They don’t often get the commendation they deserve, our countrymen and women who have braved the odds to establish and run businesses in this clime. By running a business, I do not refer to portfolio contractors who hang around the corridors of various government establishments, advancing our crony capitalism and politics of patronage nor of the new breed billions who have made a kill out of the forex conundrum because of their ties to the seat of power. No. I mean that every day Nigerians young and old who are taking the plunge to, as we say “be on their own” and make honest efforts in the entrepreneurial spheres. The Nigerian entrepreneur deserves special veneration.
I say this because it takes some stubbornness, an uncanny appetite for risk and the patience to endure failure to contemplate running a business in Nigeria today. What with how the system seems designed to place stumbling blocks on your path at every turn and deliberately seeking to frustrate you into submission.
These days the phrase ‘ease of doing business’ has become the favourite line for everybody, from business analysts to government officials, who seek to explain away our economic challenges or in advocating for what must be done. You will think it is a new addition to the lexicon. As is with all things Nigeria, the term is fast losing its meaning from over use and abuse. The question really is, do all these persons, especially policy makers bandying the phrase really understand what this is about and the implications as regards the policy directions of government?
Let me repeat here for those who might not understand what all the talk is all about. Nigeria ranks 169th out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s 2016 Ease of Doing Business Index. To put how bad it is into perspective, we actually rank lower than Niger, Madagascar and Sierra Leone. In coming up with this ranking, the World Bank measures a number of variables. Other than protecting minority investors and getting credit, Nigeria ranks low on all other indicators viz starting a business, paying taxes, trading across borders, getting electricity, enforcing contracts among others.
In other words, these are real challenges which businesses in Nigeria face every day and have to overcome to remain operational. The narrative when we are appraising them however does not often take this into consideration. We are quick to say how inferior or substandard their products are. Or how costly they are relative to foreign alternatives. Even more, the government is always eager to remind us of how we do not produce anything, and why that is the reason for our current economic challenges – as though they have made the conditions favourable and the citizens simply refused to.
But how do you produce when everything seems stacked against you. Registering a business is almost as tough as manually crushing stones. It takes forever with so many bottlenecks to navigate. Then you have to generate your own power. And while you are still reconciling yourself with the huge dent the price of diesel leaves on your accounts, the fees start strolling in. So many permits and taxes to be paid, and nobody is remotely concerned if you are making any money at all. The task forces are like hawks. They will lock your doors with chains and even beat up your staff. And because the information is not even clear on what taxes are legal, everything goes and you the business owner is at the receiving end.
When you decide to file your taxes, the statutory ones that is, the process is just chaotic and confusing. Another stone crushing process. Then you have the regulatory agencies. If there is anything we are good at as a nation it is in duplicating agencies with overlapping mandates… just a way of creating jobs for the boys and expanding the patronage business. In the end, we create a big mess. Over three agencies will be responsible for the same thing or claim to be ‘in-charge’ of the same issue, according to the laws that established them. The whole display is not because they are doing anything to make life better for the players in the sector they are regulating, but because of the levies and fines they can collect. They will visit alternately, asking you to provide the same things. And there is even criminality involved. An agency will say it is taking samples to test for quality and cart way products enough to fill a shop. When they are not visiting your outlet, they are waiting for you on the roads. It is just one mad house out there.
There is the other issue of a very poor transport system to move goods and people around. The access to forex. The difficulty in accessing credit. The very high interest rate. And the entrenched corruption in the system. The corruption is perhaps the biggest killer of honest ventures and has a ripple effect on every other thing such that it ultimately worsens all the other issues discussed earlier.
So honestly, Nigerian businesses deserve some commendation. If you own a business in this country you are indeed one of the best and bravest of us and we appreciate you, for your effort – as modest as you may consider it, is what is keeping this economy from breathing its last. Keep doing what you do.
For the policymakers, you have the opportunity to make that talk around “improving the ease of doing business” more than just a sound bite and it is not rocket science. There are a lot of low hanging fruits and technology can enable these processes. We can and must do better in making the space attractive and convenient for people to start and run businesses or else, we will continue to run this feeding bottle economy that catches a cold once the price of oil sneezes.