Growing up in Zimbabwe in the 1990’s, my peers and I didn’t know much about Africa beyond the Southern African Region. However, one country we “knew” quite a lot about was Nigeria. There use to be a saying in high school which went something like, “If you throw a stone in the air in Lagos you will hit a professor”. I think this was partly inspired by the African Literature set book we were studying during those days titled The Boma of Adagali. Corruption is synonymous with Nigeria and try hard as they may, that stain just doesn’t seem to rub off. At the time, Zimbabwe was the bread basket of the continent and Robert Mugabe was a well-loved, respected and adored leader of a thriving African country. We as a nation were the yardstick South Africa would measure the success of its national reconciliation drive post-independence.
Today the tables have turned and Zimbabwe now ranks as one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. However, the purpose of this article is not to discuss the depth of the rot in Zimbabwean politics and the impending economic collapse. I want to bring attention to the great things the young people in Nigeria are doing. From the musical superstar twins 2Face to world-renowned authors and the billion Naira “Nollywood”, entrepreneurialism is alive and thriving in Nigeria. A recent article on the BBC’s website reproduced in full below shows even in harsh economic condition, there are evergreen sectors of the economy abound with opportunities. Can we say the same for the sorry state of affairs in Zimbabwe? Is there hope even as the walls of the once Great Zimbabwe crumble, held together partly by the foreign remittances flowing into the country from all over the globe. I call upon Zimbabwe’s young people to take a leaf from the pages of success in Africa’s story as written by the young Nigerians featured in this article.
In our series of letters from African journalists, Didi Akinyelure, the BBC World News Komla Dumor Award Winner, looks at a fresh crop of young, enterprising men and women who have more reason than most to celebrate Nigeria’s 56th year of independence.
As Africa’s most-populous country turns 56, many Nigerians may not be in the mood for celebration – preoccupied as they are with the ongoing recession.
For Nigerian businesses, 2016 has indeed been a challenging year. The oil-dependent nation is presently in an economic downturn, largely because of the drop in oil prices.
As a consequence, the prices of goods and services have gone up and for many businesses profits are thin.
But some fresh, young entrepreneurs are bucking the trend.
“Whatever direction the economy goes, there are always opportunities,” says Obinna Onunkwo, one of the Nigerians who is changing the face of the property scene.
He and his business partner Laide Agboola – who are both under 40 – have just completed the development of a $25m (£19.2m), 7,700-sq-metre retail centre in Lagos.
Nigeria’s retail sector has seen significant growth over the past five years and savvy investors like Mr Onunkwo tapped in early.
They managed to convince investors that the Maryland Mall in Ikeja was a bankable project.
After five months of pitching to investors last year, they were able to raise funds.
Mr Onunkwo believes the key to their success was that they ensured any loans they took were in the local currency, the naira, and not dollar loans.
A good decision as the naira has weakened significantly over the past year.
‘People need to rent even in a recession’
Sulaiman Balogun, co-founder of ToLet.com.ng – a Nigerian online property search portal, will remember 2016 as the year the cash came in.
He and his business partners – Fikayo Ogundipe, Dapo Eludire and Seyi Ayeni – have succeeded in raising $1.2m.
This is quite a feat as banks and financial institutions in Nigeria are not keen to lend to new businesses because of a lack of credit records and insufficient collateral.
Enterprising technology-driven businesses like ToLet have to prove themselves, sometimes with very little capital, in the hope that big time venture capital firms take notice.
After meeting at university, Mr Balogun and his partners started their business in June 2012, when they were in their twenties and at a time when online property search websites were not popular in Nigeria.
The partners raised $400 from their personal savings and with family support embarked on their business journey.
A year after launching their property platform they managed to raise $230,000 in seed capital from online business builder, Spark.ng, and this made a significant contribution to the growth of their business.
“They prove that it is possible to diversify away from oil – and show the enterprising spirit of the country as it celebrates its 56th year”
However, their big break came last month, when they caught the eye of Frontier Digital Ventures, a company passionate about online classifieds businesses, and they successfully secured additional funds.
Two key things have been the secret to their success.
“We anticipated the recession and kept costs low,” says Mr Balogun.
“And people still need to look for homes to rent in a recession.”
‘Go beyond Africa’
For Papa Omotayo, a 40-year-old Lagos-based architect, looking to markets outside Nigeria can help entrepreneurs weather an economic slump.
“Make sure your reach goes beyond Africa,” says Mr Omotayo, the founder of AWCA, a multi-award winning ideas development agency.
He has been driven to change the way the African continent is portrayed globally, through art and creativity.
Teaming up with 29-year-old Maki Osakwe, creative director of Maki Oh, a fashion brand worn by the likes of Michelle Obama, Lupita Nyong’o and Solange Knowles, the two produced a short fashion film entitled Omi.
It just bagged the Best New Director award this week at Milan’s fashion film festival.
Mr Omotayo says diversity is the secret to his success – ensuring that Nigeria’s arts and culture scene reaches beyond Africa.
And although he has seen a shift in the spending power of Nigerians this year, his creative business has not slowed down as much as expected, and he is confident that more opportunities will open up for him.
These young entrepreneurs are making headlines – in spite of Nigeria’s recession.
They prove that it is possible to diversify away from oil – and show the enterprising spirit of the country as it celebrates its 56th year.