In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
- Orson Welles
This line from classic movie The Third Man is one of my all-time favourite movie quotes. What it lacks in accuracy, it makes up for in elegance and effect. It alludes to the peculiar observation that unforgiving environments demonstrate a unique capacity to harness and foster excellence. Yet, while it has been well documented how culture and art has often thrived in hardship, less attention has been paid to how economic success can be borne out of adversity.
It is difficult to express the difficulty of living in Nigeria. The country is in a near-constant state of volatility, seemingly moving from one mini-crisis to the next. Unreliable infrastructure drives up business expenses even as the economic prospects of the next generation continue to darken. Meanwhile, people and businesses suffer from the nation’s international notoriety. Finally, there is the pervasive passive-aggressive behaviour that makes one wonder whether Nigerians just enjoy making things difficult for one another.
Then again we are already familiar with all these. They are called third world problems. Nigeria has taken many strides forward in the last decade but these challenges remain. Nevertheless, they offer a unique opportunity to thrive for those willing to capitalize on them.
You do not have to look too far to figure out how to turn the disadvantages into advantages. For example, Nigeria is now in the throes of its own technology age but a skills gap still exists–most notably in the highly specialist information technology roles. This gap, created by the limited higher education opportunities in the field, has been identified by the government but at the moment the opportunity is there to be the early bird that gets the worm. The preference for traditional qualifications in Nigerian culture means such courses are not as popular as they should be and ensures that there is still a premium on these skills. Startups such as Andela have found success by leveraging on these factors.
More generally, not enough emphasis is placed on quality service in the Nigerian business environment. With an expanding tertiary sector as the backdrop, the absence of a true service culture presents a huge economic opportunity. Quality customer service is uncorrelated with business size or market power so even the smallest enterprises can leverage this potential differentiator. Similarly, in Nigeria, all but the most sophisticated firms treat their employees like robots. Nurturing an attractive working environment gives a strong competitive advantage in attractive prospective employees. Everyday, we suffer the negative effects of patronising businesses that are not people-driven. The opportunity is there to use this principle to set apart yourself, or your business.
Sometimes, the opportunity is adversity itself. Periods of chaos and upheaval sometimes present the best or only opportunity to gamble. We see this most often with the arts; bleak periods have often inspired humanity’s greatest works. In the same way, economic success can be found in adversity. For example, the performance of the NSE this year so far can either be viewed with panic or as an opportunity for long-term capital gains. The long-term trajectory of the NSE All Share Index is undoubtedly upward and otherwise unwilling investors have a short-term window to invest.
Learning to view disadvantages as advantages is not just a strategy for jobseekers and potential entrepreneurs. It is a mindset that can be adopted by anyone seeking to make the best of what they have. Whatever the setting, the key is finding a way of turning your stumbling blocks into stepping stones. For example, the absence of pressure as an underdog might give you the boost you need to win. Meanwhile, limited exposure can be an advantage if it permits you multiple opportunities to experiment and fail until you can determine the right formula.
One strategy doomed to fail is basing success on the continued existence of these disadvantages. Not only is that morally bankrupt, it is also economically short-sighted. Failing to anticipate a point in the future when the disadvantage no longer exists is foolhardy. In Nigeria, starting an enterprise that depends on exploiting power shortages is an unsustainable approach. We cannot, and should not expect our infrastructure to be inadequate forever. When a disadvantage is not addressed directly, it should be used as a springboard for progress. Any enterprise that requires the continued existence of a disadvantage for its success is doomed from the start.
Not many people know that Vincent Van Gogh never learnt to paint. What would have been an impediment for most became an advantage for him as it left his natural instincts for painting unfettered. Meanwhile, development economists are discovering a fascinating consequence of poverty–an unconsciously adopted scarcity mindset helps poor people focus their minds to produce better results in a number of areas. These very different anecdotes tell the same story about how a disadvantage can become your advantage. Many Nigerians are of the opinion that the nation has consistently wasted its inherited advantages. Perhaps it is time we flip the script and make strengths out of our weaknesses.
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