Lagos — Reflections on the Epicenter of the Frontier Market Phenomenon

Nigeria is not a great country. It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun … It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short, it is among the most unpleasant places on earth!Chinua Achebe, The Trouble with Nigeria (1984), pgs. 9-10.

It’s dirty and an environmental nightmare, with piles of rubbish literally everywhere, and its natural resources have been stripped bare. Nothing works and everything is seriously dilapidated, the infrastructure is totally inadequate, there are frequent shortages of fuel, electricity and water, and vehicle traffic and human congestion are tremendous … It’s appalling and awful, fascinating and appealing, and funny and sad, all at the same time; Nigeria is that extreme … But if you’re up to the challenge, it’s one of the most exciting and engaging countries in the world and I have been treated with nothing but friendliness and helpfulness at all times.Lizzie Williams, Nigeria, 3rd Edition (Bradt Travel Guide, 2013), pgs. VII-VIII.

I would say that Ikoyi island is fine to wander but VI might be a bit dodge. I can only share the story of a [brewing company] employee who wandered home from a bar in VI drunk and, after a brief express kidnap, found himself deposited in the middle of the third mainland bridge wearing only his Y-front underpants and facing a long walk home …E-mail from friend.

To say my expectations for Lagos, Nigeria were low would be an understatement. They were positively subterranean.

Despite the intervening three decades since Chinua Achebe composed The Trouble with Nigeria — source of the opening quote to this post — virtually everyone I knew who had visited Nigeria believed it to be an accurate description of the country today, and they left me with the distinct impression that I (1) was an idiot; (2) had signed up for a miserable experience; and (3) may very well not make it home alive. I was half convinced I was going to be kidnapped by Boko Haram.

The enormity of the city is difficult to fathom. In a country of 170 million people, roughly 15% live in Lagos. It is the largest city in Africa, and with a steady drip of newcomers arriving from the countryside seemingly every day, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Lagos is one of two cities where I’ve felt I could be swallowed whole — one wrong move and I would vanish, never to be seen again.The other being Mexico City. I shared this epiphany with a friend about 30 minutes after we were nearly t-boned by a cement truck while riding in an early ‘90s Nissan Tsuru on our way to Teotihuacan.

10.5 miles north of the airport, miles of labyrinthine dirt roads wind their way between tin-roof huts that stretch to the horizon.

Lagos is an assault on the senses. It’s hot, it’s humid, it’s loud, it’s in your face. I have never been to a city with more energy, more bustle and more hustle.

If there is an epicenter where one can witness the frontier market phenomenon and how it is shaping the world economy — urbanization, booming demographics, a growing consumer class, mobile money/digital commerce, the expansion of manufacturing and services, etc. — Lagos must be it.

Leaving the airport for Victoria Island (VI), the first observation that jumped out at me was the number of young guys in uniforms carrying assault rifles while exhibiting zero trigger discipline. It’s generally discomfiting to ask oneself, “Why are there so many young guys with assault rifles exhibiting zero trigger discipline? Is there a round in the chamber? If so, is the gun on safety? Does that gun’s safety even work? Why is this guy stopping our car?”

Outside the window, merchants passed by carting all manner of products, smoke billowed up from the grills of food stands, virtually everyone was either texting or talking on their mobile phone, men were bathing themselves with buckets on the side of the highway, and yellow vans and buses added a tenor punctuation to the din of horns. “I’m so bullish on Lagos,” I thought to myself, “this city is alive!”

Having checked into the hotel, I decided to walk out the gates in search of dinner.The guidebook suggested that it would be reasonably safe to do so during daylight. The way people looked at me, I got the distinct impression that not many gringos walk the streets of Victoria Island; though more people said hello than would in most American cities. After a number of wrong turns, nearly falling through a broken sidewalk into some malodorous green sludge, and an hour’s walk that left me generally feeling the consistency a hot soup, I arrived at Frenchies to discover that it was closed. And that my ₦500 notes were too large to purchase any water.

Deciding to huff it back to the hotel to regroup and come up with a Plan B, it dawned on me that I was unlikely to make it before nightfall. As the sun was setting, I returned to one of the streets I’d taken earlier, but the feel had changed. Whereas earlier there had been roadside markets with merchants peddling produce and snack foods, now the stalls were closed, the merchants were leaving, and groups of young guys were assembling with bottles in hand.

Walking with my head on a swivel in search of a taxi, I hopped into the first one I could hail, and as we made our way down the street a fight broke out about 20 yards away from us. I’d come to find there were times when I’d be walking around and everything would be fine, but just a few meters off the main drag and the complexion completely changed.

Nursing a Star at the hotel, I weighed the decision: discretion is the better part of valor, might as well eat overpriced food at the hotel; or buck up, get out and eat a proper Nigerian meal. The Star served its purpose and I headed off for some delicious Jollof rice and fried plantains.

Leaving Lekki Market.

