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Onitsha pumps with business but struggles to embrace innovation

The Onitsha business community which is regarded as one of the largest and most influential commercial centres in West Africa, renowned for its bustling markets, diverse trading activities, and entrepreneurial spirit is facing a challenge: a reluctance to embrace technological innovation.

Despite its reputation for bustling markets and diverse trade, the Onitsha Main Market and its traders are grappling with the slow adoption of modern technologies, hindering their ability to keep pace with global business trends.

At a recent panel session during StartupSouth 8 in Port Harcourt, Ifeanyichukwu Ogbaji, the Convener of Onitsha Business Hangout, shed light on this issue. He pointed out that while Onitsha is considered a commercial capital in the southeast of Nigeria, it lags behind in technological innovation.

Ogbaji provided an example of the typical market woman in the Onitsha Main Market, who, rather than accepting a mobile transfer that would take minutes, prefers to accompany customers to the bank, spending hours waiting in line.

Speaking with BusinessDay, Ogbaji explained that this reluctance to embrace technology is rooted in the educational background of many traders. He stated, “Majority of our fathers and grandfathers that are successful business owners didn’t go to school.” Instead, they underwent an ’emaboi’ apprenticeship system, where young individuals with only primary education worked for established traders for several years before starting their businesses.

“At that level of education at just primary six, there are vital educational exposures that the boy is supposed to acquire in secondary school and as the university graduate that he didn’t get. Nevertheless, he didn’t get all that, he is going to be successful and richer than an average lecturer but because the world is fast evolving, he might not be able to catch up which makes him not able to trust the innovations that are coming because he knows nothing about it,” Ogbaji said. This educational gap has left many traders struggling to trust and adapt to technological innovations.

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He emphasised that while traditional businesses might thrive in the short term, dealing with American and Chinese traders while importing goods and being able to travel the world regardless of their level of education, they risk obsolescence as the world evolves because they failed to embrace innovation.

“Using my village for instance, my community was known for bicycle parts back in the days and now no known billionaires are in the bicycle business because the era of the bicycle is phased out. During that period when the business was booming, 95 percent of them refused to join the change and are no longer in business today.”

Ogbaji urged Onitsha’s business community to move with the times and integrate technology, innovation, and creativity into their operations to remain competitive.

Ogbaji also highlighted the need for the government’s involvement in promoting innovation. He expressed disappointment that the previous administrations in Anambra state under the governorship of Willie Obiano, where Onitsha is located, had not provided meaningful support or investment for the business community. He mentioned that Onitsha residents often had to rely on their own resources for basic services like security, water, and electricity due to inadequate government infrastructure.

In an effort to revitalise the business landscape, Ogbaji called upon investors to join him in promoting tech and innovation in Onitsha. He shared the example of Kene Mkparu, a film producer, Convener of Komworld and founder of Filmone Entertainment, who is building the largest cinema house in Africa in Nnewi, another town in Anambra state. This initiative demonstrates the potential for diversification and growth beyond traditional businesses.

Ogbaji said he cited this example because Kene Mkparu had the foresight that Nnewi’s economic landscape would evolve beyond the traditional spare parts industry. Mkparu, who is educated and well-travelled, recognised the shifting dynamics in Nigeria’s creative industry and understood the changing global trends. He also said that without his education and exposure, Mkparu might have continued his father’s spare parts business instead.

Ogbaji concluded by inviting investors to explore the opportunities in Onitsha, emphasising its receptive and welcoming nature. He stated, “Onitsha has the market, the numbers, and the Main Market remains one of the largest in West Africa. It’s time to unlock its full potential through innovation and technology.”

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