Business In Africa Should Not Be This Hard. So What Do We Do?

series: governance for african enterprises Apr 14, 2021
Business In Africa Should Not Be This Hard. So What Do We Do?

“I just want to see how we can move things forward – because I don’t think anything should be this hard.”[1]

The voice saying this to me was young, a woman in her twenties, not an age at which one expects to hear so much clear exasperation and exhaustion. What had happened to her youthful energy and optimism?

At the back end of 2020, in collaboration with Olatowun Candide-Johnson of GAIA Africa, I undertook research, including one-hour in-depth interviews, with women leaders, entrepreneurs and C-suite executives in the private and public sector in Nigeria. We sought their experience and ideas on bad and good governance in Nigeria, how to transform the current situation, and how a coalition of women game changers can contribute to a more open, transparent and fairer business environment and society.

I was prepared to hear stories that would make me wince, about businesses and ideas brought down by myriad governance failures. After all, I had experienced that myself when running a consultancy practice and social enterprise in Lagos from 1999 to 2009. But I was not prepared for the sheer frustration and exasperation of these women leading Nigeria; I found many tired, thwarted and concerned for the fabric of society.

“If just for my own son…I would like him to have a future where people actually say what they mean, do what they say and do the correct thing.”

“When it comes to governance, it basically affects human lives…every day, we see how poor people are getting poorer.”

“But we sit there all the time and we have this discussion. They’re like, “I can’t cope. I can’t do this type of business in this environment.” They shut shop and they leave. You think that it’s just your story but it’s everybody’s story.”

I heard stories not only from founders of start-ups and side hustles encountering the same kinds of corruption and fraud issues I faced, but also from the top of large organisations of other governance issues leading to crises of confidence and cash. Here’s some I heard about:

  • Conflict of interest at the Board level.
  • Cynicism that whistleblowing policies were lip service only, never followed up, certainly not confidential.
  • Bullying and sexual harassment left unchecked and unaccountable. (One woman said her challenges about sexual harassment were met with: “Are you crazy? This is Nigeria. Just get on with it.”)
  • Disciplinary processes subverted. (In one company with a “Three strikes and you’re out” rule, the subject of four disciplinary actions was promoted – to Director – with an obvious detrimental impact on the credibility of the processes.)
  • Dominance factor. “What’s that?” I asked the first time I heard it described. “In Nigeria, we still very much believe in the power of your boss to destroy you… we are completely hierarchical, and you do what your boss says. You don't speak out…It trumps anything (on) any lovely governance spreadsheet that we might all have.”

No wonder women feel it is all too hard! In the case of the young, frustrated woman, she was struggling with State government bureaucracy. “They make it so tedious,” she said of the civil servants she dealt with. “You’re just like, is this really worth it?”

So, what do we do?

We make a start. Olatowun and I have formed the Butterfly Coalition. Our vision is that good governance is embedded in everyday African interactions and institutions, with women as the catalyst.

As one change maker said to me about unaccountability and poor governance: “The way we are going is not sustainable.”

If you share the frustration and our vision, join us.

[1] All comments quoted in this report are words of 9 interviewees, senior women business leaders, executives, professionals and entrepreneurs operating in Nigeria. Research was conducted by Pamela Watson, Smart Ventures in Africa in collaboration with Olatowun Candide-Johnson, GAIA Africa in Q4, 2020. 76 women responded to online survey, 9 in depth, 1 hour interviews were carried out.

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