Ideas Untrapped
Ideas Untrapped
Affiong Williams on Human Capital, Feminism, and Poverty

Affiong Williams on Human Capital, Feminism, and Poverty

I started these conversation series to further the underlying philosophy of this publication - helping the spread of good rival ideas. I want to speak to brilliant people with experience, who also have interesting things to say about Nigeria's political economy and society in general. In the first episode, I spoke with Affiong Williams - Founder/CEO of Reelfruit. I learned a lot from Affi and it was hard to condense our conversation into the bits that made the cut. Her take on economic complexity, and how social systems and expectations can change culture are quite refreshing takes. She is an advocate of epistemic humility, and she practices what she preaches. But make no mistake, she is a deep and profound thinker.

You can listen to our conversation above or read the transcript(it’s looong) below. You can also listen on Stitcher here. I owe an immeasurable amount of gratitude to Quadbee, who is the producer and editor of these series.


Tobi: Affiong, it's nice to have you.

Affiong: Thank you.

: So I want to start with human capital...because, there was something you said on Twitter a while back and I think I ran a poll on that idea, that some African countries do have a lot more human capital than Nigeria. So can you try to unpack what you mean by that because, obviously, when you look at the data you can see it differently sometimes but as an entrepreneur, you experience human capital daily - so can you unpack a bit of that?

: This tweet you're referring to was borne out of my visit to Zimbabwe a country that was once known for quite a superior educational system and maybe good leadership under the early days of Robert Mugabe but also has been known in the last twenty years as a place where the economy has been completely topsy-turvy and they face one crisis of hyperinflation after the other etcetera. But in my visit to Harare, what I noticed was... (And I'll use the specific example), was that in the lodge we were staying where we were about thirty people. There were only three people were managing it, only three people managing in terms of cleaning, the lodge manager, maybe four or five and the cooks who would come in to make breakfast etcetera. But in terms of facilitating the entire lodge which was like ten room lodge with about like thirty guests, I would say, I've realized in Nigeria there is absolutely no way three people could manage complexities of giving people stellar, sort of warm service and as well as keep the grounds as pristine as it were and it got me thinking about this learning that I've uncovered in my years of just operating as an entrepreneur but also reading about development that a lot of education is in firms not in schools. And even though Zimbabwe has had a history of good education like Nigeria...we want to brag has had in the past, the idea is that the economy was way more diversified and specialized in things like tourism so you found that people are much more equipped to be more productive than in countries where there's not been any specialization or the economies are less diversified.

So, that, for me was sort of the link that the diversification of an economy makes human beings more productive, much more than 1) the educational sector, and 2) that the inverse is true. The less diversified a country is in terms of its learnings, what it can do, what it's good at, the less productive people are. If you look at Zimbabwe, a hotel manager there could probably manage the equivalent of a mid-sized hotel in Nigeria or a large hotel in Nigeria whereas the reverse will not be true. A hotel manager in Nigeria is just not quipped to do the same in another country and offer the same type of service and Zim is known for its stellar...the development of its tourist industry and actually it receives tourists from across the world. So the industry has had to become more competitive and be able to sell tourism from across the world; whereas Nigeria has not, so you can see the quality of our hotel etcetera just being under par.

People may dispute this but I posit that the more complex and the more diversified your economy is, the more people learn and get to know. - AW

And it is easy to make this comparisons with countries like America which is a first world nation with all the resources in the world but if you look at more comparable countries like Kenya or Ghana, when you compare sectors like...for instance, and I'll use Ghana as an example - food processing - because Ghana has learnt to build this industry for export and self-diversified companies, you find that a factory manager in Ghana will be better on average than a factory manager in Nigeria. And people may dispute this but I posit that the more complex and the more diversified your economy is, the more people learn and get to know. You look at the banks in Nigeria and I’ll use India as an example, a bank manager in India, a middle manager can do mergers and acquisitions. That's because the economy allows for it. The economy is diversified enough where companies are buying each other up, and that skill and that learning is necessary for the competitiveness and growth of that bank. In Nigeria, people who've been in banking for ten years still push paper and I know that as an entrepreneur who have bank relationship managers working for me, and they haven't even learnt how to do that seamlessly. Every time you want to do some complex different deal, there's reporting to head office, there's all these issues that even a middle manager someone with ten years [of] experience in the bank cannot solve at that level. And that speaks to the diversification and complexity of the economy, we're simply not doing mergers and acquisition at a rate in Nigeria that can forces that learning on everybody. So those people are less productive than if you compare them with an Indian banker or... not to talk of an American banker or even a South African bank where you have such a diversified and sophisticated economy. So, for me, human capital is very much driven by the firms in the country and the make-up of firms in the country and you find that in Nigeria, it stagnates because our companies were not getting new industries really coming in to improve and increase that learning.

And Nigerians love to talk up how smart and how they do well abroad and how given the right tools etc., and that's true. But that's also a factor of what those countries offer. it's not really inherent to being Nigerian or being here because you find that that logic almost collapses...

Tobi: There's a place premium to it.

Affiong: Exactly. So it's where you are that unearths that potential versus inherently in you. And you see that with human capital deficiencies in Nigeria; and I didn't have that small country, smaller GDP perspective until I went to Zim and I was like, “wow!”, these people by virtue of having a more diversified economy know more and could produce more in their industries and businesses. Somebody told me something that in India, even on the factory floor, what one person does in India you need three people to do it here and I think that's telling. That the capacity of one person to solve and make decisions around three processes increased over there just because the economy demands that.

Tobi: It's an interesting point you're making because a lot of the problems we talk about in development centers on productivity. And firms have to be productive for us to be able to call an economy developing so to speak. A lot of the effect, the aggregate effects that gets measured transmits out of firms...but you made two points that I want us to speculate on a bit.

Affiong: Okay.

Tobi: One is economic complexity. And from I think Ricardo Hausmann and co., they actually say that economic complexity is a better predictor...

Affiong: Yeah.

Tobi: Of development...

: Yeah.

Tobi: But there is this other school of development that says you have to specialize. Oh, you have to...

Affiong: Competitive advantage, yes.

Tobi: Yeah, you have to find your comparative advantage, you have to, oh, do agriculture or its manufacturing or whatever [else]. But you are saying from experience that complexity actually works. So how do we get policymakers to absorb that message? How do you craft policy for complexity, really?

