Who doesn’t love a story of winning against the odds? It is at the cornerstone of our storytelling and is universal across culture. At the center of these stories are heroes who brave the odds; relentless and fearless star gazers. We count Winnie Mandela, Hercules, Achilles, Thomas Sankara, among these names. It is their ability to draw from deep reservoirs of faith that forms the foundation of the true entrepreneurial spirit.
The story is very different in the West African Republic called Nigeria. These are not the people, nor the stories, that drive the Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit. We do not brave the cruel uncertainty of risk because in pursuit of of innovation, instead we do so because poverty is a real and present danger in the lives of many Nigerian men and women.
Entrepreneurship, from the french word entreprendre, means to ‘undertake an enterprise’, where enterprise means, ‘a project that is especially difficult, complicated, or risky’. Risk certainly identifies the fundamental stumbling block of an entrepreneur, because fear holds back many from engaging on numerous adventures, those who brave this fear are the first to identify the possibilities and are the first to reap the fruits of their exploration. It is on their backs that the story of capitalism, wealth and prosperity have ridden on for centuries.
Everything about Nigerian entrepreneurship points towards the fear of poverty and the desire for present sustenance. The bad customer service and the horrible business practices; the incessant duplication and dearth of innovation. We are a nation of entrepreneurs simply because we have very little choice, and deciphering “why” is also central to understanding the poor treatment of Nigerian customers.
I was speaking to the owner of a prominent consulting company in Nigeria and he mentions how, early in his career, he paid a significant fee to attend the Lagos Business School. It was a move that paid dividends over the years and as he recognized how big that move was for him, he also recognized just how many of the young entrepreneurs in his age group did not make that same move.
Hindsight is 20/20, but one often wonders how many Nigerian entrepreneurs have any foresight beyond the immediacy of making a quick buck. Social Media is full of many different vendors, all peddling different products of varying quality. While variety is evident, what is consistent is the customer complaints. Whether it’s the quality of shoes, hair, bags, jerseys, or what other products we have, there is a consistent disappointment. From selling fake items without clarification, poor customer service, or horrible marketing strategies; it is glaringly obvious that our entrepreneurs are born of necessity.
There is nothing wrong with this, of course. Nigeria is a dark and difficult place, and when the walls of the darkness creep closer, in the face of impending doom, doing things out of necessity might be reason enough to do them. But, it shows. It is not evident in only social media vendors, it shows in banks, in airlines, the media, the carpenters, drivers…everybody. To us, the customer isn’t the elevated pinnacle of the production process to whom service must be tailored. To us, the customer is the mark, the mumu, the maga.
Why would an airline consistently fly an airplane without properly working air conditioners? How can banks consistently take 90 working days to return amounts as little as 1,500 naira (or any amount of money)? Why do online vendors repeatedly sell substandard products while advertising quality? How can Nigerian politicians spend so much time campaigning, begging for votes, but as soon as power is assumed, they renege on promises made? Why do carpenters, mechanics, etc., generally do consistently poor work? When your entrepreneurship is fueled largely by a fear of failure rather than the promise of success, you are unlikely to put your best foot forward simply because putting your best foot forward often carries with it a risk that many of us simply cannot afford.
Despite this consistent lack of quality, we will still look for a mechanic or a plumber or a carpenter because we need them. We will still fly because we have places to be. We still put our money in banks because our money needs a resting place. You still need clothes so you will probably still patronize that Instagram vendor, even though you know there is the very real possibility that this person might run away with your money, sell you a fake product or just start their day with a sprinkle of condescension. Are you ever going to not need a plumber? So you send that DM, you call that plumber, your sink is leaking. We complain, of course, as all customers do but the quality never quite seems to increase.
We are not oblivious to this. When we haggle on the road, we make the assumption that the person selling is trying to fleece us and so we haggle hard, we trust Nigerian politicians even less, and many Nigerians still do not use ATM cards at POS machines because there is very little proof that errors will be treated promptly. Many customers do not want that wahala.
