A New Frontier: Think Outside the Oil
Some of my most memorable conversations are exchanges I’ve had with strangers while standing in queues, and today will be no different, I realize, as the man standing in front of me turns to introduce himself. Mr. Mario (not real name) is an Italian globetrotter who works for an oil company in the southeastern region of Nigeria. I ask him what he thinks about the extreme poverty in the oil-rich towns in which he works. “Oh, it’s bad. It’s bad,” he says, shaking his head. He says something about poor infrastructure, pollution, and lack of education.
“Who do you think is responsible,” I ask him.
“The people,” he responds, without missing a beat, “Nothing will ever change, the money will never reach you unless you people get up and elect a good government.” And I am left wondering whether he is blind or simply naïve. WHAT do you think we been trying to do, I want to scream. Do you not see we’ve been straining against restraints for years? Do you not see us fighting, struggling…?
I choose instead to pause and consider his words.
“I do agree that we are largely responsible for where we are and where we go from here,” I finally blurt out. “I think we need to stop waiting for the government to give us what we think we deserve, for the ‘oil money’ to find its way to our waiting purses.”
Mario nods, unsure of where I’m going with this.
“I see us making economic progress already in Nigeria, and it’s not because of oil money. It’s enterprise.”
My new Italian friend peers curiously at me, as if I have grown two heads. Then he gives me another patronizing nod, “Sure.”
The juxtaposition of wealth with poverty—and their accompanying effects—is a common motif in Nigeria’s landscape. Modern high-rise buildings nestled amidst overpopulated, pollution-infested communities. A group of children fetching buckets of water from a stream as, on the bridge flying over their heads, other children in pressed school uniforms are carted in chauffeur-driven Lexus jeeps to private schools. Three or four well-lit homes standing out starkly against the blanket of darkness that has enveloped an entire community at nightfall.
The unfair distribution of wealth in Nigeria has long been a hot topic of discourse in our marketplaces, campuses, and local beer parlours alike. The nation’s laments are chronicled in the literary works of authors and activists like Wole Soyinka and the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, and iterated, less peaceably, by the actions of insurgent groups across Nigeria who take recourse to violence.
Nigeria is one of Africa’s wealthiest nations, with approximately $370 billion in GDP purchasing power parity (PPP), placing the country in the thirty-second place in comparison to the GDP (PPP) of the rest of the world. Yet, an estimated 70% of the country’s population live below the poverty line. The bulk of Nigeria’s revenue comes from the country’s oil sector, even though there are high prospects for its agricultural and technology sectors, should adequate funding and research be funneled in those directions. Since Nigeria’s independence from Great Britain in 1960 and our emergence into the oil market shortly thereafter, political instability has rocked the country as a succession of power- hungry regimes have fought over the reins of government. Now, even as claims of political and economic reforms mark the eloquent monologues of candidates running in Nigeria’s upcoming elections, there continues to be a sense of distrust and anger against an institution that has historically misappropriated the country’s resources. Recently, cries of outrage were set off across the country after a disclosure by the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) that financing for the country’s National Assembly constitutes 25 percent of the federal government budget.
I have taken to calling my parents’ generation the “oil-boomer generation.” Complete with degrees or certificates facilitated by missionaries or the imperial government, they stepped out into post-colonial, oil rich Nigeria with a great outlook for the future. They heard President Gowon announce, “Money is not our problem, but how to spend it,” and they dreamt they would never lack for anything. Their choices—their decisions to stay and work in Nigeria rather than take up lucrative offers abroad, to have four children instead of two, and to abandon the farms left them by their fathers in the villages—are the tell-tale indicators of the things they had hoped. Nigeria was positioned to benefit greatly from the oil boom that would peak in the 1970s, and no one could have foretold anything but greatness for the nation. It was not long before a new reality began to emerge as a series of corrupt government leaders swooped in to control the national treasure. Suddenly, coups, civil war, and uncertainty became the order of the day. And what became of the oil-boomers? Some of them hunkered down and set aside their dreams for the pursuit of survival; some, to their detriment, spoke out or wrote against the many ills perpetuated by the nation’s leaders; many threw themselves into the pursuit of the dreams they had had, determined to partake of the country’s oil money…at whatever cost, by whatever means.
