Umar H. Farouk
A popular philanthropist and business icon was once quoted as saying that when entrepreneurs from Nigeria die, they will be ushered into heaven by God because they cannot suffer twice.
The statement above, although capable of drawing some mirth, is a reflection of the challenging business climate that Nigeria represents. Doing business in Nigeria is tough. There is no hiding from this fact. Although the Nigerian economy is blessed with a number of indices that make it a prime investment destination, the reality on the ground is that of a particular environment where only the most resourceful, tenacious and firm believers in Nigeria and the Nigerian project can survive and thrive.
If you are in any illusions as to how tough it is to cut it and make a success of entrepreneurship in Nigeria, the latest World Bank report on the global Ease of Doing Business can provide some valid insights.
Nigeria is presently ranked a lowly 131 in the report which captures about 190 countries. However, that does not tell the full story. The country is ranked lower than many of its contemporaries in Africa, among which are Togo, Kenya, Rwanda, Mauritius, South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Uganda, Ghana, Namibia, Senegal and Seychelles, among others. In addition, the report throws some light on other data which show that successful entrepreneurs in Nigeria do indeed deserve a special place in heaven.
One of these is the rating of 36 for access to electricity by business owners in Nigeria which remains one of the lowest in the world. Others are registering a property – 48; trading across borders – 40; resolving insolvency – 41 and the country’s eye-watering taxation policies which are pegged at 29.
The summary is, successful Nigerian entrepreneurs or businesses are doing something special. There is a sense, with doing business in Nigeria, that you do not only require a large dose of outstanding common sense, street-smartness and determination to achieve but that one of the essential qualities is also an incurable optimism in Nigeria.
The foregoing appears to be one of the unerring factors that has distinguished the majority of businesses that have made a success of their entrepreneurial pursuits in Nigeria. The list of venture capitalists, angel investors or fly-by-night entrepreneurs that have flocked to Nigeria in search of quick gains and easy exits cannot be numbered in their thousands, with the majority of these often drawn by the promise which Nigeria’s attractive population dynamics represents.
Indeed, research shows that the Nigerian demographics mix is an investor’s dream. While other major economies are battling with an aging population, Nigeria is swelling with a predominantly youthful population, many of whom are exposed, aspirational, tech-savvy and whose buying power is on the rise. Little wonder a recent survey by a renowned medical journal, The Lancet, predicts that Nigeria may soon become a global power, owing to its favourable population indices. This is based on the premise that Nigeria will become the world’s ninth-largest economy with a life expectancy higher than 80 years by 2100.
“By the end of the century, the world will be multipolar, with India, Nigeria, China, and the U.S. the dominant powers. This will truly be a new world, one we should be preparing for today,” Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet was quoted as saying in the study.
The foregoing has seen many investors flock to Nigeria. But only a few can confidently navigate the thorny path to success in Africa’s biggest economy or stay the course when their portfolio investment is not yielding the much-envisaged quick returns.
This is why the Nigerian government must recognise and appreciate the efforts of some Nigerian success stories; businesses owned by Nigerians, creating tons of employment opportunities for Nigerians and making a big impression on the global stage. While space will not permit an exhaustive look at these shining stars, a few of them are worth mentioning in this intervention.
Dangote Industries Ltd. is a great example of a business that has defied the odds in making a success out of doing business in Nigeria. From being hampered by the poor transport network in Nigeria, the company has diversified to building concrete roads for Nigeria. With Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote at the helm of affairs, the group has made a brilliant success of its many portfolios ranging from sugar and salt refining, cement manufacturing and fertilizer production to building what is potentially Africa’s biggest refinery. His is a story of an unflinching belief in Nigeria, with Dangote is widely known to have consistently supported successive Nigerian governments.
Globacom, led by billionaire magnate, Mike Adenuga, is another worth mentioning. In a sector dominated by foreign players, Glo, as it is fondly called, remains a proud indigenous standard-bearer. In addition to pioneering the per-second billing option that lifted the telecoms industry to new heights, the company has also consistently delivered more options that have helped deepen the spirit of competition, keeping other players on their toes and offering Nigerians more options. At a time when the world has become more open to subterfuge and the influence of external influences felt even keener in national affairs, the benefits of having a local player in such a sensitive sector cannot be over-emphasized.
Competing in the same vertical as Dangote is not a task for the lily-livered. But that is exactly what Abdul Samad Rabiu and BUA Group have done and made a success out of, in the same geographical space. Rabiu, whose BUA Group, has also invested in cement manufacturing, as well as sugar, oil mills, ports & terminals and real estate, is the only other Nigerian, apart from Dangote and Adenuga, on Forbes rich list. The BUA Group is one of Nigeria’s entrepreneurial success stories, having to be in business for over 30 years and navigating the multi-faceted pitfalls and challenges of doing business in Nigeria.
