How can Oguta remain like this? We have this little paradise waiting to be cultivated. But we all run away from it for selfish gain. We turn our faces away as the waste of daily living is dumped into the lake. We fear to swim in the beautiful Blue lake because we have dredged deep into the heart of the earth. We fear for what lies deep within the troubled waters. The lake lies wasting in the dying sun while we are making plans to replace it. We return home with forex to build our shallow swimming pools in our backyard, and empty the dirty waters into the lake. Why won’t the lake be mad, and carry away the children of erring parents? Why won’t the forsaken lady seek her revenge? The water lily grows long and serpentine underneath, dancing in the slow waves, waiting. Nature will pay us back with what we give to it. Who will swim in the lake with me? The dredger in Umudei village. The litter at the shore. No one swims in the beautiful lake anymore. They travel on it to the neighbouring villages to trade. They stack bags of cassava pegged to the bottom of the lake for days, washing away all the cyanide and smell. That is why our akpu does not smell. That is also why Ihu Ohamiri stinks. But we are happy when we eat our cassava. You would think that you are eating pounded yam. The lake carries away all the stench.Every Christmas now, a church holds an end of year crusade in Mgbidi, a village on the road to Oguta. Their members wear this fluorescent yellow coloured posters that burn the eyes in the harmattan dryness.It is long since our people went mad. The ancestral gods have gathered dust at the corners. Worse, they are now firewood at mother’s kitchen. We found a new religion. We also found oil. Now nothing else matters but these two… not even other natural resources that our fathers lived on. No, oil is king. On Eke, the traders line up to buy produce from those who live across. Oguta people do not farm around their homes. Our farmlands lie on the other side of the lake. So Oguta looks more like an estate without greenery. The local governments in Nigeria have lost their autonomy. The state governors control the local governments. The people at the grassroots live with their waste, they live without social amenities like electricity and pipe-borne water. We live on borehole water that we must make to survive. We are our own government. We are no government. We know no government. We do things our own way. There is no way we can continue this way. We are blind to the beauty that is ours. We live like strangers in paradise. This is the new history we are writing for the children.
My 40th birthday anniversary was celebrated with a great party. I had a beautiful cake with the number 40 stuck at the top. I thought that was the age of new opportunities, but the rest of the developed world seems to think otherwise. They think that 40 is the age after everything good should have happened in your life, about five years earlier!
Let me explain. But before that, let’s go back to when I was 35 years old. Everyone who wished me well was on my neck to ‘settle down’ (in other words ‘get married). I was in-between two mindsets. One thought that a man can marry whenever ‘he feels’; while another point of view felt that I should have married earlier so that one can begin to have children earlier.
Whether one had a steady source of income at the time (which I didn’t) was irrelevant. We are part of a teeming population of graduates fighting for the few jobs that appeared to come in ratios of 1:20,000 people. I mean proper jobs that pay your house rent and still leave you with money to spend on personal needs. The better jobs allow one to save some money on top.
At 35, I had worked for two privately owned companies that ran the business like they were a family affair. One of the companies made me work without a salary for over 8 months. It was the case of enjoying the work you do without getting financial gratification. I didn’t have a job then. It was a hobby. I sold the odd portraits/painting and raised the money for transportation to and fro; for feeding; etc. At age 35, most of the Nigerian youth are heavily dependent on family members for financial support and accommodation. They even go ahead to borrow money to have extravagant weddings that show off their parents’ affluence in society. With all the expectations that come with it, any job would do at the time.
Unfortunately, in Africa, we seem to be just getting used to being adult at that age. We seem to be ten years younger than our contemporaries in the West. We look it.
My sister and her husband who live in London brought their children to spend the Christmas holidays in Nigeria. Kamdi my niece was 2 years old the first time we met. It’s been over ten years now, and I cannot get over her composure as we sat in my sister’s parlor discussing life. Anyone eavesdropping would have thought we were two adults having a chat! Kamdi’s mates would have run outside to build sand castles in the dirt. We live younger for longer.
Unfortunately, the rest of the advanced world thinks differently. One is expected to have peaked in his career by the age of 35. So the opportunities out there for growth are open to the younger generation of adults who just graduated from university/polytechnics, etc. The demographics favor those between the age of 23 and 35.