Over the years, a “get-your-own-share-of-the-national-pie” mentality has been inbred in the generation succeeding the oil-boomer generation. There is a disconcerting sense of entitlement latent in the attitudes and actions of young people in Nigeria today. Whether they saw their parents wilt and give up, or they saw them acquire wealth through illegal means, or they never saw their parents at all, many young Nigerians feel they have been cheated out of what is duly theirs.
“You just have to hustle,” one young man says.
“It’s every man for himself,” another intones.
Steal, beg, or hoodwink; get yours while it’s hot.
With youth (between the ages of 15 and 24) constituting nearly half of Nigeria’s 150 billion people, Nigeria is named among the world’s most youthful countries. In a recent report (September 2010), 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.”
In plain English—we need more jobs, and we need to move away from our overdependence on oil…or things could get really ugly, really soon.
I’ve Got a Notion
In the summer of 2010, I grappled with this idea that there could be such a 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. A notion began to form in my mind. What if we stopped running after political office and access to public funds and we began to…well, we began to make the money run after us? What if Nigeria’s youth began to facilitate economic reform at the civilian level 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?
I began an inquiry into the role of social enterprise as a tool for a nation’s development. My research online yielded encouraging results, affirming that the idea of social entrepreneurship is steadily gaining interest. Philanthropic organisations and private sector stakeholders alike are directing their focus to testing the feasibility and viability of market‐based approaches to poverty alleviation.
That was enough information to act upon.
Entrepreneurs in Nigeria
Under the auspices of Hope Youth Foundation, an organisation established by me and my sisters, we collaborated in September 2010 with another youth-led organization to host the Youth Entrepreneurship Seminar, at which there were about 40 young people in attendance. New and would-be young entrepreneurs were challenged to begin to view entrepreneurship as a vehicle for social change. They were also given the opportunity to air their views, ask questions, and exchange ideas.
I was excited to hear the hopefulness in the voices of some of these aspiring young entrepreneurs. Bursting with creative ideas, they were convinced they could change the world with their product or service.
“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.”
Another attendee piped in, “I wish we had more training and seminars and training like this to help us know what to do [with our business ideas].”
According to Gallup Poll findings (2007) lack of access to capital poses a large impediment to upcoming entrepreneurs in Nigeria. Once more, I cannot help but contrast this report to the stories reported daily in the newspapers of people in power who wield their clout to fraudulently obtain “loans.” There are private and philanthropic sector options for funding outside of government or bank loans, but the people who most need these resources are closed out of the loop due to lack of information.
A New Frontier
I recently had the fortune of discovering a local organisation, Center for Enterprise Development and Action Research (CEDAR). Its founder, Mrs. Taiwo, shares that she has long viewed youth enterprise development as a key to Nigeria’s future. To this end, she has devoted many years to conducting research on how entrepreneurship can be harnessed as a tool for youth and woman empowerment. Mrs. Taiwo 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 within 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 NGOs.
The expansion of technology within Nigeria over the past decade is now making the impossible possible. E-commerce is becoming the way of the future as buyers and sellers can now connect across borders, opening wide a spectrum of opportunities. The sky is the limit!
The challenges before us are self-evident. Lack of funding and training for young entrepreneurs are major obstacles in the way of progress. There is also a need for education that will reprogram our minds away from the selfish 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. In one fell swoop, 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 such an environment, we will foster a generation of leaders with a sense of duty for their country.
We will continue to decry the exploitation of people and resources in Nigeria…Come April, we will vote and hope for the best. But be assured of this—we are done waiting for the oil train or banking on empty promises. An economic revolution has begun!
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.