Moses Umoru is the Director-General of the Franco-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce, a position he occupied in 2017 when he was just 27. It was the first time a young person would run that office, so, understandably, there were doubts about his capacity to deliver.
Fast forward to 2022, Moses has proven the naysayers wrong and surpassed his employer’s expectations with the innovative strategies he has deployed. The Chamber is now adjudged the most active bilateral Chamber of Commerce in Nigeria.
In this interview with Business Elites Africa, Moses talks in-depth about how the Chamber equips thousands of Nigerian entrepreneurs with financing, knowledge and the right skills to scale their startups. He also shares how his team forges mutually beneficial relationships between the startups and fortune 500 companies in the Chambers’ ecosystem.
BEA: SMEs are the lifeblood of any economy, how is the Franco-Nigeria chamber of commerce help Nigerian startups succeed?
MOSES UMORU: As you have mentioned already, startups are very essential to the economic growth of developing economies. From our research, we discovered that over 80% of businesses in Nigeria belong to this category. And in terms of employment, if you look at the GDP figures, over 48% of the contribution to the GDP comes from the startups alone.
The French government has an agenda to support the growth of startups in the country. And then, we have a membership structure within the CCI France-Nigeria. In 2020, we opened a free membership category for startups in line with the French government agenda. No financial commitment is required from them.
Over the years, we’ve had big companies like Total, Schneider electric UBA, Union Bank and the rest as our (paid) members. We believe that if we put startups into our ecosystem and give them the necessary support, they will become the future fortune 500 companies.
We have organised trade exhibitions strictly for startups. We’ve organised a series of technical training for them. I discovered that when some of these SMEs came on board, they were not even registered businesses. So we told them that the incentive to join this ecosystem is to go back and register their business.
Through this, we brought many startups into the corporate structure as most startups in Nigeria fall into the informal category. They just do business with no corporate structure and no regulatory requirements. They don’t even pay taxes to the government. And we are saying, yes, if you really want to contribute to economic growth, you have to pay taxes. If you’re going to get those contracts within our member structure, you have to register your business and all. This is because we link the startups to other membership categories. I’ll come back to that.
Also, we work in collaboration with Business France and the French Development Agency (AFD). The AFD has the funding system for these startups through the Digital Africa Initiative. Once they come here and we have discovered that they have registered their business and met the regulatory requirements, we refer them to AFD to help them with funding so they can scale up their brand.
Now that’s one side of it; the other side is that they (startups) benefit from the ecosystem. Currently, we have three startups working with CFAO Motors, taking parts of some of their used cars and converting them it other forms of energy.
We also have other startups collaborating with big brands like Total. Currently, Schneider is working with a few members of the startup category. So we have created that bridge between these young businesses and the existing chamber members, and they’re doing business together. That’s exactly what we call real impact.
BEA: What are the requirements for startups to join the category?
MOSES UMORU: Be a registered company. And, of course, we cannot open it to every sector of the economy. We’re looking at the critical sectors of the Nigerian economy. For example, we’re looking at tech, agricultural lifestyle and culture. The tech falls into Agritech and every level of tech, as long as you integrate technology into your business, which is the future of trade.
Agriculture is from production to creating value from the agricultural produce. That’s the whole value chain. And then to lifestyle and culture, when it comes to clothes making and the rest.
Since we opened the startup category, we’ve received over 500 applications. However, we are still working on it to ensure that these are the right types of businesses coming to join the ecosystem.
BEA: Many startup founders also complain about the bottlenecks in accessing some of the business funds. How do you make this easy for them?
MOSES UMORU: That is why, before we send them in for financing. We do technical training for them with our partners, KPMG and PWC. They train them on how to structure their business and to ensure they dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s. For example, we just had the last training in early June, and we talked about how to structure their financial record even if they are not making a profit yet. Most startups will complain about the banks rejecting applications because their books are incorrect. That’s exactly what we’re correcting so that they can scale through when we put them up for funding. The funding is available, but your business must look valuable on paper. That is very important.
BEA: Do the startups have to be profitable before they can access the funding?
MOSES UMORU: Not at all. It’s just the business prospect, but we need to see viability in the business. Your short-term, medium-term and long-term plans must be clear. And, of course, the fact that you are providing solutions in critical sectors of the Nigerian economy is important.
