Coming to terms with entrepreneurship in Nigeria, By Emman Usman Shehu

A review of “Successful Nigerian Entrepreneurs: How They Started”

Entrepreneurship has been a part of human existence because of its essence as a means of production. Thus over time, it gained recognition as a critical factor in economic growth and the development of society. From most available evidence, societies where there are many entrepreneurial individuals, growth and development are more rapid  than  societies where there is entrepreneurial deficit especially of individuals.

The fact is that such societies have for long recognised individual entrepreneurs as partners in development and nation building . This realisation has taken almost forever to be embraced by a lot of developing societies, and part of the problem has been the impact of colonisation. In most developing countries education was basically designed to produce a literate workforce that would enhance the extraction of resources by the coloniser even after independence.

Frantz Fanon, the French West Indian psychiatrist, political philosopher, revolutionary, and writer from the French colony of Martinique, whose works are influential in the fields of post-colonial studies, critical theory and Marxism, argued that Africans were overwhelmed by colonialism. Consequently a slave mentality has been entrenched.

Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, in his collection of essays The Education of a British-Protected Child, adds clarity from the perspective of national development: “ I do recognise, of course, that there are broadly three components  to the equation for national development: system, leader and followers. In an ideal world, each would mesh nicely and efficiently with the other. But quite clearly Nigeria is not in such a world, not even on the road to it. She seems in fact to be going in the opposite direction towards a world of bad systems, bad leadership, and bad followership.”

Quite concerned by this dreadful situation, Achebe asks the following pertinent questions : How do we redirect our steps in a hurry ? In other words, where do we begin and have the best chance of success ? To change the Nigerian system; to change the Nigerian leadership style; or to change the hearts of one hundred and twenty million Nigerians ?”

All of the above are reflected quite instructively in the new book, Successful Nigerian  Entrepreneurs: How They Started. Curiously the book does not mention the authors even though it is obviously a sponsored project. Written in simple and sometimes lively prose, the book seeks to document “homemade inspirational entrepreneurial stories”. This seemingly simple objective is commendable when considered against the background of our poor culture of documentation across board.

In twelve chapters  the books shows us within a limited space a number of fairly young contemporary businessmen and women, spanning enterprises from broadcasting to construction through couture, dairy production, public relations, innovative digital platforms, health products and cosmetology. Some are  well known, others are not. So there is a John Momoh and his Channels story which opens the book, and at the other extreme the Okunoren Twins whose fashion label is globally recognised, yet the owners consciously avoid courting publicity.

Several strands run through the book which could easily serve as some kind of primer for entrepreneurship.  The standard belief is that an enterprise should start by identifying a niche. The stories in this book serve as a basic reminder, even though a realisation of such an opportunity can come in different ways. For Nkiru Emordi, it came from what is now an endemic situation in the country, lack of employment. Although a graduate, she could not get a job after a couple of interviews. She faced not just the obstacle of the large number of applicants vying for   highly limited positions, but also the daunting “job experience”. She was quick to realise that a Plan B would be her lifeline and it turned out to be something she had an inclination for – shoes. That marked the beginning of her enterprise now known as Home of Theresa.

For others lack of job satisfaction and the desire to break staid standards led to seeking a new terrain of self-expression. Muhammad Abubakar left a comfortable banking job to start an agribusiness L&Z Farms. Bukky George followed a similar route in the pharmaceutical industry to set up HealthPlus.

The other big deal in running a business is what I would call immersion, getting to know all the relevant principal facets right from the basics. All the entrepreneurs in this book reflect various degrees of immersion, starting from understanding the technology relevant to the business. Iyinoluwa Aboyeji,founder of Flutterwave, strongly believes in embracing and demystifying technology: “Technogy is just a way to do two things, reduce your cost or increase your reach. Social media, for example, is designed to increase your reach. Instead of spending dollars on fliers and billboards in the name of marketing, you can reach the same number of people or more via Twitter or Facebook without spending money to print fliers that will be thrown away within hours.”(p.122)

It could be even directly hands-on as Oluyemi Ojo, Ayodeji Adeogun and Ibukun Oloyede found out at various stages before and during the birthing and running of Printivo, a blossoming printing firm with clients beyond the shores of Nigeria. That orientation has become a maxim for Ojo, who at some stage had to learn the rudiments of printing and the nitty-gritty of advertising agencies: “ You don’t pay consultancy for things you can do yourself. Secondly, no one can know your brand than your team; and that helps you to simplify your branding, marketing and other aspects of your organisation.”(p110)

