A few weeks ago, this article of mine was published as an opinion piece in Business Day, one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers on business, economy, and markets. Although its message focuses on Nigeria’s current economic travails, its lessons hold true for every country in Africa.
Here’s the full article:
Nigeria is considered the ‘Giant of Africa’ – albeit a sleeping one – for good reason. Yes, it is a top global oil producer, Africa’s largest economy, and its most populous nation. Yet, these are not the qualities that truly make it the giant of the continent.
Nigeria’s true gigantic might lies in its latent and untapped strengths which, for decades, have suffered from waste, neglect and a total lack of will to change the status quo of oil dependence.
Here are a few interesting examples that will set the tone and perspective for this article:
With roughly 1.5 million tons harvested annually, Nigeria is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest producer of tomatoes, and the 14th largest producer worldwide. Sadly, it is also Africa’s biggest importer of tomato paste. Due to poor storage and limited processing options, about 50 percent of Nigeria’s yearly tomato harvests go to waste. To make up for the supply deficit, the country spends over $300 million on tomato product imports.
Nigeria is also by far the world’s largest producer of cassava, a key raw material in the production of industrial-grade starch – which is a heavily traded commodity on international markets. Despite its dominance in global cassava production, Nigeria exports less than 5 percent of cassava starch traded internationally. Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, which have a fraction of Nigeria’s cassava production capacity, dominate the global export market for cassava starch.
And then there is yam. Nigeria produces over 70 percent of the world’s yams and maintains a very strong lead in global yam production. Despite this significant advantage, Nigeria earns very little foreign exchange from its annual yam harvests, save for a small proportion that is processed into flour and exported to West African diaspora communities in Europe, Asia and North America.
Actually, Nigeria’s latent strengths are not exclusive to agricultural commodities. The country also has a significant but untapped potential in the services sector.
Developing Anglophone countries in Asia, especially India, Pakistan, Malaysia and the Philippines, have built multi-billion-dollar export-oriented services industries in Information Technology, Customer Support and Virtual Assistance that serve companies in North America and Europe. Nigeria too, like these countries, has a significant pool of young IT talent and English speakers who can be cultivated to build a formidable tertiary sector. Better still, Nigeria has a stronger geographical advantage because it sits within a more favourable time zone that could serve the European market better.
Are you starting to get the full picture? In spite of the large amounts of foreign exchange it earns from crude oil resources, Nigeria has not yet scratched the surface of its true economic might. It can do so much more with the amazing resources it already has, and this is why the world looks upon Nigeria as a sleeping giant.
In light of Nigeria’s current oil-induced economic challenges, it appears the tranquilizing effects of petrodollars – which have kept the giant slumbering for several decades – are starting to wear off. With the new-found determination by the Nigerian government to diversify the economy, and the clamour by ordinary Nigerians to ‘grow the Naira’, there is some hope the giant could see the sunrise in our lifetime.
But beyond idle hope and wishful thinking, there is unraveling evidence on the ground that gives me strong reasons to believe that Nigeria’s present economic adversity provides the perfect breeding ground for innovation, creativity and enterprise that will rumble the earth and awaken the giant within this nation.
I’ll share with you a few interesting examples…
Tomato Jos is a venture started by two Harvard MBAs in 2014. Based in Keffi, Nassarawa State, in North-Central Nigeria, this business is on a mission to process locally-grown tomatoes into tomato paste for the domestic and export markets. It is working with a network of over 100 local tomato farmers to create a tomato value chain that cuts across farming, logistics (transport and storage), and processing. By buying tomatoes directly from local farmers, Tomato Jos will be reducing waste and increasing the farmers’ access to market – two major problems in Nigeria’s tomato supply chain. The business has successfully concluded its pilot phase and is currently raising $2 million in Series A investment.
Andela is another promising business that is setting the foundations for a lucrative services export industry in Nigeria. Through its free and highly rigorous training program, Andela develops promising Nigerian talent into top-class software developers who are hired out to the likes of Microsoft and other tech giants in the USA and Europe. This globally emerging model of identifying, nurturing and exporting highly qualified talent is known as ‘talent-as-a-service’. Andela has a goal of training 100,000 world-class software developers over the next ten years. The impact of this growing industry will have significant effects on youth unemployment and foreign exchange earnings for Nigeria.
Ayoola Foods, a fast emerging household brand for convenience foods, has been processing locally produced yam, cassava, beans and plantain into flour for several years. Aside the domestic demand for its products, they are a common feature in overseas foodstuff markets and retail shelves targeted at Nigerians in the diaspora – especially in the USA and UK. Its yam flour (often referred to as ‘Poundo Yam’), cassava flour (known as ‘odourless fufu’), plantain flour and beans flour are shining examples for local value addition, and export of 100 percent ‘Made in Nigeria’ products.
These are just a few examples. There are several more like them, led by ambitious entrepreneurs and private sector interests, who are thriving in Nigeria’s harsh economic times and ‘quietly’ shaking up the belly of the sleeping giant. With a sustained wave of more innovation, creativity and enterprise like these ones, there is good reason to hope that the giant could be in the throes of an awakening.
But we must be careful to discontinue actions that could reverse the progress that has been achieved so far by these ‘transformers’. The Nigerian government must tear down the obstacles that frustrate and stifle young enterprise in the country – bureaucracy, non-enabling policies, limited access to ‘patient’ capital, low awareness and poor access to information, and the serious infrastructure deficit (especially access roads and power).
Also, young Nigerians must know that the true essence of entrepreneurship is often to prevail in the face of challenges and damning odds. While the conditions to start and grow a business in Nigeria are not the most favourable, they should not be used as an excuse. So, if you have a compelling reason to start a business, now is the time.
In summary, these testing economic times present another watershed moment in Nigeria’s history. The options before its people are very clear: they could harness their country’s untapped economic might and entrepreneurial genius to make Nigeria prosperous beyond their dreams, or they can continue to hope and pray that oil prices return to favourable levels so the petrodollar drunkenness can resume.
Whichever they choose, they must admit that this giant has had much too much sleep.