After a lull of several weeks, The Tide weekly roundtable designed to bring to public glare, the activities of key government functionaries, captains of industries, opinion leaders and heads of institutions, got kicking once again.
Our guest, this time, is an ebullient management scientist, Mr Noble Pepple, who has been directing affairs at the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA) as executive director in the last one year.
Pepple, in this interview, takes our readers down memory lane on the mandate of the agency. He also explains the challenges and the efforts of his administration to place Rivers State on the part of sustainable development. Here is the first part of his exciting revelations. Read on.
Who is Noble Pepple?
My name is Noble Pepple. I resumed as the Executive Director Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA), a little over a year ago. I was sent their on secondment from Shell. I have worked in Shell for about 20 to 21 years doing different jobs in the company. I am a Rivers man. I grew up in Port Harcourt, where I had my primary and secondary education and I attended the Rivers State University of Science and Technology where I studied Business Administration. I had my Post Graduate studies at the London School of Accountancy. During my time in Shell, I have handled a number of managerial works. I am married with children. I feel great coming back to serve my people on my present capacity. I feel honoured that his Excellency the Governor of Rivers State invited me to do so.
You worked in Shell for quite some time and you now work as Executive Director RSSDA, what are the similarities and challenges in the jobs?
There is hardly a role in life that does not go with challenges. When I came into the organisation last year, there were several challenges. Moving over from the private sector where one spent virtually all his adult life to the public sector was like moving from one way of life to another. It was quite challenging but I think a number of things helped me to overcome some of the challenges. The first was the total support of His Excellency. The goals of the Agency were well specified. It made me feel at home that my success or failure was in my hands, because interference from Government will be minimal to allow me deliver on the mandate.
On the other hand, I met a couple of competent people at RSSDA, well trained, well educated and well traveled. Most of them had come from the private sector like me. So it was not too difficult bringing private sector experiences. That was how we tackled the challenges we had. We were determined to put our services above our limitations for the betterment of our people.
On the organisational side the challenges were obvious. We tried to review some issues such as the way the programmes were ran, and the impact they had on the people. There was a particular issue that confronted me on arrival, and that was the situation we had in India where many of our students were already aggrieved. They were not happy with the way they were treated in India, especially the condition they met in schools they were sent to study. There were lots of hitches.
We had internal challenges as well. Issues around how we operate, issues around transparency, issues around commitment and delivery. We decided to do a lot of things, and many of the things we did made us to overcome the challenges we met. Today many of the challenges have disappeared. We have an organisation that is running with very minimal risk. We were given specific goals to achieve and we are putting everything in place to achieve those goals.
Your predecessor came from Shell and you are also from Shell, the marriage seems to be between Shell and the Agency and one is tempted to ask; Why Shell?
Let me take us back. What has become RSSDA, began as a programme, The Rivers State Sustainable Development Programme. That programme actually started as a private sector initiative, especially within the oil and gas companies, spearheaded by Shell. The Gulf of Guinea energy security group that was set up at the federal level brought together a number of private sector actors, especially the oil and gas companies. This was done in collaboration, with UK high commission, American embassy, French embassy, as well as NNPC, the federal Government and the nine governments of the Niger Delta States. The purpose of that group was to explore ways to promote sustainable development in the Niger Delta, and to use it as platform of ensuring security. It was in the course of that discussion that it became clear that an institution will be required at the State levels to enhance economic development.
Rivers State Government was one of the first to key into the idea. The government saw the vision, understood the vision and embraced it, then took a step forward to create this programme in the state. Shell was at the forefront of the thinking.
Also in the industry generally, it is accepted that Shell is the leader in the area of sustainable development. To cut a long story short, the Rivers State government was impressed with the way that process evolved. The state Assembly gave its seal when it was presented for debate. So, it was an agency that was established by law. Shell continued to play a role because they were the first to partner with government to provide the technocrats needed for the development of the agency. That was why the first director was appointed from Shell. The intention was for the directorship to be tenured and at the end of each tenure, it is the prerogative of the governor to decide who to appoint next as director. It could be somebody from inside the organsiation, if it had matured enough to produce the kind of people that the governor believes could run the organisation. The governor can also choose someone else from anywhere. It could be Shell, or the oil and gas industry or anywhere. It is the governor’s prerogative to do so. I feel privileged and grateful that the governor chose me. Why me? I don’t know. But I have heard that there were issues raised over the need for an indigene to be at the head. That was one of the reasons that informed the governor’s decision.
