“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 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 fulfillment. 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 to be in perpetual search for what is right before our eyes, living many to be either unemployed or underemployed!
Businesses such as that of 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 to the persons concerned. Other eexamples 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 as highlighted here may be responsible for why many people do not fancy them despite their viability! With what I learnt from the graduate fish seller; undergraduates and graduates need re-orientation. Education may be said to begin after leaving school, but 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 disciplines, with the town. The disconnect between the gown and 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 with 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 memorization 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 realize that they are not aliens. In fact, they are an integral part of the society. So, their students require the 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 round.
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 values. 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 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, apprenticeship programme should be organized for students in the informal sector rather than internship in the formal sector. Students must be made to learn values such as hardwork, persistence, perseverance, etc. from the streets.
With a 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 practiced. 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 success of a venture.
Beyond individuals, government needs to begin to think of how to incentivize players within the informal sector. Without doubt, the current administration and even the administrations before this one has tried with various schemes. While many of the schemes had helped, some people considered them as political gimmicks to get votes from the populace. No matter how anyone views it, I believe it is a good step in the right direction. It can only get better. Government can take a step further by beginning to create hubs of different street businesses. This will make street businesses organized and allow buyers to know where they are. It will also make it easy to have data on the various street businesses, which ultimately make planning and incentivizing them easy.
Street businesses may look unattractive, but it is lucrative. Street businesses may appear disorganized, but it can organize one’s life with regular source of income. Street businesses 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. Street 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.
Isaac Oluyi is a Personal Development Advocate and Head of Public Relations Unit of the National Centre for Technology Management, an Agency of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.
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