In 2021, we were on the panel for the selection of startups that went to France for the African France Summit. We took 15 Nigerian startups to France for that event. These startups are providing services when it comes to clean energy and waste to wealth. They are converting waste to energy. They’re creating value for agricultural produce and exporting to other countries. So those companies were not profitable on paper, but they have prospects, and we must be able to showcase them. Access to funding is very important, but it is even more critical to give them visibility, so partners that can provide them with better funding and grant.
BEA: Many say Nigeria is a harsh place to do business. In your experience, what are the real issues?
MOSES UMORU: Infrastructure! Power, for example, takes 55% cost based on our research. So, imagine if the power issue is dealt with irrespective of the cost of grid power. We discover that it can go as low as 20% of the business cost, giving businesses a chance to employ more people and expand.
The Nigerian government needs to allow full privatisation in that sector. You cannot privatise the Distribution Companies (DISCOs) and say the government will still hold the transmission companies. No, let there be full privatisation. Let the sector be private-sector driven. In the same way the whole value chain in the communications sector is fully privatised, we need to do the same for power, and you’ll see that things will be better.
The next one is road – access to moving products and services around the country. It’s a fundamental problem. We understand that the Lagos State rail project is coming up soon, we commend the state government for doing that, but more can be done. Even the existing roads should be fixed. Beyond Lagos, look at other states, are there good access roads? Is there s rail system? These things need to be looked into.
Lastly, insecurity is a significant problem. I said on another platform that the government is running the economy as though it’s a portfolio management system where you think that if an item is doing well, other items will do well. That’s not how government works. Everything has to work in tandem.
For example, a state of insecurity, even when there is proper infrastructure, can spoil every other thing. And that is where Nigeria is now. It’s not just in the Northeast; it’s coming to the South. We hear the issue of IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) and other pockets of violent agitations. And it’s even coming to the west. Let me just give you straight up, the real fear from international investors, not just from France, but the whole of Europe, is the state of insecurity in Nigeria. They’re like, yes, the market is big, a 200 million market and a very strong young population, but the thing is, are we safe? They say, ‘we can’t just invest and walk away. We need to be on the ground. Are we safe when we come?
Thank God for what the French ambassador to Nigeria, Her Excellency Emmanuelle Blatmann, is doing. She’s moving from one state to another to have a feel of what is actually happening. And the last time we discussed, she told me that what they hear in France is totally different from what is on the ground in Nigeria.
They are saying that the whole of Nigeria is practically a red zone. But she has gone to a few Northern states; she has been to Kano, Kaduna, Abuja and other southwest and south-south states. And she has seen things for herself that, yes, we know that insecurity is there, but it’s not as bad as it is being projected outside Nigeria.
We are working on changing the perception and at the same time, advocating that government looks into these things and nip it in the board as soon as possible.
BEA: So are you saying potential investors have nothing to be afraid of in Nigeria regarding security?
MOSES UMORU: There is a lot to be afraid of. That is why we’re advocating that the government look into the insecurity issue. Lagos is not the only place to do business. 80% to 85% of French companies are domiciled in Lagos and a few in Abuja, Port Harcourt and some northern states. The opportunities in Nigeria are very wide. Other states have potentials in terms of minerals and agriculture. If the government can deal with the issue of insecurity in Nigeria, and there is confidence that this has been dealt with, trust me, the level of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflow in Nigeria would definitely double over the next 2, 3, 4 years.
BEA: From what you know, in terms of foreign investment, especially with French business, should Nigeria be worried?
MOSES UMORU: Of course, Nigeria has to be worried. Nigeria has to be worried because the perception of Nigeria in the international business community is very bad. For example, we’re hearing of the issue of Nnamdi Kanu, the killings in the north, and the latest one with the Christian girl who was killed for insulting Prophet Mohammed.
These things tend to make the news out there while the Chamber of Commerce is trying to project Nigeria as a viable place to do business. These kinds of information frustrate this PR effort.
But the beauty is that French businesses remain in Nigeria. None has left. The people are shouting that Total is living, which is not true. If you’re divesting some aspect of your downstream and pushing more investment in the middlestream and upstream, that’s a better investment in Nigeria. So Total is investing more in Nigeria.
