Brexit offers Irish firms a massive opportunity to tap into the Nigerian education market
Despite its current economic difficulties, Nigeria is increasingly becoming recognised as a future consumer powerhouse, with a growing middle-class with aspirations rising hand-in-hand with incomes.
While the country has had a turbulent past, education has been culturally valued since before British colonisation in the mid-19th Century. Today, there is huge untapped potential for Ireland's education sector to generate millions of euro in business - and that may increase due to the UK's intention to exit the EU.
Education as a liberator and a route out of poverty is well recognised in Nigeria today. "The best legacy you can give to a child is education," a local saying goes. Young Nigerians are eager to acquire recognised qualifications; and graduates are a source of family and community pride.
Every year about 1.5 million Nigerian school leavers sit entrance exams for third-level institutions in the country but there are spaces for less than half that number. Hence some 50,000 travel abroad each year for undergraduate and post-graduate study. Over half the Nigerian population speak English and, unsurprisingly therefore, the most favoured study-abroad destinations are English-speaking countries.
According to a UNESCO report in 2012, South Africa, the US, and Canada are among the most popular destinations for Nigerian students. But they are dwarfed in popularity by the UK with nearly 18,000 Nigerian students annually.
The cultural and educational exchange organisation, the British Council, estimated that Nigerians would become the second biggest cohort of foreign students in the UK after Chinese in the coming years, with one MP estimating the number will reach 30,000. That was before the Brexit vote.
The number coming to Ireland was, by comparison, a puny 170 in 2015 - a mere third of one percent of the current potential market. It doesn't take a valedictorian to spot the opportunity when our nearest neighbour is so popular largely because of the big population of Nigerians already in the country. Ireland's official Nigerian populace is around 18,000 but that figure is likely to be higher when the final results of Census 2016 are published later this year. So the lure of familiarity also applies to Ireland.
And there is a lot more to recommend Ireland to Nigerian students as a consequence of the Brexit vote. The European Students' Union expects student mobility between the UK and the rest of Europe to fall substantially because of higher UK tuition fees due to the fall in sterling and what it describes as "hostile visa regulations". Already British Home Secretary Amber Rudd has announced restrictions on foreign students learning in the UK.
All this adds to the attraction of Ireland as a destination for Nigerian students. Next month, a delegation of Irish universities and institutes of technology will travel to Abuja and Lagos to show off what Ireland has to offer as a study-abroad destination.
Government, NGOs, private enterprise, and sometimes heads of family sponsor students to travel abroad and the revenue per student to Ireland is around €25,000 annually. Irish providers also have the advantage of a recognised role in educating Nigerians going back to the missionaries of the 19th Century. We have a well-regarded education system internationally and substantial support through the Education in Ireland brand. The current strategy for international education - 'Irish Educated, Globally Connected' - aims to increase annual revenue from the current €1.6bn to well over €2bn per annum by 2020.
The great American polymath Benjamin Franklin said: "An investment in knowledge always pays the highest return." In more ways than one, evidently.
Fred Klinkenberg is Enterprise Ireland country manager for South Africa
Sunday Indo Business