For Dr. Henrietta Onwuegbuzie, professor at Lagos Business School, some of the most successful start-ups from her classes have built their businesses by solving problems using profitable business models; impact investments, often with indigenous twists.

Many emerging markets confront the similar issue of over-dependence on extractive industries. Nigeria is no exception, with oil and natural gas being the national economic motor. This explains why a key motive for local professors of entrepreneurship is to develop local industries, preferably based on indigenous knowledge.

But what is that exactly? In 1999, the UNESCO agency underlined how traditional societies had, over centuries, nurtured local knowledge systems in areas such as botany, agriculture, health, and other areas. UNESCO stressed the underlying wealth of these indigenous knowledge systems.

For business school professors in emerging markets, the challenge lies in finding useful and profitable applications for the indigenous ideas. This recycling of traditional customs into innovative businesses is one source of new start-ups. “And there is no reason for such start-ups to be limited to our domestic market,” explains Henrietta Onwuegbuzie. “These ‘re-innovations’ provide valuable solutions to problems in contemporary society, and so can very well travel abroad.”

But perhaps another important aspect of indigenous innovation is “its ability to change job seekers into job creators,” says Henrietta Onwuegbuzie. “It is in addressing local problems, and finding local solutions to these problems, that my students can develop great business ideas that are relevant to the market and therefore profitable.” The best and the most sustainable business ideas solve genuine problems. See below article on public toilets in Jos.

In her technical note, Henrietta Onwuegbuzie provides a cursory example of how indigenous knowledge has been applied to the herbal medicine sector. In fact, she shared a personal example: “For several years, I had strong allergies to flour. I was what one calls celiac in medical jargon. A friend familiar with herbal remedies recommended that I take a green leafy herb usually used for soups in Nigeria. The herb is commonly known as bitter-leaf (Vernonia Amygdalina botanical name). I decided to blend and drink a glass of this herb in warm water every morning. Within a few months, my condition improved significantly. I found I could tolerate bread and other flour products without feeling bloated or having digestive difficulties.”

Local solutions for local problems
Henrietta Onwuegbuzie focuses on developing impact-driven entrepreneurs who are the true engines of economic growth. “We need to develop entrepreneurs, who see business as a tool for social transformation. African countries are also rich in indigenous knowledge, which holds valuable solutions that are relevant to contemporary society. By encouraging the development and commercialization of these solutions, we provide effective and affordable solutions to the rest of the world, while raising the standard of living of those communities from which indigenous knowledge solutions are derived,” she explains.

In her entrepreneurship classes, Henrietta Onwuegbuzie emphasizes the need for students to seek to be impact-driven entrepreneurs, who transform society by solving problems. By so doing, they become real engines of economic growth. She encourages her students to see problems as profitable business opportunities, recognizing that being impact-driven is compatible with profit-making. The students are taught the importance of having financially sustainable models as they seek to solve problems. “One of my alumni successes was Uka Osaigbovo.  Alas, Uka found himself in dire financial straits. He had no capital to invest upfront. But he knew about web sites. He noticed that roadside furniture craftsmen produced furniture of good quality. They were however selling for very low prices because they were usually located in the low-income neighborhoods and simply displayed their finished works along the roadside. Uka’s business idea was to display the furniture on an online platform with a better background, so as to increase the visibility of their works. More people, especially those of higher-income, could see the furniture, and be willing to pay more for it. This would therefore increase the returns to the artisans, while making a margin for himself. Customers on the other hand would enjoy the convenience of being able to select and purchase good and more affordable furniture online, as he intended to keep the prices lower than showroom furniture. This business, started in 2013, has since continued to grow. The company,, continues to be the only online retail furniture platform in Nigeria, and enjoys patronage from different states in the country as well as from Nigerians in the diaspora. The business has also made a significant positive impact in the lives of the artisans as many of them are no longer living in poverty, and those who were apprentices, when the business started, are now part of the chain of suppliers to .” For Henrietta Onwuegbuzie, this was a prime example of a student who entered Lagos Business School with a very strong profit motive (“…he was interested in making piles of money, to say the least…”), yet indigenous knowledge, and the ability to solve a pressing local problem, proved the key success factors for his entrepreneurial venture.