BEA: Let’s come back to startups. In your experience, what do you think Nigerian startups need to do to maximise the opportunities we’ve talked about?
MOSES UMORU: Startups should be ready to do business for the long haul. In my experience with most startups, they come and just want money. They don’t have proper business articulation. They need to understand the business solutions they are providing, and articulating them is key.
Most of the time, you hear that I need money. I need money. And then you ask them, what do you want the money for? And they don’t even know what they want the money for.
And also, they come with unregistered businesses. Thank God for the ease of being business agenda from the Federal Government, making business registration a bit cheaper than before. You can also register your business online and get a certificate in a few weeks. So these startups should be business-ready and have a long-term, perspective as far as their business is concerned.
BEA: Do you have any special programs for tech startups?
MOSES UMORU: Beyond the funding, which goes through AFD, there is what we call La French Tech. It’s a global tech exhibition that holds in France every year. It is designed for young tech entrepreneurs (30 years and below). They go to France annually to showcase what they have, and President Emmanuel Macron is always in attendance. So right now, we are trying to push a few Nigerian companies to be at that exhibition yearly. That would open doors of opportunities for them.
So beyond money, we give you that kind of platform, and maybe you get Venture Capitalists there and there that could inject millions of Euros into your business. And that’s where the real impact is. It’s not just giving you N10 million, for example, giving you access to get a hundred million.
BEA: President Macron recently approved $30 million for African startups; what part of that money comes to Nigeria?
MOSES UMORU: Based on the information I have with AFD, over N3.3 billion of that money has already been disbursed to Nigerian startups. Startups can access that fund through the Digital Africa Initiative. They come here, and we refer them to that initiative. And of course, before we refer them, we must ensure that the business is standardised.
BEA: Older folks traditionally occupy your position as the DG of a Chamber of Commerce; what prepared you for the role?
MOSES UMORU: My background is in finance, at BSC and MBA level. I started my career from the Nigeria Stock Exchange. So I’ve been talking about the financial market a lot and have written many articles about it. I have seen the Nigerian market from the portfolio investment side of things, and coming to the Chamber of Commerce gave me a broader insight into the Foreign Direct Investment side of it, the real investment side of it, knowing the companies that are setting up shops in Nigeria and International businesses and diplomacy, and how it works. So my finance background made it a smooth ride but not without challenges.
BEA: Tell us about the challenges.
MOSES UMORU: Of course, having a young person sitting in this position is unconventional. I started sitting here at 27. I was in an Acting capacity from 2017 to 2019. Being the first time having a young person in this position has actually changed the perception. For example, if you want to research the Franco-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce, you’ll begin to see things from 2017. The Chamber at a lot before then, but nobody knows what has been done.
So bringing a young person with innovative strategies and having a young team is very good, especially if you know what you’re doing. So, line this up, I think the Nigerian government should begin to advocate for young people in critical positions because they’re innovative. They are agile, and agility in management means that you eliminate bureaucratic bottlenecks in getting things done. You’re getting it done faster and more efficiently.
Young people don’t like to hear things like ‘this is how we do things here’. Efficiency is our watchword as long as you’re not breaching corporate governance and regulations. If you’re working around the rules and making things better, that’s fine. This is definitely what we have done so far, which is why we have been rated the most active bilateral Chamber of Commerce.
BEA: Do you think being young influenced the Chamber’s focus on young entrepreneurs?
MOSES UMORU: Yes, of course. Even in my youth service, I had a project for young people. So I’ve always had this passion for developing young entrepreneurs in Nigeria. Bringing that same passion down here was very easy for me to defend in front of the board. The Chamber is even considering setting up the CCI France Nigeria foundation. We want to do more for startups outside the umbrella of the Chamber of Commerce. We want to make it a special purpose vehicle.
For example, we are looking at getting a business hub, where these young startups can, without having to pay for rent or access to internet facility, be able to talk to each other and have a hope to run their businesses for maybe a period of two years before they go out. So these are things we’re looking at. As far as the foundation is concerned, it’s still in discussion with the board. We hope that it scales through.
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