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Controversy As Youwin Connect Trainees Accuse Buhari Government Of 'Deceit'.

Young Nigerians trained to become small business owners under the federal programme, YouWin Connect, have accused the government of denying them funding after the programme as earlier promised.

But the government says at no time did it promise participants any offer of start-up grants for their businesses at the end of their training.

In a protest letter to President Muhammadu Buhari, a copy of which was sent to PREMIUM TIMES, representatives of the over 5,000 young Nigerians accused the government of deceit.

The youth under the platform, “2017 YouWiN Master Class Attendees”, urged the president to urgently intervene and ensure officials did not turn the programme into “a monumental government-sponsored scam.”

They said what they got at the end of the programme last March fell far short of what they were promised before they decided to enlist in the scheme in 2017.

Their grievances
Representatives of the aggrieved youth, Temitope Babalola and Rita Nduonofit, told PREMIUM TIMES at inception they were made to believe successful participants would not only receive certification of participation, but also funding for their startups or existing businesses.

The one-year business development funding support was to be based on an approved business plan submitted for consideration by designated experts at the completion of the training.

Besides, they said participants were made to believe, in addition to government funding, their businesses would be introduced to some development financing institutions (DFIs) for further funding support.

“All who attended the training were with the mind that having scaled the hurdle of competition to be selected, successful finalists would benefit from federal government funding in the form of equity funding,” Mr Babalola told our reporter.

Finance Minister speaks
In a Youtube video in the YouWiN Connect website, the finance minister, Kemi Adeosun, described YouWiN Connect as a rebranded version of the youth enterprise scheme initiated by the immediate past Goodluck Jonathan administration.

She said to ensure YouWiN Connect made the difference, the scheme was repositioned to give every participant access to online training and knowledge, while government will provided support through equity funding.

“This (equity funding) is a different type of funding,” the minister pointed out. “Equity funding is where government is saying it will come in with a fund manager; it will invest and it will take a share in the business, and as you grow, you buy us out and we take that money and invest in the next person.”

The missing links
The petitioners said what YouWiN Connect representatives told participants at the end of the training last March was different.

They said the officials informed them the finalists were not entitled to any funding, as that was not part of what the scheme was about.

Besides, they said the officials also said only about ₦2.5 billion was set aside under a different arrangement called “Series 1 funding” that would be open to all Nigerian youth, including those who did not participate in the YouWiN Connect training.

“Our fear in the new arrangement is that there is little or no preference for the 5,000 acclaimed winners who emerged finalists at the end of the training. At the end, only very few participants’ businesses, if any, will be funded,” Mr Babalola said.

“Participants are concerned. It is quite disheartening, discouraging and highly deceptive for 5,000 acclaimed winners to have left their homes, families, businesses, bearing their cost of transportation, hotel accommodation and logistics for mere training and certification.”

For Ms Nduonofit, there seems to be no benefit for the winners to look forward to, for all their sacrifices during the training and to emerge as winners at the national, regional and state stages of the scheme.

“Of what benefit is business knowledge without capital to execute it?” Ms Nduonofit lamented. “Some of the participants left their businesses to enlist in the training with the hope of getting government funding at the end to expand their operations.”

YouWiN Connect process
The training process follows three stages – registration/application/selection; online training (accelerator phase I) and Masterclass training (accelerator phase II).

In the first stage, applications are invited from aspiring entrepreneurs to register through an online portal to participate in the scheme. After a review, qualified applicants are shortlisted for the next phase.

In the next phase, participants receive tailored generic online training in various aspects of entrepreneurship and business modules in planning, access to finance, access to markets, competitiveness, business strategy, and mindset change.

At the end of the training, 5,000 successful candidates would qualify to participate in a masterclass face-to-face industry specific training based on various cluster hubs across the country.

The clusters include information & communication technology, agriculture/agro-processing, fashion, manufacturing & retail and construction.

On completion of the third phase, apart from a certificate of participation, each participant submits a business plan articulating areas his/her business would require improvement.
But, the narrative from the youth’s experience is different. They accused officials of back-tracking on the promise they were given at inception.

“Mr President, we are utterly scandalized by the blatant denial by the Finance Ministry that this scheme has anything to do with providing grant or any kind of funding whatsoever to the eventual winners of the programme,” the aggrieved youth said in their protest letter.

Protest march
Months after the training, and concerned about the dearth of reliable information on the issue, Ms Nduonofit said letters were written to several agencies seeking clarification.

