ASBN Member Profile – Naijalink

Please tell us how long you’ve lived in Nigeria and why you decided to set up Naijalink?

It was in 2006 that I moved to Nigeria for a 2-year gig. That was 14 years ago… Initially I worked as a business advisor for a charity, enabling me to travel to almost every state of Nigeria before I joined the Netherlands embassy in Abuja as their trade & economic advisor. During that time, Dutch companies would frequently ask me for the support that went beyond what an embassy can provide. Nigeria’s a country where international companies often need dedicated, hands-on and ongoing support to understand the market, start doing business and expanding their company’s footprint in Nigeria. I intended to be a consultant to such companies as I understand where they come from and how they want to do business, while I also have good knowledge of the Nigerian business environment.

My company Naijalink was set up in 2009 with nothing more than a laptop and my enthusiasm to provide professional, reliable and relevant services. I had a mission to link international companies with “Naija”, which is another word for Nigeria that contains all that’s good about it; a better version of Nigeria that we all strive to establish. Naijalink thus links our clients with Nigeria’s opportunities, its vibrant and innovative entrepreneurs and companies.

From those rather humble beginnings alone at my Abuja kitchen table, the business quickly expanded. We’ve been in Lagos since 2011 and now operate a 14-staff office in the heart of Ikoyi. Services have also expanded from ‘just’ market research, partner identification and trade missions, to a full suite of back-office support including due diligence, legal advisory, staffing services, back-office support, financial advisory, digital PR management, etc. Full-fledged services and advisory company, Naijalink aims to be a trusted partner to whoever we work with. We support SMEs as well as Fortune-500 companies and are also proud to be the local partner to several international trade agencies in Europe and beyond.

By now, Nigeria is really my home. It may not always be the easiest environment, but there is never a dull day and despite the current economic challenges, this country always oozes opportunity and belief.

You work in international trade. What countries are showing interest in Nigeria right now?

One in 37 people in the world is Nigerian, and Lagos alone is the continent’s 5th economy. There’s nobody in business who shouldn’t consider this country. The UK government has named Nigeria as a key partner in the post-Brexit era, and they are not alone. The Netherlands, for example, sees Nigeria as the most important country within its Africa strategy while the US invests large sums in the country. Belgium, Russia, India, China… Countries all over the world seek to develop stronger trade and investment ties with Nigeria. It tends to be sector-related like Brazil’s $1bn investment in the agric sector, Germany’s involvement in fixing the energy sector, Australia looking to support the mining sector, etc.      

We work with clients from over 20 countries who seek to develop their business in the country. Some are looking at Nigeria for the first time now that some of their more established markets are struggling due to the current economic climate. Some have a longer-term strategy that includes Nigeria and the wider African market. In just a few decades, Nigeria will be a bigger country than the US and there are many gaps that still need to be plugged -which translate to opportunities. We get requests from businesses all over the world that would like to explore doing business with Nigeria.

How has Covid19 affected your business, if at all?

Initially, it had a major direct impact on us, but I’m pleased to say that we’re doing very well at the moment. Interest in expanding to/ in Nigeria has not reduced and the need for local services and advisory company like Naijalink has in fact increased. After all, our clients can’t visit the market at the moment and need us to be their hand and feet on the ground. Obviously, a lot of our services have gone virtual as they have done elsewhere. In a normal year, we would organize several trade missions to Nigeria for international government agencies. All were cancelled when the pandemic hit, but we then developed an effective model for virtual trade missions. We’ve also added more back-office support services and a digital marketing capability on behalf of our clients. Initially, I feared I would have to let go of some staff, but instead I ended up hiring more people.

I’ve run Naijalink for over a decade and it can make you complacent when things go well. Covid19 was a trigger to reassess how we do things. Entrepreneurship is all about adjusting to prevailing conditions and making the most of it. Covid19 dealt us lemons, but we made lemonade and developed a nice lemon ice cream as well, so to speak.

