Innovate or Die!, By ‘Tope Fasua
That process will include gradual improvements in processes and outcomes. It will take a lot of trials and errors. We will fail many times, sometimes disastrously. But it will develop several things for us, including building our presence of mind and attention to detail – two attributes we should admit we do not have presently.
Yesterday I walked past a Keke Napep operator who had on a Hula. Now, when I first arrived Abuja like 16 years ago, I was fascinated with the Hausa way of dressing (I still am) and made to acquire a few of those Hulas (caps). When they called the price to me, I beat a retreat. Ok, there are different categories, but the ones I liked the most were the intricately hand-woven thick ones with different colours and symmetric designs. I’m sure all of these types of hulas have their own names in Hausa. Well, I pointed at one and was told “N15,000!” “What!” I exclaimed. “For this cap!? Ordinary cap?!” “Oga na how much we dey sell am be dat, ok bring N13,000”. Phew! In the end, maybe on a different trip I managed to get something for say N11,000. Damn! Hulas are expensive! So I wondered how a Keke rider could have such an expensive gear on his head, and whether he got huge discounts or knew where these things are sold much cheaper. Before I could mount an interview though the chap had riden away.
You see, my issue is not even about the person wearing the cap. I was thinking, how can we not mass-produce things like that so that it becomes more affordable and so crowd out the foreign apparels that we wear and spend so much on. One of the factors militating against that is the way we are. The Keke driver may have donned his well-starched, shiny Hula so that any of his passengers who knows its value would show respect and not price his fares anyhow (because the Hula shows he’s not a hungry man). I’m not saying that is what he did but that is what we often like to do. Anyhow, our made-in-Nigeria things are not cheap at all. And until they become cheap, many people will not buy them. And since many people will not buy them, we will not be able to get rid of foreign imports. Simple. The same operates for our traditional clothing, like Aso-Oke.
In the first place, Nigerians like to charge very high for whatever they sell. I noticed a long time ago that prices don’t move five percent or 10 percent here. Prices move in leaps and bounds. 50 percent, 100 percent, 200 percent. That is why, for a 10 percent increase in the price of petrol, cab and bus drivers increase their fares by 100 percent. No one complains. The prices are infinitely elastic. Everybody gets inside and asks the driver to hurry up. The price stays. Landlords increase rents by 50 percent, 100 percent. Never 10 percent or 20 percent. And we have had this thing ingrained in us. Our religious houses promise that ‘this will be the year of bounty’, so we cannot wait to make the kill. And it could be from anyone.
However, someone needs to look at the bigger picture. Who will bring down prices to levels where we will not only win small battles, but win the big war against foreign goods? In many of the exporting countries, the stuff they send here are very affordable by their people. They even depress the prices for their people. Why not? It is their product and they have been able to build capacity on those products to the extent that they can subsidise their costs, if they want to. The products they push out for exports are either the excess of what they produced or they were strategically produced for export. So who is going to ensure that first of all, Nigerian products are affordable to Nigerians before we can even talk of exporting? The world out there is looking for cheap products, that is why the Americans are finding it hard to get rid of Chinese products, no matter how hard they tried. The Chinese captalise on their access to cheap labour to undercut the world. Labour should be cheap in Nigeria but we don’t see that in our resulting products, do we?
There are many issues to deal with here.
1. We do not have innovative processes and procedures;
2. Labour is cheap but we spend a long time producing each product because we haven’t innovated the processes;
3. Products are not standardised and so it is hard to quantify what to charge vis a vis the quality and time put into them (even though people appreciate hand-made over factory made stuff). Yet, selling goods abroad requires standardisation not randomness and unpredictability;
4. Between greed and inefficiency, something is responsible for the high prices of our products;
5. The archaic ways in which we produce cannot satisfy even local production much less exports, in terms of volumes of output.
My concern is not only about having a strategy in this sector, but also how we can understand the process and importance of innovation. In the world today, it’s either you innovate or you die. If you don’t innovate, other people’s innovation will catch up with you and overtake you by far, and subsume you such that you lose your identity and are at their mercy. This has happened in many aspects of our lives already.