When no satisfactory explanations came, she said they marched to the Ministry of Finance in Abuja on July 31 to protest.

The ministry reacted later through its spokesperson, Hassan Dodo, who assured them that their grievances would soon be settled.

No promise on funding
However, the director in charge of YouWiN Connect, Dennis Chukwu, denied any promise was made to any participant for automatic funding.

“This is an enterprise education and capacity building programme. If you look at the website carrying adverts on the programme, nowhere did we promise anybody there will be funding, in terms of grant (to participants),” he told PREMIUM TIMES.

Mr Chukwu noted that grant was attached to YouWiN 1 and 2 (under the previous administration), which organised as a business competition programme.

After the present administration took over, he said the programme was restructured into YouWiN Connect, an enterprise education programme to impart business skills to participants.

Prior to restructuring, the director said a committee, comprising representatives of donor agencies, like World Bank and DFID, along with Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment and the beneficiaries, reviewed the former YouWiN.

One key issue the administration raised from the review was lack of money to give grants, which involved giving money without expecting people to pay back.

The director said equity investment funding was adopted as option, with fund managers to be selected to assess Nigerian youth with business capacity, or entrepreneurial skills, to invest either in their start-up or existing businesses.

He said the managers would hold the businesses and ensure they were successful until a time they were able to pay back the money, which would be rolled over to another beneficiary to allow the process continue.

On the grievances of the protesting youth, Mr Chukwu said their concerns on funding had nothing to do with the training they had.

“Yes, things are being delayed, because of the way things work (bureaucracy). But, I think some people (the youth) are just impatient. Nobody has changed anything. The process of setting up a fund cannot be done overnight. It has to follow the public procurement process.

“The company to manage the fund with a co-investment model (where government will contribute 80 per cent and equity investor contributes 20 per cent) has already been established.

“The ministry has just appointed two equity fund managers. We are reviewing the agreements. Once the legal department is satisfied, the agreement will be signed.

“Also, we are in the process of signing an agreement with the equity investor and the co-investors to the fund. Once the agreements are signed, the company to be formed will be registered under the Lagos State Private Liability Company,” Mr Chukwu explained.

When the process of establishing the company is completed, the director said the appointed fund managers, who are also the fund custodians, would access all entrepreneurs’ businesses and ensure the custody of the fund was secured.

“There will be legal representatives, in case of any legal issues that will need to be resolved.
Mr Chukwu said over 250,000 applications were received for the scheme, from where about 150,000 met the guidelines.
The successful applicants were sent to the Enterprise Development Centre of the Lagos Business School (LBS), which developed the training modules and created the online training platform.
Although about 61,000 actually participated in phase 1 of the training, the LBS had to select only 5,000 adjudged to be best performers to participate in the month-long online sector-specific training in 25 clusters across the country’s six geo-political zones.
The specific training clusters covered ICT, fashion, construction, retail and agriculture. At the end, the 5,000 master-class training finalists, consisting 518 national; 1,428 state and 3,000 regional merit winners, were issued certificates for superior performance.

Certificates not enough
But, the protesting youth say their understanding before enlisting in the scheme was beyond the certificates.

“The certificates were to confer a certain advantage on their holders, that having participated in the training and acquired the requisite business skills and knowledge, we were better equipped and qualified for whatever funding government promised,” Mr Babalola said.

According to him, asking the 5,000 finalists to submit their business plan through a new portal to be opened for all Nigerian youth, including those who did not participate in the training, guarantees little or no chance for them to receive the Series 1 funding.

“We are Nigerians. We know how things work here. Government should give us whatever funding, whether a grant or equity. Asking people who did not participate in the training along with the certified 5,000 finalists to also submit business proposal for the Series 1 funding is a panacea for fraud and confusion,” Mr Babalola said.

For Mr Chukwu, the certificates conferred an edge on their holders over others, with the knowledge they acquired through their participation in the training.

Regardless, the director insists their emergence as finalists after participating in the training did not limit prospective beneficiaries of the equity funding to them alone.

“Some people already have stereotype mind that, because the previous YouWiN was a business competition, where external assessors selected winners and give them grants, it should be the same with YouWiN Connect where nobody has anything to win.

“Once the equity funding company is established, it will be put in the website again for every Nigerian youth to apply, including the 5,000 participants. It is open to all Nigerians, including those who did not participate in the sector-specific training scheme,” Mr Chukwu said.