Entrepreneurship and the Youth

Sep 19, 2018

A Paper Presented by Valentine Obienyem at the International World Community Youth Summit on Saturday, September 8, 2018 at Agulu Town Hall.

As a preamble, I wish to express my appreciation to the organizers of this summit for their noble effort. The theme is apt as it deals with a subject that, properly understood and appreciated, will provoke our youths to see life and success from a fresh perspective – what I always consider to be the higher perspective of wisdom.

We should start by asking the question: Who is a youth? The African Youth Charter defines youth as an individual between ages 15 and 35, while the Nigerian Youth Policy categorizes them in the 18-35 years bracket. Do not mind perpetual youths who at over 50 and with dubious intentions, still shamelessly parade themselves as youths and youth leaders.

In different spheres of life, issues pertaining to the youth are taken seriously. In most major organizations in the world – Church, Town Unions, Political Parties – we have youth wings.

This shows how critical that stage of life is. When the Igbos say that “nku onye kpala na okochi ka o na anya na udu miri” [The firewood one gathers during the dry season is what he uses to warm himself during the rains], they are emphasizing the youthful age as an ideal period one's entrepreneurial skills should be utilized for the rainy day.

Daily, we are inundated with such declarations as “The Future Belongs to the Youths”, “The Youths are the Leaders of Tomorrow”, “A Nation that Neglects its Youths is Bound to Fail”, and so on. As far back as we can pry into history, we read of great philosophers making profound statements about the youth. For instance, Euripides said: “Who so neglects learning in his youth loses the past and is dead to the future”; while Benjamin Disraeli asserted that “The youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity”. For Benjamin Franklin, “reckless youth makes rueful age”. Embedded in each of these sayings is that youths are associated with the future. I recall an article by Fr. Hyginus Aghaulor where he likened the youth to a destructive flood that could be utilised for irrigation and generation of electricity if properly channeled and guided through the construction of dykes and culverts!

In the world-view of the Igbos, excellence occupies a prime place. When our people talked about “di ochi”, the master wine-tapper; “di ji”, the master yam cultivator; “di mgba”, the master wrestler and others, they referred to people that achieved excellence in what their fields of endeavour. If they were to rephrase it to be in sync with the realities of today, the references would be in terms of master car-builder for the likes of Chief Innoson Chukwuma; master industrialist for the likes of Chikason; master penship for the likes of Chimamanda Adichie, among others. They will not talk about 'Master 419' or 'Master Wayo' and other unwholesome tags, which are alien to Igbos. It is a known fact that Igbos value and celebrate excellence, which is mainly achieved in the years of the youth.

Reading about the lives of many successful persons across the world, you will discover they made it when they were still young. Chinua Achebe wrote the celebrated Things Fall Apart at the age of 28, and that fruit of his entrepreneurial youth is still blossoming. Chimamanda Adichie started publishing novels at the age of 26. In 1986, I was still in the Minor Seminary when Mike Tyson became the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion at the age of 20. At that time one of our teachers known as Mekano (now a priest), a master of mimicry, would always commend what he called “Tysonic Uppercut”. In 2014, the Pakistani, Malala Yousafzai won the Noble Prize at 17. There were many others that won the Noble Prize in their youthful ages: William Lawrence Bragg won it in Physics at the age of 25; Werner Heisenberg in Physics at the age of 31, among others.

Similarly, the Wright Brothers invented the airplane at the average age of 34,; Alexander Graham Bell the telephone at 29; and René Laennec the Stethoscope at 35. Most people and organizations that control the wealth of the world were founded by youths. Steve Jobs founded Apple at the age of 21. Bill Gates founded Microsoft at the age of 20. Mark Zuckerberg founded FaceBook at the age of 20. Travis Kalanick founded Uber in 2009 at the age of 33. Markus Villig founded Taxify in 2013 at the age of 20. Several others include the Nigerian, Chinedu Echeruo who founded Hotstop at the age of 30, which was bought by Apple for 1 Billion US Dollars in 2005.

One of the ingredients of good writing is having residual of knowledge one can cull up any time – being a polymath. These body of knowledge are best acquired while one is in secondary and tertiary institutions.

