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LAGOS, Nigeria—Cloistered off from the Lagos sunshine in a thickly carpeted hotel conference room, volunteers from the Redeemed Christian Church of God Eagles Nest Youth Church are listening to a tale of redemption.
“Several years ago I was a two-time college dropout,” says Steve Harris, one of Lagos’ most high-profile motivational speakers. “When life places a sticker and brands you as an incompetent or a ne’er-do-well, you need to get off your butt—excuse me—and remind them that this is not you.”
Harris, a handsome man sporting epaulettes on his gray jacket, spins a good story out of his journey from a hapless young man borrowing money off his baby sister to a gold watch-clad businessman. The story’s pitfalls and diversions (“Women,” he says at one point, dropping in to the elongated vowels of Nigerian slang, “are a capital-intensive project.”), only make him more relatable.
Laughing, clapping, and earnestly nodding along, the young men and women around the U-shaped conference table echo his trademark slogan like a catechism.
“Like I always say, it’s not what you don’t have that limits you … ” he begins.
“It’s what you have but don’t know how to use,” the audience responds in unison.
Harris is one of roughly a dozen people in Lagos making serious money as motivational speakers, and many more are hoping to do the same. He offered this seminar on “personal mastery” at a heavily discounted rate because he was speaking to a church group, but in the corporate world he commands up to $10,000 for a day’s training.
Ten years ago motivational speaking barely existed here, but practitioners say demand is growing. Nigeria’s economy averaged 7 percent annual growth in the last decade, but roughly 60 percent of the country’s people still live in poverty. In Lagos, a city of hustlers, there is a feeling that dreaming bigger and working harder will help bridge the gap between potential and performance, and motivational speaking is becoming big business.
“Inspiration and motivation are beginning to become big deals … we get so many invitations that we turn [some] down,” Harris tells me. Nigerians, he says, “are in need of hope—they’re looking for something that tells them it can be better.”
Hunger for success is visible everywhere in Lagos, where street hawkers sell copies of Forbes magazine alongside packs of gum. Oil and the massive size of the domestic market have gilded a tiny minority of Nigerians in riches in recent years. The country’s rate of private jet purchasing has begun to rival China’s. Although Nigeria’s announcement of its place as Africa’s GDP leader in April was overshadowed by Boko Haram’s recent attacks and mass kidnapping of teenage girls, Lagos remains a magnet for the ambitious.
The path to success is hard here, where infrastructure and education are inadequate and corruption rife, but the prizes glitter all the more brightly for it. Hip-hop artists loom over congested Lagos highways in lucrative cellphone ads, teasing drivers below with a glimpse of what the good life looks like. For those like Harris who are not only living the African Dream but making a living off the very idea of it, a personal rags-to-riches tale is a valuable asset.
As Paul Foh sits in the lobby of a consultancy firm with a green silk handkerchief sprouting from his breast pocket, there is little to suggest that 10 years ago he was a street vendor in the oil town of Port Harcourt. He has scant sympathy for those who blame corruption or the education system for their lack of opportunity. “I used to sell recharge cards on the street,” Foh says. “Today I speak and I’m paid crazily well for what I do. Are you going to blame the government till you get to your grave?”
Foh’s life changed after he heard a talk by Fela Durotoye, often referred to as the godfather of Nigeria’s motivational speaking industry. Foh, who says the talk showed him his calling, held his first seminar on how to offer “exceptional customer service” shortly afterward in a hall his landlord let him use for free. Only two people came; one was his then-girlfriend.
Undaunted, he began writing a newsletter on “goal-setting and personal development.” One day an oil company executive came across the newsletter and invited Foh to give a lecture to his employees.