History of Entrepreneurship in Nigeria

Biz File | December 15, 2012

Nnamdi Ebo 2By Nnamdi Ebo | 15.12.12 | Political scientist | Author | Social commentator | THISDAY Contributor | Scholar in Legal literature & Politics | Online Publisher | Business writer.

Tradition is an inherited pattern of thought or action. It refers to a specific practice of long standing. It is also an established custom or tradition – a custom that for a long time has been an important feature of some cultural …

group, tribe, ethnic group, society, nation etc. Traditional means: when a practice consists of a method or procedure and this is derived from tradition. This brings us to traditional business idea, (idea being the content of cognition) and thought process which flows from customary ideas steeped in the previous way or method of doing something; doing business in the traditional way. Before the advent of the white man in the mangrove forests and woodlands of  Southern Nigeria and the savanna of Northern Nigeria , the indigenous African peoples had been engaged in business – the African way. We had the trans-Saharan trade between the various empires that dotted the areas known as West and North Africa.

The Songhai (15th-16thcentury); Kanem-Bornu (9th-19thcentury); Mali (13th-14thcentury); Ghana (circa 700-1240) and the Benin empire (16th-18th century) – all traded with and amongst themselves, generating revenues/incomes and maintaining their dominions and spheres of influence. They all had their own entrepreneurial ideas and mind-set; were creative, had sources of capital and business plans – which they guided jealously. These concepts were rooted and steeped in their own ways of doing business. Africa had entrepreneurs during those periods.

The Mali Empire was strategically located near gold mines and the agriculturally rich interior floodplain of the Niger River. Gao, a town in eastern Mali – it lies on the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara and is the capital of the Gao Region. Gao is one of the oldest trading centres in west Africa and today trades primarily in butter, hides, wool, and livestock. It was served by the trans-Saharan road connections and is the terminus for commercial river traffic from Mopti and Koulikoro in the south-west.

Previously known as Kawkaw, Gao was founded as a fishing village in the 7th century AD, and became the capital of the Songhai empire in the 11th century. The town grew under Songhai rule, but its importance as a trading centre was reduced when it was annexed by the rulers of the Mali Empire in 1325, and then further diminished by Moroccan control in 1591. Timbuktu is a city in central Mali on the southern edge of the Sahara, just north of the great bend of the River Niger. It is connected with the Niger by canals and is served by the small river port of Kabara.

 The city is a regional trade centre for salt and other basic commodities. Its manufactured goods included cotton textiles, leather goods, and pottery. Timbuktu was formerly a great commercial entrepôt and an international centre. Timbuktu was an important terminus of trans-Saharan caravans and a distribution point for trade along the upper Niger. All these trades were conducted by the early entrepreneurs who employed traditional business ideas to innovate and manufacture goods.

Later, Timbuktu was conquered by the powerful Songhai Empire. In 1468, the city reached its zenith as a commercial centre. It had a population of about 40,000 in the early 16th century. Merchants (i.e. entrepreneurs) from North African cities traded salt and cloth for gold and for black African slaves (a sad reminder) in the markets of Timbuktu. The Songhai, a fishing and trading people who originated in the Dendi region of north-western NigeriaX1 gradually extended their domination upstream in the 8th century AD and by 800 had established themselves at Gao, which soon became a flourishing market town.

Nigeria was traditionally an agricultural country, providing the bulk of its own food needs and exporting a variety of agricultural goods, notably palm oil, cacao/cocoa, rubber, and groundnuts (peanuts). At this time, the place called Nigeria had entrepreneurs who had the entrepreneurial mind-set prevalent at the time.

They seized opportunities and were innovative and developed business plans using ideas which they sourced from travelers (i.e. scourers), itinerant tradesmen and consumers of agricultural and manufactured products who benefited from activities like animal husbandry (ranching), poultry farming, mixed farming, strip cropping, truck farming, arboriculture, local manufacturing etc. They also looked to existing goods and distribution channels; how they were operated; and they generated their own ideas on how best to harness existing resources in order to produce and distribute with better yielding methods, using traditional marketing, merchandising, marketing mix etc.

