Dealing with the ‘Photocopy Mentality’ in Nigeria

Several weeks ago, I stared at my screen, mouth agape, as I read my most recent article….on a stranger’s blog. However, this copy of my work had no attribution. Nothing. Even personal life references had been scrubbed off. My article had been blatantly plagiarized. For me, the act signified more than just stealing; it reflected a disturbing trend in today’s society.

We speak often on how the youthfulness of the Nigerian population proliferates creativity, innovation and ingenuity. Theoretically true, but an incisive and brutal look at the creation of ideas and works in Nigeria shows an unfortunate tendency towards the habit of copying. Duplication of fashion, business ideas and literary work has become rampant.  Once one person gets a whiff that some new form of business is raking in cash, be rest assured that it will have numerous other copies in no time. Once Shawarma became the ‘selling snack’, every single food vendor began to offer it. Give it enough time and suya sellers on the corners might start offering Shawarma. ‘Gardens’ where beer and fish can be purchased have become the popular business in Abuja. Business centers were once the rage because people heard the money was in it. Other numerous gossip blogs sprang up once Linda Ikeji’s blog found financial success. After the success of Wizkid in the Nigerian music industry, a number of Wizkid clones began releasing songs bereft of any musical originality. And there’s more…pure water business, rolled beef (gala), fish farming business, ecommerce business, suit/jacket making (fashion) business…the list is endless! Clearly, the proclivity to copy seems predominant today.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s normal to expect that a profit-making market with free entry and exit will experience a flood of competition at the first whiff of profit. However, the problem with these trend is the prevalence of what I like to refer to as the ‘photocopy mentality’. I’d like to assume the term’s self-explanatory nature shields it from further explanation, so I’ll jump straight to its issue.

The problem with photocopies is that they’re never better than the original; at worse, inferior, and at best, the same. For example, a photocopy of one’s Driver’s License will never pass for the original. Likewise, simply copying someone else’s idea does little to improve the idea. It changes nothing, innovates nothing and creates nothing. It simply saturates the market with another version of itself. And since mediocrity cannot compete with mediocrity, the status quo remains the same. Such a trend defeats one of the purposes of competition; which is to engender innovation. This is where it’s important that we change the way we see the act of copying.

The act of copying a work should be a process rather than the product itself. TEDx Speaker, Steven Johnson emphasizes that copying is “not about creation but about creating. The process is more important than the final product. A process in which copying can play an important part, because it allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants and to create something beyond your own capacities.” Copying has been integral to the emergence of a significant number of innovations as it cuts down the process of improvement as well as the cost of R&D (Research and Development). As a process, it takes existing creations and improves them. For example, all the products that made Steve Jobs famous already existed before he unveiled his iteration of them. All it took was the ability to copy and improve on the ideas.

There’s a much larger lesson to this. In order for African countries to truly catch up with developed economies, they have to do more than copy ideas. They have to innovate and find ways to optimize the potential of these ideas in Africa. It stops being enough that Africa attempts to reach convergence through the replication of production methods, technologies and institutions of developed countries. Africa needs to find ‘African’ insights to these issues using existing ideas, methods and technologies. Even China recognizes this given that their  ultimate goal is the ability to innovate independently. “Chinese firms have realized that they cannot just purchase core technologies; they must create them on their own” says Mark Purdy of Harvard Business Review. Likewise, in a nation like Nigeria saturated with jobless graduates, differentiating oneself becomes imperative. Having a degree from a university only keeps one at the common denominator level of being a photocopy and well…no one notices photocopies.

Hence, one must breaks out of the rote-learning mentality bequeathed to the general populace by an obdurately outdated education system. Start by thinking of ways to improve already established structures by observing, critiquing and brainstorming new ideas.

As highlighted above, photocopies are never improvements, they’re merely copies. Simply being a photocopy takes one nowhere, individually or collectively as a society. Instead, taking an idea and coming up with some thing different – maybe even better – drives society forward. Now if only my plagiarizer realized this and sat down to write something worth reading, we’d all be the better for it…or at least, I would.


  • I read somewhere else this week the writer whose blog page I was reading had managed to get Facebook to take down the material that had been plagerised on another site.

  • “…and since mediocrity can not compete with mediocrity, the status quo remains the same”
    Typical African scenario. It has become so bad that finding originality is now difficult. The worst is the Music industry, same ‘recloned’ crap all over.
    On the other hand, one may be tempted to blame it on infrastural deficit which to a great extent limits the development of a budding creative idea when the necessary is not available leaving the individual with the easy-way-out option of photocopying an already finished work.
    And the commision in Nigeria responsible for patents & trademarks does not help matters either with its First-person-to come-owns-rights-ownership instead of proof of originality.
    Nice piece chuba.

  • Ola

    Hahaha! Watch out for your post reappearing in a blog near you! It takes too much to be original and there is one unique African concept, it is stress. You can find translations in almost African language I know. Why bother to improve on things when the rough copy would do. The wealthiest societies are those that add value or innovate and that’s why Spain’s GDP can compete with all the Gulf countries put together, and that is why Israel has the most resilient economy (arguable) in the Middle East despite a dearth of resources.
    There is one are though where we reign supreme, you can find this in Lord Lugard’s book, The Dual Mandate which was published in 1926.

