Creative Entrepreneurs in Nigeria

Got back on Wednesday from a week or so in Lagos and Abuja, working with 100 creative entrepreneurs.  It was one of those occasions where the British Council really played a blinder, with their Lagos office taking a strong role in helping to pull together the possible start of the infrastructure to strengthen and grow the sector.  There are so many players, all with different agendas, that holding the thread throughout was a pretty demanding task but they seem to be doing it magificently.

The Government has put a substantial amount of money aside to support the sector.  This is the first time such a thing has happened and one immediate consequence was that a decision was needed about who would hold the money.  There is apparently no Arts Council or similar body there.  So they gave it to a bank – a development bank.   Part owned by the Government and run by a formidable woman (! yes really! Mrs Evelyn Oputu), with a track record of success in supporting other sectors, the Bank of Industry suddenly found itself having to deal with a sector of which they knew virtually nothing.  So, because the British Council had been running the Creative Enterprise programme (in which Cida Co, with Lee Corner (,  has been deeply involved for a couple of years), the Bank met with them to discuss how they might move things forward.   One of the first things that concerned the Bank was that they had received a number of applications for loans (funded by the Government grant) from creative people but were a bit shocked at the lack of hard business language in those applications.  Clearly, as the Bank’s application form had been virtually a foreign language to the applicants, so the responses had completely fazed the left brain assessors at the Bank!  Yet another classic example of the two sectors regarding each other as aliens from outer space!

So, with some very deft footwork by the British Council, it was agreed to set up two training courses, one in Lagos and one in Abuja, to be run by an amalgam of lecturers from the Pan African University’s Enterprise Develoment Centre, Cida Co and Bank staff themselves, the latter coming in to take participants through the application form, line by line, to help them understand what was required.  The Bank were flexible enough to understand and agree to the Council’s recommendation that, if the course was to be useful, then it had to incorporate teaching from the practice, as it were (us) alongside the academic theories.

They received over 3000 applications before the deadline and another 1000 after it! The level of experience we had in the room was astonishing – in every artform and creative discipline, from TV broadcast to fine art.  Onyeka Onwenu, a fantastic woman who was known as The Legend, and has been a star of the music business for 30 years, was there as she is setting up a new business.  Ikeogu Oke, Media  Advisor to the Government but who is also a leading poet whose latest work, Salutes Without Guns, was listed for the Wole Soyinka prize for literature, was there; we had Malam Abdul Mohammed (sexiest voice you ever heard – I let his questions go on for hours! I suggested he did voice-overs but, of course, he was already there!); some lovely theatre people, working on a range of fronts from performance art through to community arts – but this isn’t a name-check list:  suffice to say, that they were all serious,  experienced, articulate, passionate and opinionated.  In Lagos, they were also extremely noisy – at one stage, in the Innovation workshops, I had to stand on a chair and project as I have never projected before to get heard – not usually a problem I have!

Interestingly, I kicked the whole thing off (after the necessary speeches by sponsors!) with my session on The Creative Entrepreneur.  Essentially, I created it some years ago to address what makes a Creative Entrepreneur (CE) different from others.  It is particularly intended to build the confidence of CEs and to counter the many uninformed myths and canards that run around about creatives  – ‘couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery’;’ not interested in profits’; ‘flaky’; etc etc.  My favourite one is ‘engage in improvisational entrepreneurship’ – as I say to them, I’ve been in the business for over 35 years and I STILL engage in ‘improvisational entrepreneurship‘ – my business is as informed by my creativity as is anything else I do!  Anyway, I go on to look at ten key behaviours of the successful CE and the participants are able to get a different and positive approach to what they need to bring to their work.  After I had finished, the senior Bank Director, a charming and deeply knowledgeable man who had sat in for the session, came over to me and told me he had been invited to run a session on entrepreneurship for businessmen the next day and he asked if he could borrow my material for that session. Yes! I thought – we’re on our way!

The University lecturers came in after my couple of days were over, and they focused on some of the technical skills – marketing, finance, writing a business plan.  Several of them were making a real effort to try to understand the sector and how it works although inevitably  issues came up that took them by surprise occasionally. I sat in on their sessions and they were very generous, allowing me to contribute as seemed appropriate.  We had a different team of lecturers  in Abuja which was interesting.  Overall, I was particularly struck by three of them  and we agreed that we could quite usefully mix our knowledge and skills if we get to do this again.

The Abuja crowd were as different from the Lagos group as the cities are different from each other.  From the frenetic noise and creative chaos that is Lagos, Abuja is calm, laid back, well planned, and green!  The group themselves were no less passionate about their work but were much quieter, gentler – so much so that I was a little alarmed at first – but then we got into the Innovation sessions and, once again, the competitive spirit as the different groups made their pitches was in full flood – it was very reassuring!

I hope they all get on well with their funding applications – they certainly deserve to:  it was a great week and a fantastic learning for me.  I think Onyeka had it right – she kept coming in with words of wisdom for us all – and she observed that,  over her career, the creative world has changed and is changing – and we are able to do what we do because pioneers like her have laid out the path – we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

Anamaria Wills

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