 New business ideas and innovation were generated to improve storage facilities, preservation of perishables (i.e. tomatoes, vegetables etc.) and milking of goats and cows for distribution and sales. These traditional business ideas were used in managing the enterprises, and were maintained for more than a hundred years. Some entrepreneurs excelled (including the rulers) – i.e. kings or Emirs, Obas, Obis, Obongs etc. – who were in the forefront of entrepreneurship. These rulers were astute entrepreneurs and their expertise and long experience in traditional business methods enabled them to effect important negotiations and transactions with the white colonialists (Europeans), when eventually they showed up unannounced and uninvited to  Nigeria   as we now know it.

The peoples of Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, Benin etc all had their own entrepreneurs (13th-19thcentury), who were exposed to entrepreneurship opportunities outside their native areas. The Hausas had astute entrepreneurs who managed workers with skills in tanning, dyeing, weaving, and metalworking which were highly developed. The Hausas have long been famous for wide-ranging itinerant trading, and wealthy merchants shared the highest social positions with the politically powerful and the highly educated. In Hausaland, entrepreneurial success in Islam is not merely measured by the end result but also by the way and means of achieving them.

Business activity is part of ibadah or “good deed” Entrepreneurship was and is always an integral part of the Islamic religion. Islamic entrepreneurship is treated fully in theories and concepts of entrepreneurship under the nature of entrepreneurship in Part 1 below. Since ancient times, the Ibos have traded craft goods and agricultural products. Traditionally, the Igbo have excelled at metalwork, weaving, and woodcarving. The finished products were traded on as business ventures and enterprises with all the trappings of entrepreneurship – African entrepreneurship.

The Ibos also specialized in buying and selling goods and have perfected their entrepreneurial expertise in inventory control, management and distribution – which up till today, has remained their prevalent way of entrepreneuring. The Yorubas are predominantly town dwellers who practiced small-scale, domestic agriculture and are well known as traders and craftspeople. Since the 13th century, Yoruba artists have been producing masterpieces of woodcarving and bronze casting. Like the Ibos, the finished products were traded on as business ventures and enterprises.

The Portuguese, the first Europeans to traverse the coast of western Africa, were attracted to Benin City in 1486. The Oba established trading contacts with the Portuguese and initially sold them some war captives, which the Portuguese sold as slaves (another sad reminder) to the Akan of Asante (modern Ghana) in exchange for gold. Later, Benin’s trade with Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries was in palm oil, ivory, pepper, and textiles. Dutch traders to Benin City in the 17th century remarked about the astute entrepreneurs they met in Benin kingdom.

With the advent of modern entrepreneurship (20th-21st century), these people have now adapted – to the extent that some of the entrepreneurs have dabbled into import-export, shipping, warehousing, freighting, food processing, financial services, banking, packaging, canning, outsourcing, haulage, logistics, assembling, manufacturing and international entrepreneurship  – with one of them, Alhaji Aliko Dangote displacing Oprah Winfrey (a U.S. syndicated TV host) to become the richest billionaire of African descent (richest black man) in the world, with Mike Adenuga trailing behind – all Nigerians.


Entrepreneurship – that is modern entrepreneurship, was easy for Nigerian entrepreneurs to adapt to – simply because their forefathers, who were the early entrepreneurs, passed on the concepts and principles and the foundation for entrepreneurship. The difference now, is that it has become a course, a field of study and investigation; and the government in Nigeria, has taken a keen interest in developing the idea using various methods like SMEs’ programs etc.

Series | To be continued | Check out the next web log on Entrepreneurship | Next week


Nnamdi Ebo |  nnamdi@nnamdiebo.com   | © Nnamdi Ebo . All Rights Reserved

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