Here is how I soon found out. By then, I was more serious about my work and life but it seemed already late. I started looking for residencies to apply for. I saw some funds also that I tried to apply for. There were competitions too. The guidelines generally had age restrictions the applicant must not be older than 35 years old. Africans are supposed to run at the same time with their contemporaries in the West. I wonder who make these rules across the board for all humanity. It’s as if they are blind to see our leaders- old grandpas that should have been retired to their villages to live out the rest of their lives. The West turns a blind eye to the fact of the millions of unemployed youth still struggling to survive in Third world countries.
They have a system that supports their youth to reach their full potential as long as they have the right dreams. Here the youth will dream and die hungry because they live in a society that does not promote excellence and hard work.
Some of my contemporaries may have run off for the residencies or received funding from the West. It is easy to forge one’s birth certificate, to get a passport that reflects the same age in these climes. ‘Fantastically corrupt’, we have been called. The corruption is in the system. The thing is, the youth immediately bear the brunt of the sick system. Either they use any means necessary to escape to the West to seek ‘greener pastures’ or they keep hope alive and work decently, hoping to outlive the system that has failed.
In the case of some of us who embraced the Internet wholeheartedly at an earlier age than our contemporaries here in Nigeria, the exposure means that we have shared enough personal data with the rest of the world to make it almost impossible to create another identity. We are who we were forced to become. The rest of the world doesn’t care. The choices to continue after the age of 35 are few. I have become that unbelievable survivor who made it through insurmountable odds. I am a rarity that the rest of the world can’t believe. I don’t blame them. There are times when I can’t even believe the fact that I am still here, and well. I will be 45 years old in 18 days. And I will be partying at the opening ceremony of the thirteenth edition of the African Contemporary Art Biennale in Dakar, Senegal. Believe me, I will pay my way to be there. The time of expecting aid is passed. I work and pay my way through. I have the green passport. I am proudly African. And hey, you will never believe my age if we met. I look younger than 35.
It seems that there are problems everywhere, especially online. Social media in so many ways has heightened our presence and fears from all the ills befalling mankind at the speed of sound. It all seems aimed at turning us into information explosion disorder wrecks( I am sure there is a name for that now). It is more painful when it is more difficult to decipher the true news from the fake. As if the events from everyday modern living hasn’t become so much more complicated! The other day I read through a comment by Reno Omokri, the former spokesperson to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan. He was questioning why Nigerian governments of the past did not tap into the progressive technologies of Biafra to move Nigeria forward. I will not bore you about the stories of war, or of the issue of Biafra here and now. But I was struck by some lines in the short essay by Omokri where he spoke of how Nnewi, a town in Southeast Nigeria, has moved on in creating a better environment for the indigenes, without waiting for government interventions that seem not to be coming. The Nnewi people have built roads, energy plants, etc. to make their place better.
It got me thinking- why scream and shout daily on social media platforms about all the neglect and misdeeds of government? The problems are still there, in fact, the last time I checked, I don’t know if I am getting more pessimistic with age; or that it is this- things are actually getting worse on Planet Earth? Again I pause, I deviate. Whatever the case, inspired by the forward-looking mindset of Reno Omokri’s essay, I have decided to begin to create personal solutions to the challenges of daily living! It sounds quite commonsense, but the thought flees us in real life situations.
There is a lot that people can do to make a better world without waiting for others to think for them, without looking to ‘government’ as it obtains in so-called ‘better societies’/ places where things work! The Internet and online communities are such a wonderful gift and treasure trove for accessing tons of useful information about nearly all of mankind’s issues. Social media allows the sharing of tips, tons of video tutorials to make handymen of all of us. Unfortunately, most of the active generation on this planet is still drooling over the possibilities of socializing, and sharing their daily lives on platforms that can possibly reach millions of people in no time. They waste the time interacting online, bickering and blabbing about all things bright and beautiful and screaming about all things ugly and stuff in-between. So much data is wasted. Instead of seeking out solutions for fighting the beast, we are powerful social commentator and armchair critics, with a honed knack for explaining out all the reasons that show how the government has failed, how all the world’s problems start and end with the politicians.
The best minds have studied the problems of contemporary living, and continue to churn out innovations and inventions to make this world a better place.
