Working or Living Abroad, Pillars to Build Thriving Business in Nigeria

Working or Living Abroad, Pillars to Build Thriving Business in Nigeria

You live in London or New York or anywhere for that matter. You have accumulated capabilities and want to start a business in Nigeria. But you do not want to return to Nigeria to run that business. For most people, when they follow through and invest back home, the outcomes do not usually turn out well. The cases of people cheating people, people paid but not working hard and sustained erosion of assets abound.

Yet, there are stories where things have worked. The interesting thing here is really the foundation you have built for that business. From my personal experience, the most important thing is Structure. That means how you have structured that company to give those workers a sense of belonging, as they say in Nigeria.

As I noted in a piece on my experiences in the Johns Hopkins University, you can indeed build a business in Nigeria while living in diaspora. The same applies to those that have jobs but also want to invest by founding a company by the side. It is not absolutely necessary that you must be the executor of a burning business vision you have.

Then I graduated, but I was very unhappy to be leaving. It was tough as there was no practical way to delay it as my advisor has noted that I was “ready” to depart having demonstrated scholarship in my area. I was making good money from fellowships and the extra went into funding Fasmicro in Nigeria. I had started it in Hopkins, hiring 13 bright young Nigerians remotely. In the day, I was a Hopkins student; in the night, I was a startup founder in Nigeria.

From my experience, here are 8 Pillars to consider:

  1. Structure: When I started Fasmicro, I did not want my team to work for me. I wanted them to work for themselves and their families. I did a very simple thing: I gave team members part of the company. I explained to them that if we do well, we would have great Christmas. But if we do not, everyone goes for Christmas with nylon bags. With that decision, I made them part-owners with correlated and aligned interests in the business. I knew they would do all to make sure we do well because if the company wins, they win.
  2. Bonus: I instituted a bonus system which ensures that a certain percentage of our income is shared among our teams. The implication is that everyone has an idea that a good year would be a good Christmas. That bonus remains till today and is a key motivator to my teams making decisions to do more with less. A graduate reminded another that wasting printer ink was an attack on his bonus – he wanted it stopped! The reasoning is that any money saved by the company is money that comes back at the end of the year.
  3. Leadership: Make someone a boss and clearly a leader. Do not try to micro-manage these graduates. If you do, you would struggle because you would cage their capacities to innovate and execute. Give them a little freedom. You would not regret it. Make sure you have someone that is answerable because that will help you to ascertain progress and improve things. We had an invitation few years ago from a major foreign oil company. We sent a 23-year old graduate to make the presentation. The MD of the firm noted that he was the youngest ever presenter he has seen in his position. We do allow guys opportunities to fail and win. We got the job. The temptation would have been to show presence because you may think only you can deliver.
  4. Execution Roadmap: Because you would not be around to run the day-to-day operations of the business, it is very important you articulate the mission and follow it with an operational manual on how to execute it. This is not a business plan. This is simply downloading your vision in a way that your leadership can easily interpret and execute it. Sure, you need to give them flexibility but setting up the stage makes things very easier. This will save you time and give you the peace of mind to continue to focus on your other things.
  5. Evolve the Mission: As you receive data during business reviews, look for things which are working. Then move deeper into those things and expand them where necessary. This means that where necessary, you can depart from the original business and move into something new. We have done that many times. When we noticed that making apps was doomed in Nigeria, we immediately pivoted to building solutions that solve real frictions in the market.
  6. Beyond Lagos: Everyone wants to be in Lagos. That is fine depending on the business you run. But some businesses do not need to be in Lagos. There is a very huge advantage outside Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt in Nigeria. A 3-bedroom flat in a choice area in Owerri goes for N350k while a similar one in Lagos runs into millions of Naira. When men and women start planning to raise families, those things matter. In Lagos, you need to pay more to compensate for the differences on house rents. So, based purely on housing, you can attract higher quality people because places like Owerri offer better value to whatever you pay them compared with Lagos and Abuja. Again, this depends on your business – there are some sectors you must be present in the big cities to thrive. We started with an office in Ikeja but moved to Owerri as our business does not require being in Lagos.
  7. Networks: When we started, we had business development managers in major Nigerian cities. They worked from their laptops. That helped us to save costs and made it possible to have the capacity to send a team member to client across major cities in the country. The saving we got from not opening branch offices went into paying people better. There was trust that team members would actually work. We measured things by asking for daily practical updates/reports.
  8. Invest in Training: The biggest challenge is that most team members may not be ready when they resume. We were one of the earliest companies that started making Android apps when everyone was for BlackBerry in Nigeria. We invested on all kinds of materials to help our team to acquire the skills. We also developed strong partnerships with Federal University of Technology Owerri (FUTO) and Imo State University.

Largely, you can build a thriving business in Nigeria even when not physically present in that office. You can live in diaspora and execute a mission back home. And you can be working in a bank and found an IT firm. The key is making sure that people come to work for themselves and their families and not just you. Yes, share the fun and people will connect to execute the mission.

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13 thoughts on “Working or Living Abroad, Pillars to Build Thriving Business in Nigeria

  1. This article, I must commend, is very interesting. However Prof., I had tried this same principle although, with trusted friends but it backfired and did not work. What I discovered was that so many people need the money now and prefer you pay them to do the work even when the vision has not started generating money. As a result, I struggle to find people that will work with me base on this approach. Please, what will you advise?

    1. You have to combine many things. You still have to pay people living wage besides any stocks. But paying competitive living wage in Lagos is harder. The key is making sure that where your team is located can make what you pay them go further. Also, do not use friends. Use people that want jobs.

  2. I guarantee you that with the kind of workforce available in Nigeria who are largely deficient on ethic and character you still struggle even after sticking to these rules. This remote work architecture works best when your pay master is overseas meaning you working for an overseas client and your inflows in into a foreign account.

    Vision, the long term ones in particular is one the hardest commodity to sell in Nigeria especial to the aspirational and upward mobile workforce.

    1. Actually you have a point there “This remote work architecture works best when your pay master is overseas meaning you working for an overseas client and your inflows in into a foreign account.”. We do have many clients outside Nigeria.

  3. Thanks a million for this invaluable piece. It’s generally perceived by most of us who are abroad that you have to be on ground to make your business work and this has made many of us delay, if not abandon the execution of a lot of wonderful ideas. This piece very much reassures me that I don’t have to wait for so long – until I’m on ground.

    I totally agree that a major missing link is that people will commit better to the business when they are given a sense of ownership. One would have to be willing to share the spoil with others. Human nature does make this very difficult, but the truth your shared is indeed liberating! God bless you again and again, Prof!

    1. London, Silicon Valley, New York etc all follow the same model – you make people part-owners at that early phase. In Nigeria, we typically want to control 100% and expect people to commit 100%. That would not happen.

  4. Prof Ndubuisi Ekekwe, I must commend this article because doing business in Nigeria in absence is difficult. I think you should elaborate more on finding the right team that buys into your vision. Your approach of making them part owners of the vision is spot on. I have a lot to learn from you because I want to start an IT firm in Owerri to be precise. Great job you are doing and remember that people like me are motivated in what you are doing and are working to make our own history.


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