Affiong: That's a great question. I feel like I should preface by saying I'm by no means an economist, I just enjoy talking about and thinking about it. This I could do for free. I geek out on development especially and firm productivity and things like that. But the schools of thought are... from what I've read and understand, I think...the way I see it and please for the audience this is a very layman’s way of thinking...that when you look at something like economic complexity and doing different things and countries that are successful do things they're not previously good at. It's somewhat walking backwards, somewhat looking at developed economies and saying, "well, they're very diverse in their output", but they also started somewhere and built up. So I do think there is ...comparative advantage is almost like a first-level sort of step for policymakers to begin to say "well, where should we deploy resources and deploy thinking and deploy attention to". It's easier to sort of start with what you have and maybe the comparison to countries that have really been good at starting with what they have, that have been able to create what they didn't have is the wrong comparison in terms of policy because if you look at America or Asia or all these countries that are highly specialized, are highly diverse, they all started somewhere. Compare that to a country like Nigeria where we haven't yet really kicked off industrialization in anywhere. It may be too big a job to say start crafting policy for diversity. I would say that the negatives of focusing on comparative advantage is what you see in Nigeria - ban, protect a small pie, we talked about, oh, agriculture is our thing so let's ban import because that's what we have comparative advantage in production in.

So it is a dangerous hill to die on as it were if you are not able to really multiply your comparative advantage. What you end up doing is saying, “oh this is a small pie let's protect it”, and all the policies are somewhat skewed [against] actually widening the pie. So my thinking is that there's still room for countries like Nigeria to focus on their comparative advantage. So if I'm looking at, like, an example is petroleum or oil and gas. There is still billions of dollars in unlocked investment in oil and gas that is trapped by bad policy. So it's saying…well, we produce oil and gas but we can still derive a lot more value from that for long as shale and all these renewables don't stand in the way. Although I think despite that, there's still room for investment. On agriculture - if you're saying you're the largest grower of cassava in the world. There's still room to be hyper productive at growing cassava which will create jobs. We're not even talking about processing, just producing cassava that can be used for different resources, producing enough high-quality cassava to export, all sorts of things. So there is room for policy attention to go to actually developing your comparative advantage and I think that then spurs you to start getting into more complex policy around say wanting to be the financial services capital of Africa, which you don't have skills to do that yet. But yes, you can sort of engineer that through policy. That's probably a harder reach for government and people. We're still stuck on what we're doing but I don't think that it's bad to focus on what you're good at. But I do think that there is room to unearth a lot of value in that. So yeah.

Tobi: Okay. So, I worry about timing though, because obviously when we talk about comparative advantages, the go-to example is always Asia. East Asia. South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam now. But what I mean about timing, which to me is a bit of an argument in favour of freer markets…(I don't want to say free markets because that attracts a lot of angry letters)... is that the rules of global trade has changed a lot. Asia industrialized at the time when there were a lot of permissiveness in trade and trade regimes around the world today has changed. And also if we want to do comparative advantage now, however bad it is [the economy], some companies here have built-in competencies, learning over years, you will be sort of redirecting resources and human capital away from those people to few chosen sectors. So I'm wondering will that be a way to go. Can we really do comparative advantage? Has the time not passed?

Affiong: From my understanding or from my perception is that the things we're talking about in terms of comparative advantage, the sectors or industries, (they) are still very largely agrarian sector. They're sectors that one would assume human capital at the lowest level can absorb [a lot more capacity] versus a large redirection of specialized skills to actually play in the sector. So if you look at agriculture for instance, I'll take agric because we are largely an agrarian society and that's where fifty percent of jobs are created. Increasing agriculture input is not necessarily... yes there is huge technological, in terms of machinery component to it but a lot of it is fertilizer and if you look at Asia, a lot of it was people who were not doing anything getting on the farm. We have a lot of people who are not doing anything who can get on the farms and be a little bit more productive. We're not talking about people who are going to go on to start agribusinesses and do those kinds of things. But if we focus on that comparative advantage, I think we can drive up human capital that would otherwise not be doing anything and I think that that might be a benefit. I read the book how Asia works and sort of household farming, going into smallholder farming with people farming on their own, in their homes, outside their lots and then moving them into some sort of small holder...being a little bit more productive than what they were doing...which puts them into jobs and make them employed. I think that opportunity may still exist and I think when you start driving up that kind of productivity you hopefully can attract more human capital from outside to sort of buildup on that. Then start the processing for factories, do more complex manufacturing and things like that. I think there is still a window of time and maybe Nigeria's population has a lot to do with it as well that for domestic consumption there's huge opportunity to make the price of every commodity cheaper by growing more so that more people consume it and increase consumption. That could be some sort of out [for] job creation. I'm not a big fan of produce what you consume but I think in my view, consumption of almost every sort of product is low compared to even African averages and that's because the price is high and bringing these prices down by increasing productivity would help drive local demand of them and hopefully that will then bring more people into employment, make them more productive that way. I hope that theory is... sort of makes sense in a way.


Yeah, I'm making a case for increased…focusing on comparative advantage and the impact of that on really using a level of docile, docile is not the right word, but stagnated human capital which are people who are not employed, can't do much but if you've got them farming more, they're generally becoming more productive. Yeah, that's my thinking around that.

Tobi: Alright, let's talk about perception a bit because you mentioned earlier that I don't know maybe because of our size we think “oh, Nigeria is awesome, we have this huge stock of human capital and any day now we are going to zoom ahead”...

Affiong: Yeah, unleash it and take our rightful place on the African continent.

Tobi: What's the biggest perception difference you've observed in the business landscape in Nigeria. What do you think Nigerian business owners, entrepreneurs or professionals are mostly wrong about that they think they are right about?

Affiong: That's a very very good question. I think its human nature for everybody to overrate our capacity, that is what we do. We are not logical about what we can realistically achieve. Studies, everything, proves this. But in Nigeria, what I think a lot of entrepreneurs are wrong about is that idea that there's something innate in the capacity of Nigerians to sort of make a plan or make things happen. I think we are very wrong about a lot of times why firms or businesses fail in Nigeria and a lot of it is around lack of structure. I mean, yes, there are market issues and there are lots of issues but I'm going to focus on this - the need to sort of build in systems and processes vis-a-vis firm failure and I think a lot of people, a lot of entrepreneurs think that kind of disorder or not building that order within companies is not necessary to their success because Nigeria is a very disorderly place and things don't happen. But I think a lot of firms damn it and die when there are no systems built-in businesses were basically - capacity and decision-making (etc.) is filtered down and processes are filtered down from the top to the bottom. So you find in a lot of businesses [that] the CEO knows a lot and owns a lot but there is no(t) emphasis on management and middle management being equally (skilled up) upskilled, being able to make decision, being able to do stuff… so there's literally only very few resources being aimed at growing a business - which is the CEO, usually his or her networks and things like that versus upskilling the management team to be growth led.

There is this idea that systems and processes don't matter but i think they contribute. I don't have empirical evidence to prove it but I think they contribute more to the failure of businesses than we give credit to. Yes, market realities are real but it's a slower way to grow a business if you start looking at...