The next day I left VI for Lagos Island and paid ₦200 ($1.25) to see the National Museum (a steal!), where I was one of maybe three guests. A knowledgeable guide painstakingly walked me through each of the exhibits, the most interesting of which was the bullet-riddled Mercedes in which Murtala Mohammed was assassinated. Apparently the employees drive it around every so often to keep the tires in good form.

As the guide escorted me to the exit he asked for his standard fee of ₦3,000 ($20). Hustled.

Following a walk around Lagos Island for a bit — “Do not urinate here” implored one wall — I grew so hot and sweaty that the prospect of further adventure lost its appeal. And after a few detours accompanied with leering looks, the air conditioned room in the InterContinental seemed positively welcoming.

Sunset over Lagos Island.

A couple days passed without my leaving the hotel, and I was itching to get some warm, fresh air. After a day of meetings and conference activities, I hired a driver to take me out; but unlike previous drivers, this one was a kid, his car was a bit of a jalopy and he didn’t know where he was going.

Fast forward half an hour and a few stall outs, and we’re pulling down a side street to a dead end, where a group of young men are drinking beer collecting tires. The driver rolled down my window, honked his horn, and one of the guys walked toward me.

As I sat there in my starched button-down shirt, I experienced that dawning realization that there’s getting out of one’s comfort zone, and then there’s putting oneself in an unadvisable situation. Within seconds I learned it was the former, and I was off for a proper dinner and beer, the latter of which proved handy as I walked back down that street after nightfall to find the driver’s car.

Why am I investing in a country that doesn’t invest in itself?

A couple days later I left some meetings on VI, and piled into a van to head to the airport, a 20-minute trip that could transmogrify — we were advised — into a 5-hour go-slow. Leaving 30 minutes later than our scheduled departure time, I wondered how many cars joined traffic jams in that 30-minute period. The answer, it would seem, was half the population of Lagos.

So close, yet so far away. Catching the flight would require a sprint through the airport.

Twenty minutes later, as we slowly crawled across the Falomo Bridge, merchants weaved among the cars hawking the widest variety of goods: snack foods, beverages, SIM cards, doormats, hats, and curiously, a massive set of pruning shears. It must have taken 75 minutes before we reached the Third Mainland Bridge, the 7.3 mile-long link between the islands and the seemingly lawless mainland. Traffic was painfully slow. We spent nearly two hours on that bridge, staring out at the Makoko slums, which hummed with activity beneath a blanket of cook stove smoke, watching men paddle out to floating pieces of timber.

At one point, we came to one source of congestion, a kerfuffle amongst a group of drivers that appeared likely to descend into a full-blown altercation. As our van idled next to these angry people, it dawned on me that at that moment, I was stranded. And for some reason, I thought of Gustav Le Bon’s book The Crowd and found myself suddenly eager to get home.“The most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd is the following: Whoever be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation. Op. cit. (Penguin, 1977) pg. 27.

As we inched past the hubbub, an institutional investor asked rhetorically, “Why am I investing in a country that doesn’t invest in itself?”

The traffic eventually broke, and our van raced across the mainland to the airport, passing roadside markets, churches packed with singing parishioners and more young men with guns, dodging pedestrians who darted across the street in front of us, as if apparitions in our headlights.

Nigeria overtook South Africa on Sunday to become Africa’s largest economy and 26th in the world after the government released updated figures that nearly doubled estimates for gross domestic product. As a result of the statistical revision, Nigerian GDP for 2013 was $509bn, 89 per cent larger than previously stated for last year.Javier Blas and William Wallis, “Nigeria almost doubles GDP in recalculation.” Financial Times, 7 April 2014.

My bullishness from the first day increased while listening to investors talk about the prospects for Nigeria and the continent writ large. Indeed, the transformations taking place across the continent are monumental. The opportunities are so vast and differentiated to defy generalization, and the promise for private sector development to improve living standards and lift people from poverty is real. With the palpable entrepreneurial spirit amongst the investors I met and the locals/returnees I encountered, the possibilities seem limitless. Certainly this is a place where sophisticated investors can arbitrage perceptions and reality, and create long-term value.

It’s tough to shake the feeling that to be in Lagos in April 2014 was to experience a city on the cusp of an inflection point. If the institutional impediments weren’t so immense, would Lagos propel Nigeria to becoming one of the ten largest economies in the world? On the other hand, having ventured away from VI and experienced its infrastructure deficit first hand, would the enormity of those institutional impediments and the scale of development challenges condemn the country to political turbulence and a perennially elusive quest for sustainable growth?

Ensconced in the quiet comfort of my neighborhood, and typing this in a coffee shop surrounded by people absorbed in the life of the leisure class, it’s all a bit mind-boggling … the contrasts in ambition and opportunity so stark. I can’t shake the impression that in a world where people, goods and ideas could truly move freely, most Lagosians would eat most Americans’ lunch.

But in the orderly city where I make my home, the walls standing along the frontier seem impossibly tall and far away. And for those who have yet to bear the burdens of adjustment attendant with global competition, the sheltered American experience of Bloody- and Bellini-filled Easter brunches carries on unperturbed.

Farewell, Lagos.