Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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Subjects of Interest

  • Fiscal Policy
  • Geopolitical Analysis
  • Governance
  • Politics

MumZee and the limit of generosity in driving economic empowerment 14 Feb 2024

“Farin Ruwa, Nasarawa State. The only definition of what I’ve seen here is grinding poverty. My host earns an average of N2,000.00 daily and struggles to make ends meet. He is of the same age as I am and already has eight children. Two of his boys hardly listen to him anymore. He’s thinking of shipping them out to his parents in Kano. I can only wish them a happy Sallah and return to Abuja to more pristine surroundings later in the day. However, this visit, just over an hour from where I’m living in ‘opulence’, is the real Nigeria…”

I wrote the above words on 12 September 2016 during one of my research field trips, back then when I was directly involved in the day-to-day data gathering for SBM Intelligence. One of my occasional regrets about joining this organisation is that it exposed me to much of what Nigeria truly is. I can say that ignorance is truly bliss.

As the story of Deborah Olaki (@MumZee on X, formerly Twitter) broke last month, I thought about how Nigeria has become a place where citizens live in deprivation. Thank goodness there was a happy ending to her story. Mrs. Olaki had put out an innocent tweet about how a feeling of jealousy made her – a young wife – get up before dawn to prepare lunch for her husband to take to work. Reflecting today’s “wokeness”, her tweet received knee-jerk responses of denunciation. But that quickly gave way to an outpouring of generosity towards her for being a caring wife, and because it became clear that she lacked modern home appliances that would have made things easier for her. Individual and corporate Nigerians have now spoilt her with all manner of gifts, from cash to home appliances and a house. It was quite heartwarming to see the life of a Nigerian family so dramatically turned around at a time when many lives are being turned upside down.

When @MumZee made her first tweet on the subject, many people were angry with her husband. They implied that her marriage had put her in a form of tortuous bondage for having to get up as early as 4:30am to cook for her husband. Folks went to town with invectives, failing to realise that the family's economic circumstance necessitated her getting up as early as she was doing to make lunch for her husband. There was no indication that her husband made such a demand of his wife. If the family had had a freezer, microwave oven, food processor, etc., and electricity, she probably would not have needed to get up as early as she did to prepare the meals.

Preparing meals can be a great experience. Cooking meals in advance and storing them to be consumed later help to avoid daily cooking. This offers economies of scale, better nutritional intake, and portion size control. However, these benefits are only within reach with access to relevant household appliances, which are out of reach for the average Nigerian family.

According to a 2019 report from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the median income in the country was N137,400 per year, which is less than $100 based on the naira exchange rate at the end of January 2024. 63% of Nigeria's population, equivalent to 133 million people, are multidimensionally poor. A dimension of poverty sees more than 50% of Nigerians unable to afford standard cooking fuels like gas, kerosene, and electricity. They use environmentally damaging substitutes like dung, wood, and charcoal. The number of people using household appliances in Nigeria is estimated to reach 5.8 million by 2028, rising from only 2.5% in 2024 to 3.2% in the next five years.

This data is important in contextualising the initial discussion about @MumZee, especially as it glossed over the predicaments of her social demography. She seemed to have suffered from ‘urban bias’. Many commentators that vilified her live in an alternative reality. Twitter, apart from being a platform for active citizen engagement, also serves as an echo chamber of the elite. It makes no pretensions to building an egalitarian community – a problem that has worsened with the commercial strategy of Elon Musk that amplifies the voices of ‘influencers’ and has further relegated the voices of online ‘commoners.’

The problem of deprivation in Nigeria has become too acute. An apparently devoted family and hardworking people, the Olakis are both university graduates. Their economic situation (until fortune smiled on them) gave credence to the sad reality that the Nigerian middle class is all but wiped out. We are now a society of those who have and those who don’t. Apart from the high unemployment rate, inflation has corroded the purchasing power of the naira, gravely reducing real income and exacerbating poverty.

Families in which the husbands and wives are university graduates should be able to tap into a functioning credit system. They should be able to lease home appliances and pay in instalments spanning a few years. Such a consumer credit market emerged with the Nigerian banking system, where capital reform saw banks grow their capital bases in multiple folds in the mid-2000s. However, consumer lending has seen little progress since the 2008 financial crisis, when many banks recorded significant credit impairment.

The Nigerian economy cannot deliver on its potential if the consumption capacity of over 200 million people is constrained by poverty and lack of access to consumer credit. It has got to be a credit economy to be a high-growth economy. Credit systems are tools for economic and social inclusion. One hopes that policy will again pivot to encourage consumer credit. A focus on credit for producers – which the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has championed in the past years – needs to be complemented with consumer credit. Otherwise, manufacturers’ inventories will be sitting in warehouses, stores, or landfills due to spoilage. But with a credit system that helps to move the inventories, a strong value chain of various industries and products will begin to develop, with millions of middle-class jobs created.

A functioning consumer credit market will transform Nigerians' quality of life, spark the return of the middle class, and foster environmental sustainability. Access to clean cookstoves, for instance, has a direct positive health impact compared to using biomass for cooking. The environmental impact would be considerable as deforestation would be slowed and reversed.

Of course, building a robust credit system in Nigeria, while promising, comes with its own set of challenges. Financial literacy, infrastructure gaps, and repayment concerns must be addressed with innovative policies and solutions. Microfinance initiatives, mobile banking technologies, and partnerships with local entrepreneurs can be crucial in creating a responsible and accessible credit ecosystem.

The situation of @MumZee changed in a moment of precipitated generosity by Nigerians. Millions of people are in the situation she just left. They can’t all be lifted by charitable donations. They require policy intervention and a well-functioning consumer credit market to access economic opportunities and a modern way of living.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.