Expats looking to do business in Nigeria, and especially those who have never done business on the African continent before, will certainly have to prepare themselves for some unique challenges.
Although great strides have been made within the corporate world in Nigeria – one of the most oil-rich countries in the world and Africa’s largest economy – the country still suffers from massive corruption and a debilitating lack of infrastructure; two factors that can make doing business difficult, to say the least.
However, expats should remember that a tremendous amount of business does get done in Nigeria, and jaded or pessimistic views about the country are not always well deserved.
Nevertheless, doing business in Nigeria is challenging, as illustrated by numerous international business surveys. Most notably, the country ranked 169th (out of 189 countries) in the World Bank’s 2016 Ease of Doing Business Survey, marking a slight improvement from its 2015 ranking of 170. The country performed reasonably well in factors such as getting credit (59th) and showed significant improvement for protecting minority investors (20th), but it continues to rank extremely poorly in factors such as getting electricity (187th) and registering property (181st).
In a country that claims many different ethnic groups and dialects, English has emerged as the de facto language of business in Nigeria
Hours of business
Office hours are usually 8am to 5pm, from Monday to Friday. In the northern (predominately Muslim) part of Nigeria, Friday is a day of rest.
Smart and stylish; dark colours are preferred.
Extended, warm handshakes are the traditional greeting amongst men. However, for women, since Nigeria has a large Muslim population, and observant men are forbidden from shaking hands with women, a safe, traditional greeting would be to bow your head slightly when introduced. When meeting an older woman, or a woman who is more superior, it is advisable to curtsy slightly before her.
There is no standard practice for gift giving in Nigeria. However, if receiving a gift, be sure to reciprocate.
Nigeria remains a patriarchal society, with traditional roles for men and women largely adhered to. However, there are plenty of opportunities for women and many women can be found in senior positions within both the corporate and political sphere.
Business culture in Nigeria
Business culture in Nigeria is subject to a number of variable forces; over 250 different ethnic groups co-exist in the country and many foreign-owned multinationals have come to roost. Business etiquette therefore demands that expats remain flexible, and willing to improvise.
Since it is vital to cement a working business relationship with associates, be prepared to be patient, and to wait for this trust to develop, before diving into the nuts and bolts of business discussions. For this reason, business meetings in Nigeria are very social occasions, providing the framework for the creation of solid interpersonal connections.
The management style typically found in Nigeria is extremely hierarchical. The boss – invariably male, and almost always of an older generation – will expect and will receive respect from all those working beneath him, and will never be publicly criticised. However, this does not necessarily mean that all decisions are made from the top down; business relationships are extremely important in Nigeria and, often, compromises can be reached.
Nigerian business leaders tend to lead strongly, giving their employees instructions that are expected to be followed closely. Teamwork and the ability to work together toward clearly defined goals are considered more valuable assets in the Nigerian workplace than independent thinking or individualistic efforts.
Attitude to foreigners
Nigerians are famously friendly and hospitable people who take genuine interest in the lives and experiences of foreigners. If one makes an effort to get to know the locals, this friendliness will be repaid tenfold.
Bribery and corruption
Perhaps more than any other country in Africa, Nigeria has a horrendous reputation for bribery and corruption. These are systemic problems, observable from the highest levels of government to the lowest level of street sales. It is unfortunate, though unavoidable, that expats will experience this corruption in some form or another while living and working in Nigeria.
Forming connections with prominent ministers and governors is essential for those wanting to be successful at business in Nigeria. Although not advocated, it’s an unfortunate reality that many companies have a very wide margin written into their budgets for bribes, given not just to legislators and decision makers, but also to their assistants, and often security guards and even receptionists.
It’s best to be wary of empty promises when tabling an offer – it is quite unusual for Nigerian officials to give their internal business to non-Nigerian companies, and if they can avoid doing so, yet still find a way to keep a tender, they probably will.
Dos and don’ts of doing business in Nigeria
- Do remember that bribery, corruption, favouritism and nepotism are still unfortunate realities of doing business in Nigeria
- Do be willing to improvise, and to make a real effort at getting to know your Nigerian colleagues
- Do try to remain patient and calm, in all situations
- Don’t disrespect elders, or those in higher positions of authority than you
- Don’t criticise your colleagues in public – rather have a private word with them, if you deem it necessary
- Don’t fall into the habit of thinking about or interacting with all Nigerians in the same way. Nigeria is an incredibly diverse nation, and you should try to familiarise yourself with the nuances of dealing with the different ethnic groups.