The glory and pitfalls of the Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit

The streets of Nigeria’s business capital, Lagos, buzz with activity. Vendors making their way through cars stuck in traffic sell everything from newspapers to chewing gum to light bulbs. Shop owners are lovingly displaying products in front of their little stalls. In the city’s vast markets, one could walk for hours among the different sections dedicated to pharmaceutical products, cosmetics, alcoholic beverages, or fabrics. When visiting the city’s various business districts, Nigerians in sharp suits are busy closing the next deal. Everyone is selling something. Or as my driver put it, they are “chasing the money”.

Never Satisfied: According to Anna Rosenberg, the name of this yacht summarises the Nigerian desire for success.

Never Satisfied: According to Anna Rosenberg, the name of this yacht summarises the Nigerian desire for success.

The dynamic commercial activity is living evidence of the country’s vast consumer opportunity. It seems that for every person who is selling, there are several others buying. Rarely in any western country would one see 20 to 30 Mercedes Benz trucks, newly purchased by a local business, driving in line to reach their final destination.

At the heart of all this lies Nigerians’ desire for upward social mobility, the driving force of Nigeria’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Never satisfied

From what I have learned and seen on the ground, Nigerians are tremendously positive about the future. Many strive to become the country’s next Aliko Dangote – Africa’s richest man. Dangote’s wealth is visible when passing his large yacht docking on Victoria Island. A slightly smaller, but still considerably sized, boat in close proximity is called, Never Satisfied. The name, in my opinion, summarises the Nigerian desire for success.

This eagerness for more is reflected in the priorities of Nigerian workers – be they employees or entrepreneurs. Generating as much money as possible is a top priority.

“Contrary to other African countries, employees are less motivated by non-financial incentives such as private healthcare. They will always much rather opt for a higher salary,” a local recruiter explains. “This comes down to the fact that people are used to fending for themselves. They don’t expect social services from the government. Because, even when social services are provided, they are frequently insufficient and of low quality.”

For example, most Nigerians with which I spoke agree that since the government introduced free education, the educational system has deteriorated dramatically.

Social responsibility

The Nigerian search for money is not only about increasing individual wealth, but it also stems from a broader sense of responsibility to the wider family and community.

“I have to provide for about 30–40 people,” the CEO of one of the country’s largest investment firms points out.

When Dangote sets up a new cement plant in a small town, the company will make sure that those living there will be employed at the factory or receive training. Other companies have given ownership shares to local leaders, not only to engage the community, but also as a way to protect their investment.

Displaying success

The fact that a few strong members of society take responsibility for others also means they are proud of their achievements and eager to share them – something that is both socially accepted and expected of them. This tendency can be observed, for example, in the offices of successful local business people. Pictures of a company’s leader shaking hands with influential politicians from around the world typically decorate waiting rooms. Magazine covers featuring the leader, whether male or female, are prominently displayed, as are entire books containing tribute after tribute to the person.

“When I first walked into the office of a local official, I was greeted by a life-sized photograph of him sporting a full uniform and a pair of very cool sunglasses,” a European diplomat told me.

The importance of vision

As eager as Nigerians are to succeed here and now, they also understand that their labour could take years to bear fruit as the country’s development accelerates.

“The opportunity is long term. Often western businesses don’t understand that. Yes, we have many opportunities, but they will only be materialised once we solve our problems with power supply or invest in the entire agricultural supply chain, for example. But these things will take decades to evolve,” a business owner in the industrial sector explains.

As Nigeria’s entrepreneurs build their business empires, their lack of satisfaction with the current state of the country will be a driving force for Nigeria’s development. What Nigeria needs is not merely an entrepreneurial spirit. It needs leaders with a long-term vision that reflects the country’s development requirements. And most importantly, it needs leaders who will never be satisfied with less, not just in terms of the size of their boats, but in relation to upward social mobility for their communities and their country.

In the meantime, western brands catering to the expensive tastes of Nigeria’s elite will be the main benefactors of the country’s desire for more.

Anna Rosenberg is Head of Sub-Saharan Africa Research at Frontier Strategy Group, a Washington headquartered information services provider advising multinationals on doing business in emerging markets. Anna is currently on a research trip to Nigeria and Ghana, meeting representatives from local and international businesses, journalists and government officials. Follow Anna on twitter @anna_rosenberg