Academic survival: The harsh reality of student start-ups

Many enthusiastic Nigerian university student entrepreneurs find themselves at a crossroads: the businesses they started to alleviate the financial burden of tertiary education are threatening their academic success.

Jimoh Abdulhakeem, 25, is one such student. He has faced numerous challenges in life but has managed to keep his head above water. Abdulhakeem’s parents died when he was only 10 years old. An uncle took him in and ensured that he finished primary and secondary education. However, his dream of pursuing a degree in food sciences at Kwara State University in Nigeria’s North-Central area hit a roadblock when his academic performance dipped, and his uncle stopped sending him money.

Determined not to give up, Abdulhakeem turned to entrepreneurship and created a small-scale business that allowed him to fend for himself. Though it was difficult, he pushed through, refusing to let his financial struggles define his future.

“At the beginning of my university journey, I knew there was no way I could do nothing but study so that my goal of education here wouldn’t be affected. But, when the uncle sponsoring me stopped sending funds, I had no option but to venture into business on campus,” he said.

WhatsApp a popular business tool

Abdulhakeem started his small business by creating a WhatsApp group. He added students in his university community, buying second-hand goods like mattresses, fans, air-conditioning units and television sets. He then snapped pictures of the used goods and sent them to his business WhatsApp to sell to fellow students.

“Although I had a passion for engaging in business after my undergraduate programme, the financial burden pushed me to it early, while I was still studying, affecting my academics,” he said.

Abdullahi Ameedah, 21, lives comfortably as a second-year microbiology student and entrepreneur at Sokoto State University in Nigeria’s North-West. She now earns more than enough to cater to her needs at the university, but at the beginning, her studies suffered.

Ameedah said that, before she left her home town in Ilorin, in North-Central’s Kwara State, to further her education in Sokoto State, her parents were divorced. At the time, her mother bore the brunt of domestic responsibilities and, to help her mother settle bills, Ameedah started advertising and selling shoes and clothes on campus through the WhatsApp platform.

“Sometimes, because of this business, I would miss lectures while getting orders and attending to customers. However, the financial burden has decreased because my income is enough. But if my parents had not divorced each other, I wouldn’t have started this business while I was supposed to focus more on my studies,” Ameedah said.

Trophy a consolation prize

Emmanuel Isaac (not his real name), 22, bagged the most successful campus entrepreneur trophy at his chemistry department’s students’ association awards in 2021 because of his business prospects at Osun State University in South-West Nigeria.

He sells small chops to students each weekend, taking orders via his WhatsApp business app, and making deliveries so that he can save enough to pay his school fees and buy food and other necessities. But it is taking its toll on his academic results.

“Being recognised by my students’ association as the best entrepreneur shows that my business is booming on campus. However, I am only doing this to gather money for my session tuition fees and to pay other expenses, but I hardly have time to read,” Isaac said. “My cumulative grade point decreased when I started venturing into this business, but I am doing it to make a living for myself because my parents aren’t financially buoyant enough to pay for my school expenses.”

Dreams do come true

Salaudeen Mariam, 23, a student at Lagos State University, shared that she was expelled from a previous school due to poor academic performance in a course she did not even apply for. Mariam had dreamed of studying business administration but, instead, was assigned to learn the English language, which was beyond her capacity.

This experience left her without the support of her parents, and now she must fend for herself. “When I was expelled my daddy, who was truly striving to pay my bills and those of my brother, was so disappointed that I couldn’t finish the course due to my low performance and promised not to sponsor me again,” Mariam said.

She is now a final-year student in business administration. To pursue her dream course, she took a two-week course on how to do pedicures and manicures and started the business. By 2019, she had saved enough to be admitted to the course she had always dreamed of.

“The funds I gathered from my business took me back to school with nobody’s support and, till this moment, I have many customers on campus. However, the reality is that I don’t usually give reading full concentration like my friends who are not into any business, and it does affect my results, but I have no choice,” she added.

Academics should not be neglected

“Studying at the university should be the primary focus of students. While entrepreneurship is essential and can provide valuable experience and skills, it should not be pursued at the expense of academic studies,” said Dr Umaru Adamu, an assistant lecturer in mathematics at the Bayero University Kano.

He added that it is understandable that many students in Nigeria are pushed into business due to a lack of funding and financial support from the government or universities.

“This is of concern as it can negatively impact their academic performance and success in the long run. Students trying to balance their studies with running a business may struggle to manage their time effectively, leading to missed deadlines. This can result in lower grades and slower progress towards graduation,” he noted.

Dr Michael Adeola Oloyede, a lecturer at the University of Lagos, said that the financial pressures of running a business can cause stress and anxiety, which can further affect academic performance and mental well-being.

He added that, although the experience is valuable, it is essential for universities and the government to address the issue by providing more financial support to students so that they can focus on their studies without worrying about their basic needs.