Thousands of small businesses in Nigeria are under the ogbanje spell.
The ogbanje thingy was a huge problem in my village in the 70s. I knew a particular woman in the neighborhood who lost four babies in a row! She was inconsolable! After the last one died, they made ritual incisions on the baby’s corpse with a knife. That was meant to keep the wicked ogbanje baby from returning to the mother’s womb to continue its cycle of torture.
The ogbanje mythology was extremely strong in Eastern Nigeria. The ogbanje was a child from the underworld who came into the earth purposefully to torture her unfortunate parents. The ogbanje baby was always, always ill. A pair of eyes must be on her every moment because she was always one second away from crisis. If a woman had an ogbanje baby, it was a full time occupation. She could not carry on with her petty trading or farming. Wherever the father was, he could not concentrate on whatever he was doing. When a herald would run his way, he would brace himself for the worst.
Usually, the ogbanje baby would never die until it had drained the family’s energy, time and finances.
Nowadays, the ogbanje has changed tactic. It is tired of possessing human beings, especially since medical research may have finally pointed an accusing finger at the sickle cell disease. So, driven away by medical research and better treatment, the elusive ogbanje has now gone for the jugular of small businesses!
How can you tell if your business is an ogbanje?
Very easy. If your business only takes from you and never gives back to you, it is definitely an Ogbanje business! If your business is running you instead of you running it, it is most definitely an ogbanje! When you started the business, you dreamt about freedom. But now, you’re caught in misery and constant emergency you never bargained for. You had hoped that the business would take care of your family. But now, it’s your family that’s taking care of the business.
For five, ten or fifteen years, you have worked tirelessly on this business. You don’t sleep – you even boast that you sleep only four hours a day! You have never taken a vacation, how much more give your family a treat. You have pumped in loan after loan into the business in the hope of making profits. Yet, all you have a daring mountain of debts that refuse to just go away. When you receive ten phone calls, two are from customers. The remaining eight are creditors whose communications with you have deteriorated to mostly f- words.
The business has consumed your landed property; you sold your last plot of land and ploughed into it. It is a sheer miracle that you are still coherent. It is even a bigger miracle that your blood pressure has remained at the fringe of normal though your body is all aches, pains and chronic fatigue from the daily beatings from the business.
Sometimes, the business appears to be picking up. That’s when a disloyal staff drags you into trouble with the police or your driver runs into the dreaded LASTMA (Lagos State Transport Management Authority) agents. Or an employee runs away with your cherished asset. Or fire guts down your assets that were never insured. And you start all over again.
Some ogbanje business owners perpetually worry about paying staff salaries at the end of the month and how to keep the unscrupulous “NEPA” staff from cutting off their electricity. When they survive the end of one month, they breathe a sigh of relief, and immediately start worrying about paying the next round of staff salaries.
If this scenario plays out in the first few years of starting a business, it is understandable. Businesses go through very tough times at startup, before they achieve profitability. Some businesses may become profitable after three to six or seven years. But when these crisis conditions become chronic, then the ogbanje phenomenon is definitely at work in the business.
What causes business ogbanje?
The same sinister sickle cell – business sickle cell! Normal red blood cells are doughnut shaped and move easily through the blood vessels, transporting oxygen to the cells of the body. But the sickle cells are abnormally shaped like sickles. They block the flow of blood through the blood vessels an cause anemia, and possible death.
The main cause of ogbanje business is a sickle strategy. Poor strategy, just like sickle cells, block the flow of energy between the elements of the business. Idea might be great but the funding is inadequate – like raising an elephant on a mouse’s ration. Product might be superior but the packaging is crap. Marketing may be excellent but the brand doesn’t deliver the goods. Advertising is glamorous but customer service is homely.
What can you do about your ogbanje business?
1. Seek detachment!
Here’s why the ogbanje child would normally drain her parents: Emotional attachment! No mum can stand and watch her baby die, even when she knows it is dying. In the same way, your emotional attachment to your struggling business idea might be clouding your judgment as to how best to manage it. Until you detach, you will continue to struggle, working “in” your business instead of “on” it.
2. Seek creative partnerships.
Trying to do everything all by yourself will continue to keep your business small. Someone said, “I’d rather earn 1% of 100 people’s effort than 100% of mine.” Leverage off on other people’s skills and expertise and be willing to share the goods with them. Many businesses are only one partnership away from ten million dollars!
3. Recruit a good and loyal team
The greatest affliction of ogbanje businesses are unreliable employees. Owners of fashion businesses perpetually bewail their problem with disloyal tailors. Tailors can abandon your business in the middle of a major order. Seek help in creating working conditions that encourage loyalty and longterm commitment among your employees. Treat your workers well. Respect them. Pay them well.
A major obstacle to curing an ogbanje business is the promoter’s blind spot. Often, a sickly business is only a coaching session away from its breakthrough. My real estate mentor drew me aside one day and said, “Ogbo, no man can get rich unless another man shows him how.” If you’re running an ogbanje business, why wait until it has drained your family’s energy, time and money before seeking help? Attend business events and conferences. Explore the learning opportunities with Enterprise Development Center, Pan Atlantic University.
When your business is rid of its sickle cells, you will regain the joy of entrepreneurship and realize the freedom and prosperity you originally dreamed about when you started out.
This post first appeared here as “Is your business an Ogbanje?”