But also, throughout my 21 or 22 years career, I have been involved more or less in sustainable development. I have also held managerial positions such as sustainable development manager in Shell. I have also done some academic training in related fields in my masters programme. I expect that some of those may have informed the governors decision. I was involved in the conceptualisation of the agency so I was a bit priviledged to know what the agency was to be about. I was involved in the conceptualization of the agency and is objectives. When I came, I found that the agency had made some progress in that direction. But I also saw that there was a wide gap that needed to be filled to get us more close to the direction we needed to be. What I needed to do was to go back to the foundation of the agency. The foundation of the agency was built around sustainability.
How do we ensure that we can help our people to have an improved lifestyle and good living condition, particularly those who were supposed to live under $1 per day, the so called poor? Sustainability was the main philosophy behind the agency.
The other issue was partnership. We needed to bring partnership as a vehicle to bring the funding into the state, to create an environment that the international community will be confident to come in with their own funds and expertise to help the people. I think this was the key ingredient missing when I arrived. So, I started by setting out a four-pillar programme anchored on internal transformation, we had to renew ourselves. We had to review critical areas that needed more attention. Second pillar was to take another look at our programme portfolio. We needed to review our programmes and priorities, to identify key areas of concern and relative impact. I needed to ensure that our mandate is fulfilled. The third pillar for me was partnership. We had to consider our potential partners as we conceptualised our progammes, so that we don’t go round doing everything by ourselves. We do not have all the fund to do all the things we would like to do. We cannot have all the expertise as well. So partnership became a critical part of the way we operate.
The fourth pillar was market. Our position was simple. If you look at creating value and attaining sustainability for the people, it ends at the market place. If you don’t get the product to the market, then you don’t create value, and it is only by creating value that you keep people in sustainable live hood. So, if we are going to start a project, we ask ourselves, how does that project get to the market? What is the linkage between the point of production and the point of value creation? It has to be visible and clear before you can sell your product. So, those were the four cardinal things that has been my guiding philosophy since I came into the agency. We cannot be satisfied in everything, but I have to say I am happy with the progress we have made so far. Our initiatives have helped to open opportunities for partnership for us. A lot of organsiations come to us. Not just to be on contract, but to bring back to the people to improve their wellbeing.
What are some of the things you have achieved?
When I came into office, I found that the governor had a vision to recreate Songhai farm model which had been a major world acclaimed agricultural interventionist model. We sent some young men and women for training abroad on the project, but the actual work on ground has gone far. The modern facilities and infrastructure had been put in place and in March (next month), work will kick off on the Rivers State Songhai farm at Tai Local Government Area. In fact we are talking about the commissioning, we decided from day one of the flagships, that we must deliver the Songhai project within the specific time we have given to ourselves. The second thing is the schorlarship programme. When we came in, we had this challenge in India. A hundred and seventy eight (178) of our beneficiaries were sent to India to study ICT and they were all sent to one school in India. We found out that it was not a very wise decision, in the sense that they were too many in one school and they got there a little bit late after the students had finished a session. So accommodation became tough. They were given temporary accommodation which wasn’t very good. When I got here, I was not happy, so I asked my general manager human capital development to go and assess things by himself. The report he came back with was very strong. We encouraged our young students there to stay on and complete the year; but the following year we were going to move them all out to other parts of India and put them in several schools. Some of the best schools in India, and that is exactly what we did. And today they are all settled in their various schools. During the holiday period they try to acclimatize with life and culture in India.
In addition, we tackled, headlong, the issue of administration of the scholarship programme. Before my time, we had implementers, the implementers are the ones who look after the students when they arrive in their various countries of learning. We have students in five countries, UK, Canada, Singapore, India, and the Ireland. We have implementers who represent us in those countries, and they are the people who receive money and pay to the students. The scholarship is full scale. It include, tuition, accommodation upkeep and everything. The implementers were like the middlemen between the agency and the students.
