by Chude Jideonwo
Then there is the long-term advantage – and this is the more important one for the future of our nation: what roles can business thinking and the entrepreneurial spirit play in reshaping the Nigerian society?
To answer, you may first ask the more fundamental questions: what is the role of business, and how can business deploy its unique capacities to transform Nigeria in a way that civil society and public office has yet failed to do up until now?
The tragedy of capitalism has been that, business, a beautiful thing that – like other organs of society – is supposed to contribute to the building of the nation, has been narrowed to a vehicle solely for profit.
This is an aberration. Profit is the engine of business, but this engine has purpose: the purpose is to surrender to the discipline of the market, so that that it is forced to innovate, to iterate, to adapt; to respond to the world as it is, and make it into what it can be.
Nigeria’s problem, caused by its poor leadership is, at the base of it, a collapse of order, of the systems and the architecture that provides sustained value. It is a complete failure of systems thinking.
This is where entrepreneurs thrive. In the absence of systems, they create them. Where people look and see darkness, they see opportunity. From the stones of failure, they map out value. They bring order to chaos, and replace waste with profit.
Others see red tape, and the entrepreneur sees a virgin market; they see pioneer status, and they see first mover advantages.
Unfortunately, in response to this abundance of opportunity our country’s challenges throw up, what have a new breed of businessmen and women been focused on?
More e-commerce companies. As if we live in a different reality from the rest of our nation.
Is Nigeria’s problem the lack of yet another online mall, or is it a collapse of basic infrastructure, the social fabric and the demonstrable power of good governance?
Why are we so dedicated to solving the problems we do not have, when the problems that we have demand urgent solutions? Why are we dead-set on replicating solutions designed for other climes with different sets of challenges, when we have enough of our own?
It is to this voice that entrepreneurs must turn their gifts.
So the question is: how can we apply the fundamentals of business strategy, and the underlying demands of creating a national competitive advantage to regenerating our country?
The challenge is stark. We need investors and creators in health care, human resources, agriculture, technology, manufacturing, in entertainment and across sectors who can get right to the task of building solutions that will actually make governance work, and work for the people.
We have tried to work around governance as entrepreneurs – and all it has done is enriched our pockets while leaving us in an unsafe country with decrepit hospitals.
We have successful businesses all around us now, but what has their narrow focus on making profits done for us as a people – how has the massive shareholder value they have created helped move Nigeria to where it can be? Desperate times call for innovation.
This is where companies like StateCraft are proud to step in – its key product line being people-power; and, when this product line works at optimum, electoral victory.
Thankfully, it is not alone. Andela is solving the problem of our national human resource gap, BudgIT is solving the problem of corruption via access to government data, and my favourite company LifeBank is tackling head on the urgent life-and-death issue of providing blood for the many who need it in emergency situations.
Some of the companies above have not yet, like us, found a business model that drives their economic engine (i.e. who will pay for this product/service continuously), but it is a shame that many of them remain afloat today not by the urgency of Nigerian investment, but by the charity of foreign visionaries like the Zuckerberg-Chan Foundation, and the Omidyar Network.
Nigeria has a blood bank problem. Unlike South Africa that meets its donor needs on a volunteer basis, we only survive based on paying people for blood, and yet we are functioning at below 10 percent capacity, according to Temie Giwa, who founded LifeBank.
To solve this problem, she has decided to run a business, to ensure sustainability. That business functions as an enterprise marketplace for hospitals and blood banks, helping clients source for the best blood and blood products that patients need and delivering the product to patients on time, via an inventory of all the blood available in the country at any time.
She needs the financial runway to keep thinking until she arrives at a business model. But where are the helpers? Where are the investors?
Giwa’s business is literally – literally – saving lives. But she cannot scale yet because local investors are still stuck in an old, warped paradigm where saving lives is something separate from the demands of successful business.
This has to end. Old models must be overturned, old paradigms discarded, and traditional boundaries pushed forward – those lines that separate corporate social responsibility from the core of a business or that isolate advocacy from the core idea of what business should stand for.
