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From Banker to Fish-Farmer, One Man’s Struggle with the Capitalist’s Dilemma

I met Yemi during my visit to Ijebu-Ode, a small city in Ogun state. I heard the city was bustling with fish farmers and so I traveled there to learn what made it special. I did not expect to meet a banker who had given up his white-collar job to pursue fish farming.

Yemi had worked as a banker for four years at one of the country’s biggest banks but did not see a future in banking. Repeatedly, the bank refused to offer him a permanent position while paying him less than market rate. Seeing no future in banking, he considered fish-farming. “I knew nothing about fishing,” he said as he took a sip of a cold drink at his residence, “but man must hustle to make ends meet.” He quit his job in 2008 and hasn’t looked back since.

Fish farming in Nigeria requires perseverance. The earliest a farmer can reap a harvest is about six months after the fingerlings (baby fish) get purchased. It also requires discipline. Fish farmers have to ensure the fish is fed multiple times a day and have to watch for contamination in the water. Considering the lack of high-tech in the region, most of these operations are manual. But fish-farming in Nigeria, even with these constraints, is very profitable. Yemi is struggling to meet the demand. According to this article, Nigeria imports more than $500 million of fish yearly and Africa consumes just 10kg of fish per capita vs. the world average of about 19kg. The opportunity to develop our local fish industry is immense.

In fish-farming, Yemi has found the success that eluded him at the bank. Since focusing on fish farming full-time, Yemi has built his own home (paid with cash as Nigeria does not have a developed mortgage market), provides employment for about five people, and makes his own schedule so he can spend significantly more time with his family. Yemi now harvests more than 16,000 fish a season, with each selling for about $0.5 to $2 depending on the size.

But when I asked him what his biggest challenges were, he did not say corruption or infrastructure, the usual things most people complain about. He said “raising capital.” Until now, Yemi has bootstrapped this venture without debt and owns 100% of his farm. Unfortunately, without access to capital, he can only grow so big. This difficulty in raising capital for businesses like Yemi’s was confirmed during my meeting with the CEO and the executive team of one of the major banks in Nigeria. Building a system that connects funders with the thousands of Yemis in Nigeria is paramount if market creating innovations are to be pursued.

Investors should not fall prey to what Professor Clay Christensen of the Harvard Business School calls The Capitalist’s Dilemma. The Capitalist’s Dilemma highlights the typical investor’s propensity to choose efficiency and sustaining innovations over market creating innovations. While all three innovations are important to keep a company, and ultimately a country’s economy, vibrant, the lack of investment in market creating innovations has devastating effects on long-term performance of both company and country. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on efficiency and sustaining, investors should invest in enterprises like Yemi’s. It is hard work. It requires patient capital. And there are risks. But the returns to investors are immeasurable and the development impact is profound.

We recognize the difficulty in picking market creating innovations over sustaining and efficiency innovations. As such, our research will highlight the very specific attributes of market creating innovations and how investors and entrepreneurs should go about investing in these opportunities. By paying attention to the process we will outline, investors will be able to reduce the risk inherent in these innovations. We will also profile many more investable opportunities, like Yemi’s, to show that it is possible to be very successful by investing in market creating innovations.

In my next post, I will list the attributes of market creating innovations and why entrepreneurs and investors should capitalize on the numerous opportunities on the continent.