Shopping for the right direction, by Semiu Okanlawon

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The hint that Nigeria’s current champion in retailing, Shoprite, might be exiting Africa’s most populous country (and of course, largest market) has sent the consumer world buzzing in the last few days. In the air is the news that Shoprite would be leaving Nigeria after 15 years of selling.

Perhaps, disturbed by the manner in which Nigerians received that news with the possible backlash of an immediate loss of patronage, the management hurriedly embarked on a PR redo in what they expected to be a better packaging of the information. They repainted the news and presented it as a search for more indigenous investors to assist the conglomerate in its expansion plans. The first news and the redo have left Nigerians’ psyche with just one conclusion: Shoprite is leaving!

And of course, that ignited a wave of commentaries from the good, the bad to the ugly on what is agreed to be Nigeria’s hazardous trudging on the precipice. It is on occasions of such sad news that Nigerians momentarily wake up; becoming conscious of the wrong direction we are headed as a people. After a few days, we forget our sorrow and life continues.

Sadly, the loud lamentations over the rumoured exit of the retailer further amplifies what has been Nigeria’s unenviable national consumption culture, which is to the detriment of real production of goods and services. What do I mean by this? I am certain that the Chambers of Commerce across Nigeria must have lost count of the various manufacturing concerns that have suffered sudden or gradual deaths in the past two decades or thereabouts. Many that still alive are gasping for breath under most suffocating atmosphere.
The cemetery of Nigeria’s demised companies is decorated with saddening epitaphs, eloquently engraving causes of deaths ranging from acute, epileptic power supply, multiple taxation, insecurity, poor transportation network system and other forms of infrastructural kwashiorkor.

Was it that Nigerians did not notice the gradual ‘pogrom’ suffered by the indigenous textiles companies in Kaduna and Kano before our country became the dumping yard for all poor qualities of fabrics from China and Dubai and Turkey? Oh! I guess we were all snoring when the Atlantic Carpets, Excide Battery, Leyland Motors, to mention just a few were given mass burial in Ibadan, in the South-West of Nigeria? Volkswagen, Peugeot Nigeria Limited, very good assembly plants all died unceremoniously and we gleefully opened the gates of our ports to bring in exotic auto-wonders from Germany, Belgium and Japan.

No one sat to count the millions of workers who were laid off as a result of the closure of these factories all across Nigeria. And of course, a very ‘religious’ people that we are, the abandoned warehouses were ‘rescued’ from the rodents by our bourgeoning Pentecostals in search of expansion for miracles. Dead factory machines were cleared out to make rooms for pews to sit the growing congregations.

Not even national policymakers and lawmakers would touch what emerged as a Nigeria-assembled brand, Innoson, which has braced all the odds to announce the possibilities that are available should our spirit wake up one day to retrace from the wrong steps we have taken.

Whatever gives us the hope that we can come out of our present predicament without looking inward! Should we loose sleep if Shoprite, Pep, Multichoice, MTN, Airtel, all leave our shores? Why not simply let that push us to take their places with new thinking? Every wise hedge funder from all corners of the world is thinking Africa’s biggest market and coming down to dictate to us how businesses are done. All we have kept doing in 15 years of the arrival of South Africa’s Shoprite is to celebrate the fecundity of their investments and the magnificence of their malls across our lands.

Yes! The retailing edifices sprang up in choice areas of our cities in Lagos, Ibadan, Ilorin, Akure, Abuja, Kano, Kaduna and others. Expanses of land never valued as goldmines suddenly turned to attractive landscapes before our very eyes. That was when those with open eyes for businesses arrived the scene. But where do the juicy gains end up? In the vaults of those who crossed the Atlantic and several countries to mine the gold we sit upon without knowing! Why are we so acutely blind to the many beauties that others see in us?

Why should we lament if the malls that merely feed our insatiable hunger for foreign food, foreign wears, and all other manufactured goods simply dumped on us take their leave? Shouldn’t that simply turn to be the opportunity for us to create new market places for locally made households and garnish them with all the attractions that had held us slave to foreign tastes?

Nigeria may have recorded some milestones in its rice importation plans even if it is not yet Uhuru out there. But the economy still looks gloomy ahead with the volume of foreign goods that still define our daily existence. I miff at the humongous opportunities yet untapped in the agricultural value-chain. A visit to these Shoprite outlets would give you some glimpses of locally grown food products now being packaged for household consumptions. But the volume is unacceptably low.

Recently, I checked at a notable Nigerian fashion store that has been with us in Nigeria for sometime now. This store that dealt mainly in foreign fabrics for kids over the years has suddenly seen the sense in creating shelves for locally made stuffs. As a matter of fact, it has created a separate label for its locally made designs named Timotiwa (Where I come from) as a way of tickling and reawakening the African consciousness that we know where we are coming from.

If that is some piece of good news, how about creating billion-worth of jobs in the fashion industry if our banks, insurance companies, service companies and other corporate organisations begin to permit native attires for the millions of workers who today MUST wear suits and shirts as if files cannot be treated and computer keyboards won’t respond when a man wears smartly sewn native attires.

If our ministry of trade and commerce does a good job of scrutiny, we should know how much Nigeria spends in foreign exchange importing denim jeans, Next, TM Lewins shirts, ties and others every year.
Yes, we finally found out to our chagrin, how much we were spending in billions to import rice into Nigeria every year. The humongous figure frightened the hell out of us and we stopped. I recommend similar findings should be done in all areas where we have very good alternatives at home and that no doubt will save us from the foreign exchange pressure that keep traumatizing our economy.

Need we repeat here that at the heart of our fast-spreading insecurity is poverty engendered by eroded jobs, low productivity and very killing operating environment? Rather than retail outlets to serve as off-takers for the farms, their shelves are filled with imported goods. These, sadly, could all be sourced from the local farmers if conscious efforts are made in this direction.

You travel around the country and the ugly sights of rotten farm produce are what you see. All these are results of the jettisoning of the local production in favour of finished foreign goods. Imagine creating such markets as vast and fascinating as Shoprite and all you find stocked in are locally manufactured household goods.

The rains of insecurity, hunger, disease, homelessness and other tribulations beating us haven’t yet attained their peak. Wait for the disappearing oil fortunes to dry up completely. As Ola Rotimi would say, “we have left our pot unwashed and our food now burns.”

We are gradually submitting at the feet of hunger. A major reason Nigeria’s frustrated youths keep surrendering to slavery in Lebanon, Oman, and Qatar.

A country that cannot feed its people has lost its dignity. We still have our ways out. But it is now and we just must shop for the right direction.

*Semiu Okanlawon, journalist, media and political consultant

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