Nigeria announced its first case of the new coronavirus infection on February 27, 2020. By the first week of March, it was becoming clear what countries do to contain the spread of the virus -close their skies and land borders to international travel and impose a lockdown on households and businesses. Nigeria was heading towards same destination. You would be right to think that an upscale business that designs gowns, blouses etc. for the elites of Lagos to wear to glamourous weekend parties had no option but to prepare to shutter at a time when parties were the least of anyone’s worries. But you would have underestimated the agility of Nigeria’s SMEs to spot and respond to opportunities. 

Folake Coker, founder of Tifany Amber, one of Nigeria’s leading luxury fashion brands moved very quickly to convert the threat the new coronavirus posed to her business into a big opportunity. Before Nigeria’s airspace shut down, she had ordered and gotten delivery of 15 tons of fabric, elastic, thread etc. to make personal protective equipment such as hospital scrubs, gowns, face masks, stretcher sheets etc. This rapid conversion from the purveyor of high-end fashion to producing Personal Protecting Equipment (PPE) for Nigerians in the frontline of the battle against the new coronavirus has gone so well that Tiffany Amber has since March 2020 increased staff from 100 to 300 according to a CNN report.

The new coronavirus pandemic has not been a single story of doom and gloom for Nigerian entrepreneurs.  Ruff & Tumble, Nig eria’s leading makers of upscale children’s clothing has moved equally into making and selling Personal Protective Equipment. Many much smaller SMEs are also venturing into new lines of businesses, as the lockdown and social distancing measures to curtail the spread of the coronavirus limit old business activities and create opportunities for new ones.

Mrs Grace Adetunji, an events manager, used to run corporate events such as conferences and training. The lockdown completely shut down her business. Luckily for her, she had taken an interest in catering arrangements for the corporate events she organises and has on occasions taken it upon herself to provide the food and drinks. As she sat at home in the early days of the lockdown worried about the prospects of her business, it occurred to her that she could put her knowledge and experience of catering to good use. Her insight was that good party-like food and snacks would appeal to many members of the middle class who were working at home and are often looking for something to spice up the boredom of being confined to their homes. She started to advertise home delivery for a variety of food on the social media accounts of her events business. 

Mrs Adetunji was pleasantly surprised by the warm response. She soon added bulk services to her offerings, taking orders not only for food to be eaten at a sitting but in greater quantity to be stored. She further diversified her services as the economy progressively opened. When the government’s anti-coronavirus measures allowed small gatherings and people started to organize small weddings and funerals, she stared advertising a take-away service, i.e. delivering food packages that are taken away by guests. Instagram and Facebook as well as old-fashioned word-of-mouth have been essential in expanding her new line of business.   Mrs Adetunji is now again organizing events for her corporate clients, gathering 5-8 people in halls and linking them to a larger audience via Zoom. She provides a scaled-down catering service to these mini, semi-virtual events. She intends to incorporate catering fully into her business when the economy fully reopens and largescale events are being held again.

Mr Tunde Sobodu runs a business manufacturing a line of 15 beautifully-crafted household items from bamboo- trays, spoons, kitchen shelves etc. Sales were affected by the coronavirus pandemic but he did not have to abandon his line of manufacturing for another venture. Rather, he discovered he could transform one of the products that moved slowly into a big hit. Mr Sobodu sells online on Jumia and also through stores such as Mega Plaza, Game and Next (operating in Port Harcourt and Abuja). He used to sell the odd five pieces of the bamboo bed tray every month, a product demanded mainly by hotels.

The bed tray allows users to work in bed or sitting on a sofa while they place cups of tea or coffee, books, plates etc. on it along with their laptop. He realised the product is ideal for millions of Nigerians who started working from home since the end of March 2020 and started to promote it on social media. It immediately started to fly off the shelves. The business now sells an average of 700-bed trays a month and the factory has been configured to produce more of them. Since it is permanently sold out, it can now only be bought through pre-orders. Mr Sobodu is confident that the demand will be sustained beyond a temporary change in working patterns; people will continue to work partly from home and will find the bed tray useful.

Businesses that have successfully pivoted to new or related ventures during the pandemic are employing the same skills that have made them thrive before the pandemic- creative thinking in spotting opportunities, moving to exploit them with agility and passion and often, clever use of social media. Many have also relied on old clients and supportive relations with banks.