Last but not least, I think my team is rather pleased with the remote work -in Lagos traffic can be crazy and they’re saving many hours each week that would normally have been spent in traffic. When all goes back to normal, we’ll continue working remotely for part of the week as it’s been so efficient.

Nigeria has a reputation for being a complex and difficult place to do business. How do you feel about this and what does Naijalink do to remedy this perception?

I get that. Nigeria may never be a ‘popular’ choice and it’s not a country for the faint-hearted. However, it’s not as bad as people think. I often get questions about security, for example, and people don’t believe that I, a foreign woman, can just walk on the street. I’ve also never paid a bribe and yet I’ve had my business for 11 years. The average Nigerian is hardworking and welcoming, not a dodgy scammer.

From a business perspective: some of the richest companies on the continent are based in Nigeria, offering significant opportunities for exporters in B2B products and solutions. While the nation as a whole is very price-sensitive, there is still 10% of the population with real spending power. A small portion indeed, but in absolute numbers, that’s about 20 million people.

Unfortunately, I know many stories of trade or investment that has gone wrong. Sometimes it’s purely bad luck, sometimes it’s poor preparation. There are companies that work with ineffective partners, exporters that extend credit to companies they hardly know, businesses that belief tendering for big contracts is the best way forward… You have to work with capable companies. I think Nigeria’s one of those places where “penny shy, pound foolish” rings very true. Say you’ll go for the cheapest lawyer, you might end up with problems much bigger than you could ever imagine.

The bad stories stay while you don’t hear about our clients who grow their business to Nigeria with double figures. Sometimes we help them adjust their approach, sometimes we link them with a better party. For example, I’m just back from a supermarket supplied by one of our Dutch clients. We connected them in the midst of the pandemic -when their business in many other parts of the world collapsed- and they see their exports to Nigeria grow exponentially. All this during a tough time, and to a country that many say you should avoid…  

The opportunities are real, but you’ll have to be smart about doing business with Nigeria. Tailor your proposition to the country, work with reliable partners, understand how you can support them effectively, visit the country… It may sound daunting, but we’ve assisted hundreds of clients to enter the market successfully. It’s possible.

As a female business leader in Lagos, does your gender impact the success of your business? If no, yes, why? (Perhaps extend on how female business people are views in Nigeria?)

In an environment where a business is often granted based on relationships, and where being an entrepreneur means being flexible, strategic and very resilient, it can be that women have an advantage. I also feel women may have a longer-term focus and won’t jump on every opportunity without assessing whether it really adds to their business. Or perhaps that’s just me. I actually know just as many successful businessmen as businesswomen, so gender may not matter at all. I do know, however, that I would probably never have started a company if I had stayed in the Netherlands -Nigeria just infuses you with an entrepreneurial spirit regardless of your gender.

In 2017, research by the BBC revealed that 40% of Nigerian women are entrepreneurs -the highest in the world apparently. So, I’m not at all the only one. This also holds for corporate culture. It’s refreshing to find women in front of me when I meet directors and CEOs of leading companies. In Lagos, where I live, I know many powerful, visionary, successful and interesting women who I would see as an example to anyone in the world. They build their businesses and career, keep educating themselves, socialize, are never found missing when their family needs them, and on top of it all manage to look amazing. Impressive!

I remember that when I had my twins, people back home asked me if I could continue to work as much as I do. If I would not fear that I would neglect them by working a lot. In Nigeria, however, other women encouraged me to build my business further so I could look after my kids’ future. A very different perspective. In my experience, women in Nigeria are not held back when trying to maximize their potential.

Anything else you’d like to say to fellow members and wider ASBN community about your business, please share!

I know Nigeria may be a bridge too far for some, but if anyone wants to have a closer look: just drop us an email! Let’s explore together if there may be opportunities for you. If we feel we can’t support you, we’ll also tell you honestly. For us, it’s all about a long-term partnership with our clients, not quick wins by delivering something that won’t help you at the end of the day. I look forward to welcoming the members and friends of ASBN in Nigeria!

 

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