NIGERIA: Think Outside the Oil
“You just have to hustle,” says one young man. “It’s every man for himself,” echoes another.
With youth (between the ages of 15 and 24) constituting nearly half of Nigeria’s 150 billion people, Nigeria is among the world’s most youthful countries. In a recent report, the British Council points out that Nigeria stands at an important fork in the road: One path spelling untold disaster, and the other offering the potential for improved standards of living for millions of Nigerians. The British Council further predicts, “If Nigeria fails to plan for its next generation, it faces ethnic and religious conflict and radicalization, as a result of growing numbers of young people frustrated by a lack of jobs and opportunities. Nigeria needs to create 25 million jobs over the next ten years—and move its focus away from oil, which contributes 40% to national GDP, but only employs 0.15% of the population.”
The bottom line: We need more jobs, and we need alternatives to oil—or things could get really ugly, really soon.
In the summer of 2010, I grappled with the disparity in the distribution of wealth in Nigeria. It made me angry to think how Nigeria might have advanced and how standards of living would have improved through the years if we had only had leaders responsibly allocating the country’s income. But it was especially upsetting that Nigeria’s youth have bought into the idea that our salvation lies solely in oil money and what the government does with it.
I began to ask myself these questions: What if Nigeria’s youth began to facilitate economic reform from the bottom up by engaging in enterprise? And what if we approached enterprise with a different mentality: not with a view to “get what’s ours,” but with a renewed understanding that we are stewards of our nation’s future?
The idea of social entrepreneurship in Nigeria is steadily gaining interest. Philanthropic organizations and private sector stakeholders are testing the viability of market‐based approaches to poverty alleviation. Mrs. Taiwo, founder of Nigeria's Center for Enterprise Development and Action Research, believes that increasing numbers of young Nigerians are successfully changing their local communities through enterprise. She tells of one young woman who is creating jobs in her community through a new cleaning business she founded. I know of another young lady who runs a boutique online, featuring homemade and imported designs. She invests some of the proceeds from her sales in local non-profits.
The expansion of technology within Nigeria over the past decade is now making the impossible possible. E-commerce is helping buyers and sellers connect across borders, opening wide a spectrum of opportunities.
In 2010, The Hope Youth Foundation, which my sisters and I founded, collaborated with another youth-led organization to host a youth entrepreneurship seminar. We challenged 40 young people to view entrepreneurship as a vehicle for social change, and gave them opportunity to air their views, ask questions, and exchange ideas.
I was excited to hear the hopefulness in the voices of these aspiring young entrepreneurs. Bursting with creative ideas, they were convinced they could change the world with their products and services. “But how do we get funding to start?” Nkem echoed the thoughts of many present at the seminar. “I’ve had this business idea for a few years now, but there is no capital to start.”
According to findings from a 2007 Gallup poll, lack of access to capital poses a major impediment to Nigeria's up and coming entrepreneurs. Once more, I cannot help but contrast this data with the stories reported daily of people in power who wield their clout to fraudulently obtain “loans.” Even where there are private and philanthropic sector options for funding, the people who most need these resources are closed out of the loop due to lack of information.
Lack of funding and training for young entrepreneurs are major obstacles in the way of progress. We need education to reprogram our minds away from the rat-race for oil money, and get us thinking about socially responsible ways to contribute to our economy. Economic empowerment cannot simply be a watchword for youth in Nigeria. Enterprise must become a weapon with which we fight, a tool with which we rebuild our nation, and a bridge with which we connect with the world.
By investing in youth entrepreneurship, we could combat youth unemployment, curb our dependency on oil wealth by creating new revenue streams, and improve our communities by reinvesting in them. And in this environment, we will foster a new generation of leaders with a sense of duty for our country.