Five weeks ago in Lagos, I attended an event that officially announced the entry of world’s number one outdoor advertising company, JCDecaux, into the Nigerian market in partnership with Grace Lake Partners, a Nigerian investment and advisory firm led by the young entrepreneur, Mr. Ladi Delano. JCDecaux will operate in the advertising sector through Horizon Outdoor Advertising Limited, a fully owned subsidiary of Grace Lake. As officials of JCDecaux and Grace Lake spoke one after the other, what I was seeing was not just outdoor advertising but the frightening potential of this great country. I walked away from the event glad and sad in equal measure.
Why was I glad? Of course, a foreign investor has come into Nigeria, partnering with a local company and adding value to the economy. JCDecaux’s entry immediately raised the value of our outdoor market. It is a compliment in a season when investors are scared of coming to Nigeria for sundry reasons. JCDecaux is bringing cutting-edge technology and innovations. That is good news. What this will do, in a normal country, is to engender healthy competition in the outdoor market, raise the bar and expand opportunities for innovative players. For instance, banking in Nigeria has definitely benefited a lot from global partnerships and investments in the last 20 years.
I am also glad because of the little matter of job creation. According to Grace Lake, all the advertising gantries were built 100% by Nigerians and the materials were sourced 100% locally. This has enabled local supply chains, created jobs and activated technology transfer. That is a boost to the Nigerian economy, one company at a time. If there is one issue that has become disturbing in recent years, it is the unemployment situation in the country. Unfortunately, our understanding of how to tackle unemployment seems limited to what the government can do. Every presidential candidate is promising to “create jobs”. We shall discuss this in a bit.
One more fascinating thing for me about JCDecaux Grace Lake, as the partnership is named, is the social service content. Globally, ethical business emphasises not just profits but people, or rather, public service. Investors and entrepreneurs increasingly focus on what they can give in the process of getting. JCDecaux Grace Lake is providing us with a free real-time traffic information system to help us plan our movements in a state notorious for traffic gridlocks and bottlenecks. Also, JCDecaux Grace Lake has built modern, self-cleaning toilets at major bus stops in Lagos, all for free. This is the direction ethical business is going worldwide which we can learn from.
And now the sad bit. When Mr. Delano first mooted the idea of coming to do business in Nigeria to JCDecaux years ago, the answer was a capital no, according to him. You don’t need to ask why. There is this terrible impression about Nigeria outside the country. We are seen as a place where it is very complicated and frustrating to do business, right from arrival at the international airport to company registration, regulatory approvals, litigation system and critical infrastructure, among several other issues. We celebrate Nigeria as a vast market of 200 million people, but how can we make progress when all we do is just talk up “massive” potential?
When the #NationalBureauofStatistics (NBS) released the latest unemployment figures last week, everybody was alarmed at the ballooning labour market. An overwhelming majority of the unemployed are newcomers to the job market, most of them products of secondary schools and higher institutions. How can an economy with huge potential on every yard of its land be accumulating a population of the unemployed? How can we tackle poverty when there are no jobs? How can we contain crime when millions of youths are idle? How can we open up the economy to provide jobs in millions at a time like this? We need to put on our thinking caps.
I have been listening carefully to presidential candidates as they prepare for the 2019 general election. Most of them are promising to “create jobs”. This is a conceptual mistake which may be hampering our ability to address the unemployment problem in a more scientific way. Government does not create jobs in the sense that we are being made to understand it in Nigeria. We have to think through that very well. Of course, government can employ people (we have an estimated five million civil servants and political appointees across the nation) as well as do projects (constructions, for instance), but the bulk of employment can never be “created” by the government.
I am an entrepreneur and I directly employ about 20 persons. I can assure you that government did not create those jobs. The economy created them. I saw an economic need and plugged into it. If there is anything, the government has been trying to kill those jobs! We face constant harassment from tax authorities (we always come clean, by the way) but that is nothing compared to what other medium and small scale businesses are facing all over the country. How can you “create jobs” when self-employed Nigerians and entrepreneurs are being terrorised and extorted, officially and unofficially, every single day by government agencies? That is a killer of jobs.
Nigeria is in deep trouble, although we can enjoy playing the ostrich for the time being. The unemployed army cannot be expanding at this rate and we would still be expecting to tackle poverty and crime. Something has to be done. Something has to give. Irrespective of party affiliation and political sentiments, we need to re-appraise our approach to job creation in the country. If there is a conceptual flaw about job creation, then the wrong type of policies will continue to be made or proposed, the wrong ideas will be implemented and our later stage will continue to be worse than the former. My intention today is to tamper with our thinking a little bit.
One, we cannot run away from this fact: we need foreign investors. We need them badly. JCDecaux Grace Lake has injected a few millions of dollars into the economy, which is great news, but we can do with hundreds of more foreign investors in the various sectors of the economy. We need them. The all-important job creation benefit is there, the inflow of foreign exchange is there (this will make the CBN happy) and the injection and transfer of cutting-edge technology and global best practices are also there to take Nigeria closer to economic modernisation. I don’t know if there is any argument that can be made against this. I am open to persuasion.
Ms. Priti Patel, former UK Secretary of State for International Development, recently wrote a damning op-ed warning foreign investors about our lack of regard for the sanctity of contracts and the disobedience of court orders. Rather than address her concerns, we attacked her. No problem will ever be solved that way, trust me. What we need is introspection, not aggression and denial. We can attract billions of dollars of foreign investment if we do the right thing. It is about law, order, processes and incentives. We should stop assuming that because Nigeria has potential, investors should be running after us. There are many countries with more potential and less headache.
Two, the biggest employer of labour in Nigeria today is not government — federal, state or local. It is not the banks. It is not Shell or MTN. It is the medium and small scale enterprises, including self-employment. Unfortunately, they are the most harassed investors in Nigeria. The Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC), chaired by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, has done a good job of laying down the policies to improve ease of doing business, but officials of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are doing everything to undermine this. They are terrorists, with due respect. They need to be reined in before they do more damage to the economy.
Many commentators, including myself, have written over and over again about how government agencies are killing businesses in Nigeria at all levels — federal, state and local. What is the president doing about it? What are the governors doing? How can we get the bulk of 20 million Nigerians off the job market if we are castrating small businesses under the guise of revenue generation? It is frustrating that we voice out our frustrations every day over matters that can be addressed without divine intervention. Just a little thinking, a little administrative action or a one-page, A4-size circular can take millions of our youths off the streets. Nigerians can create the jobs themselves.
In the end, while government cannot “create jobs” as we imagine it, it can create the enabling environment for businesses to thrive. That is what will create the jobs. Make the atmosphere conducive. Provide the infrastructure. Reduce the cost of doing business. Save businesses from heavy tax burdens. Design good industrial policy. Implement good monetary policy. Ensure macro-economic stability. Go out of your way to develop pro-business policies and create a pro-business attitude among agencies and regulatory bodies. Stop piling obstacles on the way of businesses that are adding value to the economy. Then watch unemployment shrink like magic.