One of Nigeria’s greatest assets is our diversity. But unfortunately, in the years since our independence in 1960 we have completely failed to exploit this diversity to our advantage. Instead, we have quibbled and fought concentrating on the few things that drive us apart instead of the many things that draw us together.
It is my unshakeable, stoical belief that a united Nigeria means a stronger Nigeria and a stronger, more competitive Africa. Every ethnic group in Nigeria has something to teach and also something to learn. In this article, I will be concentrating on what every Nigerian can learn from the Igbo people.
I meet Igbo people everywhere. I met an Igbo man in a field clinic in the middle of the Sahara, another en route to a remote psychiatric hospital outside Vienna, I met an Igbo lady who ran a Nigerian restaurant in Bratslavia, I met tonnes of Igbo businessmen when I lived in Japan, not just in Tokyo, but doing business in Osaka, Nara and Kyoto. I meet my Igbo brothers and sisters all over China, trading in fabrics, heavy-machinery, spare parts and foodstuff.
Igbo people have a reputation in Nigeria and probably throughout Africa, as resilient, dogged traders who build viable small-to-medium size enterprises which are completely independent of government.
There are plenty of people from other ethnic groups that have just as much business savy and resilience as an Igbo business person. But other areas of Nigeria have not imbibed the spirit of entrepreneurship into the fibre of their culture in the same way the Igbo’s have.
With youth employment at an all-time high, an urgent need to diversify our economy away from oil and a new president set to squeeze political rent-seekers at the root, we have little choice but to look East for inspiration. I have looked at just two lessons, we can all learn from the archetypal Igbo trader.
1. Education matters, but how much?
I met my friend Emeka (Name changed) when a lecturer from Harvard Business school came to Lagos to lecture. I later learned that he was managed a business that sold laptops.
What would a twenty–something year old man, with no offence, a strong Igbo accent, who sold laptop’s be doing at a Harvard Lecture. He had already told me that he dropped out of high school and therefore never attended University. I wondered if he even had the capacity to understand what the Harvard Lecturer was saying.
I continued to bask in my naivety, until the day I needed a new a new laptop and he asked me to come to collect it in his office. I felt like I had walked into Willie Wonka’s factory. But instead of selling chocolates and sweets. Emeka’s ‘factory’ sold laptops. His staff were lined up like Umpa Lumpa’s organising shipments of laptops, to Abuja, Owerri, Chad, Niger, Maiduguri and Freetown, by the busload. Emeka’s business turns over $6-8 million a year!
More than an African Bank CEO who has worked for 30 years, more than partner in a business consulting firm who went to Harvard, more than a consultant physician who owns his own hospital? I was stunned.
As I have continued to do business in the East, I have realised that Emeka is not the exception, but the norm. Many of these traders do not have a university education, they just have a unique understanding of the mechanics of business fostered by a strong entrepreneurial culture.
One of the questions I then ask myself is ‘How much does education really matter for the aspiring entrepreneur?’ Would it be right to start encouraging young people to begin their entrepreneurial journeys as young as possible, bypassing formal higher education and perhaps looking at alternatives?
2. A frugal entrepreneur is a smart entrepreneur
Another interesting thing about Emeka is he still drives a $12,000 car. Typically, Igbo traders, even the wealthy ones, will travel Economy class or even by road, ploughing the money they would have spent on luxury or convenience back into their businesses.
I am Yoruba and I would definitely say that frugality is essential in business, so this again is not a purely Igbo trait. But Igbo entrepreneurs are famous, or infamous some might say, for making shrewd business decisions and avoiding waste at all cost.
Perhaps this is another lesson to learn.
The typical Igbo trader is has been caricatured for decades in Nigeria, but there are many things that we can all learn from him. More than anything the Igbo trader is persistent and I feel this quote exemplifies him in many ways.
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.