No luck needed to make dreams come true: three Nigerian success stories
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Dreams do come true – that’s the motto of three Nigerians from different backgrounds who paved their own path in a country of nearly 200 million people.
Naija, or 9ija as many like to refer to the country, is one of the largest on the African continent.
In the major cities, one can come across a dichotomy of scenes – from a glitzy hotel and avant-garde fashion to power outages drowned out by the sounds of generators and open sewers along a main street.
But in between is the energy of the people and the traditions from all over the country that have kept these three plugged in and chasing after their dreams.
- Banky W – Singing your way to the top
Known by his stage name Banky W, Olubankole Wellington, an actor, rapper and singer, put his entertainment career on hold this past year to enter the realm of Nigerian politics.
Born in the United States, he returned to Nigeria as a child at the age of four. At 18, he went back to the US to do his university studies in engineering. After spending a few years there, he felt the pull back to Nigeria and returned, where he has been ever since.
In his office in Lagos city, he reminisces on his time in the US.
“New York is a beautiful city. Actually the energy of New York reminds me of the energy of Lagos. They are both very bustling cities, filled with people on the go. People with big dreams, people that are trying to do things for themselves.
"I love the vibe of New York. Almost as much as I love the vibe of Lagos. But Lagos is still number one,” says the 37-year-old.
The call of Naija
Coming back to Nigeria was a chance for him to concentrate on his true passion – music. Studying engineering was something he was good at and it was a sure thing in hand: “I wanted something to fall back on.”
Before resorting to plan B, he decided to go full speed ahead into the entertainment field. “I always looked up to people like Jay-Z and Dr Dre, people who started in music and were able to build different empires and different business interests from that musical space,” the artist gushes.
And it was this dream to combine his love for music coupled with a business that propelled him to take a risk.
“The challenge is just getting people to pay attention to what you want to do and show how you’re a little different from anybody else. And then there's the challenges of financing and networking and not having certain connections or people backing you to invest in your craft.
"That's not just a Nigerian challenge. It's a challenge for anybody that wants to break into the entertainment business around the world. Thankfully I was able to.”
Makings of a politician?
“In the ten years of being a relatively successful music entrepreneur, I had always tried to use my voice and my platform for bigger causes,” explains the musician. As far back as 2009, he had tried to rally up people towards causes, such as ‘Light-up Nigeria’, an online movement (#LightUpNigeria ) of young people to pressure the government to pay attention to electricity throughout the country.
During elections, he had always tried to motivate young people to vote. But this time round he had another idea.
“We talk a lot, we complain a lot, we point fingers, we tweet, we do all of these things that complain about the country we have, but then when it comes down to it, we're not much more than talking.
"If we really are serious about trying to fix Nigeria, we have to start participating for real, and we have to start not just registering to vote, but joining political parties, putting up our own candidates – candidates that are going to fight for the issues that concern us.”
And that’s when Bank W the entertainer, decided to announce his candidacy for a post at the House of Representatives for the Eti Osa constituency in Lagos under the Modern Democratic Party.
While he didn’t win, in an interview with the national paper ‘Punch’ he says “I can live with trying and failing at achieving a goal, but I cannot live with not trying.”
The man of dreams says while he has not quit the entertainment business, he will continue to roll with the momentum created from his political campaigning.
- Femi Adekunle – Building your own story
In an unmarked workshop not far from the chaos of Lagos city is where you can find Femi Adekunle: a carpenter who specialises in making furniture and cabinetry.
He moved his workshop out here to meet the growing need for space as his shop in the city was too small; a good sign that business is growing.
“I don't really believe in luck,” says Adekunle when looking back at the success of his business. “Luck is when you didn't do much and then you make a lot [of money]. That’s luck. But I believe if you invest in something then you expect the returns.”
And his case is one of working hard.
He got into this line of work as a fluke. It was a time when he was unemployed and he thought about doing something else, “and this was all I could lay my hands on”.
He was employed in a big foreign company in Lagos in 1994. But at the time, he was simply working for them, not actually learning a trade. “I went there to work and get paid. I saw things and I said to myself why not, if I can pay attention to this, I [might] starting making things like this.”
After some thought he approached his bosses and made them an offer.
“I don’t want to get paid anymore, I want to learn these things,” he told them. And they agreed to take him on for an unofficial apprenticeship. “In a matter of two years, I started doing things myself in the same company.”
Soon after, he began working again for the company with pay. After a year and half, with some money now saved up, Adekunle decided the time was right and he bought himself a little workshop in Lagos.
“I bought a couple of hand tools that my money could buy then and set up a little workshop.”
