I'm writing from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria. I've just spent the last two days participating in events related to Global Entrepreneurship Week hosted by ANDE members Pan-African University-Enterprise Development Centre (EDC), Alitheia Capital, and the International Finance Corporation (IFC).
Now, the first thing many Westerners think of when they think of Nigeria is the spam email that offers an inheritance from deposed Nigerian royalty. Indeed, Nigeria is a world center for Internet fraud. It's gotten to the point where many credit card processing firms will not accept cards issued in the country, and airline reservation sites will not allow you to ticket flights initiating in Lagos. The chaos extends to its major streets where vendors risk life and limb to offer all sorts of edible products, kitchen appliances, and even small furniture to motorists that are stuck in colossal traffic jams.
Economically, Nigeria is blessed with major oil reserves, and a petrochemical industry drives the economy. However, the overall business environment is considered highly inhospitable to private sector business: the World Bank ranks Nigeria 133rd out of 183 economies. Successive military governments have been unable to turn the wealth generated by natural resources into a diverse or equitable economy. Even with all that oil, more than 50 percent of Nigerians live below the international poverty line of $2 a day. In rural areas, it's closer to 70 or 80 percent.
Despite this environment (and indeed, in part because of it), Lagos is an entrepreneurial hotspot. For years, it's been reported by Gallup that Nigerians have a proclivity to be business owners: nearly 70 percent expressed a desire to start a business. And this group came out in full force for Global Entrepreneurship Week. On Tuesday at the EDC, nearly 500 students participated in an event designed to explore entrepreneurial career opportunities. On Wednesday, I was fortunate to participate in an IFC-sponsored conference on leveraging technology to support small and medium enterprise development. The event was so overbooked that 270-plus attendees were playing musical chairs to find seats. The interplay between business people and technologists was exactly the kind of discussion one would expect (and want) to have, with savvy business people pushing IT consultants about the true value of social networking tools to bottom-line business results.
I enjoyed the conference, but for me, the best part of the day was visiting the offices of two local entrepreneurs who have built successful firms in this difficult ecosystem.
One entrepreneur I met is Patricia Ojora, who runs PromoPrint Ventures Limited, a company that specializes in designing and manufacturing corporate and personal gifts. After practicing as a Nigerian lawyer, Patricia realized her true calling to be an entrepreneur and opened PromoPrint. I had a chance to visit her printing facility in the neighborhood of Ebute Metta. Operating out of an old house, Ojora has built the premier shirt printing business in Lagos. Starting with small orders from friends and old business contacts, she now focuses on serving major corporate clients. (If you see anyone wearing a Guinness® Beer T-shirt in Nigeria, Patricia's team likely printed it.)
Despite the fact that Promoprint, like most firms in Lagos, has to generate its own electricity and supply its own water, Patricia has been able to build a thriving firm. In the past year, Ojora's firm has experienced nearly 100 percent revenue growth, and she is now considering another location to support future expansion.
Patricia says she had little business experience when she started. She credits her participation in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Initiative, an effort to provide 10,000 women around the world with a business and management education (EDC is the local partner), as a major factor in her success.
After visiting Patricia, I went to the dry cleaners. Not because I needed my clothes laundered, but to meet Adebayo Eniibukun, who runs a successful professional clothes care business in Lagos. IBK, as he is known, is passionate about clean clothes. Even as a child, he actively sought the opportunity to iron his father's shirts, and because his finishing was so fine, he got to the point where all of his father's friends were asking him to launder their shirts as well. IBK shared, with a chuckle, that ultimately his father sent him to boarding school so he would focus his time on education instead of his lucrative side career.
After launching a dry cleaning business with his cousin, IBK decided to build his own firm, CleanAce, based on a vision of growing both the size and quality of the dry cleaning industry. As his business has expanded to nine locations in greater Lagos, IBK has increasingly focused on upgrading the professionalism of his staff and even that of his competitors. He's in the process of developing a new training institute for the profession and has helped dozens of other firms launch dry cleaning operations in Nigeria and beyond.
Lagos is an incredibly tough place to grow a business. The power goes out all the time, the government regulations stifle start-ups, the educational infrastructure is highly insufficient, and the traffic insane. But the entrepreneurial streak runs strong in the Nigerian people--and barriers that would paralyze a typical Western entrepreneur are not enough to stop Nigerians. Sometimes their entrepreneurial instinct and perseverance lead them to send annoying email -- but sometimes, as in the case of Patricia and IBK, it's downright inspirational.
Follow Randall Kempner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rkempner