5 Lessons Learnt in Lagos

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5 things I learnt about doing business in Africa’s biggest city

There’s a disco ball spinning and the little flecks of dappled light slowly make their way around the sea of dark-skinned faces staring at me. They’re dressed in disco gear, seated, eating from full plates of food. A government official of sorts looks up at me slowly while prodding a fish head on his plate with his knife and fork. I’m standing in the middle of the room with three other, equally uncertain white guys. We’re joined by a local dude in full traditional Nigerian dress finished with some knock-off tortoise-shell, hipster reading glasses with Poco Robane printed on the lens. He shoves the microphone in my face and asks me something in Pidgin English about my favourite dance move. Oh God. My head hurts so much from just everything, but clearly it’s my turn to be ridiculed by the Nigerian MC. And I did – as anyone in my position would have- the Robot.

This was my second business trip to Lagos. The first was with the mandate to determine if M4JAM was ready to expand to Nigerian soils. It wasn’t. This time, it was with one of UNO’s clients – OLX. We consult on the product team that manages 6 sub-Saharan African countries’ apps, websites and mobile sites. As you can imagine, each country has it’s own locally-specific nuances that change the way people use the platform. People use OLX for completely different jobs in the different regions, which makes life very interesting for us and the OLX product guys in Cape Town. For instance, earlier in the year we joined the product team on a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where we got to understand how OLX is being used as way for farmers to sell their small crops of potatoes online, as contrasted by how South Africans would use it, to say, sell their old iPhones.

The trips to Lagos have been eye opening and I’ve learnt one or two things. Some of which may apply to you if you’re going to travel to Nigeria or are just interested in a white boy’s take on doing tech business in the biggest city in Africa.


You’ve probably heard countless stories along the lines of an overweight English woman out in Sussex fortuitously stumbling upon a Nigerian prince that needs some money to unlock his fortune of which he’d happily share. You also probably know how that story ends. If you’re not sure how that story ends yet - please do contact us - we need a small deposit to unlock a fortune of our own.

On the first trip, the very first thing that my colleague said to me when I got to Nigeria was “Everyone is a hustler” (Please know that this term is not interchangeable with ‘scammer’ or ‘fraudster’. A more accurate synonym is probably ‘resourceful and relentless entrepreneurs’). I believe that this a product of population density. With all these people around you, the opportunity is everywhere too – for a small payment, people even get other people to do their shopping for them.

With all these people chasing all these other people for money, wouldn’t it make sense to try and get in on the hustle? OLX, being a C2C (consumer-to-consumer) platform, is perfectly positioned for this. It allows someone who wants to sell second-hand phones to reach a potentially larger audience. However, when I mentioned earlier that the word “hustler” is not a synonym far scammer, the terms are not by any means mutually exclusive. Enabling people to buy and sell stuff from each other can be a dangerous game when it comes to trust-based safety - and Nigerians, all too aware of their own notoriety as scam artists, need additional checks and balances in place for this facilitation. To solve this, OLX now goes so far as sending a “Champ” to an ad lister’s house to check the items still exist.

There is always opportunity in the hustle. But it’s still a hustle. So play safe.


I’m sitting on a child’s stool in a strangely empty classroom looking hall in the depths of the Unilever campus in Lagos. A very sceptical, very stocky Nigerian man is looking down his glasses at me on the other side of the plastic table. “We can pay people to buy CloseUp toothpaste with the M4JAM platform”, I say, proud that I’ve done some homework on what Unilever’s biggest product is in Nigeria. “This way, you don’t need to pass discounts on to any retailers or wholesalers, but you can move product in slow moving areas by directly incentivising the consumer.”

Unilever Lagos
Unilever Lagos

Surely he’s sold, the value proposition is flawless. Apart from the massive flaw in my own assumptions, that is. All that the users needed to do was take a photo of their printed receipt that they received when they purchased their beloved Colgate. Except that the majority of FMCG is sold in transactions with absolutely no paper trail whatsoever, using cash only. No retail. No slips. No proof of purchase. And no pudding.

Don’t try your usual user story approach. It’s fraught with assumptions. Rethink everything.


Towards the end of my first trip, Idemudia (the head of WeChat Nigeria at the time) and I were talking in the taxi. We were wrapping up our action points and I reflected on the number of back-to-back meetings we’d had with the right people at the biggest banks and telcos. He reiterated the importance of the opportunity present for our two businesses and encouraged me, “We gotta close these now - I done wet ground for you”. By this, he meant he did all the hard work - getting to the right people at the right places. When I think of it now, in every office someone stood up and greeted the guy, be it from a corner office or from the bullpen. Either way, every meeting was a warm one - and what a difference it made. Before going I’d recommend that you scour your LinkedIn and favours book for someone who can be your ally on the ground.

Nigerians are friendly to friends. Get one.


Apart from the cringe-worthy experience I mentioned earlier, Nigerians are pretty amazingly open to just standing up and shaking what their mamma gave them. Whether it was at Bottles or at an office party, they have no time for non-participation. The pace of Lagos is phrenetic. Get up and get moving or get left behind. It’s really important to show that you can move - not to earn street cred, but to show you’re up to their pace. Remember, that this too is a reminder of the shuffle they do every day. Nothing stands still. Not their jobs, not their titles, not the companies they work for, and not the number of users or revenue they’re reporting to you. They’re dancing and watching to see if you can keep up.

If you can, learn an amazing dance move, just in case.


“Hi I’m {{white person's name}}. I’m from {{developed country}}. We’ve recently launched {{self-professed revolutionary software/business model}} and our market has shown amazing growth. There are MILLIONS of people here. We see that you have access to {{X Million}} of that population. If you help us, we can help you and we’ll all be rich”

☝️ This was me on my first trip. They’d all seen this before. A copy-paste attempt of an existing solution. They see these so often that most of the time, they’ll wait to see if there is traction in Nigeria first, before joining in. No one wants to be the launch partner. They are like penguins standing at the shore. Just looking at the black, icy water. No one wants to be the first one to take the plunge. Because there’s no massive benefit for the first penguin in – but there is a risk. If that first penguin dives in and stays, there are probably fish a plenty and the rest will join in. If the water instantly turns red, well, poor first penguin.

There might be some companies though, that are mid-hustle, and see your solution as a tool fit for their hustle-belt. If they are keen, get ready to move. Keep up the momentum. Start the tango. And if you can help it, don’t go home. Stay there. Or get some reliable people on the ground, like Brandworx, who can help keep the music playing.

Be (very) ready for them. Just in case they’re ready for you.

Posted on October 27 2016 by Stephen van der Heijden
Stephen is the founder of UNO Digital. He loves digital products, digital people, and people in the digital world.

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