“Where’s the entourage?”, whispered our creative director as Mr. Abubakar quietly walked into his office on the 16th floor of Sterling Towers with a backpack and a smile. With over 17 years at Sterling Bank, Mr. Abubakar Suleiman, a banker with the mind of an entrepreneur, was very open to talking about entrepreneurship and his perspective on how innovation can build the economy. In a brief conversation just before the interview, he made us understand that many things are unnecessary, but staying humble and connected to those you work with is what counts.
Before becoming the CEO of Sterling Bank, Mr. Abubakar Suleiman started out in consulting with a bias for tax consulting. With a first degree in Economics from the University of Abuja, he worked at Arthur Anderson (now KPMG) before moving into banking. He also obtained an MSc in Major Programs Management from the University of Oxford.
“My first foray into banking was with MBC International Bank, originally a merchant bank which was acquired by First Bank during the last round of consolidation. My day job is banking or financial services as it were. Looking at how it has evolved, I’m not quite sure whether I’d call myself a banker or a techpreneur. I used to spend an average of 18 months on the job before I become restless. But I’ve found this job to be home and I’m very much settled here”.
THE CASE FOR ENTREPRENEURSHIP
“I believe that while the government should support entrepreneurship and innovation, to a large extent there’s a lot that government can do by stepping aside to avoid being an obstruction or an obstacle to entrepreneurs. Some of that is really unintentional. The challenge comes from government trying to do its job without really thinking about the impact on entrepreneurs.
A very good example is collecting taxes. It is the duty of government to obviously make sure that all the rights and bills are paid but when you have twenty checkpoints at which to collect taxes, it means the entrepreneur would have to stop the job of creating employment and building a business to attend to a clerical job. The government could collect the same amount of money by just having a single checkpoint where an entrepreneur makes a payment and then he is left alone for the rest of the month to go build his business.
The single most important job of a government is to ensure full employment. When the society is fully employed, social services today become unnecessary because those who are employed can provide for themselves. This allows the government focus on responsibilities like maintaining security and shared infrastructure.
The most impactful kinds of entrepreneurs are those who are in the process of innovation because they create value that can significantly improve the welfare of the society. So first and foremost “do no harm” and once we are beyond that, we can then say “do good”.”
To innovate, entrepreneurs have to think differently. Acquiring new knowledge through the right education makes this possible.
Entrepreneurship really means meeting market needs. Mr. Abubakar explained how the Nigerian economy favours “opportunity” entrepreneurs, who launch new enterprises in response to market needs.
“Without a doubt, Nigeria provides the raw material for that kind of entrepreneurship because there are just so many opportunities. To that extent, if you are here you are actually in the right theatre for innovation. We also have another opportunity which is that some of our most basic needs have not been met and technology has advanced such that we no longer have to go through the same process of reinventing. We can simply adopt very advanced technology to meet basic needs.
Take clean drinking water for example. There’s such a huge gap between the availability of clean drinking water and what is required. The same applies to the agricultural space where there’s so much room for improving productivity.
The starting point is to educate. Right now, people go to Universities and they get degrees in perhaps Business Administration or Accounting but increasingly those degrees are not tuned to the real opportunities. We must go back to that point and start to educate people to become entrepreneurs. There was a time where almost every single business leveraged significantly on accounting. What is happening now is that a lot of the basic accounting work have disappeared. Previously, for payment to happen, an accountant will have to pass an entry, do a debit, a credit, then balance the book. Right now, the entire process of payment is completely digitized and there is no human intervention, let alone an accountant. That is going to be the reality of so many businesses going forward. We need to go back and retool our educational system to train people so that they can become entrepreneurs.”
With the right education and an increase in entrepreneurs looking to solve market needs, innovation will become the only way to stand out and really achieve business success.
INNOVATION: IMPACT ON THE ECONOMY
When asked about what needs to be done to foster the environment so new technologies by both bootstrapped and funded start-ups can thrive, he had this to say:
“Innovation should be seen as a new and better way of doing things. The risk is, when we use the word “innovation”, people start to think of complex technology. They forget that sometimes, innovation can be as simple as changing where the door in the house is such that it serves better. We must remind ourselves of that, so we don’t lose sight of very simple innovations which can have major impact on lives.
In the context of Nigeria today, think of innovation as finding potentially powerful ideas and tools that already exist and applying them within the local context so that it generates value. To a large extent many tools were not designed for us – they were not innovated here and therefore they’ve not been optimized for this country. Anyone who can look at these opportunities, ideas, tools, a specific problem and match them, can create huge innovation that can unlock value across board.
