Health and safety awareness: elixir for foreign investment

Nigeria needs a welcoming environment to encourage both local and foreign investors to participate in the economy. Occupational health and safety awareness is one of its key enablers.

With the Nigerian economy out of recession, the Nigerian currency, Naira, falling and oil prices decreasing by over 50 per cent in the last couple of years, there are no prizes for guessing that the Nigerian economy is on a slippery slope and desperately needs a ‘shot in the arm’. Essentially, the country needs an enabling environment to encourage both local and foreign investors to participate in the economy and help it navigate away from being a mono-product economy.

The Nigerian government is right to prioritise diverting the economy. But besides a well-thought out and carefully implemented diversification strategy, to ensure financial viability, there are other key enablers that could oil the wheels of the process, namely, reorientation, regulation, compliance and occupational health and safety awareness.

All these are important parts of the jigsaw puzzle and catalysts that would reassure investors their ventures would not go up in flames overnight. Any country that ignores health and safety and security, does so at its own peril, as an unsafe and unsecure business environment will repel investors and damage all business.

Nigeria’s security challenges and complacent approach to health and safety issues are well known internationally. There is a perception, both real and unreal, of an unsecure and unsafe country. When foreign companies are deciding to access international markets as part of their international growth strategy, many prefer to go to India or to one of the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, for example the United Arab Emirates, and sometimes consciously decide to avoid Nigeria. 

Investment in health and education is essential to economic development. Photograph: iStock/FG Trade

Regardless of this situation, some European leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Macron and the UK prime minister Theresa May have visited Nigeria recently. This means that the potential of the country is recognised, and some investment opportunities may come. So, it’s time for Nigeria to pull itself up by its bootstraps and implement robust health and safety initiatives.

Security and safety challenges, such as Boko Haram insurgence, kidnapping, vandalism, armed robbery, poor infrastructure, poor building control, high level of avoidable accidents, fraudsters etc, are working against Nigeria’s reputation and some rebuttal action needs to be put in place quickly. Hence, probably the India experience and model could be the ‘silver bullet’.

India and Nigeria share numerous similar health and safety challenges. With  a complex legislative framework, inadequate implementation, no legislation to protect the vast workforce in unorganised sectors, the availability of cheap labour, a multiplicity of statutory controls on health and safety matters without proper ownership, the scenario is far from attractive.

Similarly, in both countries there is a poor health and safety culture, no incentive for it within business, apathy among stakeholders due to the lack of importance given to health and safety in either education or employment. ‘Your safety is your problem’ is an attitude well embedded.

Health and safety initiatives could reassure investors in Nigeria. Photograph: iStock/peeterv

There is also a lack of infrastructure to support better health and safety outcomes, meagre public spending on health (only 4.7 per cent of GDP in recent years), and structural problems for both training new professionals and enforcing compliance. Sometimes, basic safety norms such as wearing hard hats at a construction site, high visibility vests, protective clothes, goggles, etc. are completely absent.

Despite their differences, India could be, in some ways, a reference to ascertain whether Nigeria could use some of its economic initiatives, including an improved approached to occupational health and safety to boost investment. Some of them have now helped to propel India’s economy to become the world’s sixth largest by nominal GDP and the third largest by purchasing power parity.

The Indian case

During past decades, multiple initiatives have created a conducive environment for foreign investment in India, which is expected to boost growth in 25 key sectors including automobiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, construction, manufacturing, machinery, textiles, ports, mining and energy. Typically, increased foreign investment has led to requirements to adhere to international standards of quality in all aspects of operations, including occupational health and safety.

With a population of more than 1.3 billion people, India is a naturally attractive market to foreign investors, due to its sheer size, cheap labour and business opportunities. But an enabling environment to invest in is key.

Following the economic reforms of 1991, India became one of the fastest growing major economies. Between 2006 and 2016, India’s GDP grew at the fastest pace in its economic history at 7.6 per cent and at 7.1 per cent in 2015–16. The ease of doing business and the transparency index have also risen significantly in past years.

Two initiatives introduced by India are interesting enough to be considered by Nigeria. One of them is ‘Make in India’, a major national programme launched in 2014 designed to facilitate investment, foster innovation, enhance skill development, protect intellectual property and build a best-in-class manufacturing infrastructure in the country.

‘Smart cities’, launched in 2015, and under the remit of the Ministry of Urban Development, is an urban renewal and retro-fitting programme with a mission to develop 100 cities by making them citizen-friendly and sustainable. Smart cities are projected to be equipped with basic infrastructure offering a good quality of life.

The two initiatives have leant on foreign health and safety experts, who have helped to support the government to create and drive health and safety legislation to all sectors, especially the informal one. An improved awareness of health and safety function among stakeholders across the government and in the private sector have been driving change in organisational culture to proactively focus more on health, safety and environment outcomes. They have also contributed to a rapid development of infrastructure to support the training of the next generation of professionals.

A win for Nigeria

Nigeria needs to try and learn from these Indian initiatives with a view to applying them where and when possible. However, some framework needs to be in place first.

The Nigerian government needs to legislate meticulously on health and safety issues. A government agency, equivalent to the Health and Safety Executive in the UK, needs to be set up with the relevant statutory powers, to be responsible for regulation, education/awareness, training, support, advice and guidance. At the moment, no single agency or ministry is responsible for health and safety in the Nigeria. I believe the Institute of Safety Professionals of Nigeria (ISPON) is instrumental in this regard.

Nigeria will also need to partner with an international health and safety body such as the British Safety Council and leverage their expertise. Some members of the British Safety Council in Nigeria are exemplars of occupational health and safety practices, or at least have the improvement of labour standards at the top of their agendas.

Hopefully, with some investment and health and safety initiatives in place, investors will feel reassured to invest in Nigeria and help the country to achieve an economic diversification strategy and, consequently, make sure Nigerian citizens are safe and healthy. Working towards their mental health and wellbeing should also be on the agenda.

This can only be a win for a well, diverse and diversified Nigeria.

Ronke Adeagbo is non-executive director of the British Safety Council