Ever heard the name Saheed Adepoju? How about Anibe Agamah? Does Inye mean anything to you? Perhaps, it shouId.
“The Encipher INYE tablet is a 7inch tablet mobile internet device which runs Google™ Android 2.1 and allows for consuming services from the internet, watching movies and listening to music,” states Encipher Limited, the company behind this new innovation.
That’s right. In April 2010, a Nigerian information technology company, Encipher Limited, revealed its (and the country’s) first tablet PC. Impressive, but not shocking. The brilliant minds behind the Inye, Adepoju and Agamah, are but two of many on Nigeria’s honor roll of laudable innovators.
In 2003, Nigerian Brino Gilbert was recognized by Invention and New Product Exposition (INPEX) as one of Africa’s greatest inventors, concurrently receiving bronze and silver medals for his creation of the Counter Collision Gadget (CCG). The Guardian online reports, “The international panel of distinguished judges was especially impressed by the CCG which, when fully developed, will have the capacity to avert road, air, sea and rail accidents.”
For each one of these entrepreneurs there are hundreds, even thousands more who have gone unrecognized, or whose community-transforming ideas may never make it past the walls that surround them. The challenges to economic development in Nigeria are varied and complex, ranging from limited financial capacity to gender-related issues. But these challenges are surmountable if intentional and sustained effort is exerted toward addressing them.
Nigerians continue to call out to the government to address the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs in Nigeria. In particular there is a need for the government to strategically invest in women and youth enterprise. It is equally important for the government to take steps to increase the access of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and microenterprises to financial support in the form of loans and lines of credit.
In recent years, the Nigerian government has articulated a strategy to bring Nigeria to the world economic scene by becoming one of the top twenty world economies by the year 2020. A lofty goal, but is it unattainable? A quick consideration of the facts will reveal that Nigeria has the necessary talent, brainpower, and workforce to not only emerge as an economic world leader, but also to attend to endemic problems threatening the fabric of our society. But first, there are key issues that need to be attended to.
Access to Finance
The World Bank, in 2010, reported that Nigeria lags behind many other developing nations in providing access to lines of credit for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The Central Bank of Nigeria affirms that “the formal financial system provides services to about 35% of the economically active population while the remaining 65% are excluded from access to financial services.”
Unattainable collateral requirements, complicated application procedures, and high interest rates shut out the small business owner from growing and making substantial contributions to the local economy.
Similarly, small and micro business owners in the informal economic sector encounter difficulties trying to secure financial investment in their businesses. Where microfinancing options do exist for micro-business owners, lack of awareness or education keep those who most need these resources from taking advantage of them.
According to Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), revamping the country’s financial sector is part of the Nigerian government’s strategic plan to attain to its goal of economic leadership by the year 2020. CGAP states, “The plan aims to build on the success of the recent banking sector reforms to promote greater stability, depth and diversity of the entire financial system.” It remains to be seen how diligently this plan will be attended to.
The Mother of Invention?
History belies what appears to be an underrepresentation in Nigeria of women in enterprise and innovation. Entrepreneurship has long been an area in which Nigerian women have led. Commenting on the history of women entrepreneurs in pre-colonial Nigeria who would travel in large groups across the country to sell their products (usually, farm produce), Dr. Olayemi Akinwunmi narrates, “Clarke and the Lander brothers, who followed some of the caravans during their journey in Yorubaland reported the predominance of women entrepreneurs. Indeed, they described these women entrepreneurs as shrewd business women.”
Through the years, Nigerian women have continued to excel as entrepreneurs, particularly in the agriculture sector. One source reports that “women produce more than 80 percent of food for sub-Saharan Africa,” and Nigerian women are numbered among these. Nigerian women are the primary retailers of food and produce, and in some regions of the country, they farm their own lands to yield the earth’s crop, even as they diligently carry out the role of motherhood. Outside of their direct involvement in the development of new technologies and innovative solutions, Nigerian women have also nurtured for centuries bodies and minds from which innovation has sprung.
In a comparative study considering gender-related issues in business in Nigeria and China, Beverley Kitching and Atsese Woldie report:
“The needs and contributions of female entrepreneurs in the Nigerian economy seeml [sic] to be invisible and overlooked, female entrepreneurs in Nigeria have long been eliminated from the formal sector of the Nigerian economy. Women in Nigeria generally have less access to formal education; consequently they have low participation in the formal sector, for that reason many women take up self-employment. In addition, women have limited access to other critical resources such as land, technology and credit facilities. Hence even within the informal sector, they are confined to micro-enterprises. These include trading and small-scale manufacturing enterprises.”
The involvement of women in enterprise and innovation continues to be a growing topic for dialogue, and it is one in which Nigerian women have participated in recent years. With a view to highlight the talent and economic contributions of women, particularly in developing countries, Mrs. Bola Olabisi in 1998 established the Global Women Inventor and Innovators Network (GAWIIN). Although a Nigerian, Mrs. Olabisi intends to reach across borders to empower draw attention to women innovators. One of the avenues by which this is accomplished is through an event called the Pan-African Women Inventors and Innovators Network (PAWIIN). The organization states, “PAWIIN continues to be the first of its kind to put the spotlight on Africa's most exceptionally creative, inventive and innovative women entrepreneurs and professionals while highlighting their immense contribution and potential to the social and economic growth of Africa.”
As organisations like GAWIIN continue to emphasize, women cannot—indeed, must not—be sidelined in any country’s agenda for economic progress.
Nigerian youths are on the agenda of many NGOs and international agencies, and on the manifestos of most of the candidates who are presently running for president in the April elections this year. This should be encouraging news, but can one help a hint of cynicism regarding potential implications of the apparent attentiveness to the youth? With youth constituting up to 70% of the country’s population, it certainly makes sense to invest significantly in this segment of the population.