To address cases of improper treatment we asked the student to open accounts. We opened an account with First Bank and we then provided funds through the account for students all over the countries every month. We pay school fees directly to the school, but the fees for upkeep of the students now go to their direct accounts. The students are now able to manage their allowances for themselves. We still have implementers, but the implementers now just look after them, not after their monies. It has tremendously improved the scholarship programme. We also enhance our control measures. We, as a matter of policy, decided that if we want to operate a world class institution, we have to operate from a world class perspective. With the kind of challenges I met, it was obvious that we couldn’t internally change ourselves, so we needed help from outside, and that came, and we restructured the organization and sharpened our vision. We created core values and got everybody behind these values. We set up proper financial control. We re-shuffled the system in the sense that, I can be hear with you and everything is going on smoothly in the agency, with clear checks and balances in place. That has helped us also to meet our due process requirements. Because one of the things I considered when I came in was that we will be an agency that will comply with every aspect of due process requirement.
In terms of project delivery, we have done well. Part of our core values is passion for the poor. We always remind ourselves that you can’t do the work you are asked to do if you don’t have passion for the poor. So one of the things we did during Christmas as part of our staff party was to invite a hundred widows through the Ministry of Women Affairs and through an NGO that work with us to empower widow. It wasn’t all about party. We provided them with equipment to enable them go home from that party and start a business of their own. It was a special way of touching the lives of the less priviledged.
Coming from the private to the public sector how have you been coping with bureaucratic bottlenecks and pressure from politicians?
When I came from the private sector, I knew I was going to meet challenges. There were some fears, but I must tell you that they were not as pronounced as I expected, especially in the areas of bureaucratic bottlenecks. One thing about the agency is that, yes it is a public sector, but it is also a private sector. It is a highbreed agency most of the people I met, were private sector people. So the private sector thinking is already in the agency. It wasn’t too difficult to get us to align. Once a direction was clear and people knew and articulated where we were going, it was not difficult at all to get good followership. So, I will say bureaucracy had not been a major challenge for the agency. Secondly, about interferences, I have been fortunate. I don’t feel the pressure. Even in private sector, people come making demands. One response could be to capitulate to the pressure, the other is to stand firm in what you are doing. If your operations and system is structured on principle, then you don’t have much difficulty addressing issues.
Let me give you an example about our scholarship scheme. I have presided over one scholarship programme since I came, and that was the one we did last year. We had 13,000 applications, and we were going to award altogether 300 scholarships from the thirteen thousand. RSSDA on its own does not award 300, the quota that we award is 210, which I manage, this includes strictly the merit team. We also have the governor’s list. So the 13,000 applications was going to be brought down to 210 awards. Every single one of those 210 had to come from a very clear transparent process. The process that we audit and it is open to all to assess and challenge. I have appeared before the House Committee on this matter and I have been able to brief them on what we have done.
Now, why do we have the governors list? We have the governor’s list because the founders of the programme recognized that there will be a number of special cases, where people may not be able to go through the merit list and therefore can appeal to His Excellency for consideration. I don’t run the governor’s list. His Excellency runs that list. So any politicians who comes to me for an award without going through the merit list, that person is referred to the Governor. So they go to the Governor and if they are able to convince him that their case has merit then he would decide what to do. If he decides that the case has merit, he writes to me through the SSG, that is my authority to place the person on the award. And as I tell you this, I haven’t known any person who goes there for his own child, and His Excellency has approved. Because it is clear that this scheme was set up to help the children of the less priviledged get the same opportunity the children of the priviledged have access to. His Excellency only listens to cases of intervention for indigent but brilliant children.
For this year the application had been on since three weeks ago and will end on Friday (February 18, 2011). Forms are never sold. If you have one form, you can photocopy it into hundred. Applications are also done online. We send forms to the 23 local government head quarters. If special interest people come to us, we also make the opportunities open to them. We have a criteria we set for people to be considered in a year. We go through a thorough, screening. Last year when we had 13,000 we screened it down to 9000 which were invited to come and write the exams. Of the 9000, 7,000, showed up. So we tested all 7000 candidates and it was from that 7,000, that the 210 of last year were selected. We had to ensure that there is balance and equity across the state. The first 20 performance irrespective of where you come from get automatic award. The next 184 are given on the basis of 8 award per LGA. Consideration is also given to the physically challenged, and they received the remaining 6 positions on the list.