“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
I have always been fascinated by the depth of Goethe’s writings – eye-opening, sublime and thought-provoking. The import of the opening quote from this cerebral German poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director and critic hit me more with an encounter I had recently with a graduate fish-seller at a market in Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria. Her impeccable Queen’s English actually ignited my curiosity to engage her in a probing discussion. The outcome of the discussion revealed that she is well-educated, but the lack of formal employment made her embrace the chore her mother used to train her in school. She told me she made more than the monthly minimum wage as profit in a week. She regretted not dabbling into the business on time. After the encounter, I had come in contact with many graduates with similar experiences. It appears to me, therefore, that certain businesses or jobs we ignore have the potential of setting us on the path to great fortunes and fulfilment. It is, however, ironic that with our eyes wide open, we still find it intractable to see the opportunities inherent in such chores as they don’t look fanciful, sleek, or corporate. This makes us in perpetual search for what is right before our eyes, leaving us either unemployed or underemployed.
Businesses such as the graduate fish seller fall within the informal sector of the economy. The informal sector is broadly characterised as consisting of units engaged in the production of goods or services with the primary objective of generating employment and incomes for the persons concerned. Other examples include food and flea markets, street vendors, laundromats and the like, mostly in rural or informal areas. It is considered informal since these businesses are rarely registered at national or regional levels, are cash-based and thus do not pay taxes, and usually do not have formal arrangements with employees. The features highlighted here may be responsible for why many people do not fancy them despite their viability. With what I learned from the graduate fish seller; undergraduates and graduates need re-orientation. Education may be said to begin after leaving school, but a solid foundation must be laid for it while still in school.
How should the foundation be laid? What needs to change in the way students are being prepared for life after school? Methinks students should be made to interact, irrespective of discipline, with the town. The disconnect between the gown and the town keeps growing day in, day out. Most of the people – undergraduates, graduate students and even lecturers – see themselves as superior to those in town, particularly the ones in the streets. Academic arrogance tends to take the better of them when relating to those in the streets, making it difficult to see the potential of what they do. Humility is highly needed if one wants to learn. There is a big difference between academic wisdom and street wisdom. No one tests memorisation outside classes; your knowledge of what you do is what matters in the streets. To this end, members of our university communities, especially the academic staff, need to realise that they are not aliens. In fact, they are an integral part of society. So, their students require wisdom to survive in the streets, as when formal learning fails to bring the desirable results, informal wisdom may be the way out. So, gown and town need to complement each other, not the other way around.
As long as the so-called educated among us consider certain jobs as beneath them, they may eternally remain either unemployed or underemployed. There are no menial jobs; only menial minds exist. What I have discovered is that most of us were trained with the proceeds of street businesses, but we have never spared a thought on how they can be repackaged for better value. Instead of seeing them as beneath us, what we need is to use our education to repackage them. We can, however, not repackage what we don’t see as its value. This is why it becomes important for our schools to begin to expose students to street wisdom right from school through constant interaction with those in the informal sector. In fact, an apprenticeship programme should be organised for students in the informal sector rather than internships in the formal sector. Students must be made to learn values such as hard work, persistence, perseverance, etc. from the streets.
With better orientation from school, adjusting to the reality of the street will not be difficult. An average graduate will begin to see education as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The sleekness we are looking for in the formal sector can be incorporated into street businesses. Education acquired will be the differentiator in going about how street businesses are practised. The resultant effects will be gainful engagement, personal fulfillment in terms of income generation, etc., which will ultimately reduce crime and criminality, entitlement mentality, and so on, as each one will know what it takes to make a success of venture.
It needs to be stressed here that the sector currently accounts for over half of global employment and as much as 90 per cent of employment in some of the poorer developing countries. Due to its flexible nature, the informal sector can easily adapt to difficulties such as the current global recession, providing some measure of support to those most in need. As critical as it is to economic development, is there any reliable database for businesses that fall into this sector? I am aware of attempts by some Agencies of Government to do this. Do we really have it? I am not sure. If we have the data of the businesses in this sector, it will help us to plan and chart a better path to harnessing the potential therein. In fact, the disconnect between town and gown in this regard will be closed, and it will rub off positively on knowledge production and acquisition.
Agencies within the Science, Technology, and Innovation Ministry with mandates bordering on data capturing and management should begin to work with the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) to structure the operations of the sector. It will make it organised and interventions from the government will be easy.
Informal businesses may look unattractive, but they are lucrative. They may appear disorganised, but they can organise one’s life with a regular source of income. They may not be sleek, but there is dignity in having something to do. It brings respect as opposed to partaking in crimes and criminalities. It is like durian, a fruit with so much stench, but very sweet. Informal businesses, like durian, may effuse stench, but they are valuable. They are capable of lifting people from unemployment and underemployment if we will view them differently and help create a reliable database for it.