The object of innovation for me however must be to increase productivity because economic growth for us is a function of our population times our productivity. Clearly, we have the population;what we do not have is productivity per capita. Whatever we can do to increase productivity will then create a market and not only does it create the output that we desire to consume, it also creates the capacity to consume that output because the productivity is wealth. Focus should be productivity – productivity enhances innovation.
In most developed countries, there’s significant investment in Research and Development that is not necessarily driven by commercial intent. That is lacking here in Nigeria. We need to create hubs where R&D’s are funded so that the output can then be taken by the entrepreneurs to create commercial value.
For example, we think of the NASA project as a government project to go to spacebut the output that came out of NASA that has now been used to create massive economic value is significant. The Nigerian government, both at the federal and state level, must specifically seek to fund innovation that could then lead to what I would call a toolkit for entrepreneurs, SMEs and commercial businesses to perform. Their payback is when these businesses become successful and profitable. Obviously, the tax payback will be significant, but the immediate payback is that they will create jobs which we desperately need.”
As humans, we fear what we do not understand;staying ignorant has never been the solution. For this reason, understanding and adapting to new systems and policies gives us more opportunities.
THE FINANCE BILL
Many entrepreneurs feel handcuffed and unable to grow past a certain level because of what they believe. We react to policies based on what other people say without knowing why such policies were created and how we can actually adapt. With the new finance bill introduced, here’s Mr. Abubakar’s advice to entrepreneurs on how to adapt:
“From the perspective of an entrepreneur, what we are seeing from government is the first sign that a lot of the informal businesses will be formalized over time. While they may be getting some pass now in terms of the tax implication for the finance bill, eventually they would be brought into the tax net. With this, we need to rethink business in terms of what infrastructure needs to be in place in order to meet this requirement. Yes, it is an additional cost, but the benefit however is that when you take on the obligation of becoming formalized, you would have access to new market, new funding and potentially a new set of investors. You need to raise your game and take advantage of the opportunities that come with being a formalized business.”
POWER FOR COMMERCE
We understand that without power for extended periods of time, commerce comes to a halt. Mr. Abubakar was able to provide an alternative solution to businesses that want to stay sustainable for the next 10-30 years, given current conditions.
“I have heard the conversations about power and how it is the single biggest obstacle to economic growth. There’s no doubt about that. Until we generate enough power, we’re going to continue to struggle. The problem with Nigeria, however, is not so much a challenge of power as it is a challenge of the cost of power because every single business that relies on power does have the capacity to generate its own power. The problem is that it becomes a huge capital investment that could have been avoided. Those are the conversations that need to be had. My advice is look for a sustainable business model including power sources.
We have been encouraging businesses to switch to renewable sources because when you look at the lifetime cost, SMEs are actually better off today using solar power than relying on a combination of public sources and self-generation. Part of the challenge here is the lack of capital to make those investments and we come in as a bank to make those investments for them. However, it doesn’t take you away from the challenge of fixing the grid, the challenge of fixing the marketplace for power and bringing in the right investment because once you move from low value manufacturing into heavy industries, then you really do need to have investment in heavy power that can drive them. For small businesses, I would say look to renewable energy, look to banks for financing because once you have a sustainable business, you will have financing for your power sources.”
ADVICE FOR YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS
1. The first advice is to make sure you are solving a real problem and not a perceived problem. Do not compete just because there are other people playing in there. Look around you and find problems. As long as you’re solving a real problem, the demand will be there. As long as there is demand, you have a market.
2. Stay grounded. There’s tendency to lose focus, especially in these days where start-ups can be valued at a billion dollars overnight. People lose their humility. In business, you have to stay humble. Understand that there are good times and bad times. Keep building the business.
3. Do not seek to own the entire business. The first benefit of bringing other people into your business is you bring other ideas, experiences and governance into your business. Secondly you have a shared risk, so there are other people who have a stake in your business and who will do what it takes for you to succeed. So, do not hesitate to bring in investors, but make sure that they are people of high ethical standards with more value asides just bringing in money. That would be a roadmap for long-term sustainability for businesses.
“Solve real problems, stay grounded and bring in other investors who will help you navigate the complexities that come with businesses as they grow.”
Lanre is a writer and digital media enthusiast, with a flair for anything related to empowerment. He is also the Co-Founder and Chief Operations Officer at The Spark.