There [are] different stages of growth in a business. You don't need a full management team in day one but when you need that and that system is not put in play, I think you're already regressing as a business and you just don't know it. Then things start to unravel and you point fingers at the market or the economy or you point fingers at competition or import etc. whereas there wasn't that sort of universal firm learning that comes from everybody - [having] more people being involved in the growth and capacity of the business. And you see businesses at all sizes where there's a disproportionate amount of the responsibility of the business to grow on one person versus the entire firm. That is also [a] lack of systems and processes (and making everybody's job at a particular level to see the business grow from their departmental perspective) that's missing and I think it leads to regression of businesses. Some entrepreneurs don't [consider it important] because it's not a cost per say that come out of the business, and in fact the cost is hiring (these) people to do it, [so] it's not measured as a real or a lack thereof of a strong team and processes in the business. It’s not measured as importantly as it should in a business. That’s something I think we are all still very wrong about. Yeah.

Tobi: I like where you went with that. So let's talk about management a bit.

Affiong: Yeah.

Tobi: There was this study I read, and I'll try and put up links for context, by I think John Van Reneen and Nicholas Bloom. Their argument is that management also determines the wealth of nations, that is, how firms are managed is an underrated factor. In fact, there was another study where they found that management is a better predictor of a firm's success than every other factor, even technology. But obviously here, management is something we don't really talk about as such. It is endogenous. So what's your experience been like with other business owners, how do we improve management and how do we increase our awareness in that area?

: That's very very interesting, and I think quite a study to bring up because I tend to agree with that. People will say "well, if you're in a great industry and have terrible management you'll still be successful" and I think that might be true. But it's true for very few. It’s true when you are maybe the only player, there's two of you and there is not much competition for the market. But when there's a lot more competition for a market like we're seeing in a more globalized world, the quality of the people who are in firms matter and accelerate or decelerate the growth of the company. Now, I'll use myself as a case study, I have a really strong management team, I have managerial heads in all facets of the business and all departments of the business and that has helped us grow tremendously - from a sales perspective, from being invested ready, from being able to handle numerous things at a go, from our ability to launch new products (be)cause there are just people who are responsible for getting these things done and understand it and the collective output of that means that things are done better. If we want to enter a new territory, for instance, it's not one person doing it, I have somebody from finance looking at the numbers, somebody from admin calling agents to figure of the space, my production team figuring out product integrity, my sales manager finding the stores that we're going to go in to and we can execute that in two to three months - of people putting their collective outputs together to get that done. Now, if that management team was not as strong or not as defined, it will be one person trying to be all those things and we will invariably make a poorer decision; and if we make a poorer decision, you'll either fail at that or you're operating sub-optimally, which then impacts, for me, revenue, which then impacts the signal of whether the business as legs or not.

So might find that there is market, but because there is less execution capacity in your firm, you can't actually achieve that market. But what does it look like? It looks like your firm is a non-growing firm, and not doing well primarily because you alone cannot do everything and the people around the table are not equipped to actually access the market available - and then as you learn within the firm to do these things, you can replicate them much easier. So I kind of find that, tied my previous point, that decentralization of output and expectation of output and productivity obviously helps the firm grow faster, make better decisions; and those businesses are more likely to demonstrate investment readiness, demonstrate that they can scale, demonstrate better unit economics (etc.) because there's just a talent or pool of people who are equipped in each of their departments to make and optimize the decision making - make the best decision etc.

Tobi: That's interesting. You talked about processes, but I want to push on the personnel aspect of it. Obviously you have a great management team but what do you have to get right to build a great management team because, well, when you talk to people, what they say is that "oh, managerial talent is actually scarce and that it's our culture to be sloppy management wise". We're going to talk about culture in a bit, but what do you have to get right to build a great management team?

Affiong: That's a fantastic question because I also struggle with that. I say “do I have a good management team because I have sort them out, and can that be devoid of a growing company?” This is, for me, one of the big things. I also find that a lot of Nigerian companies are not growing and they are sort of stagnant, sort of peaked in terms of learning. So sometimes the need or the ability for the firm to attract people and keep them and sustain them and even pay them is limited when the company is not growing. So if you're not growing as a company, can you attract people to grow the company with you which is how they learn and get better at doing well? If you're a company that's not doing a lot of things and doing more things, people's learning pretty much stagnates, right? It's like government agency…


So I'll say what are the inputs in a growing company? In a growing company people are learning more, people are learning things they've not done before, so there's a lot of external learning coming in, there's a lot of self-learning; which then becomes process because we've learned what to do. We didn't know what to do before, we've learnt it and now we’ve agreed that’s the right thing to do - sort of install it as a process and people repeat it. For me, a growing company is necessary to [not only] keep attracting really good pool of management, but also the pool of people who are curious and who are excited by growing a company. It's somewhat a chicken and egg thing. (People who are curious about doing things they've not done before.) Because that's what a growing firm is, you are learning to do stuff you've never done before. That's how you grow, and then being able to apply that curiosity in a company that is growing - so that they are learning to do things they've not done before - is my idea of how you get a good managerial team or how you can bring in the talent. It is not just for today but for tomorrow when you're not doing [well]. When we started for instance, we were selling 2 products in Lagos. We're now selling 6, actually our SKU is about 16 right now in Lagos and 12 other states… 

Tobi: Wow.

Affiong: and in over 300 stores. So the learning to be able to scale up and do that comes from the fact that we're growing but also comes from the fact that there are people who can actually achieve that successfully and those people started up not working in 12 States but have now grown to the capacity to be able do that. So, it's a chicken and egg thing.


I don't know where I fit in. Can you grow without people who are not curious about growth and cannot execute things they didn't know? That's a tough one. I don't know all the right answer.


Tobi: It's interesting you mentioned growth…

Affiong: Yeah.

I think that people don't know - and even I myself irrespective of - how much having money to survive and stay in business is what ultimately leads to growth of companies. - AW

Tobi: Because we're zooming out a bit. Now, people would say "well, it's tough to build a growing business in Nigeria". It's almost a cliché hearing that. So what I want to know is...okay, we hear that X or Y isn't helping. As a business owner, what does it take to build a growing company? Does government have to get out of the way or help in a certain way? What are the things that has to go right to have a growing company that then attracts quality managerial talent?

Affiong: That's a great question and I have a very loaded answer. I'm not going to focus on the banal part of government policy and initiatives. I think businesses are very limited in how much they can grow outside of government policies but let's sort of control for that. I think we underrate the need for capital. I think that people don't know - and even I myself irrespective of - how much having money to survive and stay in business is what ultimately leads to growth of companies. People will tell you - and I find a lot of the advice to entrepreneurs quite asinine and platitudinal…

Tobi: That money doesn't matter.

Affiong: "Oh, you don't need money at every level"...oh, yeah, I do. I always need money because money is one resource that can unlock others. I say that not facetiously in the sense that money does not solve all problems. But when you start a business, in my opinion, you're assuming a product-market fit. You're making a lot of assumptions around your customer wants, around your product's ability to solve that customer's problems or service, and you may not get it right in the first time. It doesn't mean that you cannot solve that customer’s problem, where you can then generate the value that we see in [a] growing company. But those pivots, those mini pivots that happen in companies, they are not free. Innovation is not free. Changing of business model is not cheap. And that's where capital comes in. Capital helps you overcome some of those mistakes you make or right those wrong assumptions you made that ultimately lead to growth. When I started my business, I'll use myself again as an example, and I'm very wary of using anecdotes but this is an opinion conversation…

Tobi: Please go ahead.