At the heart of the Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit is not a burning desire for innovation or to take on the risks in pursuit of the limitless possibilities. At the heart is a deep, fundamental fear of poverty and while there is nothing wrong with a healthy fear of falling into ruin, it is at the heart of understanding tacit acceptance of mediocrity by Nigerian society.
The lack of an enabling environment means that employment in Nigerian companies pays too little compensation for the work they demand from employees and what’s worse is that the trade off for good work in the urban cities: Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kaduna, is the unbelievable stress of urban life (if you’re in Lagos, the traffic alone can kill you).
The Nigerian labor force is simply too poorly compensated for their efforts and there are many factors that cause this, from poor infrastructure (raising the cost of doing business) to horrible labor laws and a failing education sector. The fundamental role of government is to ensure that life is not just secure but that an enabling environment is created such that members of that society can freely explore themselves, for their benefit and for the benefit of society. In this, the Nigerian government has undoubtedly failed.
This failure has catastrophic consequences. Being a plumber is not a glorious job in Nigeria but where I went to school, the person who fixed an incessant issue in an apartment I lived in drove a Land Rover. Supposedly ‘menial’ jobs in Nigeria like nannies, maids, drivers/chauffeurs, cooks, chefs and so on, are very well paying in many other countries, why? Because necessity forces people into these jobs and combined with the low effectiveness of our government, there is over saturation of labor but very little quality. At virtually every corner of the Nigerian economy, you are constantly dealing with an overworked, underpaid labor force.
This exploitation of the customers and of labor is at heart of the dark underbelly of capitalism but within the context of the Nigerian reality, it is deeply entrenched in the very ethos of business, trade and commerce. This combination of a poor enabling environment for young and established businesses, and the exploitation of the employed labor force, means we have many defacto entrepreneurs. This means that for the employed, entrepreneurship and the informal sector seem like a helpful supplement for poor wages (i.e. teachers who sell products when they’re free). For others, those who do not have well paying jobs, entrepreneurship offers a path to small “luxuries” like internet connectivity and dinner dates, while it can also stave off very serious concerns like starvation and illnesses.
However, it would be unjust to put the blame squarely on these brave men and women looking to survive the harsh reality of Nigeria. A large portion of the blame for this mentality and the dominance of poor quality must rest squarely on the shoulders of the Nigerian government. It is because of these men in power that many Nigerians must ‘resort’ to entrepreneurship. The lack of liberty, justice, institutions and infrastructure have hindered true Nigerian innovation for too long.
The narrative is slowly changing, many Nigerian entrepreneurs have begun to contribute in innovative ways to Nigerian society as I’m sure many of us can attest to. However, this change is too slow and with a population growth that exceeds the growth of our economy, it means that we must work even harder to ensure that our society provides hope and does not hinder, where no child is born in poverty and has access to world class education, healthcare, and a just society.
Our economy, our society, and our lives are all dependent on the continuous perfection of our union. A union where doctors and nurses are paid well enough to justify their Hippocratic oath, where police officers and soldiers are compensated by us for defending life, liberty, equality and justice. A union where children do not beg and are not turned into child slaves for profit, where teachers are nurturers in name and in deed.
Quality tends to increase when true innovation occurs. Once the ride hailing apps entered the Nigerian market, taxis were suddenly far more comfortable. However, the problem of mediocrity appears. Initial excellence fizzled away and mediocrity is now the norm but we can count on the fragment of progress. For years, banks would not (some might say could not) give out loans to Nigerians. Enter: Paylater and suddenly there is an explosion of lending innovation. People can access quick loans, and that simple access to credit facilities has done incredible work. God is Good directly challenged the road transportation industry in the same way that ABC Transport did years before. Innovation drives quality.
The specter of entrepreneurial mediocrity looms large but at the heart of this problem is a deeply fractured society, a pathetically myopic political system, a dysfunctional government, and an apathetic population. These are all solvable problems and we must tackle these to ensure that we are freed from the crippling fear of poverty so that we can, once and for all, embrace true Nigerian excellence and never look back.