When Daniel called me from the Economy Designer Project on Monday night, the thought that he could be a kidnapper or fraudster never crossed my mind.
His call came in at exactly 8:07 pm on September 11:“I’m Daniel and I’m calling from the Economy Designer Project. I understand you are busy, I am also very busy too. So, I will be very quick.
“For the past six years, our organisation has helped individuals, businesses and organisations raise funds for their financial needs without taking loans or dropping any collateral. Owing to the good works of our organisation, leaders of communities and religious institutions recommended a list of people they know to us for selection, and you came highly recommended.”
I was curious to know who “recommended” me. But rather than give me a specific name, he simply said he was working with a database of recommended contacts.
As his voice droned on, I sensed it was a network marketing company. I quickly googled the project’s name and what I found somewhat confirmed my suspicions.
It opened up the lid on my painful experience with a network marketing company that beguiled me and fed on my naivety back in 2019. With all the money, resources, time and energy I invested, I gained nothing but a massive financial loss and illness. That experience made me vow to never fall for such schemes again.
As the memories of that experience hit me afresh like a splash of waves, my initial responses to Daniel reeked of hostility. But the journalist in me later got curious and thirsty for a scoop. I was glad that a story had walked up to me without any prompting from my end.
One, I needed to know if it was the same network marketing company that frustrated me back in 2019 but Daniel wouldn’t give me the full gist on the phone. I had to attend a briefing either on Tuesday or Wednesday to learn more.
Two, I was curious about who gave out my phone number and I thought going there would satisfy my curiosity. While I was partially lost in my contemplations during the call, not once did I consider the potential risks of showing up at a venue given to me by a stranger.
So, when I shared my story idea with my supervisor at the office on Tuesday and he asked if I had done a risk assessment of the situation, I paused in fear. I, who was previously excited about the story, was now scared and skeptical about the whole idea. That was when I considered the prospect of being kidnapped.
My supervisor and a few other colleagues would later assuage my fears. And while their words awakened my almost dying excitement, fear still tugged at my heart. I could not dismiss the thought that my quest could go awry.
I found the courage to attend the briefing but I was determined to scout the area for potential threats before making my presence known. On Tuesday evening, I notified Daniel of my availability and I got a message to confirm my reservation for Wednesday, September 13, 2023.
AN ORCHESTRA OF MOTIVATIONAL VIDEOS
The time on my reservation message said 11:30 am on Wednesday but I got to Genesys Place at Ikeja, Lagos State, 13 minutes earlier. I couldn’t afford to be late as I needed to check out the terrain first.
Thankfully, my fears were laid to rest because the venue was in a public, peopled place.
As I entered the company’s reception area on the ground floor of the huge building adorned in red and grey hues at Ikeja, a lady who appeared to be a receptionist asked for the message I got.
The reception area had several unfamiliar faces who seemed to be busy behind their various desks.
After she had checked the message, she motioned for me to write down my name, email address, phone number, reservation code, time of arrival as well as a signature in an attendance book placed on the front desk.
She then directed me to a hall to the left side of the main entrance doors. A few people were already seated inside the hall when I got in but only two of them were newbies like me. I would later discover that the others were mentors and members of the organisation.
As I nestled in a chair at a corner, I observed that several of the mentors and members wore T-shirts with “The Entrepreneur Mentor (EM)” and “Building The Next Generation Billionaires” inscribed on them.
I thought the event would kick off at exactly 11:30 am but it did not. Perhaps, because only a few participants had arrived. In addition to the three of us who were there early, 15 other participants later joined us.
I subtly took note as each of them strolled in at different times before and during the event. One of the things that stood out for me was that I was obviously the youngest participant in the hall.
If I had to guess the age group of the participants, I would say they were in their thirties and forties.
They serenaded us with multiple doses of motivational videos for about twenty minutes before the event started, just like a chef who feeds his hens knowing he’ll eventually have a delicious chicken meal at the set time.
The event began at exactly 11:59 am. Taking her cue from the first speaker, a female participant volunteered to say the opening prayers. Thus, we took off on the voyage into a mix of interesting and monotonous sessions facilitated by three speakers.
OFFERINGS OF THE ECONOMY DESIGNER PROJECT
The speakers, also called entrepreneur mentors, told us that the Economy Designer Project (ED 3.0) offered the solutions to all of our financial challenges.
In one of the sessions, Mentor Matthew Olaniran told us that the project aimed to raise 50,000 monthly millionaires.
Olaniran said it was an initiative of the Century 21 Freedom Group (C21FG) International, a non-governmental organisation that believes in wealth creation and helps people live a good life.
“The ED 3.0 will help you to design your income, business and life. It will help you design a connected economy,” he said.
“The vision is to raise financially free people who will in turn raise financially free people. It guarantees you financial freedom, time freedom and health freedom.”
For this NGO, financial freedom means “firing your own boss” so that you can have the time to thrive in a connected economy.
This connected economy promises “partners” mouthwatering offers like multimillion income, sleek cars, gigantic houses, health and wellness plans (supplements, toothpaste, chocolate drinks) and vacation.
Olaniran emphasised that we were not to sell the products but to simply “buy, use and connect”. He told us that, with the connected economy, we would make money while asleep.
But I kept wondering how interested individuals would then make money if they were not expected to sell the products. Also, how does the company make the kind of money that would solve all my financial challenges?