A few good men dream up solutions and ways of making the world a better place to live in. To survive, Man keeps creating, innovating, but in these days when knowledge has increased like waters covering the sea, we only hear the groans and whining of lazy loafers who think that ‘the grass must actually be greener on the other side’. With much information available to mankind, it is easier to be deceived, to believe the lie! Hopefully, we will wake up today to start looking for the solutions to the hazards of daily living. The solution, the nirvana we seek is here with us to make, to establish. The tools are online. The answers are here with us. The shared experience of living has allowed men in different societies and stages of development to come up with answers. We must use the time well to ask Google, or whatever you ask. Its already a better world elsewhere. We can bring that world here. Kingdom comes. Lets not escape into wasteful thinking of the other side. We are not really sure how it is ‘over there’. At the point you are now, where you are reading this, is the space that you must act to change the status quo. Just ask, and you shall receive answers. Be the problem solver, the visionary who sees a brighter tomorrow.
‘More cattle?’, a recent collector asked yesterday. the voice was one of wariness, as though a certain boredom had crept into an otherwise very enthusiastic, excited life! I felt a bit like I was staring too much into the sun, and the rays were blinding.
The feeling was momentary. When I started the series ‘A Thousand Cattle, Two Hills’, I had one thing in mind. Many months later, the idea has grown on me. Staring, investigating the same subject concurrently has yielded fruits. Other ideas have come up. I see myself being led in directions I hadn’t thought of. I see now with more clarity than at the beginning. Time brings the stimuli of the other instances of life.
It is an eye-opener to focus on a subject for a long time. The form has shown up in many ways, but generally, the images are created with a mindset to suggest movement. More cattle will come. The troubling issue(s) that led to the beginning of this series continues to trend in our communities. From my studio’s balcony overlooking Trinity field on one side, the cattle are being led out to graze. Their stall is close by, beside the abattoir in the new market in my village Oguta.
Access -3,000 Shops. DENIED
Is this truly a government of the people? Ikota Shopping Complex is located on the Lekki/Epe expressway, beside the Victoria Garden City(VGC) residential estate. The place has over 20,000 people working in 3,000 shops with a net worth between 15-20 billion naira making it the largest shopping complex in Nigeria. Then there is Lagos Concessional Company (LCC), the builders of the Lagos tollgates, and the Lagos State government on the other hand. LCC is expanding the Lekki/Epe expressway and are now working on the Ajah axis of the road. They have blocked the access to the shops and instead, created a roundabout facing Victoria Garden City. The gate to VGC is about thirty metres from Road 1, Ikota Shopping Complex.
The members of the executive of the Ikota Shopping complex shop owners and stakeholders association have repeatedly met with LCC and the Lagos State government asking for the roundabout to be located thirty metres away from its present position(this was while the roundabout was in draft state) to favour VGC and Ikota Shopping Complex. They have been refused.
On November 23, the association staged a peaceful protest against LCC and the Lagos state government. They had planned to take the protest march to the highway facing the complex, but were refused permission by the Lagos State Police who deployed four patrol vehicles of policemen armed with guns and teargas launchers to enforce order.
The associated circulated notices and sent out text messages to the shop owners notifying them that the complex will be locked between 9am-10am to mobilise for the protest. By 9am on Friday, the president of the association Mrs O.O. Akinpelu, flanked by Mr. Patrick Baghanlo addressed the crowd gathered round the locked gate to road 1. Many of the people gathered agreed that the blocking off of access to the Shopping complex had slowed down business, as many potiential customers find it difficult driving through the persistent traffic jam between the VGC roundabout and Ilaje bus stop to turn at the ever-busy Ajah roundabout. The conveners of the protest read out the statistics for the importance of the shopping complex, and why it should have received preference over and above all other businesses located around the expressway. The big question was why did Oriental Hotel,a business with a net worth of about 3 billion naira, should be given access while another business worth so much more should be blocked out of relevance!
The protesters marched from one end of the parking lot of the Ikota Shopping complex to the other, but this piqued the anger of observers who felt the march should be done along the road, in the full glare of the public. They headed for the main road and put up road blocks, but the police soon moved in on them and threw away the road blocks. A lot of business owners have already closed down due to poor patronage. A hairdresser with a salon within the premises even predicted that more people will move out by January. Someone else spoke of the fear that it may even get worse now, if the LCC decides to put up a fence barricade and wall like they did along the road by The Palms. The gates were soon opened. It was business as usual, and most of the crowd who had gathered for the protest(mainly shop workers and office assistants) trudged in to their various shops, to wait, to sleep away. And at the end of the month come bills-salaries for staff, service charge and electric bills etc. Fewer people walk into the complex these days. The weather is unfriendly.