Affiong: it's not one that requires all that fact. But the first two products we launched are not our best selling products today. Our best-selling product is a product that we got out of putting two products in the market, the customer rejecting one and telling us what they wanted. Now launching that next product requires significant investment for me to get new packaging, get new suppliers, get new staff, get all these things and had I not had the capital to do that, you would have said "well, there's no market for dried fruits because these two product, out of them, one was rejected". But really, what capital helped me do is bridge the gap to learn more about what the customer wanted and be able to provide for them and then scale that and then launch new products. So money is important. Capital is important. And I think that...

People always say "oh don't give an entrepreneur too much capital in the beginning". I'm sorry, very few entrepreneurs get too much capital in the beginning. And, even if you give an entrepreneur a lot more capital than they are able to absorb in the beginning, you're increasing their chances of actually figuring out where the value is, where the customer”s need really is so that they can solve that problem and that's how firms grow. So, for me, we talked a lot about training, and we talk a lot about product-market fit and understanding your customer; that's not free, that's not cheap. It takes money to survive to do it. You have to be in existence, ou have to have enough working capital, you have to serve them different iterations of this product. And in my view, capital is, as simple and basic as it is, one of the big things that would help firms grow.

Tobi: It's a very great point. It's sad some of our capital control measures, because...again, talking about Asia, take a country like China. When China started industrializing, a lot of the capital came from Chinese overseas. In Taiwan, in Korea, in Japan... but here, you find that even government is fighting against remittances and stuffs like that and we don’t have enough capital.

Affiong: No, we don't. We absolutely do not and a lot of the capital that's coming in is quite conditioned and I think sometimes also... (complex). We simply do not have enough capital that is needed to spur any sort of growth in enterprise, at even a modest rate I would say.

Tobi: What other things do you need to build a growing [business]? I read a blog of yours, once, where you mentioned networking. What role does that play?

Affiong: I think it plays a huge role especially in a country like Nigeria where access to opportunity is not democratized (anywhere), but it certainly is more unequal here than in other parts of the world. So in a country where a lot of the resources and opportunities are in the hands of a few, to sort of gain access to that where you are not from that class or cadre, I think networking is absolutely vital. And I think the power of networking is proven globally, it is not just about Nigeria. Take any example, you can't just walk into anywhere and say you have a product/service or whatever and say “you to want to sell it” where you don't need some network, some sort of reputational stamp of approval or something like that to get you through those doors. So networking is simply trying to to do that, and, say leapfrog some of the challenges you face in running a business where the decision rests in the hands of a few people. For me, expanding your network and going outside of your traditional network of family and friends and knowing people who know people, and knowing people who are not in your circle increases your chances of success as a company to raise funding, raise awareness, raise purchases etc.It's sort of very difficult to measure in terms of firm success but I think one of those underrated things that really really help businesses, and people in general, the world over at that.

Tobi: So networking in this case functions as a bit of a social capital?

Affiong: Yes, it's leveraging your social capital to sort of grow your business directly through getting financing, through getting buyers. Yes, it's sort of a resource. A standalone resource that adds to the growth of your business is how I look at it.

Tobi: But how does this square with merit? What you hear is that there has to be a level playing field for businesses to compete fairly. But if successful businesses are better networked, isn't that problematic for, let me say, our idea of merit?

Affiong: I think that idea is unfounded. I think the idea of equality is a nice virtue that people think is what leads to the success of societies and I don't think that that's true. I don't think it's played out in history. I think there's a lot of circumstance that leads people down the path that they get on to and if you trace back people's history especially successful people. I know you have this very interesting comment which I leverage (a lot) on privilege analysis. And what people do is, if you see people doing successful things, you go backwards and say they are privileged…

Tobi: Yes.

I think that if people are allowed to thrive individually as humans are meant to do, using all the resources at their arsenal, society wins more than it loses. -AW

Affiong: And I think that’s true. You find that success is certainly not equally distributed, and I think you find successful people are more likely to be successful. You find that people who are better networked and experienced tend to build better businesses. It's an amalgamation of people's histories and where they are coming from. It's not that you just said, "Everybody run", and you open the playing field and everybody has an equal footing in terms of what they can do. And, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I think that... especially for entrepreneurial success, you don't need to so many entrepreneurs to be successful to build a successful economy. I look at America, the most successful economy in the world, with three hundred million people who are all most(ly) working in private institutions, very small percentage are successful. So for me, equality in terms of entrepreneurial success is not something you can control for and I don't think it is fair to punish people who have the means to build bigger businesses - that would absorb more people, create more income and productivity for the country - to try and taper that or to try temper that because you want to build an equal playing field. It is like dragging people down to the mean and I don't think that creates the kind of success that benefits society as a whole. So I say "everybody, work with the privilege you have" because that is not something you can easily trade. People don't give up their privilege or people cannot automatically say because I have this kind of access I going to give it away and expunge it [or] I will exchange it for somebody else to have. It’s a very difficult thing to do and you cannot erase centuries of history that has led people to where they are today to try control for equality. I don't think it makes much sense. I think that if people are allowed to thrive individually as humans are meant to do, using all the resources at their arsenal, society wins more than it loses. It’s not a perfect system but I think it's the best.

Tobi: Interesting point on priviledge. My favourite example of that point is Bill Gates. You hear today how his middle school was selected in his district for a pilot computer program and how that is some kind of privilege and what you don't hear is, he was not the only kid in that school… 

Affiong: Yeah, in that school, exactly...every other kid had access to that computer…


Tobi: And people just sort of discount the hours he had to work, all the nights of misery, of uncertainty and hard work that people put into this. Another thing I discovered and I would like to know your insight on that is, on this privilege issue, people think that group traits transmits individually like “oh, if you're born into a certain income class (X percent of the income distribution) it means you enjoy privileges that come with that regardless of whatever you do” and often I find that that's not true. There are lots of rich dumb kids who are failures. Absolute failures, who I wouldn't want to be in a second regardless of their privilege. In our social discuss, we're importing a lot of that and maybe my experience is limited to social media, so I want us to lean into that here a bit.

Affiong: I think there is certainly and I would say at this point, also an attack of individual virtue and individualism in a way. Where it seems, like you say, people discount the individual components that make people successful and they want to tag it as a privilege of wealth or a privilege of going to Ivy League schools or one privilege or another which is a very simplistic way to look at it. You find that everybody's route to success has a mixture of lottery of birth, economy you're born in, the time in which government policy favoured you or your parents or not. There is a huge very complex mix of things that make people - that lead and support people's success.

