Making a life change with Changers Laundry and Dry Cleaners

This article is written by Generation Enterprise, which builds socially responsible youth-run businesses that transform communities.

The startup phase of a new business is one of the most taxing and turbulent periods in an entrepreneur's life. The statistics are grim: failure rates for different kinds of startups vary, but after studying 2000 venture-backed startups, Harvard senior lecturer Shikhar Ghosh calculated that 30-40% end up liquidating all assets, and 70-80% do not deliver projected returns on investment.

There is no doubt that entrepreneurs need extraordinary resilience to survive.

Christian Jonah Effiong knows the importance of resilience better than most aspiring business leaders. After being homeless, struggling with "street jobs" as a bus conductor and okada driver, gaining a job, losing his job, and losing his life savings and having to start again, Christian's very survival hinged on his ability to bounce back, stay focused, and keep moving forward.

The oldest of a family of five, Christian dropped out before finishing secondary school in his hometown in Akwa Ibom state. Since his mother's death, his father had struggled to take care of the family, and Christian was desperate to help support his siblings. At the age of 16, he became one of the 6,000 people flooding into the megacity of Lagos every day. His mission was clear: Get a job. Send money home.

Christian had made plans to stay with an uncle in Lagos while he got his footing. When he arrived at his relative's doorstep, however, he was turned away by his uncle's wife, who refused to take in another mouth to feed. Thus began four years of homelessness.

"I was on the streets from age 16 to 20," said Christian. "I slept under the bridge and sometimes outside a shop. I taught myself to drive a bike. I've fallen off the okada a hundred times. After a while, I wasn't scared. After a while, life meant nothing."

In March 2014, researchers from Lagos State University's Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine published a study on the toll that street life takes on homeless people in the Ikeja Local Government Area of Lagos. They found that the vast majority (80-90%) of homeless people are young males (previously published evidence indicates that 39% of the homeless population is under age 18), with little formal education (drop-outs from primary or secondary school).

The study categorizes homeless Lagosians into five categories: 1) "healthy beggars" (professional beggars who ply their trade on the streets); 2) "disabled beggars" (persons displaying some visible physical disability, such as blindness, limb deformities, and burn contractures); 3) "street urchins" (predominantly "male school drop-outs, often in their teens and twenties, who live rough, and engage in begging for alms, or petty crime to sustain their drug dependent habit"); 4), "psychotic vagrants" (those wandering persons displaying clear evidence of serious mental illness); 5) others ("assortment of street-people, including the partially employed such as roadside hawkers").

The paper noted that more than 50% of homeless people ascribed their condition to the breakdown of family relationships and lack of family support. Substance abuse and mental health issues were common results of life on the streets.

Christian might have fallen prey to these ills if not for some luck and his own resourcefulness. He was determined to leave the dangerous okada work behind, and found work as a bus conductor. When he wasn't hanging out the side of a bus and yelling himself hoarse, he talked to the bus drivers and learned that he could earn up to N2,000 daily as a commercial bus driver. Christian focused on the next step: learning to drive.

Christian had worked his way up from okada driver to bus conductor to bus driver. With his new skills, he also managed to start driving red cabs, where his professionalism and work ethic led clients to offer him jobs as their private driver. Christian jumped at the chance to earn N17,500 per month. Within two years, he had driven for clients from First Bank, Oceanic Bank, and McKinsey & Company, and more than doubled his monthly salary. Things were working out at last. He dreamed of starting his own transportation company.

After two years, he had saved enough to get his own commercial bus. But before his entrepreneurship plans could materialize, his business was shuttered by the local government. Unable to pay the steep daily and weekly charges imposed on him, Christian had to give up his bus, losing all his savings. At the same time, a downsizing wave was sweeping his former clients and he couldn't return to any of his former employers.

Christian tipped back over into another five years of struggle with poverty and the threat of homelessness. "I was really, really discouraged," he said of this difficult period. "I felt I had come so close but lost everything. I had to start over."

The struggle and self-doubt Christian faced during this setback echo the feelings voiced by executive interviewees in the book Leadership and the Art of Struggle by Steven Snyder, a contributor to the Harvard Business Review site on the topic of resilience.

He wrote: "in an attempt to better understand the struggle-recover process[...] I spoke with extraordinary leaders across sectors and industries, all of whom had faced an array of challenges, setbacks, and adversity. [...] Each of the leaders I interviewed has been thrown off balance, in one way or another, by his or her ordeal. This state of imbalance manifested in a variety of ways. Some experienced anger and even rage, projecting the blame outward. Others became depressed and filled with self-doubt."

The bottom line: "resilience is hard. It requires the courage to confront painful realities, the faith that there will be a solution when one isn't immediately evident, and the tenacity to carry on despite a nagging gut feeling that the situation is hopeless."

A solution began unfolding for Christian in the smallest of ways. Last year, Christian's pastor abruptly asked him: "who does your laundry?" Christian replied that he did it all himself. Before he knew it, he was hired.

Christian explained: "I always liked wearing neat and tidy clothes. Even then, even if I was down to just 2 or 3 shirts, I made sure they were clean and ironed... And when I began picking up clothes from my pastor, I earned N3,800 for one load. I had new hope and energy."

Eager to learn more about his new livelihood, Christian discovered dry cleaning. "Here in Nigeria, I think most people don't understand the difference,” said Christian. "Scrubbing clothes with soap and water – that's laundry. Using chemicals to clean fabrics and remove stains – that's dry cleaning."

As luck would have it, his pastor's younger brother owned a dry cleaning business and was willing to let Christian assist and learn the chemicals, processes, and machines. Christian then took a job at Instant Cleaners to train further.

His last step began at the end of last year when he heard about a program being offered by the Redeemed Christian Church of God (Lagos Province 24) and Generation Enterprise, an NGO that partners with at-risk youth to build sustainable businesses that generate jobs, skills, and wealth in slum communities.

Through the program, he prototyped and tested a concept for a laundry and dry cleaning service targeting students and working class Nigerians in the Yaba area.

Christian received a seed investment and business building support from Generation Enterprise this past March. Today he continues to partner with the organization to grow Changers Laundry and Dry Cleaners.

His goal is to make clean, professional-looking clothing accessible to people who are struggling to change their lives for the better, as he once struggled to change from a homeless bus conductor to a driver for bankers and consultants to a successful entrepreneur.

Do you have ideas for community needs that Generation Enterprise can tackle with business solutions? Contact Generation Enterprise at joinus@generationenterprise.org.

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