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Lessons learnt for doing business in Nigeria

Dec 04 2015 07:00
Finweek Contributor

This will be the last letter from Nigeria with me as your correspondent. It’s been a pleasure sharing with you some of the trials and triumphs of living and working in this brilliant, infuriating place. Here are a few business lessons I have learnt from Nigeria along the way: 

1)  Be flexible

Nigeria doesn’t respect nine to five or five days a week – it deals all day, every day.

It won’t answer the phone on Monday morning, but it will call you back on Sunday just as you’re sitting down to lunch.

Forget your traditional business structures and don’t try to make Nigeria fit around them.

People will call: most Nigerians will never pass up the chance to trade.

2)  Relax

Nothing’s going to happen in a hurry and you can’t make it happen.

Getting stressed won’t help you or hasten the deal-making.

While you’re waiting, find another hustle to work on, because that’s what a Nigerian would do.

And if you’re in Lagos and someone you’re waiting for calls to say “I dey come,” keep relaxing, because it means you’ll be waiting a while yet.

3)  Prepare for paperwork

Nigeria loves bureaucracy. There is nothing that doesn’t bring with it a pile of papers to sign, even if you know they’ll soon after be abandoned to a dusty corner and never looked at again.

Even if there’s chaos on the other side of the deal, be organised so that you don’t drown in millions of forms.

4)  Have good manners

A proper greeting, accompanied by a long and firm handshake and followed by an enquiry after your business partner’s spouse, family and work, goes a very long way in Nigeria.

5) Watch the central bank

Many businesspeople in Nigeria, both local and international, are struggling at the moment with central bank curbs on the use and movement of foreign exchange, even in piddling amounts.

Central bank governor Godwin Emefiele is not afraid to intervene in the markets to defend the value of the naira, even if those interventions are apparently business unfriendly.

6)  Know your governors

Nigeria’s 36 state governors are exceptionally powerful and influential people in their regions (and in some cases at a national level too).

There are huge variances in their approaches, investor engagement, working methods and lifestyles.

You need to be working with the right person for your sector, someone who’ll commit to your project and support it through to execution.

For a governor popular with foreign investors, see Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State.

Meanwhile Lagos governor Akinwunmi Ambode is currently getting a hard time from tradesmen in Nigeria’s biggest city.

7)  Know a bribe from a tip

Nigeria does indeed have a problem with corruption and you may be asked to pay bribes.

You may also be asked for a tip, a “top top”, a “something small small” and sometimes these are helpful.

Bribing to get a concession is obviously wrong; paying a small fee to someone for doing something helpful, perhaps not.

I, for instance, tip the man at the telecoms shop who gets my WiFi reconnected in minutes rather than hours.

8)   Be prepared for travel

Always, always take a book and a spare power pack with you wherever you go, and always go to the bathroom before getting in a car in Lagos – it may be some time before the next toilet break.

9)  Don’t be scared

Perhaps this doesn’t apply to you, in which case I’m pleased, but Nigeria’s fearsome international reputation for criminality is a huge impediment to foreign investment.

If you never leave your Lagos hotel compound to get out and meet people, you’ll never really find the excitement and opportunity that’s waiting for you.

You may also lose out on meeting the many, many young Nigerians who are developing businesses — especially in the tech sector — who are very much worthy of your time and money.

This article originally appeared in the 10 December 2015 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here

nigeria  |  business  |  entrepreneurs
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