But there is also, like you mentioned, thousands other people who grew up in those similar conditions. The individual trait of wanting to, of striving or building or doing something is one that is discounted. And I think that there is a general attack on individualism, free thought and individual thought. Even in societies where there is a lot of success, people want to demerit their own individual input to their success and sort of collectivize it as a way of diminishing that. In those societies where everybody else had access, there are also failures. So it's not just that the society was the reason you did well, it's that there is something about you as individual who has been able to build whatever success that you have. So this social discourse around collectivism and collectivizing people's successes and things like that is a worrying kind of phenomenon happening because I think it is us going against who people are as individuals. It is going against the way human beings are made and are built and I think it's worrisome to start punishing and tagging people who are individually successful has being [this] sort of greedy barons (as it were) for being successful or feeling bad for being successful, feeling bad for building a lot of wealth, because somehow they are meant to collectivize their wealth, or somehow they also stepped on other people to be able to get wealthy. So there's sort of very dangerous and insidious ideas around individual productivity and individuals building that I think are being disproportionately spread in a way where they are being accepted much more than I think they should be, and not being critiqued.

I certainly don't subscribe to privilege identification of any kind. I think it's actually an insidious thing to do to point at people and say “declare your privilege, declare your privilege”. It is tagging people in a negative way that I don't subscribe to. I think does not do anything for anyone really. So, I say, as individuals we'll always look for all the resources at our disposal to get to whatever level of self actualization we're trying get on and that should not be diminished in any way. I don't care if you're a billionaire or you're having 100 Naira in your pocket. That is human, that's what we do and shouldn't be discouraged.

Tobi: So, now, how much do you think categorical disadvantages like gender or social class matter? If we're talking about individuals like you said, what you find is that individual still fits, however defined - however poorly defined sometimes - into certain categories. Of course, you're a woman in business, you hear things like X is difficult for a woman in business whereas for a man they don't face the same barriers or challenges or maybe things around sexual solicitation. So, how much do you think that matters in terms of striving and success?

Affiong: Like you said, equality in general doesn't exist and I think that that's the general premise. That even if you control for gender and look at men, there is huge inequalities in men. (In one gender where you sort of look at different strata, for instance.) So, for me, this idea of gender equality is....let me be careful here...I am not dismissing at all there are categorical disadvantages for women in business and women as a whole. But, again, what do we compare it to? We often compare it to men. We don't compare it to categorical differences that men face as a gender, that there are differences between men. So, the men versus women view is the most obvious way to look at the disadvantages for women. But I generally think that we need to look at that from the perspective of the history of women and [ask] when did women start moving out of the home as a primary occupation into business and does that explain why there are differences in the number of women represented in the industry versus not? Because if you take a different look at it, I think you'll find huge successes, I think you'll find that in a generation of women or someone like my grandmother not being educated, in only 200 years her granddaughter can become the CEO of a business. But if you look at it from the perspective of “well, let's try equal the playing field where we have 50/50 men and women”, that's not really solving the problem in my opinion. The problem is wanting to encourage more women - that women are moving into formal careers and rising to the top - versus saying that the dearth of women in top management is because of some patriarchy or some system that is blocking women. It's that just from the get-go men got into those roles more and more women are getting into those roles [too]. It depends on how you look at it, you might see that what we're actually seeing is an advancement of women versus women [in] the world today still being disadvantaged. And that's true. I think trying to uncover the root cause is very complex and not based on one thing and certainly not based on the fact that men are advancing at the expense of women is a hundred percent true. And that is the simplistic discuss that you're hearing that “okay, men are patriarchal, they are all-boys club etc.” Well then, how do you explain for women being more university graduates than men in developed economies? Women are getting more degrees, women are advancing, more women in management. The way to look at it to solve the problem matters and I think it's more sensationalist to look at it one way versus another.

Now, bringing it back to myself as a woman in business, I can't categorically say and I'm not going to speak for every woman because that's silly to do and my experience is very unique. But I can't categorically say that my gender has hindered my progress as an entrepreneur. I've never gotten a "No, you are a woman so therefore you cannot get progress". I don't know that there are many women starting businesses who have heard that. Now, are there other challenges women face, maybe the impact of motherhood, the impact of social conditioning to make women maybe not...? Social conditioning is even a stretch for me to actually apply to this scenario but whatever experience women face as a collective (their collective experiences growing up which is actually very individualistic [because] it is not all collective) matter but they matter for men too. Men success is not equal. It' know, two men that grow up in the same household don't automatically become successful because they grow up in the same household. Two women who grow up in the same household don't automatically just ascend to the same levels because they grow up in the same household. There is something that we're trying to, I think, aggregate which should be disaggregated to actually find ways to advance with it. Now again back to me, no one has ever said "you're a woman so you will not succeed because you're a woman and I don't do business with women". That never happened to me. I don't know how many women that's happened to. And when I look at the impact of challenges that affected me as a woman, say sexual misconduct - Yes, I've had people say inappropriate things to me as a woman and I take that as a challenge that is it different from another challenge that a man faces where... that is a hindrance to his success in business? We have to weigh those up. There are those challenges that affect women but do they disproportionately affect them to the challenges affecting men's success? I don't know that that's the case. I can't say, I can't say that...

Tobi: What about the implicit bias? Like maybe there might not be explicit stuff [and] nobody is going to tell you because you are a woman. But some think that there are implicit biases against women that, oh, because you're a woman I can implicitly conclude that I'm not going to offer you that promotion because I imagine that five years from now you're going to get married and have a child. What about implicit bias, do you think that plays a huge role and can it really be corrected? Is it a problem we can solve, really?

Affiong: I've read some studies around this and I'm not going to say that my reading is up-to-date on it but if you look at even the studies around senior management and why women are dropping out of management, a lot of it has to do with motherhood - becoming mothers, suspending their career advancement. But a lot of it is...if a woman who has an MBA and is a mother, was working and halfway becomes a mother and decides to quit and become a mother full-time, it's a choice. And it's her choice because she wants to really be [a mother]. There are various reasons people make those kinds choices but I guess the point I'm trying to drive at is that the dearth of the female management is that women at the stage of becoming mothers don't go back into work or take part time jobs etc. So for me, if you look at that you're saying "are women being punished for being mothers or are women choosing - that they enjoy motherhood so they want to do that?" The narrative is that "no, women cannot go back to work because they're mothers". That's not true or that what should be an ideal solution to allow women to have children and are not overburdened by childcare to make that choice and women who choose to actually stay and not want to go back to work are doing so because it is their own desirous outcome. For me, that's something to unpack and I think we're seeing more flexibility around women being able reintegrate in the workplace versus their careers ending because of having children.

Again, I can't say how much that bias of “let me not give a woman a chance because in five years she'll be a mother” is? Maybe it's a bias that is probably more widely held in a different age or category of person. It's hard to test. Does it exist? Probably. Does it exist to the extent that people think that it does? I'm not sure, I'm not sure. I think you're finding a lot of self-selection out of [going up]. I think women are self-selecting out of going up because of motherhood and the demands of motherhood. And if that is to change, we should unpack that as the issue, not necessarily say that, it's because men are stopping women from going up in their careers. So that makes sense. I mean, where would you pinpoint the solution? Where would you pinpoint where to investigate…

Tobi: Exactly.

