Nwabunka: Base Pyramid Will Drive Nigeria’s Economic Growth – THISDAY Newspapers

Godwin Nwabunka, founder and CEO of the Grooming Centre, a microfinance-oriented NGO, explains why his entire life is devoted to adding value to human existence, starting with the bottom of the pyramid-he grassroots. He spoke with Nduka Nwosu. Excerpts: 
Godwin Nwabunka radiates simplicity, which easily connects him with his staff of 3500 in 27 states across the country. Through his life’s work, he has provided opportunities to hundreds of thousands of homes. You can say his simplicity belies his accomplishments since he founded the Grooming Centre, an NGO microfinance institution headquartered in Ejigbo, Lagos.
Since inception, the Centre has groomed millions of clients to enhance their livelihoods using financial and non-financial services, and has provided jobs for thousands of young people, a talent hunter for the next generation.
What makes the Centre tick? Nwabunka’s early beginnings tell the story better. Nwabunka is a development economist, whose PhD at the Pontifical Gregory University in Rome explored the finer details of appropriate technologies for small and medium enterprise development, using Imo State as his universe. That was in 1983.
He had earlier written his Master’s thesis on the behavioral patterns of people at the workplace. Working with the United Nations at the UNDP and UNICEF equipped him with a better understanding of the activities of the small and medium enterprises as well as issues of education and the upbringing of children. Nature, it seemed, was preparing him for a great assignment.
As he put it, it was more like driving a change process. “When I started the Centre, what I did was to try to build a team that would provide support to the growth of a viable institution, drawing on my experience of leading the implementation of the UNDP Micro-start programme in Nigeria, which provided support to the nascent microfinance institutions in the country.
“In the early days, I received a lot of advice and support from my friend Shafiqual Haque Choudhury, who was the founder of the Association for Social Advancement (ASA) Bangladesh, which was the Technical Partner on the Micro start Projects and also the fastest growing microfinance institution in the world at that time.”
Now, in defining the Grooming Centre, the global roots which include Bangladesh must not be allowed to overshadow the experience from the homeland. The Centre’s growth is indeed a story of the Nigerian experience, driven by a mission to empower MSMEs in the informal sector of the economy, a dialogue that has spanned over three decades at various levels of government.
It became a vibrant discourse in the 1980s after the establishment of such agencies as the Centre for Management Development, a training and research ground for a new breed of disciples designed to sow the seeds that would produce the right results for the growth of these SMEs across the country. Nwabunka was one such disciple who eventually moved on to acquire knowledge and experience in other equally notable institutions.
Nwabunka was inspired by his mother, who was both a farmer and a trader, and used thrift and savings to contribute to the household income. This culture comes in different dimensions such as ‘esusu’ or ‘ajoo’ depending on the part of Nigeria. you are coming from Either way, the idea is to empower individual group contributors with pooled funds in an equitable and rotatory manner, while building social cohesion among participants. Grooming Centre’s operations are rooted in these principles but operated using modern processes and digital tools.
Grooming’s clients are the traders you find at Tejuosho, Oyingbo, Ogbete markets, Ariara in Aba, Idumota, Wuse, Dugbe et al. They are welders, plumbers, tuck shop operators; small businesses across various supply chains. They are very active businessmen and women who generate billions if not trillions of naira sustaining the economy and constitute a large chunk of the base pyramid. For example, during a project executed with the Mastercard Centre for Financial Inclusion, 300 Grooming Centre clients who had been provided with inventory management software were found to have generated over one-billion-naira turnover in one quarter.
Therefore, he argues, when policy frameworks are being developed, the input of this important segment must be taken into consideration. As he put it: “it tells you the power of the bottom of the pyramid and the informal sector. If this is happening within a small sample of 300, can you imagine what goes on in the entire sector? If you aggregate this, you can see the volume of trade going on that is unaccounted for.
“So, when policies are being made for the development of this sector, a top-down approach focusing on the role and needs of big players such as banks, insurers and quoted companies is not comprehensive enough. Consultation with the actual players at the base and their service providers should be the basis for such policy formulation.”
That justifies the more expansive definition of Grooming Centre, by addressing the near absence of financial services to the large population of people engaged in small trading and micro productive activities across the country. “We are committed to promoting financial inclusion and empowering our members.” The Centre’s financial services, he adds, are backed up with training programmes, advisory services, and close monitoring. With 605 branches and thousands of members, Grooming Centre is an evidence of little drops of water making an ocean.
Nwabunka is actively involved in the Ministry of Doing Good. According to him, poverty is a bane, a disease and when you educate people, you remove them from the poverty cycle. Sickness and disease are enemies of progress, he argues. When these three issues – poverty, illiteracy, and disease, which are obstacles to progress are removed, the sky becomes the limit in accessing the good things of life. This is a cardinal cornerstone of his personal approach to philanthropy.
A devout Catholic, an altar server at Mass growing up, Nwabunka is a collector who helps to count tithes and offerings in his local parish. In response to a question on why he has embarked on the journey that birthed Grooming Centre is the familiar religious refrain: to the glory of God and the benefit of humankind. He follows up that response with a probing question: what shall it profit a man if he acquires the entire earth at the expense of his eternity?
“It is just my personal philosophy,” he stresses, saying it has nothing to do with wealth acquisition and primitive capitalism. “Yes, I love the good things of life, of course everyone does. The fact, however, is that it does not take so much of you to live the good life. So, unbridled wealth acquisition, which you may not really need, and which is to the detriment of everyone, does not appeal to me.
“To the glory of God, my career has placed me on a path where affluence is not an attraction. I ask: ‘why does anyone need money?’ You need money to live in a good house, raise a good family, pay children’s school fees, and ensure they attend some of the best schools in the world. A decent environment where you help to create wealth will offer these possibilities. The truth is that if you are involved in wealth creation or one activity or the other that is for the good of society, the good things of life will surely rub off on you. I have always had this orientation working for the United Nations.
“You can do good and have your necessities taken care of. We are following a certain trajectory here, which is to build an institution that will outlast or outlive the founder and all those involved in the building process, to the greater good of humanity. That is where we are headed.”
The idea behind the Grooming Centre, he says, is one of a sustainable, self-driven organisation that will live beyond him, what he calls an orientation from the very beginning when he was groomed to be a fisher of men: “It is an orientation, the same reason I do not believe in a lot of things such as chieftaincy titles, things people pursue and miss the heart of the matter in the process.
“Many have become blinded by these vain pursuits of adulation and material acquisitions; they prefer praise and self aggrandisement. In the church I prefer to be a faithful servant of the Lord, which is what I do as a member of the Board of Collectors.”
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