I was leaving my office in Victoria Island, Lagos the other day, when I made the mistake of missing the green light to turn left at the Adetokunbo Ademola junction. Instantly, my car was descended upon by a string of characters.
First came street hawkers, offering me chewing gum, fashion magazines, water bottles. I waved each one away with increasing annoyance. After them came the little girl on the wheelchair, whose limp limbs hung from the rusty frame as she was pushed around by a boy not much older than her. She looked up at my window waving and knocking, her chants interrupting the sweet melodies of my ‘chill’ playlist that I usually choose to listen to any time I have to be on the road in the infamous Lagos rush hour traffic.
I turned up the music and stared straight ahead with dead concentration, avoiding her gaze. She left eventually after what seemed like an hour but couldn’t have been that long because the traffic light was still RED! After her came the boisterous teenager who tried to ‘wash’ my windscreen with a raggedy cloth and brown soapy water dispensed out of a distorted plastic water bottle. I furiously turned on my windscreen wipers to deter him and shooed him away vehemently. By the time the light turned green, I was more than ready to go, and I zoomed off speedily, ignoring the speed bumps, much to the dismay of the hawker of plantain chips who was already starting to approach.
This is life in Lagos, life in Nigeria, where those at the bottom of the pyramid do not hide behind cheap and accessible credit like in the developed world.
This is life in Lagos, life in Nigeria, where those at the bottom of the pyramid do not hide behind cheap and accessible credit like in the developed world. They are there every day on your morning commute, trying to sell you water, books, yogurt, movies, roasted corn, and in fact just about anything else you can imagine. They open the gates for you when you return at night and as you drive past them and wave, you think of the irony that they guard the gates that keep the world out of your fortress and they remain locked out of social and economic progress.
Stark inequality is definitely a problem in the developed world, but in Africa, it is of a different urgency, it is a ticking time bomb. I read lately about an increasing spate of robberies in Lagos traffic where ‘hoodlums’ smash windows and take anything that they can from cars that drive by. Inequality where you have unimaginable poverty at one end and unimaginable wealth on the other fosters an ‘us against them’ mindset. The consequences could be ugly. I think about it: if I ever come face to face with these ‘hoodlums’, will they care that I work in social impact investment, trying to bring good quality affordable healthcare to the bottom of the pyramid? Will they care that by choosing to do this, I am making roughly 30 per cent of my earning potential if I had stayed back in the US after my MBA? Or will they just see me as ‘one of them’, a representation of things that they very well may never have if distributive growth in Nigeria remains next to non-existent.
The National Bureau of Statistics estimated the official poverty rate in Nigeria at 62 per cent in the 2009/2010 Harmonised Nigeria Living Standards Survey (NHLSS). Buried in this composite data is the vast disparity between regions of the country. Poverty in the North East increased between 2009 and 2013 and the northern region of the country is home to 66 per cent of poor Nigerians.
Some people lock their doors, put up barbed wire fences and shoo Africa away.
Poverty is dehumanising. I think of the window washer whom I instinctively shooed away like a pesky persistent fly. Later on, I reflect with contrition, how sad it is, that the daily hustle of a poor vulnerable child provokes in me only a few moments of irritation at the inconvenience of having my solitude interrupted. I contrast this in my mind with the etiquette and politeness that I adopt every day when I’m at work, courting potential investors and development partners to support our projects.
I draw a parallel to the world and think of Africa in the global context, where Africa controls a paltry share of global trade, global intellectual resources and global investments. I wonder if poverty is the reason; if, to the world, Africa, and by extension Africans are like the window washer, the disabled girl or the sometimes convenient street hawker. Some people lock their doors, put up barbed wire fences and shoo Africa away. Some people see the defenseless child eyes dead inside and feel sympathy so they crack open the windows and toss a few naira at her, and then they wind the windows back up and keep driving. Never mind that these nairas may or may not be going to some cruel pimp. Some people welcome the street hawker when they have something that happens to be convenient at the moment: an ice cold drink in the midday sun, a car charger when the traffic outlives the iPhone battery, a magazine with catchy headlines that capture attention long enough for naira to exchange hands.
We cannot depend on the government alone to transform street hawkers into shop owners, or malnourished children into productive adults.
Poverty, lack of social progress, these really nullify all the arguments that we make about human beings being fundamentally equal and important. Every day thousands of children die in villages in Africa from hunger, malnutrition, basic illnesses and they do not cause a blip on the world’s radar. When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in Texas in 2010, the world was angry. BP paid the then-largest corporate settlement in US history at over US$20 billion. And yet the equivalent of one Deepwater horizon worth of oil spills happens every year in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, but who is angry? No one, except the fishermen who no longer fish, the villagers whose kids drink oil-tainted water and a handful of renegade activists. In fact, the world paid more attention to the plight of Cecil the lion, shot in Zimbabwe.
Having looked at prior budget numbers for select ministries in Nigeria, it is clear that we cannot depend on the government alone to transform street hawkers into shop owners, or malnourished children into productive adults. The gap is too large, even if the funds were properly dispensed and accounted for. For example, the 2014 healthcare budget had a capital expenditure allocation of around US$250 million which is just about enough to build two 500-bed hospitals. This is merely a drop in the bucket of what’s needed to address malnutrition, malaria, diarrheal disease and the myriad of other illnesses that afflict a multitude of Nigerians.
Catering to the bottom of the pyramid is no longer just a feel-good endeavour.
As young Africans taking a hand in the development of our continent, let us give some thought to the drastic consequences that unchecked and deep social and economic inequality could have on us, both internally and in the global sphere. We need to realise that catering to the bottom of the pyramid is no longer just a feel-good endeavour that should be done out of the goodness of the hearts of a few people. What do we expect to happen, when our population doubles over the next 35 years if our economic growth does not match this and is not distributed sustainably?
Jobless youth will inevitably be angry and, worse, will have a lot of free time to express this anger. This will be directed towards those who are viewed as the perpetrators of the situation. Reducing inequality benefits those at the top too, maybe even more than those at the bottom of the pyramid.
I hope that one day, we can look forward to a country where no one’s child is shooed away in annoyance for merely trying to survive.