Those are false lines, they are lines drawn by the selfish and the insular who have inverted the beauty of capitalism and distorted the pure idea of corporate value.
Business, like any other organ cannot, and in a new world should no longer, be separated from the public good.
Business, like other pillars of society – clergy, civil society – can and should stand in the gap where government has failed, driving social good, and expanding social value. The imperative is not to focus on profits as end for itself, but for profits to be incentive for innovation and creating the future.
It is possible.
Now, of course I understand the reluctance that business people traditionally have had for getting involved in the morass of Nigerian governance and its gaps.
Of course, you will face criticism, sometimes rabid, for problems you did not create and for solutions you are providing with purity of intention. Indeed, there is the great risk to be misunderstood in a deeply corrupt system, where profit is viewed as a dirty word, and self-interest is hardly enlightened.
And there will be those, caught in a cognitive dissonance, themselves disconnected from the imperatives of intervention, who will tell you that because you are in business, you have no business with building your nation.
But that is nonsense.
It is nonsense because whether activist or entrepreneur, painter or pastor, you are first and foremost a citizen – and it is immoral to focus only on protecting your business and winning contracts, feigning disinterest and blindness in nation desperate with need.
I was excited to convince one of the leading lights of the new entrepreneurial movement in Nigeria last year upon speaking at the Oxford Africa Business Conference.
“The first time I had the opportunity to speak to Chude of RED at length was at the Oxford Africa Business conference in May. It was a very pleasant conversation. At least, so I thought,” wrote the founder of iROKO TV, Jason Njoku, wrote after that talk. “Literally 20 mins later, he called me and mine cowards in front of 100+ people. That’s hyperbole. He didn’t call me personally a coward per se.
“He railed against all those men (and women) of means in Lagos who live in their gilded cages. Flaunting their prosperity, who speed past the problems of the masses. In a country where someone’s monthly salary is the same as an expensive meal on the Island. That those of means had a moral responsibility to do something about it.”
So yes, it is nonsense for anyone to tell you to mind your business. It is your moral responsibility to mind your country, too.
It is also nonsense because you have a unique talent, gift and proposition – the entrepreneurial, outcome-focused thinking that is crucial for a country of many problems.
And, most importantly, it is nonsense because the nation badly, desperately needs you.
At times of luxury, we can all afford the luxury of being part time citizens. But in a country so damaged, we surely cannot afford the luxury of disconnect, and we cannot rely on tradition and convention.
We need activist judges, activist academics, activist celebrities, activist lawyers, activist media, activist government officials (see former United States Attorney General, Sally Yates standing up to Trump or former Nigerian minister, Obiageli Ezekwesili being called ‘NADECO’ in the Obasanjo government), and we need activist businessmen and women.
At times like these, when governments have proven themselves incapable of doing the jobs they have been asked to do, it is time for a different type of thinking from other organs of functioning society.
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg unleashed what I call his magnum opus on how he sees the world and the role of business in that world.
Facebook, according to him, is not just a technology tool to upload photos and publish videos. It is an instrument to remake society.
Facebook, as Vox.com put it in a review of Zuckerberg’s essay, is poised to be a platform on which to build a global civil society, crating a service that encourages communities and cooperation and political participation on a translational scale.
In short, Facebook is not just in business to make money, even though money is crucially important. Facebook is, cliché or not, in the business of changing the world; providing alternatives that address the limitations of governments and civil society.
“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present,” Abraham Lincoln sagely reminds us. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, act anew.”
This is the kind of challenge that a new world poses to the inventiveness and innovation of businessmen and women.
And, for Nigeria and much of Africa, it is a desperately urgent call.
We can choose to answer it.
Or we can wait until this whole thing comes crashing down, on all of us, destroying the illusions of safety that we have, and the broken-down society that we have chosen to ignore.
I wonder what will happen to all those shareholder profits if that day and time comes.
*Jideonwo is co-founder and managing partner of RED (www.redafrica.xyz), which brands including Y!/YNaija.com and governance consulting firm, StateCraft Inc (www.statecraftinc.com). Office of the Citizen (OOTC) is his latest essay series.