Ekeh, the economist as an entrepreneur
Do economists make good entrepreneurs; or entrepreneurs great economists? This has been a puzzle through the ages. Many liken the economist to someone who only knows the way but can’t drive the car. Some have even chided the economist as a splendid theorist but never one to get the job done practically. Pauline Hanson, leader of One Nation, the Australian political party that prides itself as pro-people, to show her abhorrence for the economist after her assessment of the economic misfortunes that afflicted her country once said: “I may be only a fish and chip shop lady, but some of these economists need to get their heads out of the textbooks and get a job in the real world. I would not even let one of them handle my grocery shopping”.
Yes, it really can be as bad as that, that humanity would feel a sense of insecurity in the hands of the economist. Nigeria for instance is going through the worst moment of her economic life. The mono-product economy is asphyxiating, desperately in need of salvation. The naira is getting hit by the day at the international market, crude oil price is seesawing at the lowest curve of the graph, jobs are disappearing and a darkly silhouette trails the corporate world, the organized private sector especially the small businesses – the ultimate drivers of the economy. At this moment, you are tempted to ask: where are the economists?
In times like these, also, nations of the world look to the private sector for the magic wand. One sector has always stood out as bulwark to economic misfortune particularly for countries who desire to recreate themselves. The information technology sector (ICT) has always held the key to unlocking the potentials of a people and unleashing the energies of the citizenry. The United States of America and the Asian Tigers are good examples of how sustainable wealth can be created using ICT. When Obama wanted to get ‘America back to work’, he looked to the Silicon Valley magnates for help.
In retrospect, President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address in 2011 sent out a clear message: his administration was working hard to win the future. That future is not in construction, huge crude oil reserves or textiles. It is in technology. He wants to keep America at the cutting edge of global ICT and innovation. He followed it up with a private dinner with a group of Silicon Valley chief executives, among them Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, and the late Steve Jobs of Apple.
The closed-door meeting with 12 Silicon Valley gaffers was held at the home of John Doerr, a partner at the major Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The meeting also had in attendance Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Twitter’s Dick Costolo. That meeting helped to get Americans back to work. The direct fallout was a rash of new jobs in innovation, research and ICT. Obama may not be popular with the GOP but he has mobilised Silicon Valley to invest more in research, development and innovation to create jobs for American youths. The growing number of ICT start-ups in the US and a new generation of knowledge millionaires and billionaires out of America underscore the utility of such a meeting and government partnership with the ICT mandarins.
Since capitalism toppled communism, American leadership has never hidden its intent to keep Uncle Sam as the technology role model for the rest of the world. Asian countries and leaders have long borrowed from the American template. They, too, are working hard to win the future. In 2010, India raked $49.7 billion from software export with domestic software revenue standing at $14 billion for the same period. India has been creating new markets. This is aside sales from hardware. That’s a country that wants to win the future. Every year, the government of India strengthens its synergy with the private sector to help it innovate, create and build new products.
In Nigeria what do we do? We play politics. Our leaders are themselves bereft of ideas such that even when they get to power, they don’t use it to win the future. They use it to ruin it. Globally, that’s how the world sees us. They see Nigeria as a trading outpost, in fact, as a night market where all sorts are sold for peanuts. This is why at this moment of dwindling receipts from crude oil, I salute the vision, exertions and tenacity of one Nigerian who has been working hard to build and win the future, at least for the sake of Nigerian youths. The Chairman of Zinox Group, Leo Stan Ekeh, who turns 60 this month, precisely on Monday, February 22, has as far back as the 80’s inclined himself to bridge the yawning digital divide between Nigeria and the developed world. He assembled a crop of young, intelligent Nigerians to build an integrated ICT conglomerate from a small computer solution office.
Today, the Zinox range has become to Nigeria what Acer is to Taiwan, Mercer to South Africa, Lenovo to China and HP to US. I recall Ekeh’s keynote titled “Building a True Indigenous Institution in Africa –the Zinox Experience” which he delivered at the 13th annual Africa Business Conference of the Africa Business Club in Harvard Business School on February 18, 2011. It centred on how Nigeria can win her future. Also salutary was the fact that the audience was not just a small crowd of Africans only, it was a mix of Africans, Americans, Asians and the rest of the world.
The audience was wowed to learn that in spite of the leadership travails that afflict Nigeria, the country still boasts oases of hope. Ekeh who said he would love to be remembered as the man who “computerised Nigeria and altered positively the destiny of many Africans through Digital Knowledge Democracy” advised African leaders to invest in technology, innovation and research as the surest way to guarantee the future of their citizens.
As President Muhammadu Buhari begins to re-invent Nigeria economically, he would do well to partner with the likes of Ekeh and the crowd of Nigerian players in the ICT sector. They are the ones to create the jobs and get Nigerians back to work. Ekeh, the economist, risk manager and computer nerd has also answered the question: economists, especially Nigerian economists, make good entrepreneurs.
The beauty of the Nigerian narrative is that the nation is never in short supply of men and women of knowledge and peerless cognitive intelligence. We have seen young Nigerians triumph on the global stage in medicine, sport, ICT and other aspects of human endeavor. At home, we have witnessed the successful entrepreneurial stories of persons who grew start-ups to conglomerates. It tells us that the solution to the challenges that stalk the nation lies within. The likes of Ekeh and a horde of others have demonstrated that in spite of the perennial low-rating of Nigeria on the ease-of-doing business index, Nigerians have the capacity to push through the brick walls of entrepreneurial encumbrance. This is reassuring and something worthy of acclamation.
- By Leke Daramola , an economist….First published Nation newspaper