The present state of affairs is not particularly encouraging, to say the least. The World Bank asserts, “At present, only 16 percent of young Nigerians have a job outside of the subsistence agricultural economy. This situation represents a tremendous waste of young talent and a potential source of conflict.”
Adding to the general air of discouragement, about 60% of young people who graduate from universities are unable to secure employment, so many no longer consider education as a way out of poverty.
But there is good news. Nigerian youths are brilliant, innovative, and creative; they have a natural inclination toward entrepreneurship. This fact is borne out by entrepreneurs such as Adepoju, Agamah, and the two secondary school girls who developed the non-fuel-powered generator (all mentioned earlier in this article). Think what it would do for the economy to invest in the business ideas and the inventions of Nigeria’s young!
Remember Gilbert, inventor of the Counter Collision Gadget? You’re not alone, if you don’t. Gilbert, sadly, has grown used to not being noticed.
Before Gilbert gained recognition by INPEX in the in the United States, he had purportedly sought funding and support from various sources within Nigeria, eventually having to resort to personal funds.
In an interview given to a news source, Gilbert is quoted as offering the following prognosis of the success of his invention: "We could tidy up CCG here [in Nigeria] and manufacture it here. We can then export it to other countries of the world.” Then Gilbert adds, “But who cares?"
Great question, Gilbert. It is a question echoed by millions of other Nigerians seeking access to resources, funding, viable markets and market information, or even—at a more basic level—a streamlined process for the registration of a business. It is echoed also by the women seeking equal recognition in the economic scene and by youth who desire more opportunities to turn their ideas into profit-making ventures.
The Central Bank of Nigeria reveals that the 65% of unbanked Nigerians “are often served by
the informal financial sector, through Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)-microfinance institutions, moneylenders, friends, relatives, and credit unions.” Micro entrepreneurs in Nigeria have engaged various money-lending and credit granting strategies through the centuries. The rise of microfinance institutions in Nigeria in the past decade reveals the demand for financing in the informal sector. Indeed, it has become increasingly clear that the microfinance subsector is crucial to economic development in Nigeria. Unfortunately, up until recently, microfinance institutions were crippled by lack of necessary oversight and by restrictive regulations. These factors limited the effectiveness of microfinance institutions and made them inaccessible to entrepreneurs who needed them.
Recognising this fact, the Central Bank of Nigeria in 2005 set in place a regulatory system and a framework for formalizing the microfinance industry in the country—this was a long time coming. The new policies have opened the door for international microfinance companies such as ACCION and given rise to indigenous microfinance institutions in the country (AllAfrica). Grassroots efforts to obtain financing for micro, small, and medium businesses should now focus on providing education, training, and mentoring, to bridge the gap between those in need of finance and the institutions available to serve them.
In answer to Gilbert’s question, no one cares better than those on the receiving end of the policies and practices that shape their social system. And with some confidence, we could also extrapolate and say that no one is better positioned or better motivated to find solutions to social and economic issues than those directly affected by them.
There has been a lot of focus of late on citizen-driven, market-based approaches to solving societal needs. Entrepreneurs with societal change on their agenda are another key component to bringing about economic development and transformation in Nigerian communities. The nonprofit organization, Ashoka, offers the following description for social entrepreneurs: “Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.”
Such is the focus of Nigerian entrepreneur and founder of Smallholders Foundation, Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu. Seeking to harness the combined strength of “modern science and indigenous knowledge,” Smallholders Foundation utilizes interactive radio as a means of information-sharing among small-scale farmers in rural Nigeria. Ikegwuonu declares regarding his organization, “The grandest dream of the Smallholders Foundation for the rural radio is within five years, to reach 90 million small farmer listeners all across Nigeria.”
In Northern Nigeria, Ashoka Fellow Mohammed Bah Abba deployed the age-old art of pottery-making to devise a refrigeration system called the pot-in-pot. Awarded several Mohammed’s pot-in-pot is literally transforming lives in his community and across several villages in Nigeria. Mohammed’s Ashoka biographical page explains: “By preserving food, the pot-in-pot increases family income, reduces disease, and even frees young girls from having to hawk food every day so that they can attend school. Best of all, the invention is simple and affordable, made from local materials, and can thus be quickly introduced to villages facing similar problems in Nigeria and across Africa.”
In the most recent PAWIIN awards, which took place in November, 2010, two exceptional teenage girls emerged as overall winners for their prototype for a generator that could offer an affordable, more environmentally friendly alternative to the fuel-powered generators relied upon by many Nigerian business owners as a power source. The Vanguard Online offers more details:
The students both in SS3 [final year of secondary school] and members of the Junior Engineers, Technicians & Scientists (JETS Club) said the idea was born out of a need to minimize the cost spent of the usage of fuel generators as an average amount of N10, 000 is spent on fuel weekly adding that their invention does not emit any toxic and poses no threat to human health … ‘We used magnetic flux to generate electricity which the conventional magnet cannot,’” the young women are quoted to have said.
Citizen-changemakers are identifying the problems in their communities and developing sound solutions to these problems. It would be worthwhile for secondary and tertiary institutions in Nigeria to begin to incubate innovative ideas for change through training, mentorship, and open discourse. Likewise, NGOs and nonprofit organisations should partner with local citizens to come up with viable solutions to problems in their communities.
Whatever the year 2020 brings, Nigerians can boast of success if we have faithfully stewarded the resources given us; relentlessly fought to break barriers excluding the participation and contribution of women and youth to economic development; and diligently given ourselves to community-based solutions for fighting social problems.
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.