“I’d like to say that it’s awesome you’re going, but I don’t think I can.”
That’s what my South African friend Andrew told me when I asked him for advice on traveling in Nigeria.
When most people think of Nigeria, they think of fraud, scams, corruption.
This is why you won’t find Amazon, Paypal or eBay there.
This is why I couldn’t even use my Chase debit card in Nigeria.
This is why there are so few foreign startup investors.
The world is afraid of Nigeria.
Watch this TED Talk on how fear is a form of storytelling
Fear holds us back. It makes it impossible for the product engineer to buy a Raspberry Pi through Paypal. It creates a stigma around a company whose website ends with .ng. It deprives startups of the much needed funding to scale their businesses in Nigeria and beyond. And yes it even slips under the radar of investors where the risk is perceived far greater than the rewards.
The good news is we choose what to be afraid of.
And I choose to believe in Nigeria.
Before my trip to Lagos, I didn’t know what to expect. My connection to Nigeria is a conversation starter. My nationality: American. My ethnicity: Filipino. My place of birth: Nigeria. I was born in Kano, but only spent a year there before moving to Seattle with my parents and sister. Nigeria was fiction — a place that lived in my imagination.
It took almost 28 years, but I finally went back. I wanted to go back with purpose, so I decided to spend my time in Nigeria investigating what entrepreneurship means. Here are four lessons that Nigeria can teach the world…
1) We are all Nigerians
Being an entrepreneur in Nigeria is in many ways no different than being an entrepreneur in North America or Europe. “I think entrepreneurs anywhere around the world face the same challenges,” said Debola Adeola, founder of Topup Genie, a startup that makes topping up your mobile almost instant.
I’ve had the opportunity to teach branding to startups in the world’s major tech hubs — from San Francisco to NYC to London. When I asked entrepreneurs at the Lagos-based social innovation centre CcHUB, what their biggest brand challenges were they said: growing their audience, simplifying what they do, making money.
The challenges are certainly more pronounced in Nigeria, but they are in many ways no different than what I’ve heard in other countries.
2) Embrace the messiness
“In Nigeria, it’s hard to plan even four hours ahead,” said Iyin ‘E’ Aboyeji, CEO and founder of Fora, an education startup that is democraticising university for young Nigerians, “you just don’t know what’s going to happen.” You don’t know if your visa is going to go through, if the wifi is going to stay on, if you’re driver is going to show up on time.
My knee-jerk response to unpredictability is rebellion: tidy up the messiness, put things into boxes. My managing director at Wolff Olins Ije Nwokorie who’s from Nigeria encourages us, “to embrace the messiness.”
It’s within the messiness that unexpected ideas, conversations, connections, projects, businesses, partnerships, emerge. Things might not happen the way you plan, but you’ll often get to a more interesting and innovative place.
3) Every problem is an opportunity
“The key thing to learn in a society with a lot of problems is there are tremendous entrepreneurial opportunities,” said E.
As E and I sat in the car waiting in rush hour traffic, we’d brainstorm business ideas for Nigeria — from a better business bureau to mobile currency exchange to tour packages for the startup community. “The problems are the problem,” E joked, “There’s too many to choose from.”
Nigeria has a population of nearly 170 million — the largest in Africa. It has been heralded as one of the next economic giants, part of the up-and-coming MINT. The barriers to achieving scale are high, but so are the unparalleled rewards for investors willing to take the risk. “It takes a longer period to succeed,” said Peter Ihesie, cofounder of Church+, a startup that helps churches manage their communities, “but because opportunities and populations are huge, so when you succeed, you succeed big.”
4) You might not know what you’re good at
Still not convinced about doing business in Nigeria? Take inspiration from Seismonaut. How did a Danish creative agency end up in the Nigerian hotel business?
I met Seismonaut new business manager Jonas Schwarz Lausten who’s responsible for developing Abuja’s top two hotels on Trip Advisor.
The impetus for setting up a hotel came directly from a need Jonas and his colleagues faced. Setting up an office in Abuja was tough — high rents, expensive hotels. Jonas said, ‘We were sick and tired of paying $300-$400 a night for a pretty random hotel with no internet connection, no service, a run-down, moldy and smelly room. We thought, ‘Why not let’s give it a go?’ Let’s find a space where we can set up our office, rent space to other players, set up rooms — and call it the Nordic Villa.”
After a few months, the Nordic Villa became number 1 on Trip Advisor, beating established players like the Hilton and Sheraton. Since then, Seismonaut has expanded with their two boutique hotels battling for number 1 on Trip Advisor.
Who would’ve expected a Danish agency to become African hotel entrepreneurs? Business school will tell you to build from a place of strength, but you might not even know what you’re good at.
Just the beginning…
What started off as fear became inspiration. What started off as a personal pilgrimage became a business trip. Not doing business in Nigeria would be a mistake.
This trip is just the beginning of a long-term affair with my birth country.
Through my education business Kitchen, I’m hoping to collaborate with social innovators like Fora and CcHUB to make learning for the workplace more democratic and inspiring for young Nigerians.
That’s just one of many ideas. And that’s the beauty of Nigeria — there’s never a shortage of possibilities. You just have to have the courage to imagine a story that’s never been told.
This is a series of conversations and essays about entrepreneurship in Lagos and was first published on Melissa’s Medium.