An Eye on West Africa


If you’ve travelled to Nigeria, there’s always a recollection of some intense experience that one tends never to forget. Going over these memories sometimes brings with it a sigh of nostalgia perhaps? Maybe of the wonder with which you experienced how things run differently over there. But certainly one never remains indifferent about Nigeria.

Thinking about it, if you visit one of the more urban chic restaurants in Lagos and Abuja, the bill is usually brutal but worth the culinary experience, especially if it’s a fusion of the local and the more familiar. What creates the more lasting impression, however, is usually the lack of connectivity between you and the server. That almost tangible fear expressed by the server of not engaging with you in a lively conversation. The ‘deer in the headlights’ look you get when you ask anything outside of the script such as “may I have a side dish instead of an entrée?” is not uncommon. The thought that, in Nigeria, servers are trained to be sullen and unwelcoming. An exaggeration maybe, but the truth is, there’s a long way to go in the hospitality space when it comes to uplifting service delivery.

Hospitality is fun, engaging, confident. Sadly, this does not cut across the board, as many of the people employed in the industry are ‘in transit’ to other ‘more respectable’ jobs. What elsewhere is considered normal and respectable for a student who needs to fund his lifestyle and pay his way through university simply is not the norm in Nigeria. We talk of adults in their 20s (and some try their luck all through their 30s!) still depending on mum and dad for pocket money. Serve in a bar or a restaurant? Unthinkable! This is a pity, because we deprive the industry of a vibrant and energetic resource – people who can think on their feet, who have the ability to carry out a meaningful conversation, who are confident, and who love what they do.

I’m dreaming, but I think it’s possible. While changing the culture and attitude towards service jobs might be a tall order in the short-term, one of the agents of change is found in people management. Fine, this is what we have, but what can we do to transform our human resources into real human capital? The transformation from liability to value creator. It takes a lot of work and creativity, but it’s not a whim. The quality of people management strategies has to be the one most singular transformative solution to the quality of human capital across the sector. How this is done will depend on many factors, internal as well as external to the organisation, but it can be done.

There are three things I believe we need to do to improve service delivery. The first is the need to beef up service training. It’s really important that people – both employers and employees – appreciate the distinction between servitude and service. This is probably where the general aversion to hospitality jobs stems from. The good news is that the culinary arts sector has broken away and is cruising towards becoming one of the trending careers for young people in Nigeria. Thanks to the growing number of celebrity chefs and cooking shows, a lot more people are forming a real appreciation for pots and pans. The onus is now on the rest of the pack to catch up.

My second suggestion is to rework the content of service training to build a pool of skills, knowledge and confidence. Let’s face it, people are bound by the limits of what they have been exposed to, a classic case of one only being able to give what one already has. And I’m convinced that the service attitude we look out for is already there, but needs to be teased out – some hoteliers have certainly been successful in this. To reach a relaxed, professional level of service requires a confidence born of people comfortable with what they know and what they can do.

Finally, owners and managers need to understand the connection between people management practices and business performance. If our service staff are to deliver excellent service, then there needs to be an enabling environment to foster excellent performance. And it isn’t always about money. An open door policy is a great way to connect with employees. Ask questions and really listen to the reply. Address issues head on with compassion and understanding. This is not to suggest that our workplaces become counselling centres, but it does help to consider the welfare and work-life balance of the people who serve our guests.

Back to the server we talked about earlier. Imagine the future for a second – a confident, well-spoken young lady approaches your table and suggests you try the Jollof rice instead of the fries. “A much better choice sir, it’s the best Jollof rice on the continent!”