Do we need more entrepreneurs in Nigeria?
Nigerians love to celebrate entrepreneurship, and rightly so. It is entrepreneurs that build the little businesses which, if conditions permit, go on to become huge conglomerates, employing thousands. In the United States, small businesses (businesses started by entrepreneurs), employ more than 80% of the working population. Ergo, entrepreneurs are in their own little way, the backbone of the society.
But at the same time, too much of everything is bad, and too much of entrepreneurship, in its own way, can also be, not a very good thing. Too much entrepreneurship can be an indicator that all is not well in the environment where all those entrepreneurs originate from.
Using our aforementioned example, the United States, research from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor in 2015, found that 14 percent of working age Americans are entrepreneurs. The corresponding figures for France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Spain and Sweden, are 1.7%, 2.3%, 1.3%, 1.3%, 2.3%, 2.2% and 1.9%. These are all OECD countries. Contrast with the figures for entrepreneurship for Angola, Brazil, Cameroon, Thailand and Uganda, which come in at 12.4%, 13.8%, 13.7%, 16.7% and 28.1%. Compare with the figure from the same GEM for Nigeria, which says that 35% of working age Nigerians, are entrepreneurs.
Let’s forget Nigeria for a brief moment, if that were possible, and look at the common trends in the other countries with high entrepreneurial rates — In Angola, most entrepreneurs are street sellers. They take advantage of the country’s growing traffic snafus to sell products; In Brazil, clothes, hair and vending are the main staple for entrepreneurs, most of whom are women; Cameroon’s entrepreneurship largely consists of people in the food industry, closely followed by services. Many of these people in the food industry have inserted themselves at one point or the other of the food cycle, either farming, processing, or restauranting; In Thailand, the biggest sector for entrepreneurial activity is in the transportation sector, where a large number of people ride their tuk-tuks as a way to keep body and soul together; Uganda, has a high rate of entrepreneurship because as dictatorship ebbs, more people are taking advantage of the internet to expand their businesses.
There is one common thread in all these examples I have highlighted, a thread which is common with the United States, a country that has many times been called a “disgrace” within the OECD. The countries I highlighted earlier have social welfare schemes for their unemployed, and those unable to work. There is no pressing need, to “start something” in order to keep body and soul together. The other countries, those with high entrepreneurial rates, do not.
So when I see stats that tell me that 41% of working age Nigerian women are entrepreneurs, I panic. What that statistic tells me is that there is something broken in our system, and I can only take a look at myself as an example. I am an entrepreneur, and thankfully, I am doing well. However, I did not fall into entrepreneurship by design, I fell into it by accident. Two successive companies I worked for owed salaries, and in order to keep body and soul together, I began to do “runs”, and developed a taste for it. With time, the discipline of the 9 to 5 dissipated, and I became my own man. The same story applies to many entrepreneurs I know around me, successful and struggling. Given that Nigeria is in dire economic straits, the chances of getting a new job have proven distinctly infinitesimal.
However, we should look at things critically. Too many entrepreneurs mean not enough workers to grow our businesses into regional competitors, if not world-class businesses. Too many entrepreneurs, tells us that there is a gap that our government has failed to fill, which is now being filled by the private sector. Think the example of the tuk-tuks in Thailand? Think the okada riders in Nigeria. They are all entrepreneurs, and they are occupying the space left vacant by the lack of an efficient public transportation system in the country. Now, expand that to the chap who installed the solar panels on my roof — he’s filling the vacancy left by the non-existent power utility. The chaps who push carts to sell water around Okota, are filling the space left vacant by a non-existent water utility, the PSCs who come to pick your rubbish, fill the space left by the epileptic waste disposal units of the state; Boko Haram, filled the space left vacant by a non-functional government in Borno State about a decade ago.
No dear reader. An unusually high rate of entrepreneurial activity is nothing to be celebrated. It is something to be looked at askance.