Oil & Elbow Grease
My small black notebook is quickly filling up with lengthy scribble detailing the businesses and lives Kiva lenders are touching in Nigeria. The ever-present entrepreneurial spirit in this country fascinates me while the big-picture political economy boggles my mind.
To put it all in context, Nigeria is the world’s 6th biggest oil producer. Oil revenues constitute over 95% of Nigeria’s export earnings and 85% of the government’s revenue (at US$50 billion in 2006). However, there are frequent power outages, the roads are slow and hazardous riddled with potholes and 57% of the population lives below the poverty line. Few Nigerians see any benefit from the large oil resources. The majority of people are left to fend for themselves, operating an informal economy with more than its share of challenges.
Nigeria is a nation of entrepreneurial middlemen and women. The example of the yam supply chain for Benin City (commonly known as Benin) illustrates this clearly. Yam wholesalers travel once a week to northern Nigeria to purchase yams from the farmers, a journey that takes 4 to 5 days. After purchasing the yams, they mark every one with their unique symbol in blue chalk. Twenty to thirty wholesalers from Benin will pool resources and hire a large lorry to carry the goods back to a large empty plot of land where they will sort and sell their goods. The wholesalers ride rickety 15-passenger vans back, just as they went. From there, local market vendors will purchase the yams and take them to various markets around Benin to sell at a markup. Some of these larger vendors will attract another level of business and sell to small-time yam vendors who provide to the smallest markets on the outskirts of town.
Most things work this way. Boys on the street sell cell phone recharge cards that they buy in packs of 10 from a wholesaler. If they sell them all, they will earn a profit of less than $2. They may spend a few days trying to turn a profit. Women travel to Lagos, a 328-mile five-hour drive plagued by potholes and traffic, to purchase fabrics that they sell at their market stalls or hawk them through the streets. Men may do the same, but for tires or refurbished electronics. Having capital to purchase goods upfront is a common and constant challenge. It takes a long time to build up enough saving to be self-supportive (that $2 profit on phone recharge cards, for instance, comes at an initial cost of $34). Upward mobility is difficult for even the hardest working Nigerians. Microloans are helping. And they are not just benefiting the individual, but are instrumental to the functioning of an economy driven entrepreneurship rather than large-scale logistics. It is exciting to meet recipients of microloans and help tell their success stories, however, the ever-present shadow of a corrupt government and unfilled potential is a constant disappointment.
A man who shall remain nameless on this blog commented to me that Nigeria was lucky to have no natural disasters that threaten their economy – no hurricanes, no earthquakes, no tsunamis. But that they have something worse – Nigeria’s natural disaster is the government. Instead of losing hundreds of homes to a tornado once every few years, they lose billions of dollars to corruption every year. I think about how quickly Nigeria could change if oil money was allowed to trickle down to the common citizenry. The impact of a major roads project, for instance, could have a tremendous impact on job creation and economic efficiency. An overhaul of the Power Holding Company Nigeria, commonly referred to as “Please Hold Your Candle Now” (formerly called the Nigerian Electrical Power Authority or “Never Expect Power Again”) would increase efficiency and lower the cost of doing business. A well-educated workforce could make Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, competitive in an international market and create true upward mobility. But until there is a significant shift in the political culture of Nigeria, everyday challenges will continue to inspire the most impressive entrepreneurship through hardship and necessity and my black notebook will continue to be full of heartening stories of microfinance to share with the Kiva community.
Currently, Nigeria’s oil production and capacity are equal to that of the United Arab Emirates.