(This is one in a series of blogposts written by our Global team while on-the-ground in Lagos, Nigeria – February 2014.)
I arrived at Lagos, Nigeria, a Thursday afternoon with my GEN teammates, Clara Chow, Allie Stein, Jojo Zhao and Bunmi Otegbade. The heat and humidity in this city is astronomically high (this coming from a guy who grew up in the Caribbean). One of the first people I saw while leaving the airport was a middle-aged gentleman, perhaps 55 years old, defecating in a ditch literally next to the highway. After that, I saw four cars next to each other on a two-lane street; an overabundance of yellow vans, or busses; and slums covering miles and miles of dusty land. Safe to say, this was my first encounter with extreme poverty, and I was perplexed as to how to react to it.
After a brief stop at a Western-styled shopping mall – equipped with Hugo Boss, Lacoste, Puma, Levi’s, and much more – we went to an awesome bar called Bogo Biri, where we listened to an Afrojazz band with a cohort of international and local people. The music was incredible. The musicians mainly played with their eyes closed and had a couple of tall African women joyfully dancing as if they couldn’t control how their bodies reacted to the music. The setting was great; I felt as if I were in an underground jazz club in U Street in Washington, D.C. After a long strategy session that Thursday night, we went to bed around Midnight.
Friday morning began with a freezing shower at 5:30am. We left our apartment around 6:00am so we could escape the Lagos traffic but, unfortunately, Lagos traffic is impossible to escape (indeed! The rumors are correct). Spending three to four hours on a 10 mile car ride is commonplace, and every single car here has multiple dents, given the large urban density.
Our first experience of the day was in the Alimosho Local Government neighborhood. Here, we met with Akinpelu Timilehin, or Timi, a GEN fellow of the first class of Alimosho graduates. Timi runs Timi’s World of Entertainment, a rent & buy movie shop with the latest movies of both Hollywood and Nollywood alike. He employs three people in two shops and has enjoyed a 15x increase in income thanks to his new venture and partnership with GEN. Here’s a person that has transformed his previous life in the streets to that of an employer. After Timi, we visited two other businesses: TISK, a catering company in the Agege market, and Touche Cute, a restaurant chain looking to expand into pre-made meals catering urban professionals.
Life in Lagos is astonishingly difficult. Traffic, pollution, lack of sanitation/sewage systems, and lack of public transportation, among others things, make this city a case study for poor urban planning. The deprived youth are trapped in low-paying, informal sector jobs with little possibility to climb out of poverty. In my impression, there is no difference between a professional life and a personal life if you’re poor in Lagos; you live to work or, more accurately, to survive.
Nigeria is on the news on a daily basis in the United States and around the world. Nigeria is acknowledged as one of the fastest, most sustainable growing markets in the World. However, this growth has been largely driven by capital-intensive sectors (finance, energy) and not necessarily by proper public policy. There is still, as you can see in the images, a large portion of the population living at or under the poverty line. There are not enough jobs to sustain an already unsustainable city like Lagos. With a population of over 20 million people (estimated), Lagos is one of the densest cities in the world, and its population is expected to climb to 40 million by the end of 2030.
That Friday after we visited our fellows in Alimosho and Agege, two impoverished communities in Lagos, we came to the apartment we are staying at in Lekki to debrief about the day and plan out our weekend. Strategizing and thinking about pivots is a GEN strongpoint; our organization is always looking at what’s the next step and how can we improve our operations. Friday night was largely spent strategizing about our key business priorities and linking that to our week’s activities. After this lengthy yet exciting session, we headed to a concert/party where we saw some of the most famous Nigerian musicians playing such as Davido and Iyanya.
After some much needed sleep, we went to the Lekki Market on Saturday afternoon to interview one of our star fellows: Bashiru Omotawo, or Bash, who owns an event coverage and portrait studio of choice for Nollywood personalities and business leaders. After an insightful interview, we shopped at the local market for hours. As a first-timer in Africa, this experience was awe-inspiring. I couldn’t help but baffle at the vivid colors of the African dresses; the accurate woodcarvings of wild animals; and the folksy and evocative paintings of these Nigerian artists. Additionally, one can’t help but feel astounded by the overwhelming tenacity of the artisans in the market, especially given the fact that they saw four white people walking through the halls.
As my first experience with extreme poverty, this trip has made me realized that there’s something very human about ambition and optimism. This sounds intuitive, but I had never experienced it first hand when it relates to dire economic circumstances. Whether you’re a highly educated financier living in Victoria Island or an underprivileged youth in Ajigunle, everyone aspires to success and stability. I am truly humbled by my experienced so far. Listening to GEN fellows’ journey as they leave their life on the streets or in low-paying jobs has solidified my commitment to the cause of youth empowerment. I’m excited to see what the rest of the week teaches me.