First Nigeria Got Wealthy. Then Came the Motivational Speakers.

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
May 30 2014 1:24 PM

Selling Success

First Nigeria got wealthy. Then came the motivational speakers to sell Nigerians on their full potential.

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Paul Foh.
Paul Foh is as much a public speaker as a motivational speaker.

Photo courtesy of Paul Foh

Today Foh is a highly sought motivation speaker. While Harris works a room with the easy rapport of a stand-up comedian, Foh is more of an orator, whose study of speechmakers from Winston Churchill to Barack Obama has taught him to extract maximum dramatic impact from his words.

“Martin Luther King is very good with metaphors,” he says, slipping into a powerful, if not strictly accurate, impression of King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech: “America wrote us a check, and we took the check to the bank, and the check has bounced!” 

The rhetoric of the civil rights movement may seem out of place in an industry whose bread and butter consists of training bank and oil company employees to be better at their jobs. But Foh and Harris have ambitions beyond corporate training. They want to inspire young people to create opportunities for themselves, and to have the kind of influence over them that rappers and singers have today. Both men believe that one day companies will simply pay motivational speakers to endorse brands and products, like they do musicians.

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“Musicians can’t close—we’re closers,” says Harris. 

Harris has already taken his can-do philosophy outside the business sphere, publishing a flamboyantly titled book: From Friend to Fiancee: Get Him to Want You As Much As You Want Him Without Letting Him Know You Want Him to Want You.

Paul Foh Event.
Foh leads a seminar.

Photo courtesy of Paul Foh

Durotoye—the famed speaker Foh and Harris revere—has his sights set even higher. “I’m not a businessman—I used to be,” he explains from his Lagos office, which is cluttered with awards (“in recognition of your role as a model of endless possibility”) from the charities and professional bodies he has addressed. “People tell me every time, ‘You’re not a motivational speaker—you’re a transformer.’ ”

Durotoye started out as a management consultant, offering advice on corporate strategy and customer service, but became famous for his ability to stir and connect with people on an emotional level. He often reduced audiences to tears. “Every time I trained people in customer service, on relationships, on selling skills, they would say to me, ‘Oh my God, we’re so inspired,’ ” he says.

He is now scaling back on fee-paying corporate work in order to pursue a new project training speakers across the country to preach an exalted, if broadly defined, set of values intended to make Nigeria “the most desirable country in the world.”

“I’m not a consultant. I’m not a motivational speaker. I’m a nation-builder who transforms people to transform nations,” he says, with no shortage of confidence. “I’m a man on a mission.” A cynic might suggest Nigerians are struggling to achieve their dreams due to structural economic obstacles rather than attitude problems, but Durotoye disagrees. “Obstacles are illusions,” he insists.

Watching young Nigerians strive to better their position, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the odds stacked against them, however. Eric Obuh is trying to hustle his way up the motivational speaking game. I meet him near his home in the teeming slum of Ajegunle.

Obuh, 32, shows up at a fast-food restaurant wearing a starched striped shirt and carrying a Chinese smartphone. He tells me that he has had to fend for himself since a very young age, and after leaving school at 15 he worked as a scavenger on garbage mounds for a decade.

“In the dump I found good books that inspired me,” he says. “Aristotle, Plato, Socrates. … It changed the way I see life. Instead of putting blame on my parents or society, I decided to take responsibility for my life.”

By night he performed music—a kind of fusion of dancehall and hip-hop—under the stage name Vocal Slender, and when a 2010 BBC documentary on Lagos picked him up as a central character, it seemed as though his big break had come.

Although success on YouTube and a U.K. tour have not translated into a record deal, Obuh is trying to turn his newfound fame into an opportunity for himself and his community. He got involved in charity work, took speaking lessons at a Lagos Toastmasters club, and created his own website (tagline: “Your Glory is Tied to Your Story.”) In April he received an award from Google’s Africa Connected initiative for inspiring people.

He now gets invitations from churches, schools, and charities to give motivational talks. The problem is these clients often don’t pay, though he does sometimes sells CDs of his music at the events for roughly $3 each.

None of life’s hardships has dented Obuh’s optimism. He’s convinced big things lie ahead, in both music and in motivational speaking. “God has been preparing me for a bigger stage,” he says.

Inam Wilson, a Lagos-based lawyer and an official with the Toastmasters organization, has mixed feelings about Nigeria’s motivational speaking boom. On the one hand, as a believer in the county’s potential himself, Wilson applauds speakers of “substance” who encourage real personal and economic development. He is less impressed with the banality-peddling imitators this new field has spawned.

“They say Lagos is a place where anything can happen, and it can happen at the snap of a finger. It’s a place where people believe they get suddenly to be millionaires. Some of us believe in process—block by block, brick by brick,” he says.

“In Nigeria we have two issues. One is religion—we believe so much God is watching us. That has a negative side—you become dependent on God.

“The other is a sense of ‘if he can do it, I can do it!’ without looking at the details of why he is able to do it.”

Wilson ventures a heresy: “You may not fulfill your dreams.”

Abigail Fielding-Smith is a freelance journalist based in London. She was previously a Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times.

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