RESTRUCTURING AND RESTRATEGISING for SMEs
On 20th September I was at the Small and Medium Enterprises Conference, hosted by the Enterprise Development Centre of the Pan African University, which event took place at the Main hall of the MUSON Centre. It wasn’t like I could pay my way through for the N10, 000 per head attendance fee (it coincided with a time I was trying to settle bills for the Clay Wall Limited, my one year old office in VGC. I got into the venue out of goodwill, really, and I must have enjoyed it more than those who paid-the event saw me scribbling on the provided notes like my life depended on it! At that point, I guess that was what it was. And in an accidental way, I got invited to the Conference by an in-law with whom I had shared how I was restructuring the business (The Clay Wall Limited). The seminar seemed to key into my state of mind at the point, as my interest peaked at the similarity of themes-in my personal email with this friend, and in the topic of the conference.
There were presentations and Q and A sessions that helped us entrepreneurs gain deep insight into the workings and mind-set of major business players. We were about 500 entrepreneurs present, all eager to hear from the distinguished panel answers to questions about how they grew their businesses to become major leaders in their fields of specialization; revenue generation to help brand and position the Small enterprise; effective causes of failure/success in business etc.
The first idea that struck me was that of Business Location and ownership of the Business Location by the Entrepreneur. That got me drifting on the persistent idea coming to my struggling business of relocating to Eastern Nigeria, where my family owns substantial properties that are uninhabited. I was at that point of decision in the business where I was wondering whether to continue in the Business or look for paid employment in some gallery.
One of the discussants, Tokunbo Talabi , CEO of Superflux International Limited, a manufacturing company that has grown from a two-man team to become an employer of over 250 staff, spoke about three major ideas that affect doing business anywhere-Strategy, Structure, and Culture. Being the Art man, my ears pricked at the very word ‘Culture’, and about local paradigms that have eaten into our society, and inhibited growth of enterprise in Nigeria. An entrepreneur should always go beyond negative paradigms that are propagated in the actions and activities of people in his locality; and have an international mind and appreciation of best-practise as eschewed in more successful economies.
Questions about expansion and partnerships were asked, but there was a general idea that such partnerships must be entered into with great caution; and best with contemporaries with like aspirations. Expansion which involves others is good for the business. Since there is a dearth of well-trained staff in Nigeria, one has noticed how many local companies and key multinational companies spend heavy resources in training staff. Tony Elumelu, Chairman of Heirs Holdings Limited, illustrated how he continually trained staff, and stood in on the appointment of staff for a conglomerate like UBA (when he was CEO). He asserted that it was necessary, and gave him opportunity to share the aspirations and dreams that made the brand a success.
On an aside, the answer came to me about brand identification and questions arose about brand growth. The entrepreneur should articulate his vision, mission and core values from the onset. The brand for the Creative person is himself, and when the brand survives on the good name accrued over the years, it behoves one to only do his work well. I have, on occasion, given myself the caveat that ‘this was the best that one could have done at the moment, in their peculiar circumstances’.
For one of the speakers, Finance is everything. This pregnant phrase was explained out to the eager entrepreneurs who sat and looked on with glazed eyes and open mouths- there seemed an uneasy silence from the awestruck audience. The speakers all had fantastic resumes, and some of them paid tribute to the impact their alumni, Pan African University, had on their businesses. The event was not only about garnering accolades for themselves (which came aplenty) it was a way keeping a commitment to supporting its MBA and EDC students in growing their businesses and opening meeting points with key players in the business world for networking and marketing possibilities. There was a shared familiarity with the speakers as members of the audience would occasionally hint at more than a formal knowledge of the antecedents of some of the speakers whom they questioned. One such question came from a man who seemed to have worked in a business, who wanted to get answers as to how Tony Elumelu lured some key players to join in his vision of growing UBA into a multinational banking institution. He wanted answers as to how Mr Elumelu got the best staff to become part of his team. Tony Elumelu mentioned how he continually met with staff, eliminating that servant-master relationship that is common in other businesses; and kept on indoctrinating staff (the Boss is a preacher of sorts)
The Creative must be a great socialite, who will embrace people through and in his work; who works ‘inside’ his passion. The very word ‘passion’ was personified by Clare Omatseye, keynote speaker and Managing Director of JNC International Limited, whose company provides high quality medical facilities. ‘Passion is the starting point’, insisted Mrs Omatseye, and this must be supported by a great customer care.