The lesson here is for you to discover that now is your time. Those ideas that will make you great in life should by now exist in the womb of time, waiting the painful mid-wifery that will usher it into reality. I deliberately used the term “painful mid-wifery”, to remind you that for a successful birth, you must endure suffering and pain like a woman in labour.

Here let us pause for a while and ask these questions: What about our youths? How are they faring? What are their orientations in life?

THE YOUTH OF TODAY
In the first instance, I salute some Nigerian youths that are striving very hard to be part of the evolving world order in spite of biting economic and societal challenges. Things are not normal in the country, but it must be noted that challenging times are the most fertile platforms for entrepreneurial flowering. In his thirties, Sir Louis Ojukwu, the father of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, working in John Holt recognized the problem of transportation Igbo businessmen faced and in an attempt to fill the lacuna, established Ojukwu Transport Ltd., which subsequently had over 200 Vehicles in the 1950s. In the case of Chief Augustine Ilodibe, he started off as a steward of Fr. Kettle, who gave him 35 Pounds in 1950. Through judicious utilization of the funds, by the time he died he had over 1000 buses – under the label 'Ekene Dili Chukwu' -- amongst other businesses. One can go on and on, but the lesson here is that budding entrepreneurs must remain focused at all times.

If you are observant, you would have noticed a dangerous trend in our State. Our youths are undergoing a new form of orientation, which places politics as the only endeavour worth pursuing. With uncountable aides in government in different States in Nigeria, those thinking about the future already foresee the problem it will create. Because of this ugly trend, of even appointing those still in school as Personal Assistants, we are gradually building a culture that encourages the youth to think about entering politics even before they are weaned.

The consequence of the fore-going is that the birth rate of young men beholden to politics is in excess of the death rate among politicians. We shall witness the first consequence of this in the 2019 general elections. Already we have seen hundreds of youths, with practical no experience, jostling to contest one election or the other. By upholding them early in life conditions them to think about politics as the beginning and end, though some of them would have done better in other areas if given the opportunity to discover themselves.

Majority of the youth of today see life as a quick fix. Those not trying to make it in politics even from their mothers' wombs are busy looking for easy ways of making money. Look around your communities and you will see many youths that are in prisons in foreign lands for trafficking in drugs and other unwholesome acts. This is even as their visas to countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, clearly warn that death awaits drug traffickers.

When last did you attend a burial ceremony in Igboland? A group of young men have seen burials and other social functions as an entrepreneurial ground, where they do all sort of things, including forming bands to beg for money. When you approach them, they lament the dearth of jobs in the country and yet today Ala Igbo is populated by foreigners that have displaced us in such jobs as tailoring, masonry, tiling, vehicle maintenance, wielding, panel-beating, among others.

Igbos talk of excellence; and history has shown that whatever one does and does well, patronage will come. In my village of Obe in Agulu, one of the richest men in those days was a truck mechanic. Today we have some young men performing well and raking in millions of Naira from their simple vocations and trades; yet an average youth despises such a job, when they should be thinking of engaging in them and adding innovations to enhance quality. Many of them relax at home watching home videos and expecting millions of Naira and even Dollars to rain down from 'heaven'. Do we now wonder why we have rampant cases of ritual killings in our clime?

Legitimate jobs are available in our society, but the problem is that several of the youth of today are indolent. How many generator, motor and motorcycle mechanics in Anambra State are indigenes of the Sate? For quality jobs, our people now look for Togolese or Ghanaians to do such work for them. Sometimes when you ask them, they tell you that the job is below their dignity, but they are begging for money and support. Perhaps, begging is not infra dig.

The fact of it is that no job is below anybody's dignity. In his Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII talked about the dignity of labour and submitted that "...according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood".

Having come thus far, let us look at entrepreneurship, which is the major theme of this Summit.

WHO IS AN ENTREPRENEUR?
Entrepreneurship is a word that has many meanings. Though many people see it as it strikes them, it is traditionally synonymous with setting up business or taking financial risks aimed at making money. But with what is happening around the world, we now know that entrepreneurship is beyond that. It is associated more with ideas than deeds. Any person who completes secondary school can go for apprenticeship and thereafter take to his master's line of trade and make money. In that case, he is following a traditionally-defined path.