Affiong: And how to solve the problem? I think it's looking at that time where you become a mother and your career takes second place. And again, we assume that there is no payoff for people who are deciding to choose that path. The narrative is that it is completely "oh, a do-or-die affair"

: You ought to find satisfaction in work.

Affiong: Exactly...and because every woman is made to be this career sort of [person]. Every woman who is working in career is meant to get up to the total ranks and become the boss therefore having a child is not [or] choosing "motherhood" as it were is not success. For some people it is, absolutely. And some people the payoff and trade-off of being a mother is absolutely a form success. I recently become a mother and while I'm an absolute workaholic, I can appreciate why women would want to focus on motherhood. And it's not a failure that they want to do that, and it's not patriarchy or misogyny or a man stopping them from doing that. It's a choice. It's a valid choice for a woman to do. So where women don't want to make that choice and want to advance is where I say let's find solutions for. But not automatically paint it as a huge deal in the world that women choose motherhood. They love being mothers, if they didn't we would not exist as a race, right? Like if women didn't actually enjoy the journey of motherhood. So I think that that's more nuanced than people like to understand.

Tobi: Yeah, this is an interesting area, so I'm just going to ask you straight up. Are you a feminist?

: Ah, am I a feminist? Yes I am. I would say that. Do I believe in the equality of sexes which is the traditional definition of feminism? I say I am. I do believe in that. What I don't believe is that equality is that anything a man can do, a woman can do. There is not equality amongst the female gender, there is not equality amongst the male gender in terms of the playing field or in terms of people's access, networks, everything. So this view of feminism that anything a man can do a woman [can] that defines equality as like "oh, I must pick myself up and get what a man does, has, says" (etc.) is equality... is fails to me. It's not real. And I can barely stand by that. Now, what I believe should be equal is access. Whatever a woman wants to do, her gender should not prevent her from doing as a man.But I don't believe that the male standard is what "success" looks like so if women are not equal, (if) they're not exactly on the level as men. Men are not on the level as men; women are not on the same level. So that sort of generic ideology of equality falls flat for me when you think about it logically and it's not a measure that you can even attain because you cannot control everybody's individual experiences.

What you can try and democratize is access - to education. I don't believe no woman should not have access to education, and neither should any man. Access to working, access to things, access to people making their lives better. I believe equality of access is what I'll say I understand feminism to be and I'll consider myself a feminist.

Now, new age feminism.


No. If that is what the decision is, I'll hundred percent say "No, I'm not". I don't even call it feminism, I think it's more...let's not even go into what I think it is because I have strong views about that.


Affiong: Don't get me in trouble. But, yeah…

Equality of access is, for me, the best chance...even that is hard to assimilate. it's really hard when you think about it...

Tobi: Yeah.

Affiong: you can't control for all the things that makes a person's experience in this world.

Tobi: You see a lot of, of course, discuss around gender issues these days and I've been trying to really tease out what it is that we as a society are going for actually. But you see a lot of anger. I don't know how much that helps, but...


Tobi: certainly there's a lot to be angry about. But I don't know how much anger helps in that area. But one idea I want to put forward and I would like to hear your views here is gender issues and economic development generally. Like, when I see people, protesting or campaigning to end rape for example. Of course rape is a huge huge problem that no society should tolerate but I also wonder on the other side about state capacity…

Affiong: Uh hmm.

Tobi: You know?

Affiong: I do

Tobi: How does a police force that cannot stop petty crimes investigator rape? how can a police force that can not prevent murders or investigate... properly investigate and prosecute rape? People talk about passing laws where we have laws that are not enforced and where you can easily wiggle your way out of [crime].

So shouldn't a lot of this activism be focused on development generally because I think a lot of social progress is positively correlated with income growth?

Affiong: Yeah, exactly.

Tobi: You'll be surprised.

Affiong: And that is a hill I'll die on because I talked today about a lot of lending a voice to causes and social media making it easy for people to join causes and say they support things on a very very superficial level. It's easy to say I support no sexual abuse to women and I completely agree. Only a deviant will support sexual abuse or rape of women or any other cause or out of school kids. But the reality is that a lot of these things are a byproducts of poor societies. You find these ills are more common in societies that are not economically advancing (that are getting poorer). And like you said, for me, in the history and development of a country, the way you solve problem is not...let me take this back to the size of government.

When you have a society where people are too poor to send their kids to school, it doesn't matter what you legalize around the need for education. People simply can't afford it. - AW

The size of government for Nigeria relative to its GDP and the complexity of the economy is completely inflated. You have over-regulation where you should have less government and let industries thrive. Look at China. Like you said, a lot of things where allowed that will not be allowed today in China but those things that were allowed, allowed economic progress and allowed for the wealth of that nation to be possible, right? And it's the same thing when you take it to any social cause. A lot of it is call it culture, you call it tribalism, but it is really a competition for resources. Who wants to say that children should stay out of school? But when you don't have a country that is rich enough to build schools (good schools for people), are they better off in schools where they're not learning anything? It's easy to say "well, everybody should be in school". Yes it is, but when you're churning out kids that cannot do anything or cannot learn anything or when you have a society where people are too poor to send their kids to school, it doesn't matter what you legalize around the need for education. People simply can't afford it. So I think with all these causes, there is a very crucial stage of economic development that actually solves a lot of the problems, and it's not more laws. Right now you'll say "well, they're signing a law against this sort of victory". It's not a victory. If you go to the police station and somebody who perpetrates [a crime] can simply pay off his way or somebody who doesn't have access to a lawyer cannot get justice or the fact that the police do not even have the capacity or, Jesus Christ, the petrol to drive to come and see what you're talking about...

Tobi: Or even basic investigation… 

: Yes, exactly. So for me, a lot of focus should really be on how do we get Nigeria richer? A lot of gender issues are byproducts of poverty. It's not a byproduct of patriarchy or people's cultures. It's that if women got richer…there's a stat that says if women go to school till...(we talk about Nigeria's population or overpopulation, for instance), if women go to school up till high school they have like two or three fewer kids. If women get better education they are likelier to choose who they marry and get in better domestic situation. All these things that are underpinned on just income, education. Those two simple things that are as basic as having more money in your pocket to give you the agency to make more decisions and being literate that improve the outcomes of women and protect them from all these social issues that they're exposed to. But we make a lot of fuss around the symptoms and not the underlying issues. You talked about rape being a huge problem. It is a problem but what would stem that problem is, I think, often invariably linked to increased wealth.

Tobi: Yeah.

: If you punish more people who rape, probably less people would rape. But to punish more people who rape, you need a whole host of things to happen.

Tobi: You need to be able to catch rapist for one.

