Ever wonder where all the Volkswagen Microbuses from a bygone era disappeared to? It turns out they’re alive and bustling around, albeit at a very slow pace, in Lagos, Nigeria where I just returned from a speaking engagement on innovation and entrepreneurship.This month I share with you my impression of Nigeria, a place filled with paradoxes… the people are beautiful, hopeful and impassioned about making change happen while the streets are littered with garbage, rotting with sinkholes so enormous they could consume small children.There is a level of chaos that I have never experienced previously, not even during my multiple trips to China. Everybody is on the move yet they’re getting nowhere fast because there’s no order to the flow of traffic. This is a place void of traffic lights and seemingly traffic laws. The lack of infrastructure was haunting, yet the call for change from the people with whom I spent four days inspired me and I hope my stories will inspire you as well.Beth
Hope on the Edge of Chaos
Lagos, the largest city in Africa, is a blend of chaos and pollution mixed with passionate, energized Nigerians aimed at saving their country from the crime, poverty and go-slows (traffic jams) that plague innovation and growth.
This is a city filled with energy that can be deafening and yet defining as the tin and cardboard shacks that are home to millions of their citizens sit juxtaposed to the slowly growing middle class homes. I found it to be both scary and scintillating, but my feelings about the people that reside there was not conflicted in any way – I fell in love with their warmth, passion and drive for change.
A true urban adventure, the economic powerhouse of Nigeria was exactly what I needed after months of seven-day workweeks focused on teaching and consulting. Who thinks of “Nigeria” as a getaway for the weary? I certainly didn’t but it turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered.
I knew I was in for an adventure when I found it impossible to purchase Naira (Nigerian currency) in the U.S. Everybody from my two banks to the currency exchange experts at Travelex informed me that they don’t carry Nigerian money. Most looked at me perplexed that I was going to Nigeria — you would have thought I had told them I was going to the moon. I assumed I’d have an easier time exchanging my money once in Nigeria but discovered that they don’t accept Traveler’s Cheques, my credit cards were considered foreign and therefore unacceptable, and my ATM card was rejected in the hotel’s machines. I eventually found a location that accepted my card at a heavily guarded ATM Gallery.
What did all of this tell me? Nigeria, beyond its reputation as the hotbed of scammers trying to extort money from innocent email recipients, does not yet have the infrastructure to support tourism – an industry that could help infuse capital and business into their country. But it begs the question: What will it take to overcome their reputation so outsiders will think of it as a country to visit and experience?
So how did I end up traveling to Nigeria? This has been the most popular question posed to me over the past few weeks. A former graduate student of mine invited me to participate in Nigeria’s Annual Business Competition. She came to Boston University with the goal of learning more about running a national Business Plan Competition for her country, Nigeria. She was working for a US-based organization whose focus is to mobilize university students to make a difference in their communities while developing the skills necessary to become socially responsible business leaders. With skyrocketing unemployment this organization helps students develop leadership and entrepreneurial skills, skills that are not just nice to possess but are clearly necessary for success.
I felt proud to watch her realize her dreams. Students from the 36 states in Nigeria participated in this competition. Each team represented a year of planning along with the execution of their proposed business models. As part the competition, teams were required to prove that they had achieved measurable economic, social and entrepreneurial impact.
A chaotic city filled with noise, pollution, bumper-to-bumper traffic at all hours of the day and a lack of public utilities resulting in ongoing power outages, Lagos is clearly struggling with the enormous population growth that it’s experiencing. Unemployment is as high as 35% for 20 to 35 year olds. It makes one ponder how they will ever get past this poverty-riddled position to realize the small wins that most Americans take for granted every day.
Nonetheless, the spirit of entrepreneurship clearly lives in the souls of their youth. You can experience this firsthand in the streets and roadways while traveling in your car or catching a ride on a VW Minibus (their national transportation system). While on the ride, you can purchase practically anything you need before arriving at your destination including plantains, soda, candy and fruit as well as mouse traps, car mats, jewelry, towels, videos and stuffed animals. If you dare to get out of your car you can even pick up a sofa, toilet, bathtub or a couple of dogs (I was tempted but realized it was simply not a good idea).
What are the takeaways for me? Where there’s hope, there is an accompanying entrepreneurial spirit of innovation and change that can transform a person, a business and even a country. This spirit, enabled by amazing women like my student, who have dedicated their lives to change, will be the driving force that empowers developing nations like Nigeria to find their place as a viable economic power. I hope to be a part of that transformation because observing that level of hope and energy is a privilege that every entrepreneur should experience at least once in his or her life. It will change your perspective forever.