years?

We have been able to create an institution which provides a range of financial services to low-income people and micro-businesses on a sustainable basis. We are also addressing the challenges of unemployment. LAPO is a model to many microfinance banks and institutions in Nigeria and beyond. Put together, these provide a sense of satisfaction. However, I feel we have done well.

How has your services improved the socio-economic condition of the poor in Nigeria?

LAPO is a pro-poor development organization which promotes access to financial, health and social empowerment services. Clients of LAPO are being empowered with financial services to set up and manage their own micro-business. To that extent, we are promoting self-employment which is the best form of employment. LAPO loans have also enhanced the productivity of our clients which in most cases have translated into improved condition of living for members of their households. Our clients are able to improve the nutritional status of their household members and send their children to school. Finally, we have also enhanced the status and voice of women within their households and communities. Financially, independent women are most likely to have greater voice in decision making in their families.

What are your strategies to ensure good repayment performance without demanding for collateral?

Good repayment performance is a function of a number of factors. They include staff training, lending approaches, loan application appraisal processes and innovative enforcement of credit discipline. In addition, we seek to support and build relationship with our clients in such a manner that they do not perceive LAPO Microfinance Bank as just another financial institution but as their institution.  

What is your assessment of LAPO's performance in terms of social and health empowerment of the ordinary people?

LAPO is not just a mere financial institution. We are much more than that. Rather, LAPO is a development institution. Right from its inception, LAPO conceptualized poverty as an octopus with several tentacles of causes and manifestations such as material deprivation, poor health, social exclusion and injustice. We realized that ordinary people contend with challenges beyond the lack of money. LAPO therefore designs and delivers services to support them to address extra-financial challenges. This explains our involvement in the provision of health and insurance services to our clients. We seek to relate with our clients in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. We have started the implementation of programmes that will also preserve the environment. Ultimately, we seek to achieve the Triple Bottom line of superior financial performance, social empowerment and environmental preservation. 

LAPO MfB has commenced the implementation of Environment, Social and Governance programme. What is this initiative all about?

As l noted earlier, LAPO seeks to achieve Triple Bottom line. Social empowerment and environmental preservation are important to our clients. Because of the level of deprivation suffered by members of poor households, they need interventions that will socially empower them. Also, by the nature of their business occupations, our clients are active agents of the environment. With appropriate interventions, they can be made agents of environmental conservation with remarkable impact. All our social empowerment and environmental preservation activities are encapsulated in the ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) initiative.  

Many people believe that LAPO NGO transformed into LAPO MfB. What is the exact situation?

It is not correct to say that LAPO NGO transformed into a microfinance bank. What happened is that LAPO NGO simply set up a new institutional vessel called LAPO Microfinance Bank Limited. LAPO NGO is still implementing social empowerment programmes in remote communities across the country.

Compared with other countries abroad, are you satisfied with the operations and progress of the microfinance sector in Nigeria? 

All factors considered, I strongly believe that the Nigerian microfinance sector has not done badly. Let me put this in a historical perspective. It was in 1990s that microfinance as an international movement blossomed in other countries. Unfortunately, Nigeria was under military dictatorship. Like other sectors, the Nigerian microfinance sector was cut off from the international microfinance community and therefore deprived of the benefits. It is therefore inappropriate to compare the performance and penetration rate of microfinance in Nigeria with other countries with longer history of practice and international support. The progress made so far in Nigeria could be attributed to the commitment of the regulatory authorities and the exceptional, enterprising spirit of Nigerians. We have our challenges but I see a very bright future for microfinance practice in Nigeria.

Majority of our youths roam the streets with so many engaged in social vices and crimes. What measures can be adopted to holistically address youth unemployment in Nigeria?

The large number of young people in Africa presents opportunity or risk. Whatever happens will depend on how key institutions including the government address the issues of education, innovations and investments.  Quality education is being taken out of the reach of many African youths with the rise of private universities. Government should take steps to encourage businesses in order to create more jobs in the form of tax incentives and other fiscal interventions. I am not enthusiastic about ad-hoc job creation programmes. They are not sustainable and are always fraught with massive corruption.

Who are your partners in the fight against poverty?

Our key partners are our clients. They are not customers to us who are known and related with by ‘account numbers’ as practiced in the formal financial system. We relate with them by their names. There are local and international institutions we have worked together with to improve the living conditions of our people.

What is your happiest moment in LAPO?

The moment I gave out the first loan.

Best awards and recognitions?

LAPO as an organization, and I have received many awards and recognitions. The best for me was when an elderly woman walked up to me at the end of a wedding ceremony, put her mouth to my ear and whispered: “You took me out of a pit. I am a LAPO woman.” I wept for joy. This is the type of honour or recognition that fires us on.

Who are your sources of inspiration?

Professor Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank of Bangladesh is obviously one.  He created a great impression on my young mind when I first met him in 1991. That was several years before he won the Nobel Prize.  Mr. S. O. Jeremiah, my teacher in primary six, is another. He fired my imagination as none else did. I naturally admire men and women of integrity and you may not believe it, they are very many in Nigeria.

Leisure?

I am a homely person. When not doing LAPO, I spend a great time with my family. I have a great wife, Ngozi. My son introduced me to Arsenal football team and when the Emirate guys were running away from winning laurels, he left me for Manchester United. I am too committed to ‘port’, so I am a Gunner for life as they would say.