: So I do agree that a lot more focus should be on those basic foundations. I believe I live that through my values in terms of being an entrepreneur. My thesis is that if you give people, especially women... I'll shamelessly plug that my company is over 65% female employees and my management team is a 100% women. And my thesis is if you give women opportunity to earn their own money they have more agency with their lives. I'm not going to sit here and say I support a million causes, I support that cause, I believe in that. I believe that if women get better educated and work for themselves and earn their own money, their outcomes in life are better. And that's my thesis and I'm going to stick to that for as long as I can. I may be criticized for not saying "oh, I don't support this kind of mission or social"... I believe human beings are limited in what they can support and I am somebody who believes in depth over breadth anyway. So I want my life's work to unearth that and multiply that as much as possible. I'm not going to say I can be all things to all people. I don't think people can and I think if you focus on core issues, your outcomes are better. So that's my view. That's my hypothesis and I am walking that talk as an entrepreneur in business, and in person.

Tobi: That's interesting. Another point that I want to mention is, of course, we see a lot of funding into social impact programs for women. I was reading a post lately (again, I'm going to put up links for listeners). It was a field study on fertility which is a huge problem in Africa. Nigeria is about five children per woman which we don't have enough income to cover that much. So what they found from the experiment was that fertility interventions and education were more effective within groups where the men were targeted as opposed to the women. What that tells me is that fertility decisions are not made individually. Couples make that decision. But what you see is that a lot of the social intervention programs target women specifically. They don't target families or couples and that's usually celebrated. You think that's a problem? Or how can we resolve that tension?

Affiong: I'm not going to say that I know too much about it. I remember reading one study or was it a summary of the interventions of women in the North, who are getting injections and how they have to lie about where they're going because they can't take pills because if their husbands sees them taking their pills, that is a problem and they have to make an excuse to go get injections. Now, where they can't do that, then the intervention completely fails. Because they will get pregnant if you don't take these injections very regularly. So, what's the better solution if you want family planning to be truly adopted and not done in secret? (This is obviously a must on the most vulnerable way women have no rights in these domestic situations.) I would say it makes sense to get men on board and to get them to see the value in family planning because there [in the North], women barely have rights and women disproportionately suffer from having the burden of having too many children. Not just health-wise, income [wise], in most outcomes. A woman who has more children is worse off than a woman who had less where resources are scarce is my view. And to target the man means to help to ease the burden of women. Maybe it feels like more resources are going towards men than women but if the beneficiary is a woman, I don't care how you achieve it. If you really care about women's progress (however you achieve it, if that is the outcome and the aim), that should be what counts not necessarily that the interventions must directly benefit them because sometimes it's counter-intuitive but they [women] are more likely to be benefited if you take an intervention that targets the man. And this might be the case in this situation.

Tobi: Let's talk about poverty a bit...

: Okay.

Tobi: One of your, should I say mentors or people you admire, Esther Duflo, recently won…

Affiong: Yes, I stan.

Tobi: [Esther Duflo] recently won the Nobel prize and there's been a lot of coverage around that area. Earlier we talked about employment and things like that. But what do you think is the best way to address the poverty issue? I know you do a lot of work in that area.

Affiong: I think the best way is not to assume that there is a best way. And if I leverage the work of Esther Duflo, the biggest take for me from her book, Poor Economics (which was my 2017 book of the year), [is] it opened my mind to how hard poverty is to solve. The idea that (even economic growth) capitalism has solved poverty more than any other system, it still has its shortcomings in terms of its ability to actually rid the world of poverty. Poverty will always exist and that's the first thing but, for me, all the interventions and the mini studies showed that it's very difficult to isolate a driver of poverty and think that when you eradicate that driver or when you add an intervention, you're going to see outcomes that you can replicate. The biggest for me was microfinance. So everybody touts microfinance...

Tobi: Massive failure... 

Affiong: ...has it helps the poor come out of it. No, the studies have shown that what it does is, it just gives people more trading capital. It doesn't make people richer. They just have more money to trade and…

Tobi: And more debts in some cases.

Affiong: And yes, in many ways, it really burdens people with a lot of debts. So if you look up microfinance and say you're giving finance to the poorest most risky customers at the most exorbitant interest rate. That hasn't changed their lives. Giving them more cash doesn't necessarily mean that they have amassed or built more wealth. That just, to me, shows how hard it is to solve poverty. If we say "well, we have scarce resources, gun to head, what would I pick?" I will pick economic growth. I will say do that, it's worked in the past quite well, who knows how well it works now? But it's really hard to say doing X solves poverty, it's really really difficult and I would encourage everybody to read Poor Economics.

There are so many insights from that book that show that one thing alone or trying to do one thing [does not solve poverty]. And, I want to make this point about when people say (let's take pads and women for instance) that if you give women pads they're going to stay in school. It's so limiting to look at. If you look at studies around pad use in schools, you find that there are cheaper interventions like tapeworm medicine that give people better outcomes in their exams than the cost of pads. So if you're looking from a resource point of view, what are you going to do? Give women pads or give people tapeworm medicine? There is impact for both. But there is this idea that it doesn't matter, the little you do matters.

I don't think I've developed the intellectual capacity to unpack that, but there is a trade-off of people thinking that "well, every little thing you do matters and counts" and I don't think that is true. I think people waste a lot of money, and back to what Esther Duflo is purporting in her book, [she] is saying that do things on a small scale and see whether the impact is actually useful to scale up. People will say something like "well, if you give people pads, those are people who didn't have pads, so you have done something good”. Yes, that might be true on the surface but if you unpack the actual benefits of that, is it better to say (and you can spend ten years giving people pads) "well, we've given people pads so that's success?" [or] you compare it against where you could have done something cheaper that impacts more people and have more long-term success than giving people pads (in which case giving people pads is not the best solution)?

I guess the idea I am trying to drive at (this is a very crude thought, it's not yet fully developed) is that we often think doing something is better than doing nothing…

Tobi: Yeah.

Affiong: And I think in development it is not always true. Because, when you do something and you get a sense of result of that thing, you can double down on that thing that (completely) is not better than doing something else; and Esther Duflo talked about that a lot in her book where you test for in small groups for the efficacy of the intervention. You don't want to run with it and say "well, at least I'm doing something". I think that gives people a sense of accomplishment but what are you accomplishing in the grand scheme of things? It is important to test for and admit whether or not that thing is actually moving the needle or changing the dial. But it seems that if you critique something that somebody's doing, then you are anti-progress. Whereas my view is, are we sure what we're doing is actually going to add value or is actually going to move the needle in terms of development indices. And I think that's turning back to the point that solving poverty is hard, that there is no one way, and so it's a real challenge. There are so many constraints and so that's a difficult...


Affiong: It's a difficult topic to address. I think people just can't be definitive about what it takes to solve poverty.

Tobi: I don't know, should we just resolve to adopting Deng Xiaoping's maxim and let some get rich first?

Affiong: I'll say yes.


Affiong: Simply yes.

