A Post-mortem of the Age of Industry in Nigeria

A Post-mortem of the Age of Industry in Nigeria

By Suraj Oyewale

In the 70s through early 90s, a good number of the richest men in Nigeria were into manufacturing. Nigerian press had a name for them: industrialists. If you opened a random page in a newspaper, you were likely to see “An industrialist, Chief Agbarieku Ajanaku has said…” or “will be the Chief Launcher at the event”.

In fact, “industrialist” was almost used interchangeably with “multi-millionaire”.
The richest men of that era owned big factories and other manufacturing concerns.

In our own Kwara, for example, the richest men of the period had manufactuirng as their biggest businesses: Chief E.O Adesoye (Okin Biscuits), Prince Samuel Adedoyin (Doyin Group), Otunba Oyin Jolayemi ( Daily Needs), Chief Ademola (Demosco Group) etc.

Of course, in Lagos, Chief Razaq Okoya and his Eleganza Group ruled. In Ibadan, you had the likes of Chiefs Yekini Adeoyo, Bode Akindele and Bode Amao. In Ilesa, you had Chief Lawrence Omole.

Most of these guys - those still living - are still very rich, but it doesn’t appear manufacturing is their major source of wealth again - most of them have gone into real estate and service businesses.

Today, save for Dangote, most of the richest men in Nigeria are into anything but manufacturing. In fact, the word “industrialist” has gone out of fashion and you hardly see Nigerian press describe anyone as that again.

What happened?

Here is my view:

1, Nigerian economy became a little more mature starting from the early 90s, especially with the liberalization of the banking sector in 1989/90 which produced a new set of Nigerian multi-millionaires in the financial services industry. It became more attractive to manufacturing. Even some of the manufacturing billionaires joined the band-wagon (like Doyin that opened a bank).

2, IBB opened the upstream oil and gas industry to Nigerians starting from the early 90s, although full indigenous participation started in the 2000s. This also created a new set of Nigerian billionaires that didn’t to set up industries. Before 1990, upstream oil and gas industry was the exclusive preserve of foreign multinationals.

3, Perhaps the biggest factors: Virtually every product you want to produce, there is an imported alternative to compete with you. High cost of importing manufacturing equipment and raw materials. Manufacturing business became so cost-gulping that only heavily loaded folks like Dangote could withstand it.

4, Most of the billionaires that had these industries were largely informal, with what is at best semi-structured corporate face to it. A new set of manufacturing organizations with sophisticated structure came to the scene. Most of them have foreign - especially Chinese or Lebanese - backing.

With the interplay of these forces, manufacturing became “too “stressful” a route to making money. Only few of these guys still trudge on. Okin Biscuit, for example, is probably dead.

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