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Expats looking to do business in Nigeria, and especially those who have never done business on the African continent before, will certainly have to prepare themselves for some unique challenges.
Although great strides have been made within the corporate world in Nigeria – an oil-rich country and one of Africa’s largest economies – the country still suffers from massive corruption and a debilitating lack of infrastructure; two factors that can make doing business difficult, to say the least.
Expats should remember that a tremendous amount of business does get done in Nigeria, and jaded or pessimistic views about the country are not always well deserved.
Nevertheless, doing business in Nigeria is challenging, as illustrated by numerous international business surveys. Most notably, Nigeria ranked 131st out of 190 countries in the World Bank's 2020 Ease of Doing Business Survey. This marked improvements from its previous rankings and the country performed well for factors such as ease of getting credit (15th) and protecting minority investors (28th). But it continues to rank poorly for factors such as getting electricity (169th), registering property (183rd) and trading across borders (179th).
To help avoid or overcome any potential issues, expats relocating to and working in the Giant of Africa should familiarise themselves with key aspects of doing business.
In a country that claims many different ethnic groups and dialects, English has emerged as the primary language of business in Nigeria
Hours of business
Office hours are usually 8am to 4pm or 9am to 5pm, from Monday to Friday. This varies slightly for banks and government offices which usually close earlier. Some businesses also adjust their working hours during Ramadan.
Smart and stylish; dark colours are preferred.
Extended, warm handshakes that linger for a while are the traditional greeting among men. Since Nigeria has a large Muslim population and observant men will not shake hands with women, a safe, traditional greeting with a woman would be for a man to bow his head slightly when introduced.
There is no standard practice for gift giving in Nigeria – although, if receiving a gift, be sure to reciprocate. When exchanging a gift or shaking hands, always use the right hand.
Nigeria remains a patriarchal society, with traditional roles for men and women largely adhered to. Still, there are plenty of opportunities for women and many women can be found in senior positions within both the corporate and political sphere.
Business culture in Nigeria
New arrivals to Nigeria may experience culture shock in various aspects of their relocation, and the workplace is no different. Business culture in Nigeria is subject to a number of variable forces; over 250 different ethnic groups co-exist in the country and many foreign-owned multinationals have operations there. So, business etiquette demands that expats remain flexible and willing to improvise.
It’s vital to cement a working business relationship with associates. Be prepared to be patient and to wait for this trust to develop before diving into the nuts and bolts of business discussions. For this reason, business meetings in Nigeria are very social occasions, providing the framework for the creation of solid interpersonal connections.
The management style typically found in Nigeria is extremely hierarchical. The boss – invariably male, and almost always of an older generation – will expect and will receive respect from all those working beneath him, and will never be publicly criticised. This does not necessarily mean that all decisions are made from the top down; business relationships are extremely important in Nigeria and compromises can be reached.
Nigerian business leaders tend to lead strongly, giving their employees instructions that are expected to be followed closely. Teamwork and the ability to work together toward clearly defined goals are considered more valuable assets in the Nigerian workplace than independent thinking or individualistic efforts.
Attitude to foreigners
Nigerians are famously friendly and hospitable people who take a genuine interest in the lives and experiences of foreigners. If one makes an effort to get to know the locals, this friendliness will be repaid tenfold.
Still, it’s best to be wary of empty promises when tabling an offer; it is quite unusual for Nigerian officials to willingly give their internal business to non-Nigerian companies.
Bribery and corruption
Nigeria has a horrendous reputation for bribery and corruption. These are systemic problems, observable from the highest levels of government to the lowest level of street sales. It is unfortunate, though unavoidable, that expats will experience this corruption in some form or another while living and working in Nigeria.
Forming connections with prominent ministers and governors is essential for those wanting to be successful at business in Nigeria. Although not advocated, it’s an unfortunate reality that many companies appear to have a wide margin written into their budgets for bribes.
Dos and don'ts of doing business in Nigeria
Do be willing to improvise and to make a real effort at getting to know Nigerian colleagues
Do try to remain patient and calm in all situations
Do remember that bribery, corruption, favouritism and nepotism are still unfortunate realities of doing business in Nigeria
Don’t disrespect elders or those in higher positions of authority
Don’t criticise colleagues in public – rather have a private word with them, if necessary
Don’t fall into the habit of thinking about or interacting with all Nigerians in the same way. Nigeria is an incredibly diverse nation, and expats should try to familiarise themselves with the nuances of dealing with the different ethnic groups and different people