Tobi: Here is why I'm saying that. It's because you mentioned Duflo, there is an army of followers that have taken the idea that she and her husband pioneered and just ran with it. And now what you find is, development agencies only want to fund randomized control trials in fields, but are we underrating jobs? For example, you have funds to dispense for development. If you have to choose between giving a couple of billions to say, a thousand ReelFruits and going to hundred villages to do conditional cash transfers, what you find now is development agencies will go for cash transfer programs than [any other]. A good example is YouWin in Nigeria. The impact evaluation that World Bank did showed that it was quite successful, actually...

Affiong: I have my views around that. But, did it create jobs? absolutely...

Tobi: I am also speaking in terms of income gains for, at least, the people that benefited. Obviously there were people that failed in that cohort but there was massive income gains for the was a lot of money, fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money…

Affiong: It's a lot for a firm, yeah…

Tobi: but what you find in the current paradigm is that people would rather do this small-scale interventions and test for this and that and look at all these minor effects whereas people will be better off sometimes just getting jobs, having available jobs.

Affiong: We were speaking earlier, and if you told me where would I apply money, it would always be in industry. It would always be in enterprise but there is also the truth that businesses fail and fail spectacularly and burn a lot of money. One could argue, what are the outcomes of that? In that process of failing, firms [and] people learning, you're upskilling the human capital of the country which benefits the country as a whole.

So you can talk about those benefits. Then if you're talking about "well, let's compare that against giving people conditional cash transfers", that money feeds them, that money increases their lives - maybe access to drugs. There are all these trade-offs that I find, making those comparisons difficult to do. But my bias is for jobs, my bias is for enterprise, my bias is for market-driven/market-led solutions to solve poverty than interventions. I think interventions that come before markets don't work as well and they're often always even...they can't be sustained, you know. I would put my money where even though there's a chance of failure of firm, I think that comes out much better, much more desirable at least, for the development of the country.

Tobi: Let's talk about culture a bit. You hear a lot of things like X is not our culture. If you talk about corruption, people say “corruption is our culture”. If you talk about hard work, people say “oh, we don't have a culture of working hard”. How can you change culture?

You marry individual success and individual advancement to different outcomes and you change culture. - AW

Affiong: Sighs. This is a very very tricky questions and I'll first go back to [the definition of culture]. The definition of culture is vague and beyond the scope of our discussion today but I'll just create a definition of culture for the purpose of answering this question as "what people do that rewards them, that advances them individually in the society they're in at the time". For instance, the culture of hard work is very rewarding in America because the society rewards you for the amount of work you put in. That culture of hard work is not necessarily that everybody is born hardworking or people revere being hardworking - if people could get away with doing the least to get the most, they would. That's human behaviour in my view. It is that a society demands that [hard work] and rewards that and that's what people do. So I think culture here in Nigeria is what is the society rewarding? What the people gain and benefit the most [from] is what actions they will continue to perpetuate. As dysfunctional as any society is, the order that allows people to advance the most is what they are going to do and I think that's what least, even, the culture of a country is. It's not necessarily history passed down from generations, that is a very simplistic view of culture. It is actually what people perpetuate...that is for their survival if you will.

So how do you change culture? Well, I think you change the demand, right? You change what society rewards, you change what the expectation is. You marry individual success and individual advancement to different outcomes and you change culture. If people can get anything done without being corrupt, they are going to perpetuate that. If, for instance, I could get my driver's licence without having to phone anybody, all of a sudden you start finding that the culture changes...

Tobi: Yeah… 

Affiong: If you change process and order and you change the out[come], the way people can succeed in a society without having to deviate from the rules or because, more structures are in place that allow things happen in a more transparent manner. All of a sudden you say "oh, Nigerians are more honest people". I don't know, they may not be more honest than they were yesterday but they certainly don't have to be dishonest to get the same outcome. So, I kind of think that's my answer. I'm not hundred percent foolproof, none of my answers are but it's basically saying what is a society demanding of people and rewarding? America rewards efficiency, so if you're efficient, and the society is built on a level of efficiency that means people don't have to lie to get things done, people don't have to steal to get things done, people don't have to take to get things done; people don't have to depend so much on knowing somebody who knows somebody to get things done and you see a more honest and trustworthy society. But that is because that's what is at play there and if those things become more at play here, I think you'll see the same results. And there are some examples (very few). Where you see more transparency and openness in how people can access things, you find that they're less likely to be corrupt. So if all of us go to the bank, like, if you look at ATM queues and lining up, because most people know if I line up and I walk up to the ATM I'm going to get my cash out, that’s a very transparent fair and clear process. Most people do it and it's like, well, I'll wait my turn till I get to the ATM machine and I'll withdraw my money. I don't have to know anybody, I don't have to do something special. But just having that...

Tobi: Process.

Affiong: ...process, makes Nigerians look more orderly then they are...


Affiong: Because in another scenario, we will have to fight and toggle to do something like that but because that's very straightforward, transparent process people behave differently. The incentives are different and the behaviour is different to achieve their individual goals. So that is my one simplistic view of how you change culture and I think my view is supported by history a little bit, because if you look at Nigeria today in terms of corruption, nepotism - these are things that have happened in America in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s. The country was very barbaric...

Tobi: And we don't define those countries by those terms today.

Affiong: they are not defined by those...the type of nepotism that hold or even monarchies in different countries where (in England, for instance) only monarchs were rich, only people who were part of the royal family had money and access to lands. It's the same thing that's happening today, as those economies grew, as there was more process and order, people's behaviours change. If England were as undeveloped as Nigeria is today, people will act the same way and that would be known as their culture.

Tobi: That's interesting. Okay, final question.

Affiong: Okay.

Tobi: In line with the idea of this project, what's one idea you'll like to see spread in our society? You have 50 seconds. 

Affiong: Oh my goodness... what idea would I like to see? For the what…for the benefit of the country, for the benefit of society?

Tobi: Any direction you choose.

Affiong: In Nigeria, I will have to say the idea I will like to see spread is that around the understanding of what it takes to build a prosperous nation. The one thing I hate is poverty. The one thing, I abhor is poverty because, I think it strips people of their dignity and it strips people of their agency - they have to be extremely productive, and the antithesis of poverty is creating wealth and growing wealth and growing rich and I would love that. If there is an idea - how does Nigeria grow rich and build wealth? is something I would love to see people have a better understanding of and people really rally around because I think wealth creates a lot more desirable outcomes for the quality of life that individuals lead and I think that that's something I'd love to see - more people living better quality lives and not being poor. And I think building wealth and what it takes to create wealth as a country is what I wish more people would embrace, rally around (especially the government) and understand and implement.

Tobi: That's a great answer. Thank you very much, Affiong.

Affiong: It's been great talking to you.

Cited Studies

Management and the Wealth of Nations - John Van Reneen

Good Management Predicts a Firm's Success - Brynjolfsson, Bloom, Rennen

Reducing Fertility in sub-Saharan Africa - Alessandra Voena

Ideas Untrapped
Ideas Untrapped
a podcast about ideas on growth, progress, and prosperity