The other day I walked into Shoprite here in Abuja and was so pleased to see some packaged Nigeria food and soups. I took a few to the counter and by the time the cashier was tallying them, I became alarmed. I asked the individual prices and each one cost between N3,000 and N5,000. For just soup? I had to drop all but one. There we go. Trying to make a kill too quickly. If the products do not sell as fast as they should, that company will soon fold up and we will not be able to find Nigerian food to buy in Shoprite. We always have a problem with strategy, and most of our companies are not quick to respond when things are going south. The same thing happens when Nigerian shoemakers start their prices around N15,000 per pair.
Then I recently watched the documentary, Gandhi, which chronicled the life and times, and struggles of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, otherwise known as ‘Mahatma’ (the great one). Well, as documented, howbeit subtly, the biggest wars that Mahatma fought was with the British textile companies who were hell bent on selling loads of textiles to the Indians just for their own benefits and to the detriment of indigenous Indian companies. Some people claim that Gandhi was eventually assassinated just for this reason. Business people do not like people who take away businesses from them. The Dhoti (loincloth) he wore, which became the symbol of the struggle, was the cloth that Indian-owned textile companies made. His struggle was to get Indians to wear the cloths they manufactured. Gandhi saw ahead. The population of India then (which included Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka) was then probably some 500 million. Today, we are talking of two billion people. Gandhi’s war, as well as the foresight of the Indians who saw it fit to continue where he stopped, has resulted in India/Bangladesh having perhaps the largest textile industry in the world today! Where is Nigeria? We allowed our textile industry to capitulate to inefficiency and lack of strategy. We believed in the lies of those ‘experts’ who sold globalisation to us wholesale. We didn’t know how to play the globalisation game and we ended up with a carcass for a textile industry, unemployment as a result, and billions of dollars heading abroad yearly for textile imports. 170 or 180 million people who cannot produce the clothes they wear!
My concern is not only about having a strategy in this sector, but also how we can understand the process and importance of innovation. In the world today, it’s either you innovate or you die. If you don’t innovate, other people’s innovation will catch up with you and overtake you by far, and subsume you such that you lose your identity and are at their mercy. This has happened in many aspects of our lives already. If we are afraid of innovation taking people out of employment, we need a strategy to know how far we can go before we start to have serious unemployment crises. What we cannot do is sit on our hands hoping the world does not notice our cluelessness. That they do so easily.
So the case study is the textile sector for today, even though I like to point to many old implements that we have been using from time immemorial, which we have simply refused to innovate… like our grinding machines and mills, or our carved wooden mortars which we use to pound all sorts of things. All these things need to be innovated. We have been having some innovations like the yam-pounder, with most of them coming from abroad, and most of them being unaffordable. That is why they aren’t in every house. The other factor is cultural. Our people naturally resist change and innovation. Some people may insist on the physical act of pounding food in wooden mortars because the food ‘tastes better’ that way. But it may just be psychological. Don’t blame our people much… it is normal. Even the UK had to create a ‘Nudge Unit’ which helps the government to analyse behavioralism with a view to decoding how people think and how government can ‘nudge’ people do what is better for society. In that wise, there is nothing wrong if government invests in public education and a bit of subtle industry protection until our own innovations and products are in everybody’s homes.
Still on textiles. I sometimes try to think of what our people wore back in the day and how they managed to keep up with demands in an era before the introduction of modern day commerce. I recall a picture taken by Obafemi Awolowo sometimes in the early 50s, in some part of the South-South and all the children around him – up to 12 years old – walked about naked. Perhaps clothes were seen as luxuries that only adults should afford then. In other cultures, men and women walked around with sheaves of banana leaves covering just their groins. But later on, we could see the introduction of some technology like the loom system used in making what is known as ‘Aso Ofi’, or the Tiv ‘A’nger’ (black and white weaves) or the off-white Fulani traditional short blouses and wrapper. The sad thing is that for as long as I’ve grown up, the same technology has been retained. It is very slow and energy consuming. A telling video clip on this technique, which I once unearthed on YouTube, showed one man slowly weaving that Aso Oke, while his mobile phone played music in the background. That is what I mean by other people’s technology catching up on laggard cultures. Innovate or die! Can we imagine the thinking that has gone into the making of mobile phones that play clear stereo music versus the one that remained static with a 300 years old technique for making clothes?
