Nigerians’ Aspirations: Commercial and Social Drivers
Nigerians regularly top polls of the world’s happiest people. Hope and aspiration are powerful commercial and social drivers.
Nigerians consistently emerge at the top of global surveys of the world’s happiest people. There are many reasons for this but most of them revolve around one word—hope. Where people have hope they aspire to better themselves and to believe in success. Many Nigerians see the future with hope. They see the future as bright. The facts back their optimism. The economy is growing at around 7 per cent a year and this is translating into an expanding consumer base, with McKinsey Consultants recently estimating a $40 billion growth opportunity in food and consumer goods in Nigeria between 2008 and 2020.
Strangely, this atmosphere of hope and belief sits slightly at odds with much international analysis and commentary. International business appears more pessimistic, less willing to accept obvious Nigerian industrial success, whether in construction, banking, filmmaking or consumer goods. An underlying tone of slight surprise consistently drifts into articles and analysts rapidly and routinely juxtapose success with a strong emphasis on risk.
Obviously, few Nigerians would deny the challenging business environment. But, having worked in many parts of the world, it is obvious to me that these challenges are hardly unique to Nigeria. More importantly, by overly focusing on risk or current challenges rather than future trends, we risk creating an “aspiration gap” between our consumers and our businesses. This should be ringing alarm bells. If consumer goods businesses like Unilever are to thrive rather than survive in Nigeria, they must be in tune with the hopes, aspiration and vision of the people who buy their brands.
If we fail to do this, if we fail to show consumers how we can create a bright future for them, then we will fail as a business. No one is locked into a particular brand of soap or shampoo. Consumer decisions are not long term investment choices. Everyone makes multiple decisions every day about what they use. They will quickly punish any brand that loses touch with their aspiration. As businesses we need to keep our eye on trends like the rapidly growing and vibrant Nigerian media industry as much as business orthodoxy developed in a very different era before Nigeria’s energetic, aspirational and globalised youth population was born.
This is partly about factoring demography, hope and consumer vision into our analysis as well as the predictions of macroeconomic and political pundits. It means working to understand both the binding threads of common understanding and the diversity of Nigerian reality. It is definitely about putting sustainability at the heart of business models in Nigeria. We need to show consumers that business can transform behaviour, provide tangible benefits from our brands and secure a bright future for our children.
The good news is that, as a global consumer good company, we have the means at our disposal to do all this. Consumer goods businesses create a vast ecosystem of suppliers, traders, and third party manufacturers. This can create vibrant new economies in retail and services, packaging, advertising, media and logistics. We can then multiply this benefit many times over by drawing in the experience from across the world and transferring technologies, skills and ideas between markets.
There are many such examples in Unilever from our work applying a “Perfect Store” model to transform simple trading stalls into small businesses that provide better and cheaper goods while increasing traders’ incomes, through to Unilever’s Shakti scheme in India. The Shakti scheme overturned the conventional orthodoxy about it being impossible to reach the “last mile” to serve small traders at reasonable cost. By focusing on redesigning distribution systems and empowering women through group and individual support it has grown to serve over 3 million rural households and provide income to 70,000 families in India, including 46,000 women traders.
Not every model could or should transfer to Nigeria. But the vision, belief in the future and hard work that made them succeed are all fully transferable. The impact of doing this is well documented in Vietnam in an extensive report by the Central Institute for Economic Management in the Ministry of Planning and Investment. This shows how Unilever went in 14 years from an a minor presence to a creating thousands of jobs, skills transfer and a transformation where growth in the business and growth in GDP became mutually reinforcing.
The fundament conclusion is that the future in Nigeria is as bright as the thinking that goes into our business efforts. We all have long experience in managing volatility and uncertainty but need to recognise that over planning for volatility risks mediocrity. We need to complement sound business management with vision and hope. The time has come to respect and believe the vision and hopes of Nigeria consumers and plan for a bright future.