Thursday, September 3, 2009

Don’t change lanes, make a new one!

It’s been almost a week since I first arrived in Abuja and Nigeria has not disappointed! It is a beautiful place with a wide diversity of people, languages, food, and resources. We have visited the Guara Waterfalls, Usuma Dam, and several villages, including Ushafa (also known as Clinton Village because of the former President’s 2000 visit) to learn about Nigerian culture and the country’s vast natural resources.

Along with our cultural visits and group work, we have met with groups like the Abuja Enterprise Agency, Farms to Markets Synergies, MedicAid, EWT Microfinance Bank, ActionAid, Frez Worth Investments, the Open Society Institute of West Africa, and ECWA Evangel Nursery/Primary School. Meeting with entrepreneurs, NGOs, and other organizations has highlighted a few of the distinct challenges of underdevelopment and the lack of basic infrastructure. A few energy and transportation related examples:

*Electricity can (and does) go out at any given time

*Traffic signal lights go unused due to the undependable power supply and police are used to direct traffic

*Street lights are present along the roads and highways but go unlit at night so drivers need to use their headlights and those of neighboring cars to make their ways
When this is your modus operandi, what happens? An economic analyst at the U.S. Embassy informed us in her briefing that the test of how long one has been in Nigeria is what happens during a conversation when the electricity goes out. Those who stop talking and wonder out loud what event has caused the power outage are new to Nigeria. In the event that a person continues talking like nothing has taken place, s/he has been in Nigeria for a while. Flexibility and making the best of the circumstances seems to be the name of the game in Nigeria:

*People hawk sugar cane, gum, disposable razors, bananas, and more on the street corners and along the roads in order to capture the captive market of drivers and passengers in slow-moving traffic.

*On our first day driving around Abuja, traffic slowed to a standstill on a four-lane divided highway. Waiting under the hot sun for a while, we noticed cars starting to move past us on either side, creating an additional lane alongside the two headed westbound. Then, cars started driving on the sandy shoulder of the road to the right of us as well as cutting across the highway partition to drive forward against oncoming traffic to our left. They took two of the three “lanes” on the other side (where there should have only been two lanes) and then ventured onto that side’s shoulder as well. What had originally been two lanes to each direction of traffic eventually became eight lanes, seven of which were heading west!

*55% of Nigerians live below the poverty line and 70% of currency (naira) is kept out of the banking sector. Bank branches are not located in villages, financial literacy is a challenge, and costs are high for banks to develop infrastructure to allow the type of savings rural and poor people would access. To address the needs of the middle class and poor, groups like EWT Microfinance Bank offer micro-savings, micro-credit, and micro-insurance. They provide financial services to a niche market with value-added, including financial training and skill development. Based largely on the model of Muhammed Yunus and the Grameen Bank, EWT Microfinance Bank is helping provide life-changing credit and loans to Nigeria’s middle-class and poor.
Mr. Soloman Agamah, a businessman and sought-after consultant, shared his philosophy with our group that obstacles and opportunities are the flip sides of the same coin. No power? Set up work to be done offline. Governmental policy change? Create a Plan B that allows for an easy switch regardless of what measures are changed or reversed. Frustrating commute? Sell goods to those on the road, making everywhere the drive-thru. Nigerians use their entrepreneurial instincts to innovate. They create new lanes of traffic in order to move forward.

In the midst of the recent economic crisis, President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, urged that US citizens, businesses, and organizations not waste a recession. The opportunity to face challenges, overcome hardships, and emerge with new and revised institutions and practices is still afoot. Have we been able to support this mindset in Minnesota? At the first sign of a spending deficit or declining quality of schools, do we all of the sudden stand up, startled, and stop our conversations? Or are we prepared to keep working on our civic infrastructure even while the power threatens to go out? If not, maybe the road isn’t wide enough and we need to create a few more lanes.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, DTran. Keep 'em coming! -Patrick N.

    ReplyDelete

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