If you build it, they will come
Now an independent employer, the first thing he crafted in his new workshop was a small kitchen cabinet. “Actually, I made it to take home, for my own use”, but before he could take it home it had caught the eye of a potential customer. Some price negotiations took place and it was sold. “It started right from there. Ever since, I’ve never stopped,” says Adekunle.
There are no adverts, or flyers. He doesn’t have a marketing team. The best way to build loyal customers is through the tried and tested word of mouth.
“From one customer to another customer, ‘Who did this for you?’ ‘Oh, I have a good guy,’ and they introduce me.”
And for nearly 30 years, his work has grown this way.
But he still remembers what it’s like to be on the opposite side of things.
Remembering the youth
“Employment is a big problem in this part of the world,” explains Adekunle in all seriousness. If you advertise a post asking for 20 people, “at the end of the day you see about 40,000 people,” he says, noting the dire need for work can even become dangerous.
“I’ve even witnessed a stampede because people want to get employed.”
That’s part of the reason he knew he had to create his own work, otherwise he’d forever be competing with others or worse. “Nobody is creating any avenue for employment. But my best advice is: if you really want to be employed, then create the job by yourself. I created this.”
For that reason, he is surrounded by workers at various levels. “Today we have a lot of people working with me. Some are working for me and some are working with me. We get people on apprenticeship.”
And on that note, he introduces me to a young 20-something and shy Victor.
"Victor became a part of us some years ago. He came in as an apprentice and we trained him here and today he’s doing the work all by himself now. He gets paid now, but we trained him here.”
As I walk away, the mix of older boys and young men go back to working the power tools. Over the years, Adekunle has improved the quality of his tools and no longer depends on his hand tools from the early days.
“Working is now faster, you can really get a job done in one day,” he exclaims, as he shows me the electric saw. “So in this job, it's not really luck. It’s been the result of how far I’ve come with the work.”
- Mahmood Ali Balogun –Telling your own story
“What has endeared Nollywood to the rest of the world and to us Nigerians in particular [has] been the art of storytelling,” says Mahmood Ali Balogun, a filmmaker in the cinematic landscape here in Nigeria, often referred to as Nollywood.
Balogun grew up influenced by films from India, China and the United States.
"When I was a child, there were more productions on stage from Ogunde (a playwrite),” explains the director when looking back on his childhood.
At the time, Nigeria’s film industry was in its very early stages, so he got his film inspiration from abroad. But they all shared common traits: story-telling and themes about honour.
The dawn of Nollywood
“The first film I produced was on video. It was 1998." It was in Yoruba. Soon after his big breakthrough came in 2011, with ‘Tango with me’.
He says the film did well at the box office. The story itself is heavy on story-telling – a trait that he feels Nigerians have and what makes their films distinct from other genres. “It’s what we want our people to see” rather than the stories told in mainstream European films.
“We are telling our stories for ourselves by ourselves. It’s for the rest of Africa and the diaspora,” stresses Balogun.
The other reason Nollywood has become successful is in terms of basic economy.
“We’re making movies so that we can be profitable, and that is what you find lacking in the rest of the continent,” explains the director.
He points to Francophone countries, such as Mali or Burkina Faso, where they may have grants or financial support from France or other French-speaking countries.
Nigeria doesn’t have that. Instead, after one film is made, people start work on the next one, so the major mark of Nollywood is also its output which means more opportunities for viewing.
Whereas in the case of a film that may have been funded from abroad, he feels “at the end of the day those movies, they end up in the archives in Paris and the funding countries. The people don’t get to see those films, the filmmakers don’t make any return…that is not a business that is doing a show.”
But to him and those working in the vibrant world of Nollywood, “moviemaking is about show business: you do the show and the business. In Nigeria we have been able to combine both.”
You’ll always have a job
The business model for movie-making is relatively direct and simple in Nigeria by comparison to other countries. “Nigerians are quite energetic when it comes to business, anything that can bring sustenance to you, you do it. And we’re good at it,” he explains.
Which explains how filmmaking generally provides employment for a lot of people.
“That’s why you see us churn out a lot and we don’t waste time in three to four months being on location. Nah! You do it, and get it done. Put it on the market, make your money and get to the next one.”
Without any government support or grants, people live directly from their moviemaking and fund it directly. Perhaps one can manage to get a bank loan, but definitely not in the beginning.
Which means the industry is much like a double-edged sword: it’s open to anyone who’s willing to sink a bit of money, but as with all things in life, there’s no guarantee of a return.
That said, Nollywood is one of the growing industries in Nigeria, contributing to nearly 1.5 percent of its GDP, says Balogun. He adds that unlike the past where movies struggled to get much recognition, today there is thriving “creative economy that is adding value to the entire economy of the nation”.