One of my lecturers in Business School, Dr. Okey Ikechukwu talked about the uncharted path, which, for me, defines what entrepreneurship should be. It is an attempt to undertake that which nobody has done before or doing what has been done over the years differently. Let us look at a practical example: A budding trader goes into apprenticeship to a paint seller, after which he starts the same business; or a rich man on learning that the paint business is lucrative decides to venture into it. Because he has capital, the rich man invests a lot of money more than those already in the business and cuts prices to attract customers. The man is purely a businessman without being an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is about ideas.

Another rich man may be attracted to the same paint business. In his own case, after many years of research, determined that he can actually manufacture paint that contains insect repellant. Invariably, he would sell his own at higher prices but make more money. A third rich man may, in addition to insect repellant also make paints that are fire-resistant. He will sell more than every other person. The last two are illustrations of entrepreneurship – they examined the needs of the society and factored the solutions into their products. They end up selling at higher prices and making more money. Thus, we have seen that entrepreneurship is about progressive battling with ideas – thinking outside the box in the bid to find solutions to the problems of life.

When you look around the world, you notice a lot of problems crying for solutions. I read on FaceBook where a comic but serious character said the prayer for success is not calling on God for miracles in our lives, but to inspire us to come up with solutions to myriad of problems plaguing our society.

The founders of Uber and Taxify which have taken over Lagos and Abuja are not Nigerians. We need Nigerians that will think along the line of founding such platforms. You may think you do not have money for such, but I tell you that good ideas are better than silver and gold. Recently, I received a letter from one Egbosi from Agulu seeking assistance on how to purify the oil bean (ogiri), preserve it properly and sell it in super-markets. He enclosed a crude sample, but that is how it starts. I shall look for him because such ideas are worth trying.

Come to think of it, our mothers have always used it to cook and they make delicious meals, but here he is thinking of how to make it better. Tomorrow when he succeeds, some , not knowing the steps he took, will deem him lucky. But luck, as Seneca observed, “is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. If you are not prepared, you may not even know when that luck comes calling!

The present age is defined by technological wonders as seen in the computers. We have many computer-based applications people designed out of which they make millions of US Dollars. Today, the most successful entrepreneurs are those that sell their products internationally.

The world's richest man, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, started small at 30 years. When the company went public, it was poorly received because the projection that it would start making profit in five years was not acceptable to some. Today, his net-worth is over 150 billion United States Dollars. Mark Zuckerberg who started FaceBook in 2004 at the age of 20, has a net-worth of about 64 billion US Dollars. Steve Jobs started Apple in 1976, when he was 21. Our own Chinedu Echeruo who founded Hotstop at the age of 30 sold it to Apple for 1 billion US Dollars.

Nigeria's Alhaji Aliko Dangote is among the richest men in the world, but do you know why the Gates and Zuckerbergs of this world are richer than him? While they sell globally, Dangote sells within defined geographical confines. What he needs to do is to sponsor many researchers into software development and applications to solve daily problems. Today, Bill Gates is spending millions of US Dollars on research into alternatives to oil. One is left to imagine what will happen when the research yields success. When it happens, many of us will exclaim: “What a lucky man!”

Today, Next and Roban, Jumai, Konga, among others – all indigenous companies – are revolutionizing shopping in Nigeria, Meanwhile, some people are yet not aware that it is just a matter of time for Main Market and related sales outlets to slip into oblivion.

WORKING TOGETHER
One of the most debilitating factors affecting our youths is selfishness. Everybody believes he can do it alone. It is not for nothing that it is said that two heads are better than one. Our landscapes are littered with stories of two people who collaborated in businesses which ended on a bad note.

For the entrepreneurial possibilities of the youth to shine forth, they must learn to work together. Most successful companies in the world today have co-founders such as Apples, Facebook, Microsoft, Uber, that have remained our reference point. because they were principally motivated to found solutions to the problems of the world. Once they did this, success and money came. In our clime, where we are prompted by money, once it does not come easily, it dampens our morale. I read the history of Thomas Edison; how he made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked how he felt about his failures, he said: “I didn't fail 1000 times; the light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps”. Let this be a lesson to us on perseverance.

It has been a pleasures sharing my thoughts with you, our youths.
Valentine Obienyem
September 8, 2018.


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