The Nigerian Trying to Abolish ‘African Time’
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He was late to his interview, but his story was worth the wait.
The self-appointed timekeeper of Nigeria is half an hour late. “Sorry, I was with President Obama,” says Afolabi Abiodun when he finally arrives. He’s impish, joking — he wasn’t with the president so much as in the audience during the president’s address, at a conference hosted by Stanford this summer. And yet, the seasoned entrepreneur seems to have gotten the better of time, which has neither wrinkled his pert smile nor grayed his boyish Afro. Ignoring the hand I hold out, “Afo” envelops me in a bear hug.
Twelve years ago, Abiodun absconded to Ghana after his college startup, which sold cellphone airtime, sputtered. He says he was fleeing a debt “to the tune of 26 million naira” — about $80,000, roughly 26 times Nigeria’s per capita annual income — and he came home to reconcile it only when he heard his creditors had contacted his grandmother. “When I saw her, she cried in happiness because her favorite grandson had been missing. She told me she still believes in me,” he says.
The prodigal son’s return would be triumphant. In 2014, his company, SB Telecoms, recorded a revenue of 282 million naira ($895,000); revenue grew again last year to break the million-dollar mark, Abiodun says. He still sells mobile bandwidth and has ventured into security systems, but the crown jewel of his empire is an open-source human-resource software that supports payroll, performance evaluations and … employee punctuality. That division, Time and Access Management Systems (TAMS), brings in about 30 percent of the company’s revenue, and boasts higher margins than other parts of the business, Abiodun says.
But to hear him tell it, TAMS is an affair of the heart: “African time is primarily responsible for the underdevelopment in Africa,” argues Abiodun. Meetings are delayed; concerts don’t start on time; timetables for buses are nonsense. At 19, Abiodun won an internship at a Lagos State ministry, and on his first day, he rolled in before the office opened at 8 a.m. The factotums sauntered in around 9:30 a.m.; their bosses a half-hour later. While Abiodun designed TAMS for government use, he says he pivoted swiftly to small and medium-size enterprises after finding the public sector incorrigible. The ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But if TAMS is rooted in Abiodun’s personal experience, he’s by no means the first to tackle so-called African time. In 2007, Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo partnered with a local public relations firm to launch a nationwide punctuality campaign (slogan: “African time is killing Africa”). Among the campaign’s highlights was an award to the most timely civil servant. After organizers examined the workplaces of 30 short-listed nominees on unannounced visits, the president’s legal adviser received the top prize — a $60,000 villa. His dubious epithet: “Mr. White Man’s Time.” Gbagbo has since fallen from grace, but Abiodun has resurrected this tradition by doling out free trips to Dubai to the most punctual employees on the TAMS platform, which includes 1,000 businesses.
Alas, merely mentioning “African time” can land the speaker in a postcolonial quagmire.
Abiodun believes the roots of African time are intertwined with Nigeria’s century-long colonial rule under the British crown, that it’s the result of a deeper lack of understanding between the oppressor and the oppressed. Alas, merely mentioning “African time” can land the speaker in a postcolonial quagmire. “I personally find the concept of ‘African time’ rather derogatory,” wrote Marloes Janson, an anthropologist at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, in an email. “It assumes that African people are lazy and unable to keep time.” For Brian Larkin, who chairs the anthropology department at Barnard College, there’s nothing particularly African about it; “African time” merely refers to conceptions of time outside the capitalist ethos, he says. Every society, including England’s, has found the transition into intensely punctual “modern” society deeply alienating, he adds.
Be that as it may, “African time is real,” insists Aaron Finch, an SB Telecoms board member. He came to know Abiodun when mentoring him through Seed, a Stanford institute that trains business leaders in developing economies. Finch describes the Lagos headquarters of SB Telecoms as a subterranean redoubt, buried under a dilapidated parade grounds, styled in a Silicon Valley manner: glass walls, open spaces and biometric security sensors. “There is an amazing contrast between the realities of urban Africa outside and the insides of these offices. I felt like I was in Cupertino,” says Finch.
Although Abiodun’s endeavors may feel like imposing a military and capitalist tempo on the laid-back rhythm of West Africa, he also brings jingles to punctuality. During our interview, Abiodun made up for his tardiness by grooving into his company rap song. The catchy chorus opens with “Hurry up and don’t be late,” and crescendos at “TAMS time, TAMS time, no more African time.”
And what happens when one of Abiodun’s 42 employees is late to work? They’re allowed two late entries a month, he concedes. After that, some of their salary goes into a communal fund. “At the end of the month,” he says, “we get free food.”