As part of our Democracy Day series, Stears Business Columnist, Stephanie Itimi held a conversation with Bisi Alabi Williams, a journalist and CEO of Lighthouse Options, an interior décor company that specialises in interior design and space managing business. She spoke on the peculiarities of doing business in Nigeria and the challenges that may stunt the nation’s development.
“How do you keep your head above the water? How do you survive as a business? We have seen hell here on this road. They won’t just allow us to do business.”
Surviving in Nigeria is hard, and doing business in the country is even harder. You bring your own infrastructure because electricity is unreliable. You are swamped by multiple taxes and revenue-hungry government agencies. Government policy is unpredictable, politics is chaotic, and the country always seems to be on the verge of separation or economic crisis. Somehow, Nigeria has normalised all these. Somehow, none of this has killed Nigerians’ enterprising spirit; SMEs contribute 50% of national output and 80% of total employment. Somehow, people still do business in Nigeria.
Bisi Alabi Williams worked as a journalist for 21 years and is well-versed in Nigeria’s idiosyncrasies. That background has proven vital in helping her transition to entrepreneurship. “In my 21 years of practising journalism, I have built up a lot of experience and a great network. Ultimately, being a journalist gave me an inroad into people’s lives,” she reveals.
Like many Nigerian entrepreneurs, running her own business was never the plan. As a female writer and business correspondent, her voyage into business started when she emerged as the 2012 FATE Ambassador and obtained the Bloomberg Media Initiative African (BMIA) grant that took her to Lagos Business School, where she studied Business and Financial Reporting in Africa. She explained how soon enough, the appeal of writing about things people were doing waned in comparison to the excitement of doing those things, and straight after graduation, she took the plunge. “I decided to leave mainstream media after so much recognition and experience, which my business schools had given me. Presently, I consult and do PR alongside the business. My career at that level had been good, but it was time to move on after 21 years.”
She speaks plainly about the challenges of doing business in Nigeria and highlights three key issues (environment, gender, age) and what role the government should play. Despite these challenges, she is spurred on by the freshness and excitement of a new challenge after so long in journalism. As she reminds me, “21 years is a lifetime.”
Money Quick To Go
Governments have a primary duty to secure the lives and property of their citizens, a responsibility the Nigerian government has often failed to live up to, Bisi laments. Their failure to do so – especially at the local level – hits even harder given the renewed focus on revenue generation as a result of the oil price crash. “They say there is no Omo Onile (land grabbers) in Lagos and they will come and disturb you and nothing will happen to them,” Bisi complains.
Although Bisi believes all businesses should be registered, she explains that it is expensive to do so. “This is a fully registered company. I pay my tax,” Bisi states. Despite the costs of compliance, she is proud of her company’s status. “I am not a shop, I am a company,” she warns. As we continue, she admits that it is not solely a matter of pride or ethics, and hopes it would eventually help her bottom-line. “If my company is not fully registered I cannot do business with any government arm or parastatal,” she reveals.
In Nigeria, however, that is not always true, as people find ways to game the system. “A lot of businesses are fronts. The person the contract is awarded to doesn’t plan on executing it and is just fronting for another business,” she says, shaking her head.
The situation is an unfortunate one, as businesses could benefit from formalisation, but often see it as means of government entrapment to milk them. This is the reality of doing business in Nigeria amid a conflict of growing the tax base and supporting businesses. On the cost of doing business, she says, “Before you pay NEPA, security, rent, LAWMA, tax…,” before adding, “If I didn’t have all these bills to pay I would have so much money because business is good.” The rueful look on her face sums up the dilemma facing SMEs in the country.
Gender Issues, Real Issues
“When I go out for jobs, people look at me and doubt if I can perform. They feel I cannot deliver because I am a woman.”
For a long time, Bisi has been an advocate for gender equality, pushing the women’s rights agenda with a focus on the girl-child. Now, she is an associate member of Women in Management, Business and Public Life (WIMBIZ). Even in her position of relative privilege, she has experienced enough in journalism and business to understand how hard it is being a woman in Nigeria. “These are the real issues,” Bisi emphasises. She suggests that many people hold traditional views on the role women should play in society and what industries they can operate. “They ask: How can a woman be doing landscaping?” she reveals, smiling.
Bisi studied sociology at university level and that qualification has helped her better understand the persistence of sexism in the Nigerian business environment. “These are societal perceptions. We run a patriarchal society, and we believe that what a man can do a woman cannot do. So even when you go out of the way to break stereotypes and say give me the job, the doubt is still there,” she explains.
Not all women are treated the same. “If you are a younger woman, you are in big trouble. Nobody wants to give you business. They will look at you and ask how can she do it. This small girl,” she asserts. On the impediments particular to young entrepreneurs, she opines, “If you’re very young, you may lack the experience or expertise you need. Maybe they have the passion. Passion is key, but passion is not everything. There is a place for passion and a place for expertise. Passion will get you there, but it is expertise and experience that will push you.”
Of course, this story has not stopped Nigeria’s youth from starting businesses en masse, an entrepreneurial drive that has attracted the world’s attention. Yet, it is unclear whether these entrepreneurs are products of (mis)opportunity or vision, and in some respects, perhaps they should not even be considered entrepreneurs at all.
One thing she believes makes it difficult for young people is the absence of meritocracy in Nigerian society. “In Nigeria, everything is about connections. It is largely about who you know,” she says. “Abroad, you’re good, you’re good. But here, you must have the right connections…”
The Myth of Nigerian Exceptionalism
“Why should Nigeria be an exception?”
Nigerians like to think that Nigeria is a unique country. This is untrue. Most times, the error is harmless. Sometimes, it discourages us from pursuing tested reforms in place of temporary fixes to longstanding problems. The truth is that Nigeria is not an exceptional country. It is subject to the same forces and principles of business, economics, and politics that you will find anywhere else in the world. Neither its economy nor its business climate is hopelessly lost; policy has just failed to cultivate either. Bisi agrees, “If government is really serious about bringing about the desired change they promised they must consciously do much more to ensure that SMEs can thrive.”
The government has tried to change things recently, most notably through the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC) led by the Vice President. PEBEC is focused on improving the ease of doing business in Nigeria and made headlines last year for helping Nigeria rise 24 places to 145th place in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. The government has also tried more direct interventions, setting up funds to support artisans, women, and other groups. Bisi does not know whether these have made a difference. “Some people have benefitted, I haven’t. I haven’t applied for anyone; maybe if I did, I would get one.”