Who doesn’t love a story of winning against the odds?

It is at the cornerstone of our storytelling and is universal across culture . The hero who braves the odds; relentless, fearless, star gazer. Winnie Mandela, Hercules, Achilles, Thomas Sankara among many others. 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 we pursue the glory of innovation instead we do so because the threat of poverty is a real and very present danger in the lives of many Nigerian men and women.

Entrepreneurship, from the french word entreprendre, meaning to ‘undertake an enterprise’ where enterprise, according to Merriam-Webster, means, ‘a project that is especially difficult, complicated, or risky’, it is a word laden with heavy meaning. Risk certainly identifies the fundamental stumbling block of an entrepreneur, because it is what holds many back from engaging on numerous exploits, they [entrepreneurs] are the first to identify the possibilities instead of the dangers and as such 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.

Fear of poverty

Everything about Nigerian entrepreneurship points towards the fear of poverty, the desire for present sustenance, and not necessarily future growth or innovation.

The bad customer service and the horrible business practices; the incessant copying and the dearth of innovation. We are a nation of entrepreneurs simply because we have very little choice, and deciphering why is central to understanding just why Nigerian society treats ‘customers’ poorly.

I was speaking to the owner of a prominent consulting company in Nigeria and he mentions how, early on his career, he paid a significant fee to attend the Lagos Business School. It was a move that paid dividends repeatedly over the years and while he recognized how big that move was for him, what he also recognized was how many of the young entrepreneurs in his age group did not make that same move.

This picture was taken from the pedestrian bridge at Alapere, Lagos. It documents the busy city of Lagos. Source: Dami Akinbode/Unsplash

Hindsight is 20/20 but one often wonders how many Nigerian entrepreneurs have any foresight beyond trying to make a quick buck. Social media is full of many different vendors, all peddling different products of varying quality. What is consistent, however, is the customer complaints. Whether it’s the quality of shoes, hair, bags, jerseys or whatever products, selling fake items without clarification, poor customer service, horrible marketing strategies; it is glaringly obvious that many people that are entrepreneurs are not necessarily there because they want to, but because they have little choice.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course.

Nigeria is a dark and very 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. However, it shows.

The customer is the mumu

It is not obvious only on social media, you see it with banks, airlines, media, 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 1,500 naira(or any amount of money)?

Why will online vendors repeatedly sell substandard products while advertising quality?

How can Nigerian politicians spend so much time campaigning, begging people to vote for them but then as soon as power is assumed, they renege on promises made?

Why do carpenters, mechanics and so on generally do consistently poor work?

When your entrepreneurship is fuelled 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 meetings.

We still put our money in banks because what other choice do you have?

The heart of Nigerian entrepreneurship

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 by insinuating that you cannot afford their product. 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, of course. 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 do not trust Nigerian politicians and many Nigerians still do not use ATM cards at POS machines because in the case of an error, the supermarket will tell you to ‘Go and ask your bank for your money, not us’ and many customers do not want that wahala.

"We do not brave the cruel uncertainty of risk because we pursue the glory of innovation instead we do so because the threat of poverty is a real and very present danger in the lives of many Nigerian men and women."

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 explore themselves freely for their benefit and for the benefit of society. In this, the Nigerian government has undoubtedly failed.

Exploitation of customers and labour

This failure has catastrophic consequences. Being a plumber is not a glorious job in Nigeria but where I went to school, the person that fixed an incessant issue in an apartment I lived in drove a Range 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 labour but very little quality. An electrician is, for all intents and purposes, supposed to be an engineer. However, an electrician that comes to fix a wiring issue can very easily set your house on fire.

Traffic in Lagos, Nigeria. Source: Ayoola Salako/Unsplash

This exploitation of the customers and of labour 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 entrepreneurs, established business and the exploitation of the employed labour 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 that sell products when they’re free). For others, those who do not have decent 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 diseases.

Blame the Nigerian government

However, I am not inclined to put the blame squarely on these brave men and women looking to survive the harsh reality of Nigeria. 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 and women 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 every child has access to a leg out of poverty, a world class education and healthcare.

Our economy, our society, 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 or 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, suddenly, taxis were far more comfortable. However, of course, the Nigerian problem appears. Initial excellence fizzled away and mediocrity is now the norm but at least the quality has improved somewhat. For years, banks would not (some might say could not) give our 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 comes and quality increases.

The spectre 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.

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