An interesting idea, which was challenged by some of the speakers, was the paradigm that states that ‘the customer is always right’. They explained that, away from the customer, the entrepreneur must realise that the company’s staff are ‘golden’, as they are the ones who push the dream forward, who share the dream with the entrepreneur; allowing for more moments of relaxation by the business owner.
What is the reason for being in business (buzzness)-to add value, to cater for the changing needs of insatiable consumers in every society? And yes, it is good to ‘be hungry’. Listening to the audio book The 49th Law of Power by Robert Greene, one can easily understand how the aching hunger in the hearts of entrepreneurs has driven growth, created innovations, and pushed inspiration a notch higher at all times. Hunger is an essential element for the Fearless Spirit, a need to succeed beyond his present circumstances, the ability to work out on a deal, if the entrepreneur finds it unsuitable for his vision.
Discipline is key, and one must always remember to suspend gratification, to pay self last. Peter Bamkole, Director of EDC and moderator of the conversations with Tunde Titilayo, and Tony Elumelu, led the conversations and clarified some questions from the audience. He continually pointed the conversations in relevant directions, and spoke of plans for creating a funding scheme that would not use the prevailing paradigms to lend to small businesses. He spoke from a background of interacting with entrepreneurs in the classroom for almost a decade(EDC will be 10years old in a few months’ time) There was a general understanding that no genuine business could survive if it needs to pay the requisite 30% interest to a bank. The entrepreneur was advised to look inwards for funding-to friends and family who already have one’s interest at heart.
Location is an important aspect to be considered as a business should have auxiliary businesses that could support the business; and there should be market within easCreating an identifiable, outstanding niche will go a long way also, while the entrepreneur must keep developing capacity. He must move in the relevant circle of his business contemporaries, join and participate actively in professional bodies and at events where his business and the competition are showcased.
The understanding of Location and its importance in doing business has metamorphosed with the growth of the world-wide web. This key element in present times has also altered the meaning of personal identities and boundaries; cultures and recent neo-global ethnicities.
The entrepreneur must identify the key success factors in his chosen business, find his niche, and be willing to engage the competition when called upon. This can only happen from a sense of best practises, and by a fearless spirit. These interactions, as at every other forum, one must take to advertise and promote the business. Think deeply about your competition.
One of the speakers, Tim Akano, who runs the a first class, top-ranked I.T. company called New Horizons, offered free online I.T to participants. Like the other speakers, his C.V. ran long, showing an apprenticeship in many multinational companies.
This theme hit the heart of the challenges facing most of the audience-SME Funding-POSITIONING BUSINESS FOR INVESTORS and covered by David Nwankwo, MD/CEO Leasing Company of Nigeria. He spoke about angel funds and the challenges facing SMES. He discussed how the fear of loss of control stops many SMEs from borrowing from the capital market. There is also a fear of disclosure of company secrets. Although leasing is a solid way of funding, the unclear regulatory environment and lack of efficient legislative to back leasing are strong hindrances. The huge operating costs of running SMEs cause a lot of failure amongst upstart SMEs. Borrowing from non-banking institutions is rampant.
Mr Nwankwo asserts that there are huge opportunities for SMEs that choose to be more competitive. The future is bright as funds from various places are coming for SMEs. To access these funds, SMEs must show a business track outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the business. To make the business more attractive to investors (the speakers generally alluded to the Business as a beautiful Bride), the entrepreneur must show that there is a growing demand for the product. For instance, I have noticed that, with the proliferation of cameras has come a growing need for better composed portraits. Photography and Art must move beyond the ‘point and shoot’, quick fix products, must preoccupy it with deep thinking, and planned work. In a wonderful way also, the demand for such work outweighs the supply in the open market. Many of my fellow Creatives (professionally trained artists) prefer the fast, old-school gestures for expressing themselves, and cling on to a dying culture when it comes to Portraiture, as if, for instance, that the advancements made in Photography never happened. In starting my business, I intended to build a watering hole-a meeting point for Creatives (artists and writers who graduated from Nsukka); to allow for internships and short periods of industrial training for students. I want to grow a team of like-minded thinkers who can then be engaged to work with me in my studio.
