Image credit: Kunle Ogunfuyi
Towards the end of 2016, I returned to Lagos, Nigeria for the first time in many years. On previous occasions I had just passed through but this time was different. I was here on a week-long work assignment with a major international firm. After a good few years of looking for an access point to Africa, I had found it. The corporate sector, amongst people who understood the transformational capability of the country and who were prepared to invest in talent no matter where they were able to find it. This was my window. The launch pad to transfer skills, technology and know-how to a country hungry for development and desperately eager to tap into skills from around the world.
There are two Lagos’s. Lagos 1 is the corporate city with sky scrapers and international hotels that would not be out of place anywhere in the world. This is the Lagos epitomised by Ikoyi, Victoria Island, The Marina area, Lekki and Banana Island. The Lagos of the middle classes who had been to good schools and universities at home and abroad. These were the ones who were able to set their children up in businesses or if not provide them with the support to launch themselves into the frenetic world of a fast changing Nigeria.
image credit: AEI- Lagos 1- A world of fine hotels & skyscrapers
Then there was Lagos 2, the Lagos of Obalende, Makoko, Mushin and Oshodi to name but a few. Obalende had changed a little and some places like Oshodi are earmarked for transformational change. For now though, this is the Lagos of the majority. The Lagos of poor accommodation, chaotic roads and gutters, the Lagos of hustlers and gangs of boys on the fringe of society always looking for an angle to extract a Naira or two to make ends meet.
Image credit: AEI-Lagos 2 – No evident change in thirty years
Amongst these two extremes, I saw the future of Nigeria, of Africa in fact. It was bright and inspirational. Yes there were many, many problems; from security, to infrastructure, radical organisation and plain old job creation. That future was embodied in Eko Atlantic City. A city within the city of Lagos. It’s vision was of a Dubai-like city that would become the gateway to Africa. Some people see it as a vanity project, way beyond the reach of ordinary Nigerians. Each of the five Pearl Towers on the estate cost $10 million to construct and starting prices for apartments were around $400,000 so I understand the sentiment. One tower has been fully sold out with 95 per cent of buyers being local Nigerians. There is no shortage of cash here. No shortage of ambition or talent. It’s just missing Africa’s diaspora and their capital. I have no doubt it will follow.
There were three things I learnt in my brief visit to Lagos:
- Having money was the biggest strategic advantage you could have. Nothing new there. Probably true anywhere in the world.
- Being of European heritage is the second major strategic advantage even if you have no money. It is assumed that you do and that you have know-how and ability. The colonial mentality still reigns loud, clear and unashamedly. I don’t think people are even aware of their obeisance.
- Being of African heritage from the diaspora is the third major strategic advantage particularly if evidently supported by a western education and accent. It may not get you exactly what you want, but it certainly opens doors….very widely.
I was inspired by Eko Atlantic. Inspired by it’s vastness, the scale of it’s ambition and the energy which is indicative of a future that can only be bright. Yes it is focused at the top end , there no doubt has to be a broadening of appeal for the many spin off projects that it will spawn. There has to be. Ordinary people will have to have a stake in the success of the country through good homes, great infrastructure, world class education and healthcare, or the polarisation of opportunity will in itself destroy the country. The internet has changed things. Everyone can see what is happening around the world, within the continent and within Nigeria itself, so if it’s leaders do not meet the needs of ordinary people, they will never be able to sleep easily. History teaches us that.
The scale of ambition of Lagos is summed up in the attached video. I’m impressed, inspired and want to be part of it. Everyone in the African diaspora should look towards the continent and see what part they can play. With Europe and the USA looking inward, the rise of China, India and Brazil, they may not have a choice as it may only be a matter of time before they realise that it is the only part of the world where they have real influence and opportunity. The west is changing, doors are closing and the signs are that the civilisation is giving way to something new.
I have to go back to Nigeria. I must go back. The opportunity is too great. The excitement, too enticing. It will be no teddy bear’s picnic. Doing business in Nigeria is a white knuckle roller coaster ride with enormous capital risks if you do not know what you are doing. Everything costs and there will be many who will step forward to help, who cannot, and just want a piece of the action. But this is the place to be. Someone once told me that if Nigeria cannot make it, no where else in Africa can. I reserve judgement on that, they need to see what else is happening elsewhere in the continent. It will scare them but there is nothing better than competition to get the other side to raise their game. Nigeria needs to raise it’s game, fast. Yes there is opportunity, but it’s not the only gig in town.