The problem with addiction to poverty
“I am not rich enough to buy cheap things” — Late Dr Irene Arkhurst
I was in Nigeria last week and I was alarmed at how cramped and crowded our office had become. The other problem was that the air conditioners were not working properly and I asked why? Apparently, servicing them has become a challenge because really good repairmen were scarce. I made a mental note of that and asked them to find whoever the best repair man was in Lagos to fix them.
What was even more amazing to me was that people were working under those conditions and it was not a priority until I complained? That is what happens when you first get to Nigeria, you are amazed at all the things people put up with. From the airport to the mall. We have become used to inconvenience because our bar of expectations have now been set very low. We tolerate poor workmen. We tolerate rude drivers and service people. We even tolerate very bad governance.
I asked myself three questions after my visit to the office:
First, refrigeration technology has not changed for decades, so, why are good repairmen scarce? Most households in Lagos now have at least one functioning air conditioner or refrigerator, why is that industry not organized?
Secondly, why are companies who sell these products not providing robust after sales service? The margins on services and repairs over time will be much more than the cost of the item itself.
The last question I asked myself and which was the most important — “why are we still using seven-year-old airconditioners in the office?”.
We moved in there in 2010 and bought all the air conditioners brand new. If we had done our accounting properly, those assets would have been fully depreciated and we would have set enough money aside to replace them. We didn’t because we never thought of replacing them until they go bad completely. The Nigerian mentality.
I met a relative over the weekend who just moved into a new house and he had a calamity in his hands. The builders had got the plumbing completely wrong and his walls were leaking. He had to spend at least four million Naira to fix the damage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place if the right builders worked on the house. He blamed himself for his “poverty addiction”.
Poverty addiction?? I asked him what that meant. He told me that his father (a successful oil man) had watched him struggle to make money, reinvest the money in his business then go back to struggling to making money again. His father he called him aside and told him that he was scared that his son was getting addicted to poverty. It was a dangerous thing. He told him to set high expectations for himself, work hard but enjoy his life as well.
Poverty addiction is real and present amongst even those we think are wealthy. I discovered long ago that poverty was entrenched largely by mindset more than circumstance. People find it hard to shift their frame of reference from the struggle when they have lingered too long in it. Fear makes us less bold and ambitious. We scrimp, we save, only to create the disaster we are avoiding in the process.
My late mother in-law’s quote at the beginning of this post summarizes what makes poor people remain in poverty. Cheap things are expensive long term. A cheap builder will cost you four to seven million naira more in additional repairs. Being cheap with air conditioner replacement will cost you more than the air conditioners as you will lose talent who cannot bear to work under harsh conditions. Cheap things will make you actually spend more and the cycle continues.
I missed my flight on Saturday morning and went back to the office to get some work done. There was power for a while then it went off. I waited for a while for the generator to be switched on and it didn’t happen. I asked what was wrong? “BIG Gen” (The bigger generator which could carry more load) had a problem and they were using “small gen” (the smaller generator that could carry less load). Small gen had now also packed up because it was overworked.
I didn’t know where to start asking myself questions from again? Primary power failed. Backups of backups had also failed. Failure started from Nigerian governance and ended with our office admin. I now understood why the gap between the truly rich and the poor was very wide in Nigeria. The truly rich people don’t get addicted to poverty. They keep running far away from any semblance of it. Sometimes, by any means necessary. I used to think they were being pretentious but the addiction is contagious. We start doing things we think are the norm and we end up not breaking out of a cycle.
A lot of people just accept mediocrity as the norm because “we are in Nigeria and things are hard”. Things are hard because we don’t plan and make decisions on a whim or based on conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is largely “poverty mentality”.
I Pass My Neighbour
Earlier, I had stumbled on an old article from the Nigerian Guardian. The government had banned importation of small generators we know as “I pass my neighbour”. That generator stood for so many things. It was not just a necessity but a status symbol, it was nicknamed “I pass my neighbour” for that reason.
One line stuck out to me from that article:
“In Benin Republic, it is hard to find small generators because there is constant power supply there.”
This is also the same in Togo. Power is constant there and it is not an issue. I always wondered why so called “poorer countries” had better infrastructure than Nigeria? Same problem of low expectations. Addiction to poverty. We keep boasting too as a nation that we are better than our neighbours, we are not.
#Beastmode Part Deux
We had forgotten why we decided to use a residence for an office. We didn’t realize when we had outgrown it. “Poverty Addiction”. A serviced office is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity in our business. I went to my cousin’s house in Victoria Island, I started doing a new financial plan for office relocation, asset replacement, talent recruitment and revenue generation. I was tired of being addicted to poverty.