To underline aspects of the SME that a potential investor may be interested in, let’s follow these outlines:
1. Outline: The entrepreneur must show the magnitude of his vision;
2. Money: Show where the money is, how the money will flow into the business;
3. Share: Be ready to share ideas, resources etc;
4. Profitability: what is in it for the investor?
5. The entrepreneur must have a good market understanding, and invest in Communication and Branding;
6. Goodwill: what does the entrepreneur own (have to offer);
7. Put together pictures, referrals and other relevant material that show the approval ratings for the business;
8. Innovation: how scalable is the idea;
This entire gist drew the opposite thinking idea- what if the investor does not get attracted to the business? Somehow, throughout the session, this question had been answered in varying forms by the speakers, because summarily, all the questions asked by the audience were motivated by that question. The speakers had narrated their formulas for success- hard work, passion, self-development and knowledge of one’s chosen field, resilience, discipline, building the right team that will sustain and replicate the brand’s dream, and so on. The entrepreneur needs to know how to bring a distinctive flavour to his brand, and be willing to outsource. He must deal with mental laziness, and demonstrate cash flow and commercial viability of his business.
These and many more ideas spun in my head as I enjoyed all the sharing of experience and goodwill; encouragement and intelligent questions. In fact, Mr Tony Elumelu so enjoyed answering questions from the audience (at some point he wondered aloud whether the session was being recorded: he saw the whole experience as very educative- an opportunity generate useful material for mentoring) that he had to be stopped by Peter Bamkole.
The Pan- African vision of Tony Elumelu was inspired by an understanding of the power of economic transactions in integrating political geographies, as business is really about the movement of goods, and people. Since retiring as CEO of United Bank for Africa, Tony Elumelu has moved on into philanthropy, and also established the Tony Elumelu Foundation for this purpose. The Foundation, for him, is an opportunity to mentor, to build strong teams, and to encourage upstarts. He recently created a twitter account (@TE_Foundation) which he takes seriously, receiving and answering questions from people, and sharing his life ideals.
Business is a journey to be taken one step at a time. Before giving up, the entrepreneur should give a 5 year gestation period and create a rolling development plan. He must build structures, stay low-profile (financial discipline), and evaluate his location. to give access to funding for SMEs, Peter Bamkole announced that the EDC had plans to roll out an Enterprise Development Fund, an idea mooted by Tunde Titilayo, who also went on to promise donating the bulk sum for jump-starting the Fund.
Business combinations help in many ways, in helping one to align with the best interests. In planning, the entrepreneur must break his vision down into stages, and put a timeline to achieving these goals. Many private businesses have virtually disappeared with the death of the charismatic initiator, the owner. To forestall this, Mr Elumelu puts premium on creating a strong working team; bonding with staff, with an understanding that Success, to a large extent, depends on the team; and finally-mentoring for succession. At crucial times and points of decision-making, the entrepreneur must see these 5 elements as key-Customers, Investors, Staff, Regulators, Self. He should see how self only is a one-fifth of the whole process of decision-making, and be magnanimous enough to consider how the other four elements will be affected by the decision.
I wanted to share the lessons learnt with fellow sojourners who trod the wavy creative path, seeking to carve a niche in the major discourse of today, to earn a living, to professionalise their creative practise without becoming merely commercial, populist; to those who, due to unforeseen circumstances could not be in the MUSON to hear the things I heard. I also deemed it necessary to do a sketchy reportage, to, particularly, my friend and brother Fabian, whose idea it was that got me to the event. Thanks to my friend at the door who let me in; and the unknown bike man who is an important part of my days in Lagos, helping me meeting deadlines. I am still in one piece to write this.
Anthony Nsofor, Studio Master, THE CLAY WALL LIMITED, SUITE C228, IKOTA SHOPPING COMPLEX, VGC, LAGOS. Email: anthony.nsofor@yahoo. com