Age versus Success - a Nigerian Tale

I recently attended the 25th Nigeria Economic Summit - the mission of the event this year was to, “set a new agenda for Nigeria in the Fourth Industrial Revolution; and that marks a critical strategic shift to a competitive private sector economy by 2050”.

Our President, His Excellency Muhammadu Buhari, gave the keynote, and the two-day programme was essentially a who’s who of industry titans for Nigeria. Dangote, the Emir of Kano and my own father, PGD, were part of the proceedings. These are people who have literally built Nigeria.

However, one of the panels that struck me in particular was one focussed on Under 40s; Leadership in 2050: Insights from Tomorrow’s Leaders. Throughout the session, my ears pricked up, and in fact, I shuddered each and every time I heard, “you young ones have done really, really well so far”. Imagine having your accomplishments diminished so breezily? Imagine, in your late thirties, being referred to as a youngster, after you’ve grown your business in a competitive environment? Why do older Nigerians feel the need to make the distinction between age and success?

France’s President Macron is 41 years old. He became President of his country at 39 years old. Would we refer to him as a “youngster” and commend him on his achievements to-date, in such a patronising way? The man is a statesman.

The whole dialogue and means of addressing [and keeping in check] the so-called “youngsters” irked me. But it did not surprise me. I have been in many situations, in meetings with older or titled people, where the salutation is "Young man”, with them hastily then making comments to ensure I knew that they knew my father. Whether intentional or not, to set the tone of the meeting I would not know, but a seed had been sown...

Still, the language around our young people at the Economic Summit made me consider the cold hard facts around age-bias in Nigeria. We are a nation of youth, dominated from the top down by leaders in their sixties and seventies. Over 80% of Nigeria’s population is under 30, yet where is the representation of so many millions of people, in our Government, Federal and even Corporate bodies? The disconnect between the two ages is almost two generations. How will that serve us as a country for the future? Quite simply, it can’t and it won’t.

However, let me be clear - this is not old age-bashing in Nigeria. I am not calling for an end of over 65s in Government or positions of power and I am not naïve to the social and cultural mores that have long dictated our hierarchical systems. There is a huge need for experienced operators at every level of our society; experience that does, often, come with age. However, our reliance on age as an indicator of ability is not helpful.

What I am arguing for is more diversity, more space at the table for younger people to influence the same levels of society. Whilst youth initiatives are commendable in nature, they are also more often than not tokenistic and fruitless. The majority of young people’s voices are not currently being heard; we do not have a structure in place in Government, or indeed in large corporations, or indeed any large-scale bodies [private or public] that will allow for this, because they are all centred around age + experience.

A case in point is the banking and financial services industry. Fola Adeola was 36 when he started GTB and voluntarily retired at 48 before 50. Atedo Peterside started IBTC, the foremost investment banking powerhouse at the time, at 33. These men are recognised as some of the most formidable financiers in the country. All from taking a risk in their thirties. Today, with the way the CBN has structured the regulatory system, you have to be at least 45 to become an MD of a bank, simply because the rules dictate that you need 20 years’ post first degree and a professional qualification, or higher degree, and of those 20 years, 15 must be in banking. This is taking into account leaving school at 22 or 23 + time out for NYSC [an absolute given for a Nigerian bank MD].

What does 20 years’ banking experience bring to a world where financial services is changing rapidly and physical entities such as pass books and cheque books will now just make good history stories? How will we drive forward the banking sector in Nigeria like this?

These successful people were young when they started. The system allowed them then, but not now. Atedo Peterside has summed this up succinctly, “this economy is rigged against the youth, we are killing the youths from growing”. His in-depth discussion on this is highly recommended viewing if you want to know more about how older people, who were allowed to grow then, can now see the challenges that are stacked in the way of today’s 22 year old entrepreneur. We need more visionary statesmen and women, like Atedo Peterside, to be outspoken and push the agenda to secure a pathway for younger entrepreneurs in Nigeria

Looking at the new wave of businesses that are addressing head-on the very real challenges business in Nigeria throws at us - payments and logistics, for example, we see the likes of Paystack and Kobo360, started by young people, are building simple, transparent solutions to age-old problems. The people behind these companies are using technology to catalyse and scale entire sectors. They understand the power of tech to make an impact.

The future of Africa is digital - the adoption and strategic implementation of technology will be central to everything we do to build the country. The global technological revolution is currently owned and deployed by the younger generation. Not just in Nigeria. Facebook, Apple, Microsoft - all companies started and grown by young people, and all companies that are massive driving forces in business. Back to Nigeria, we know that many of our country’s problems will be solved by mass adoption of technology. What do I mean by this? Using drones in agriculture, applying fintech solutions to bring millions more into the financial system via mobile, using robotics to scale and automate manufacturing processes… the list could go on.

So what can be done? I reiterate, I am not advocating instant board or C-suite dismissal for the over 65s; there is a place for age + experience. But we can no longer revere and prioritise age and status over youth and innovation, as we have done for so long in Nigeria. The mindset must be that we all, at all ages, continue to learn and re-learn. Just as 30 year-olds are learning, so must 65 year olds. We can’t assume that the sum of their experiences after 40 years of work, qualifies them for business in 2019. Global work and enterprise are changing fast, and we must all adapt if we are to make sure Nigeria stays competitive. I apply this to myself as well - I worked in finance and corporate banking for 25 years. In reality, I probably have only 5 years’ experience in terms of setting up my current venture, Sparkle. And even with that, I apply the learn and re-learn mantra to my decision making periodically.

Nigeria discovered oil 70 years ago, how well did we exploit that resource? Today we have a dynamic entrepreneurial class of leaders, making a name for Nigeria from the innovate creative solutions they have created for Nigeria and Africa. How well are we going to exploit this resource this time? Not by keeping them out of the action, wheeling them out for their own special panels once in a while.

We urgently need more respect and acknowledgement from the ruling [political and business] elite of the accomplishments and value Under 40s bring to Nigeria, in terms of business. Let’s not belittle the “youngsters” by giving them a pat on the back and a panel dedicated to youth, whilst the big boys and girls play everywhere else. Let’s not throw them scraps from the table. Let’s get more young people a seat at the table. We have to do better with the real engine of growth, our youths, than we have done with our oil in Nigeria.

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