Transforming an economy isn't easy, but it can be done. When Mao Zedong died in 1976, China was one of the world's most backward and impoverished nations. Gross domestic product per capita, essentially a measure of average income, was about $200 (adjusted for inflation). Two years later, Deng Xiaoping came to power and deregulated the economy. It exploded. Average annual income is now close to $10,000; 850 million people were lifted out of poverty. The transformation was accomplished with astonishing speed. Uche Orji, a former Wall Street investment banker who's now CEO of the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority, says he first went to China in 1998. When he went back five years later, it was "pleasantly unrecognizable."
Nigeria's numbers today are surprisingly close to where China's were before reform. In 1978, China's poverty rate was 55 percent, almost identical to the most recent statistics for Nigeria. And adult literacy in China was only 65 percent, comparable to Nigeria's 62 percent. Today, China's poverty rate is almost zero, and literacy is at 97 percent.
If a comparison to China seems too ambitious, how about India? Nigeria and India have more than a few similarities: Both are ex-British colonies and have an extraordinary number of ethnic groups (2,000 in India), endemic corruption, religious conflicts and a loyal and highly educated diaspora. Before 1991, India had a heavily regulated socialist economy, with extreme levels of protectionism for domestic industries and notorious levels of red tape and bureaucracy. Facing default, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh began a reform program of reducing tariffs, opening the economy to competition and foreign investment, and slashing bureaucracy. GDP per capita rocketed from $368 to $2,010. Between 2014 and 2018, India grew faster than China.
As with China and India, much of the case for Nigeria's potential comes down to one word: size. Large countries have huge advantages over small ones, both in terms of economic efficiency and in their ability to attract investment. It was the potential of China's huge domestic market, not its usefulness as a source of cheap products, that attracted foreign investment in the 1980s. Nigeria is the "last major open market on earth," says Randy Buday, DHL Express' regional director for West and Central Africa.