Like the proverbial mustard seed, the West Africa Insurance Institute (WAII) established in 1978 to provide middle-level manpower for the insurance industry in five Anglophone countries in West Africa has, undoubtedly, become one of the foremost insurance institutions in Africa. This feat, however, is not without some challenges that have variously been overcome by the Institute over the years. In this interview with TOPE ADARAMOLA, the Public Relations Officer of the Nigerian Council of Registered Brokers (NCRIB), the Director-General of WAII, Prof. Michael Ikupolati spoke on a number of issues bordering on the Institution and insurance development in West Africa, among others. Excerpt:
How far has the West African Insurance Institute (WAII) contributed to human resources development, especially as it concerns insurance in the West African sub-region?
The West African Insurance Institute (WAII) was established in 1978 for the purpose of creating a common front for providing human resources development capacity, especially at the middle level management for the insurance industry in the five Anglophone countries in West Africa. Earlier, in the existence of WAII, it even extended to other English- speaking African countries, including Uganda and Zimbabwe.
As we talk at the moment, WAII has trained over 4,000 middle- level manpower for the insurance industry; and those who started since 1978 are in high places. In fact, the Institute is one of the surest ways of providing professionally qualified manpower for the industry in West Africa. It is a thing of delight that even the President of Sierra Leone, President Bai Koroma, is an alumnus of the College. Four of the ministers from that country are also products of the Institute.
As we speak, aside from the Commissioner for Insurance in Nigeria, all other commissioners from the English-Speaking West African countries are products of the College. In Liberia, all the Managing Directors passed through the WAII ditto Sierra Leone. In Gambia here, except one, all the other 11 passed through WAII. Consequently, it could be said that the real development of insurance in terms of capacity is produced by the Institute.
What are the challenges facing the Institute?
When the Institute started 30 years ago, it was a monolithic institution with students coming in to spend only one year to study insurance and they would go after obtaining a diploma in insurance. But when I took over the institute in 2003, I looked for both forward and backward integration by starting the IFC, which is a backward integration to make people qualify to come for the WAII; and later, I also introduced about 10 other courses.
Today, in collaboration with some renowned universities in the continent and the United States of America, we have introduced post-graduate studies. So, after graduating from the WAII, you can do Masters in Business Administration and Business Leadership business leadership or even Ph. D online.
The Institute has expanded beyond insurance and that is why two years ago, the Board agreed that the Institute should be transformed into a university to be named WAII University of Insurance and Financial Services. We are going through tutelage now with the University of South Africa to ensure this vision comes to pass by year 2015. We are incorporating all financial services courses into our scheme.
The major challenges we have today is funding, as the government of the five countries, except Nigeria, are not meeting their financial obligations regularly; so, the students’ enrolment is also dwindling. We used to have about 60, but it went down to about 26. This year, we have 46, which is the highest since I joined the Institution. We need more inflow of funds to support the school and more students to take advantage of the institution.
What have you done to enhance public awareness about WAII?
As for students’ enrolment, most of them are sponsored by companies, but we have begun to introduce and welcome privately sponsored students. We have embarked on advertising in all the five countries so that we can have more private students. But for the sponsored students, I can say that there is no insurance company in the whole of West Africa that does not know of WAII. We write letters to them every year for their nominations to the institute. But there are still people outside the industry that should know that they could privately sponsor their children or wards to the school; and that is the area we are looking out for. With this, we know that the number will increase astronomically.
In the last 10 years, you have been in The Gambia; so, how will you compare Insurance practice and business in Nigeria with what you have here in Gambia?
As a professional, I like to say that the level of insurance activities in terms of penetration is higher in Nigeria than in the Gambia. The population in the Gambia is just about 1.5 million, but Nigeria is far more in terms of volume or insurance density. But when we talk about penetration in terms of proportion, there are more people that are aware and ready to insure in The Gambia than Nigeria.
Many people in The Gambia are aware about the value of insurance, but what is limiting them is the volume of their disposable income, which is a major consideration for insurance. The per capital income is quite low compared to Nigeria. But if you remove that, the people are highly knowledgeable about insurance. When I came into the country, I introduced insurance clubs in all the secondary schools and we also conceived the national essay competition in such a way that whoever comes first, second or third is given scholarship by WAII to read insurance.
So, all over the country, they participate enthusiastically in that competition. Last year, the theme was insurance and agricultural development. Also, every Saturday, we sponsor a radio programme tagged Una Good Morning!, where wide-ranging questions are fielded on insurance; and I anchor the programme.
What do you see to the desire by many underwriting companies to establish their presence in The Gambia, in spite of her size?
The major attraction is the fact that the people are insurance-conscious. So, if you come with an insurance product that is novel and ingenious, they may buy. It appears easy to reach the people here than in Nigeria. You have many companies coming to partner with companies here and begin to do well.
However, I am not too optimistic that in terms of volume you can get anything. I used to say that why should a company in Nigeria venture out when it has not covered the 36 states in the country? Take for insurance, there are just about 1.2 million people in the whole of Gambia, but there is definitely no state in Nigeria that is not more that this population. I am an advocate of the Blue Ocean strategy which postulates that your emphasis should be on those areas that are not yet contested or under-explored. The volume of business you can get in Oyo and Rivers States can be 10 times greater than what you can get in many West African countries. Why then are they going out and what are they going out to do? No real justification for going out.
However, I want to believe that most of them undertake this business adventure because size is a factor; the spread of the company may confer an advantage on such in the event of an unfavourable legislation or market condition, which may not possibly affect all the branches at the same time. If there is saturation in one country, it may not affect the other. Also, if there is an underwriting profit or loss, it could be spread over. So, you can now externalize or use synergy among the branches. It is only for purposes of strength and that is the only advantage that I could see. But when it comes to volume, companies should look more inward.
What is your opinion on the Nigerian Insurance Industry Data Base?
I have a mix grill of opinions on the date base. On one hand, I am optimistic on the assumption that the operators will be committed towards the workability of it through the supply of accurate data and information. We must realize that a data is as good as the accuracy of the information inputted into it. If the input is wrong, anything you come out with it will be wrong. The question there is that: are the practitioners in Nigeria willing to volunteer this accurate information? If this is done, then, the insurance industry in Nigeria will be transformed phenomenally. But if we still refuse to be truthful and falsify records as some operators are disposed to.