Zenith Bank Plc., the brainchild of Jim Ovia, one of Nigeria’s more recognizable entrepreneurs, also deserves some plaudits. The story of Zenith Bank’s entry in 1990 and remarkable rise to the zenith of the Nigerian banking industry has been well-chronicled. Nevertheless, what many fail to realize is that the bank, like a few others, has survived several storms and upheavals, among which are recapitalization exercises and mergers/acquisitions that have swallowed many in the industry. Today, Zenith Bank is one of the most profitable financial institutions in Nigeria. Not only that, the bank ranks as one of the largest and most profitable in Africa.
Access Bank Plc. is another outstanding player in the banking industry; one that may disrupt the banking industry in Africa. Access certainly deserves a mention. Under the leadership of the always impeccably dressed Herbert Wigwe, Access Bank has grown into one of the most formidable leaders in Nigeria, with major in-roads into other African markets. Among the list of banks that Access Bank has acquired on the continent within a space of one year is South Africa’s 74-year-old Grobank, Kenya’s Transnational Bank and Zambia-based Cavmont Bank. This is not to forget its successful merger with Diamond Bank in 2019 which ultimately transformed it into one of the biggest entities in the Nigerian banking sector.
In the e-Commerce sector, the exploits of Konga, another fully Nigerian-owned business cannot be swept under the carpet. Konga has shown that Nigerian youths are technically ready and imbued with common sense to confront and compete favourably in the digital economic war of the future. Prior to the acquisition of the brand by its current owners – the Zinox Group from former wealthy owners – Naspers and AB Kinnevik – Konga was looking like it would go the same way as many of the foreign-owned businesses that run out of steam and quietly exit the country after its investors get tired of the waiting game for quick profits.
However, Konga, which analysts confidently say will exceed a unicorn valuation when it goes public, has thrived under its new owners, so much that it is being courted by global stock exchanges, including the NYSE, among others. Konga appears to have leveraged the experience of Africa’s leading digital disruptor, Leo Stan Ekeh, Chairman of the Zinox Group, who holds the record of pioneering e-Commerce in Africa with his BuyRight Africa.com which he floated many years ago and which predated the advent of e-payment channels.
Today, Konga has successfully resolved the thorny challenge of logistics which has snuffed the life out of many players in Nigeria’s e-Commerce market, built up its own world-class technology, warehousing and payment infrastructure and launched a number of thriving subsidiaries against all odds. It is a brilliant futuristic group that would undoubtedly provide jobs for over a million Nigerians in the nearest future.
Can one make a case for some of the most successful Nigerian-owned brands without a mention of UBA and its current Chairman, Tony Elumelu? For a bank that has recorded over 70 years of uninterrupted operations in Nigeria, UBA has gone about its business fairly quietly and without the recognition it deserves.
With UBA, one of Africa’s foremost financial institutions which boast of subsidiaries in 20 African countries and offices in London, Paris and New York; Elumelu, an uncommon entrepreneur, who is touching many lives through his personal foundation, has proved many naysayers wrong, upholding the long-standing tradition of this powerful brand and leading it to new heights. Lest we forget, UBA was the first financial institution to list its shares on the floor of the Nigerian Stock Exchange in an IPO.
Today, it is still holding its head high in the challenging Nigerian market under the astute leadership of Elumelu, disrupting the industry with its recently launched Artificial Intelligence bot, Leo and giving much hope in the future of Nigeria.
Flutterwave, Nigeria’s latest unicorn is another flag-bearer in the technology sector that has put the country on the map. Founded in 2016 by Iyinoluwa Aboyeji and Olugbenga Agboola, Flutterwave is making in-roads into many countries across the globe, deploying its cutting-edge payment solutions and infrastructure to solve problems for users in various markets.
The recent feat of Flutterwave – a $170 million Series C funding round earlier this year – represented the largest amount ever secured by an African tech start-up at the time, giving it a valuation of over $1 billion. But we must not forget that this is a start-up out of Nigeria which has faced huge encumbrances, the most recent during the #EndSARS protests in late 2020 which put it in the crosshairs of the authorities.
As stated earlier, this list is definitely not exhaustive. There is a host of other successful corporates and entrepreneurs doing great things, battling the policy, infrastructural and socio-economic encumbrances as well as the considerable country risk posed by Nigeria, yet putting food on the table for millions of Nigerians and painting the country in gold.
Advanced economies the world over are built on the spirit of local enterprise. Governments in these climes see entrepreneurs as useful partners in progress, not as cash-cows to be milked dry or orphans to be cast away in times of instability. This is how countries like the United States, China, India, Hong Kong, France and Germany, among others, have succeeded in minting new billionaires on nearly a daily basis.
Nigerian entrepreneurs, including the few highlighted above, are among some of the most creative, hardworking, tenacious and loyal ambassadors of the country who can support the future of our economy and defend her unity.
It is high time the government accorded them the much-needed recognition and forged stronger ties with them.
Umar H. Farouk is a corporate guru based in Dubai