What could we have done? We have two options in these matters. We either import technology from abroad wholesale and try to boost productivity in order to catch up with soaring demands as a result of increasing population. That is what we have tried so far, and it rarely works in a sustainable manner. The other option takes longer, and is more sustainable if we could actually swing it.
What if we could have made A’nger or Aso Ofi clothes faster? Could we not have clothed Nigeria with our own idea of clothing? In other words, we often do not fully imagine the value chain when we complain about how our textile industry collapsed. It is one thing to desire our own clothes, but which clothes? Look at Ghana for example. They have their Kente wrappers and this short smock that men wear (like Dashiki). They aren’t as stylish as some of the tribes in Nigeria but they try to encourage their own clothing even though they aren’t doing quite enough to ward off foreign concepts and the erosion of their little foreign exchange too. Here, we don’t bother to do anything concrete and government officials who tell the public to buy Nigeria are themselves guilty of using everything foreign. Sewing a traditional design using brocade made somewhere in Switzerland is not ‘buying Nigeria’. It is buying Swiss. In spite of all these, the question still comes back to the capacity of our local technology to provide us with what we need. In other words, we are not innovating.
Economists like talking about Economic Complexity, which means that successful countries are those that add value to what they sell to others. Adding value emanates from innovation. It stems from using innovative instruments, equipment and techniques which makes production faster and boosts capacity. That is what we need to understand and immerse ourselves into in these parts.
What could we have done? We have two options in these matters. We either import technology from abroad wholesale and try to boost productivity in order to catch up with soaring demands as a result of increasing population. That is what we have tried so far, and it rarely works in a sustainable manner. The other option takes longer, and is more sustainable if we could actually swing it. What it will entail is for our own local engineers to have a good think about each of our processes (food preservation, food processing, textiles and clothe-making, building techniques and so on), and come up with gradual and logical improvements that seeks to replicate global best practices; a sort of bottom-up approach to innovation. The world is not waiting, so it is an almost impossible task to achieve. There will be many distractions, and impatience. The world will laugh at us, trying to recreate the wheel, but it is better we understand our own processes and have ownership of them. That is what places like China did in part. That is what Japan did. Of course they had to coopt other people’s technology and science at some point.
That process will include gradual improvements in processes and outcomes. It will take a lot of trials and errors. We will fail many times, sometimes disastrously. But it will develop several things for us, including building our presence of mind and attention to detail – two attributes we should admit we do not have presently. It will mean that in everything we do, even the intangible stuff such as politics, our economics or our sociology, we permit people to question the status quo and seek improvements based on logic and value-addition – thinking outside the box or creating new boxes entirely. What we have now is that we skip this process, and often try to import foreign, ready-made solutions, many times with even more disastrous long-term effects.
Lastly, innovation does not have to be complex or technology based. I walk down a street in Abuja metropolis – which by Nigerian standards is almost perfect, and I see ways in which we could be innovative. And I see sustainable jobs that we have refused to create. Mark Zuckerberg in his recent Peru speech talked about how engineers (are supposed to) think. He said an engineer looks at every structure and asks the question ‘can it be better done? Can it be improved’. I see that that is what the best countries in the world have done. Every lawn is taken care off and manicured with the mindset of an engineer; with a view to making it even better than before. Jobs are so created, in a sustainable fashion because these natural elements keep trying to defy the thoughts of an engineer. This should be our focus in Nigeria. ALL our cities, towns and villages, all our public spaces and public buildings, need improvements, subtle improvements, the engineer’s touch. And they need it now! They need innovation. Not seeing the urgency of this fact is perhaps why we are indeed a dying nation. Nothing truer has ever been said; Innovate, or die!