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Northern Businesses As Apology For Innovation

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The average northerner develops an entrepreneurial wisdom early enough to realize that, beyond or without formal western education or certificates, the most viable options are the opportunities presented by the world of buying and selling. He’s earned a reputation in this venture, and has even managed to survive certain competitions with fellow countrymen from the other side of the Niger.

But the mind of the average northerner seems to be as conservative as his society, having perhaps built a modest achievement on faith and the typical laziness always taken for spiritual submissions to the will of God – that what will be, will be. Our wisdom seems to be building a small business without a regard for a competition or innovation. We do the same thing year in, year out.

From ownership of a chain of restaurants to a wooden kiosk, the story is the same. From Shagalinku to Shagon Malam Hafizu, it’s a funeral of ideas amongst northern entrepreneurs and festival of opportunities for the more shrewd scouts from elsewhere.

We are not entrepreneurs willing to pay the dues of this game of strategies, we are just modest businessmen, lounging in some corner-shop or idling in an empty stall in a market where we are  dominated by tougher people who understand the practicalities of the Game Theory more than we do. We are simply relegated to a sort of alms gatherers, because out perception of an enterprise is yet to evolve beyond the arrangement of subsistence.

The proof of my observation above is the economic life of every major northern city on a Sunday, where commercial activities ebb because the owners of businesses around which the city revolves are in their churches. It doesn’t matter that Muslims are likely 80% in the city, and statistically advantaged. We don’t experience such commercial ellipsis on a Friday when the Muslims gather in their mosques for the Jumm’ah prayer.

In Abuja, Shagalinku is one popular restaurant a customer, always ignored, is always pressured beg the waiters to be served; it’s the oldest restaurant that still doesn’t know what POS machines are used for. With a big-for-nothing structure on one of Abuja’s most strategic locations, open for loyal clientele who still patronize them because of their adherence to indigenous cuisines. Its main competitor in feeding the northern demographics, Gidan Mangwaro, is an apology for hygiene and customer relations. It’s a messier chaos!

One experience, last week, got me thinking more about the attitude of the northerner towards innovation.

It happened around midnight at a neighbourhood barbershop.  The one I patronized had closed, and I stopped to give one in my neighborhood a try. But I won’t be returning there. Having had my head mercilessly hurt, cringing on a creaking adjustable chair, and in a dirty cape, the barber told me he had no provision for sterilization.

I didn’t say a thing. I’ve had too much, and not in the mood for a tiring lecture of the need for innovation in an “all-comers” market.  I just imagined the market he’s lost in such a strategic place, that he’s no sanitizing and sterilizing tools in a largely middle-class district. Who are his customers? Sadly, his shop is located directly opposite the first major expatriate quarters in Abuja. He had no idea the fortune he could have gathered if he had given his German neighbours what they desire.

And yet we are quick to get spiritual about our losses, quick to quote, “rabon kwado baya hawa sama” – what will be, will be. Shagalinku started before Jevenik, but check out the differences in customer relations and quality of services at the two places.At the latter, you’re treated like a royalty, at the former you beg to be served. This was why a northern businessman once told me that he employs only non-northerners because of our attitude towards innovation and competition.That we are not inventive. We have a long way to go!

Sometimes we have the idea, but lack passion to implement it. Sometimes all we have is a stack of money without an idea of a business plan develop to guide our startup. Some of the business owned by the northerners were rescued outside the region. Dangote Group would’ve been another man’s nightmare if it had been based here.

When I say innovation, I’m not even talking about why Chanchangi Airline closed up shop. I’m not talking about Kabo Airline. I’m talking about the reason we have one thousand and one northerners packed under a tree and operating a business they call bureau de change. I’m talking about why a tea-stall owner doesn’t see the need to expand and improve on his quality of services, measuring both marginal costs and benefits to determine his costs of operations.  Why would any micro-finance bank even consider such apology for a business for its SMEs loan schemes? May God save us from us!

Written by Gimba Kakande