Another key area of emphasis for Henrietta Onwuegbuzie is apprenticeships. “Like many old-fashioned, inflexible educational systems, we maintain an over-emphasis on formal classroom training, ignoring the overwhelming importance of learning by doing, which is what apprenticeships achieve. It is very important to benefit from existing, accumulated experience in training younger managers or entrepreneurs. Fortunately, some educational institutions have realized the importance of balancing both forms of learning and have started incorporating opportunities for students to receive significant on-the-job learning opportunities. I witnessed this at the Technion, one of the best Israeli universities, where students are encouraged to hunt for part-time jobs, from sophomore year until graduation,” she explains. Though this lengthens the undergraduate studies, students graduate with practical work experience that makes them more job-ready and attractive to employers. Similarly, if students are provided with the opportunity to start and run businesses while in school, educational institutions will produce more entrepreneurs (job-creators), and will consequently contribute to solving the problem of high unemployment.

Developing indigenous successes
Henrietta Onwuegbuzie’s advice for identifying good business ideas is to make sure that initiatives are not solely profit-driven, but solution or impact-driven, as is the case for the creation of a line of innovative dark-skinned dolls. See below article on doll. Behind every problem lurks a profitable business opportunity, since problems imply people seeking solutions. If one can provide that solution, people will be willing to pay. Impact-driven business ideas therefore tend to be more profitable and sustainable than those solely motivated by profits. “By seeking to create solutions to existing problems, rather than seeking only to ‘make profits’, entrepreneurs can increase their chances of success,” concludes Henrietta Onwuegbuzie.

Indigenous knowledge ECCH technical note number 816-0074-6
Professor Henrietta Onwuegbuzie

Pay per poo

For one of Henrietta Onwuegbuzie’s students, the path to profits was via latrines. By setting up fee-based public toilets in Nigeria, this enterprising alumnus was able to marry public service and private profit

The idea behind the project was quite simple, so simple that many people are now wondering why they did not think of it before. By building a set of twin six-pack toilets (half for women and half for men) adjacent to a public market, the participant was able to capitalize on a concept developed earlier at Lagos Business School with professor Henrietta Onwuegbuzie.

The charges range from N100 – N200 (Local currency is the Naira (N). Current exchange rate is N370/$) per usage. The end result? Almost N2 million in monthly revenues, enough to pay his cleaning staff well above average wages. “This project is the perfect illustration of our philosophy,” explains Henrietta Onwuegbuzie. “Instead of focusing only on how to make money, we focused on a problem that could be solved in a profitable way. Public toilets in Nigeria are few and badly maintained, so by offering reasonably-priced and hygienic alternatives, this student was able to both solve a pressing public health concern, and make money in the process.

Smashing success of dark-skinned dolls

For another of Henrietta Onwuegbuzie’s students, indigenous knowledge led to the creation of a wildly successful line of dark-skinned dolls with frizzy hair

For Paul Orajiaka, attending one of Henrietta’s classes and facing the assignment of finding an indigenous idea to bring to market, the spark of inspiration came from his interest in toys. The assignment required writing a business plan for exportable indigenous solutions that create value, and Paul felt that his long-lasting interest in toys might prove fertile ground. By creating a line of dark-skinned dolls that have since become a global success, he disrupted the decades old habit for little girls to play with blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls of the Barbie variety.

Paul, who had been running a toy business for over ten years, decided to test dark-skinned doll with curly afro-style hair, and he hit the jackpot. The three initial dolls, modeled after three Nigerian tribes with different physiques (Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo), were then produced and have been extremely well received in several markets across the globe.

Paul initially enrolled at the Lagos Business School with the main aim of increasing the profitability of his existing business. However, he was constantly bombarded with the idea that businesses should seek to create value and that value drives profits. Paul eventually decided to verify this concept by creating dolls that make black children proud of their skin colour and hair type. He also wanted the dolls to be educative and thus dressed them in the traditional attire of the three major tribes in Nigeria, and included a little booklet in the pack that contained basic information on the history and culture of each tribe. The dolls were given names: Amaka, representing the Ibo tribe; Aisha, representing the Hausa tribe; and Ronke, representing the Yoruba tribe.

Paul Orajiaka devotes part of the proceeds from his toy sales to educational pursuits. He recently renovated a run-down public school, in a very low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Lagos. “I wanted to do this for the community. It was surprising to note that many past governors and ministers were past students of this school and have never thought of giving back. Yet what it cost me to complete the renovation of the dilapidated school is the equivalent of a business class ticket.”

These dolls, simply conceived with the desire to create value, have brought Paul Orajiaka more profit that all his other toys, that were acquired or licensed for simple profit motives. The dolls have also brought him global recognition. Jokingly, he stated, “When I was only making money, not even the smallest local evening newspaper, cared to know who I was. However, now that I am making an impact and creating value, I am being globally recognized. Several media houses at home and abroad have all featured me, including Forbes magazine and CNBC.”

Profile: Professor Henrietta Onwuegbuzie