Before Kehinde Adetokun, 26, completed a two-year HND in Computer Science, he had undergone a one-year apprenticeship and started a fashion design business. His twin brother, Taiwo, had become a plumber and tiler under the same timeframe. No one in his immediate family of six siblings intends to enter the corporate world. “There are no jobs out there, so why bother yourself?” he told Ventures Africa. “Even when you find jobs, they won’t pay you well. It’s better to learn a skill and be in control of how much you earn.”

Many Nigerians are like the Adetokuns. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 87% of Nigerians of working age are self-employed. But it’s not primarily because people have entrepreneurial instincts. For many youths, self-employment is a survival tactic born from their lack of faith in the job market. Only 12.7% of Nigeria’s workforce is in wage employment.

“I realised from my first year in school that there is nothing in the labour market. You have to hustle by yourself to make it in this country,” Adetokun said. “I was tempted to get a job last year because business was rough. But when I saw the salaries, I went back to my [sewing] machine.” Adetokun makes between N200,000 and N350,000 monthly from his venture. His twin brother’s earnings are more volatile, ranging from N90,000 to N500,000″ depending on the size of contracts.”

Nigeria has a crunching unemployment problem. Even after the NBS facelifted its methodology to dramatically reduce its unemployed workforce from 33% to 4.2%, the numbers are still rising, reaching 5% in Q3 2023. The former methodology counted anyone working less than 20 hours a week as unemployed, but the new system says anyone working up to an hour weekly is not unemployed. It also does not account for the 3-5 million annual new entrants in the job market. Yet, under the new methodology, nearly 14% of youths have nothing to do. And not everyone who took the same path as the Adetokuns has the same fate.

Onoriode Martins, 30, worked for five years as a teacher before quitting to sell jewellery and perfumes via WhatsApp and Facebook. “It took three years for them to increase my salary to N40,000 from N35,000. I was tired,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t like teaching, but I was too stagnant. And because I wasn’t getting any good job offers, I decided to start selling something.”

However, Martins’ transition to self-employment hasn’t been a fairytale. It’s been two years, but she still struggles with fluctuating sales and elusive profits, making her unable to scale. “Sometimes, I make up to N90,000 at the end of the month. Other times, I won’t see Shishi (a dime),” she said. Martins is not passionate about entrepreneurship; she’d rather be gainfully employed. “I don’t like the way my income is unstable. But there are no jobs, so I have to make do with this business.”

Martins represents a large crop of Nigeria’s self-employed youths. Their operations are largely informal, and they’d rather have good jobs. In more ways than one, the government has more to lose than gain. The first consequence is the country’s skill gap. In a survey of companies in Nigeria, 81% said they had difficulty finding workers with the relevant skills. Self-employment makes this problem harder to solve because Nigeria now has millions of youths who have never experienced work under a corporate structure.

But arguably, the most worrisome consequence is how it de-incentivises formal education. “Sometimes, I wish my parents just gave me all that money they spent on sending me to the university to start a business,” Martins said. “Right now, it feels like a waste.” Adetokun shares her sentiment. “I didn’t bother about furthering my education because there was no point. Why should I waste money on a new degree when I can get a new sewing machine?”

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