Immersion also includes investing in adequate book knowledge in the specific business, a decision that both Oke Maduewesi (Zaron Cosmetics) and Bukky George found invaluable. Maduewesi not only spent time researching Nigeria’s economic sector for gaps that could be filled, but ensured that her MBA disseration was a study of the cosmetic business in Nigeria. She is quoted as saying: “ I wanted to build this quality brand and build it Nigeria, so it was imperative to I understand my market. That is one of the best decisions I made so far.”(p22)

Partnerships are critical in running enterprises. One type of partnership could be biological as evidenced by Sunday Egede and David Ojei, owners of Prince Ebeano Supermarket. Though not siblings, they have an Uncle and Nephew maternal linkage. It could also be non-biological  and non-ethnic as in the case of Red Media’s Adebola Williams who is Yoruba and Chide Jideonwo who is Igbo. Indeed, almost every enterprise documented in this book reflects some form of formal or informal partnerships. One of the advantages of partnerships is leveraging on strengths to counter weaknesses as evidenced in all the testimonies in each story.

Innovation can be a useful oxygen for an enterprise. Halima Yunusa has had to think out of the box every step of the way in the process of growing her start up fashion outlet, 41 Luxe. Inspired by her mother to get into trading but leveraging on her personal interest in fashion, Halima soon came to the realisation that she could not make much headway in designing. She found a simple solution, hiring designers. That also became the route for taking her enterprise notches higher. “Over time, our suppliers went from eight designers to almost seventy designers because people saw what we were doing and they liked our quality services. Then, it occurred to me that Abuja also has good designers. So, why don’t we take Abuja designers to Lagos ? We decided to open a shop in Lagos and took twenty designers from Abuja to Lagos. So, while our store in Lagos has basically Abuja designers, the store in Abuja stocks Lagos designers. The Kaduna story is a mix of both.”(p.179)

Even the name 41 Luxe came from innovative thinking. Stuck with getting a good brand name, she took the number of her street address and added the first three letters from the word luxury, but with an “E” at the end, thus arriving at 41 Luxe.

What is enterprise without funding? All the entrepreneurs in this book underscore the significance of funding from start up to emergence and to sustenance. Driven by a desire to be his own master from an early age, Sijibomi Ogundele’s initial forays have led him into being a big player in Nigeria’s real estate sector via his Sujimoto Construction Company. His success is not without pains, acute ones at that, because of the problem of funding. At one stage he had seriously considered throwing in the proverbial towel and fleeing abroad. 

As stated in the book he had run into troubled waters because of a project tagged Lorenzo which hit the rocks during the country’s recession. Investors were highly sceptical and unwilling to put in a kobo. His reputation was on the way down. Friends fled and prospective clients became wary of doing business with him, the book claims.

It is no secret that funding remains a mountain to climb on the entrepreneurial terrain in Nigeria despite a slush of policies and interventions.  A 2018 article found online and titled, “The Challenges of Small and Medium Enterprises in Nigeria” lists funding as a major culprit: “Most SMEs find it difficult to access funds or capital. Most Nigerian banks don’t support start-ups and even existing businesses don’t have the required collateral. For SMEs that go to non-conventional banks, the high interest rate is always a burden. The issue funding or finance, therefore, is a major challenge for SMEs in Nigeria.”

The article then briefly states that various administrations have tried to address the issue through a number of measures including Federal Government grants, low interest loan from the Banks of Industry and Agriculture, and CBN’s SME’s initiatives through banks. This book itself is a product of one of such projects YouWin. As it relishingly states on the acknowledgement page: “…this project would not have been possible without the synergy created by a wide variety of individuals and groups and groups who collaborated with YouWiN! Connect to make it a reality.” Without a blink, this book is a public relations job and it has its place in the scheme of things. There is nothing wrong with celebrating success, no matter how small.

Little success is like that soothing occasional pat on the back. However it must not becloud the bigger picture that a break from the slave mentality that has held us down, and made it difficult to explore our vast human and natural resources is long overdue. A paradigm shift that confidently and succinctly answers Achebe’s key questions positively. A paradigm shift that is courageous to make banks in Nigeria more creative, more result oriented, more willing to be compost heaps that would allow millions of Nigerians to fulfil their entrepreneurial visions. A paradigm shift that would eliminate the entrenched culture of policy somersaults and wasteful duplications , while rigorously and thoughtfully streamlining new and old ideas for the rapid development of the nation. A paradigm shift that would remove dream killers masquerading as gatekeepers on every  avenue of policy implementation. A paradigm shift that would make the Nigerian giant arise and conquer the world. That would be the real success story.

*Dr Shehu is a Nigerian activist, public intellectual and writer who has received education in literature and communication. He has written several press articles, literary books, contributed chapters to books, edited books and journals . His main areas of interest are literature, communication and development, globalization, African studies and creative writing.

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