The Honest Plumber

World economic growth is exponential compared to the world economy before the industrial revolution. As expiry dates are stamped on processed food, product obsolescence is a necessary ingredient in non-edible consumer products. Conspiracy theorists say that the reason the cure for AIDS is not in the market is because it is more economically profitable to have people on subsistent drugs than a one-time cure. In face of the fast rate of obsolescence it doesn’t seem like a bad idea; economically. Consumerism is at its highest fueled by the vicious cycle of quick obsolescence.

How does an entrepreneur differentiate themselves and stand out in this fast-paced economy? The solution lies in finding an element whose demand cuts across economic ebb. This demanded element is to be incorporated in one’s products (or services). This is one way to insulate your business from obsolescence.

The Nigerian market is as precarious as the sea. Even within the same industry, there is no consensus of what works (or rather how it works). An example in Telecommunication is the success of MTN Nigeria compared to Airtel (formerly Econet, Zain, Vmobile, Vodacom, Celtel). However there is one constant that could be asserted with high probability: the business environment lacks trust. Dishonesty and trickery have been currencies in their own rights. You could say that the Nigerian market is saturated with dishonest dealings. Thus honesty is a scarce and highly demanded element. (This is expected in an unequal society)

Episode with A Plumber

Last month, I had the opportunity to supervise a plumber’s work. We got chatting and I initially called it small-talk; because there was no particular subject of interest just hitting here and there. Some minutes in to the conversation, I realized our talk had a pattern; which is that the plumber is an “honest man”. He would always find a way to slip in the claim that he is honest. By default, you expect both agent and client to be dishonest; but I thought he was new to the biz and still had some decency he stubbornly wants to protect by repetitive assertions.

This is some of our conversation snips (rendered in non-pidgin English):

Me: Where were you working before coming to Abuja?

Plumber: I was in my hometown. I was not my own boss so I prefer it now. I didn’t like that my boss was not as honest as me.

Me: Do you know where I could get a de-ironizing liquid?

Plumber: I don’t know it by that name but if not for my honesty, I would collect your money, buy any cheap liquid, come use it so that you can’t return it. Then I would ‘ve made something for myself… but thank God I am not like that.

Me: How is this fuel subsidy removal hitting your business?

Plumber: My brother, we are managing here in Abuja. People still have money here but they are less trusting. Me, I get clients because they know I don’t cheat them.

Me: How much for the waste-pipe?

Plumber: We (plumbers) normally collect N800 but since I am not like that, I will tell you the real price which is 700 Naira.

“Honest” People from Around the World

In Malaysia, Sikhs are renowned for honesty. A Tamil taxi driver told me on one occasion that he trusts a Sikh in business unconditionally. A Chinese taxi driver told me the same and added that he trusts a Sikh way more than he trusts a fellow Malaysian-Chinese in business. When I did meet a Sikh, it seemed the honesty label had gotten to his “humble” head because kept on talking about how dishonest his competitors are (implying his honesty). Might I add, the Sikh was quite reliable in the service he offered.

An American comedian said: “Only a Black American Father brags about doing things he is SUPPOSED to do”. He elaborates saying that a Black American father would boast about being there for his kids and providing for them. Niggah Please! That is yo Job! (The comedian actually said this bit). That is one more “honest” archetype in the Americas.

My Plumber and his Country

Like the comedian’s subject, my plumber brags about doing something he is supposed to do anyway; that is being honest. Being “honest” in Nigeria now is hardly more than a marketing tool. When service men say it now, it is just like telling me you are the best. Of course you are the most honest of them all (sarcasm). And indeed if you are, you are also the most conceited of them all. A meaningless chant in rap these days is “I am keeping it real”, in Nigerian service market it is “I am honest”.

What is to become of a country where Honesty is a scarce comodity? So scare, almost a myth in the business environment where it is so desperately wanted that clients are purposely credulous to pursue it when offered. We all want to desperately believe honesty is alive. Here’s an idea, let us start being honest in business dealings. Not because our morals or religions demand it from us, but so we can make our deeply hidden fantasy a reality.

Next time you go to a mechanic, plumber or trader in the market, watch out for their self directed praise songs. It may be as obvious as Heavy Rock, as subtle as Chinese Flute, or as improvised as Jazz. Stay honest!

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