When Ofili Okechukwu, a full-time project engineer at a Fortune 500 oil and gas company, published his first book, How Stupidity Saved My Life, in 2011, he didn’t expect it to do so well in Nigerian bookstores. He also didn’t expect that he would have to fight with those bookstores to get his money.
Frustrated, he resolved to simplify the process of distributing and selling books in Nigeria – and so OkadaBooks.com was born. Today, it is the fastest-growing e-distribution platform for books in sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 110,000 users.
Okechukwu is one of millions of Africans who are turning their passions into their side hustles, either to supplement their income, develop their skills or to make a difference in their communities – or the world. Fuelled by technology, this growing entrepreneurial movement is giving Africans a chance to pursue what they care most about without having to quit their day jobs.
But it’s not easy. “Time is the biggest challenge,” says Okechukwu. “Sometimes I get off work at 6pm and immediately go into a conference call with my partner in the USA. I could be up until 4am working on OkadaBooks and still need to focus on my full-time job the next day.”
This is only possible, he says, because of the technology and tools that allow him to connect with partners in other countries, to build his e-book platform and to self-publish his writing.
He doesn’t mind the sacrifices, though. Okechukwu is passionate about books, and when you have a passion, “you’ll go to all lengths to make it work”.
Hustling for a living
In Africa, nine in ten people don’t have secure jobs, and many are forced to take on extra work to make ends meet. The side hustle culture is fuelled by low education levels, a lack of skills, and banks’ tough lending criteria, leaving people with little choice but to start their own businesses and to monetise their skills and hobbies in order to access more money.
Unlike in developed markets, where those with the security of a full-time job are able to pursue passion projects as a hobby, in Africa, side hustling has its roots in the informal economy and is often about survival.
For Kenyan economist James Shikwati, the informal economy is characterised by low ambition and lacks an intrinsic catalysing effect to grow and modernise sub-Saharan African economies.
“The informal economy is a resultant effect of dodging unfriendly formal structures such as complicated registration processes, taxes, regulatory requirements and licenses,” he says.
But the low ambition Shikwati refers to is exactly why side hustles should link to passion. While people may not be inspired in their day jobs, those who successfully launch and maintain side hustles are anything but apathetic.
Ofili Okechukwu says if it weren’t for technology, he would not have a side hustle.
Take Musa Ajayi as an example. A fruit vendor from Nasarawa State, Ajayi was struggling to support himself financially. His passion is writing – specifically Hausa romance novels – but he was turned down by Amazon, which did not accept books written in Hausa. Undeterred, Ajayi approached OkadaBooks and is today one of the platform’s most successful authors and is partly responsible for the fact that Hausa speakers are the most active users.
To say he is not ambitious would be an unfair criticism.
If you can dream it, you can do it
The only reason Ajayi was able to start earning money from his passion project is because he had access to the digital tools he needed to reach a wider audience and to market his product – all for free and all easily accessible and user-friendly.
Developments in technology and the free – or cost-effective – availability of digital tools means you really have no excuse not to create something.
In fact, if it weren’t for technology, Okechukwu says that he probably would not have a side hustle –and he even admits to sealing deals for OkadaBooks during bathroom breaks.
“Luckily nobody flushed a toilet before the call was over but technology has allowed OkadaBooks to grow so much, simply because we don’t have an office space. Our office is Skype and WhatsApp. We’re able to collaborate with developers and staff all over the world and the platform has allowed us to create opportunities for other people. Without technology, I would not be able to have a side gig; I would have burned out.”
And therein lies some of the biggest challenges of juggling a full-time job and a side hustle: prioritisation, long hours and compromise. But, if you have a healthy dose of passion, anything is possible.