    “In character and temperament, the typical African of this race-type is a happy, thriftless, excitable person. LACKING IN SELF-CONTROL, DISCIPLINE, AND FORESIGHT. Naturally courageous, and naturally courteous and polite, full of personal vanity, with little sense of veracity, fond of music and loving weapons as an oriental loves jewelry. HIS THOUGHTS ARE CONCENTRATED ON THE EVENTS AND FEELINGS OF THE MOMENT, and he suffers little from the apprehension for the future, or grief for the past. His mind is far nearer to the animal world than that of the European or Asiatic, and exhibits something of the animals’ placidity and want of desire to rise beyond the State he has reached. Through the ages THE AFRICAN APPEARS TO HAVE EVOLVED NO ORGANIZED RELIGIOUS CREED, and though some tribes appear to believe in a deity, the religious sense seldom rises above pantheistic animalism and seems more often to take the form of a vague dread of the supernatural”

    “HE LACKS THE POWER OF ORGANIZATION, and is conspicuously deficient in the management and control alike of men or business. HE LOVES THE DISPLAY OF POWER, but fails to realize its responsibility… he will work hard with a less incentive than most races. He has the courage of the fighting animal, an instinct rather than a moral virtue… In brief, the virtues and defects of this race-type are those of attractive children, whose confidence when it is won is given ungrudgingly as to an older and wiser superior and without envy…Perhaps the two traits which have impressed me as those most characteristic of the African native are HIS LACK OF APPREHENSION AND HIS LACK OF ABILITY TO VISUALIZE THE FUTURE.”
    Of course the quote is not original but rethinking the Nigerian brand is way too stressful! I think I would stick to photocopying.

  • Several young people in Nigeria today are so lazy, it gets really irritating. The blogging aspect totally gets on my nerves. Everyone wants to be a blogger. A greater number of the “bloggers” essentially copy and paste gossip from each other and so when someone says “I’m a blogger,” the first thing you think is “copy and paste gossip you mean?”
    Yes, like you noted copying is good but only when it serves as the basis for an improved product.
    I can’t understand how anyone will be comfortable with being a cheap photocopy rather than a distinct original but apparently a lot of Nigerian youths enjoy it.
    Oh well, this was a good read. I hope people learn from it and improve

  • Not sure I agree that copying is the problem. The first step to innovating as a continent will come from copying successfully. That’s the step we haven’t even mastered yet. When Aba was in full-swing and Aba-made was a thing, we were on the right path. Copy what’s out there, copy it until the difference between the copy and the original isn’t clear any more… then innovate.

    Chinese mobile manufacturers are taking Africa by storm on this principle – first they made “Nokla” and “Samsing” phones until they functioned almost as well. Then they unleashed Tecno with product innovations and pricing that Nokia/Samsung have had difficulty competing with.

    So by all means, let Nigerians copy. But let them copy well.

    • If you read the article clearly, I said copying becomes a problem when one treats it as an end product. If you treat it as such, how can there be innovation? And with your examples, two corrections. First, Finland makes Nokia phones and South Korea makes Samsung, not China. Second, we are on the same page, however, Techno is a product that does not only copy, it innovates with quality materials, low prices and good customers service in Africa. Such efforts cannot be undermined as simply ‘copying’. Cheers. 🙂

      • Tolu

        Hi Chuba

        Seyi referred to “NOKLA” and “SAMSING” – which aren’t from the Finns or S. Koreans.

        • Ha. My mistake. I assumed he made typographical errors with the names. However, the point remains valid: copying as a process should be favored over copying as a product. 🙂

  • I think it’s a reflection of a bigger problem; not rewarding innovation. There are limited, if any, number of channels to reward innovative ideas. It is not a problem in Africa only, Asia too has its fair share of plagiarism. In a community where deviating too much from the norm equates to huge risks, only the ones to succeed will prevail. Failure doesn’t mean you return to your initial position but punished (sometimes severely) for taking a risk. Hence success will be copied because it is the only indication that something ‘works’. Couple that with lack of patents/copyright, you have yourself a ‘photocopy mentality’.

  • Chuba, I woke up one morning and the about section on my website had been copied lock stock and barrel. They’d even not realised that I had made a grammatical error on my last line. They’d copied other aspects of my e-commerce website but to copy that section just encouraged me further but also reminded me the importance of doing my OWN thing to the best of my ability.

  • Tolu

    Nice read. “Start by thinking of ways to improve already established structures though observing, critiquing and brainstorming.” It appears Nigerians do not like criticism and find it hard to engage in a civil debate. When a view is criticized, phrases like “phd- pull him down syndrome” and “constructive criticism” are usually bandied. Where this is the case, there can’t be any issue to brainstorm about or debate. Consequently, nothing is learned and the chances of innovation remain slim.