GIVE US 50 CONTACTS; THE SYSTEM WILL TALK FOR YOU
Olaniran’s session provided answers to my silent questions. He had told us that with the ED 3.0 we had no financial risk and wouldn’t pay registration fees.
He said daily payouts, making income from different countries and transferring the business to our next of kin were guaranteed in the business.
However, we had to first partner with the company and then undergo a six-month mentorship programme.
It also became obvious that the so-called connected economy thrives on bringing people into the fold.
During a one-on-one engagement session I had with Olaniran right after the briefing, I asked him to clearly explain how the company makes money.
“You will give us 50 phone numbers of people from your contact list to connect to the system and the system will do the talking for you,” he told me.
When I told him that I had to get permission from my contacts before giving out their phone numbers, he told me there was no need for me to seek permission.
Even when I said I considered sharing contact details without permission an invasion of privacy, he insisted that I had no reason to inform the people whose numbers I intended to share.
He had earlier told us during the general briefing that we were not meant to “convince anybody, market or sell any product.”
“The system does the talking. Let the system talk for you. It’s been talking for a lot of people. Allow it to talk for you,” he said again and again.
While he held the one-on-one session with me, he said, “If you bring 50 contacts for instance, at least 10 of them might attend the briefing. And out of that 10, at least two will partner with the system.”
But then, partnering with the system comes at a cost. You have to subscribe to one of its packages, with the least being the silver pack valued at N49,990 the highest being the ‘digiverse’ package under the VIP pack, which is N999,990.
In the general session, he also analysed how subscribing to the former pack guaranteed a minimum of N168,000 monthly payout while the latter had a monthly potential of N156.2 million.
However, my income is solely dependent on the number of people that “partner” with the Economy Designer project through me.
To break this down, if I provide 50 phone numbers (they label it as a contact recommendation). After partnering with them, I will get a commission on each person who partners through me and others who join via the ones who had come through me.
This proposed pathway to financial freedom is basically a cycle of recruiting more and more people to subscribe to any of the starter or VIP packs.
I also learnt that, apart from contact recommendation, this business used online ads, questionnaire surveys, flyers on WhatsApp status, business launches and third party calls to invite more people.
I even asked Olaniran what would happen if no one partnered with the company through me. I did not get an answer to my question.
PAY N49,990 INSTEAD OF N750,000
Although they claimed there was no registration fee, it was compulsory for any interested person to part with some money before getting started.
While Olaniran’s session weighed in on the benefits we stood to enjoy, Grace Ndali tried to explain why we were paying that amount.
Ndali told us the original amount was N750,000 but we only had to pay N49,990 that day. Payment had to be made on the spot.
The money, according to her, would cover health and wellness products, world-class mentorship, personalised website, mastermind mentorship by top earners, the unfair advantage, health care, housing and car programmes.
“All of these would originally have cost N750,000. But three lucky people here will only have to pay N49,990. If you are the three lucky ones to be selected, stand up and fill these three forms with me,” Ndali claimed.
She told us that this payment guaranteed our chances of making one million naira within six months to one year.
Nobody among us stood up to pay. In fact, about seven to eight participants had left the hall at this juncture to go on with their daily lives. I would have left too, but I had to stay back.
When nobody showed interest in paying, she said she was going to give us an offer that we could only get that day. She said we should pay N10,000 to show our commitment to secure a spot and then pay the rest later. Still, nobody stood up or raised their hands.
I felt pity for her as I heard the building frustration in her voice when all her efforts to get three people to partner with the connected economy yielded nothing. She then called on the engagers to engage us.
This was when the remaining of us broke out into one-on-one sessions with mentors who wanted to know why we were reluctant to pay N49,990 immediately or deposit N10,000 and then sending N39,990 later.
Olaniran was the one who engaged me in this session. He tried his best to trick me into paying. But sadly for him, he could not answer my questions.
He and Ndali had shared stories, shown pictures and played videos of top earners whose lives had been transformed by the project. But the duo did not tell us how exactly the business had helped their lives. They only relied on other people’s testimonies to persuade us. But I was not a believer.
Before I left, I saw one or two people filling out the form. I guess they had been persuaded to pay the little money they could afford to secure a spot, pending when they would pay the balance.
Many network marketing companies operate on a pyramid scheme and the economy designer plan does the same. Findings showed that a pyramid scheme is always unsustainable and often illegal.
This business model involves recruiting people by promising them payments or services by getting others to join rather than selling products or making investments.
According to Investopedia, the scheme is structured so that the initial schemer must recruit other investors who will continue to recruit other investors, and those investors will then continue to recruit additional investors, and so on.
Those at the highest level of the pyramid benefit the most. And because they make the most money, they can entice more people to join. However, those at the bottom often lose out, especially if they can’t convince others to join.
EMOTIONAL APPEAL, KNOWLEDGE OF SOCIAL STATUS
Network marketers often have sob stories about their poor background and rise from grass to grace.
A common phrase Olaniran, Ndali, and the other speaker used was, “I might not be where I want to be but I’m not where I used to be.”
They all claimed to earn in six or seven figures. They shared stories on how it was difficult to get a job or attain financial breakthrough despite being graduates until they encountered the mastermind mentorship, the game changer that changed everything for them and made them achieve their dreams.
These stories were told to appeal to participants’ emotional sensibilities. Motivational quotes and expressions were also sandwiched into the sessions.
They also made it seem as though we were lucky to be a part of the project. You would hear words like, “You are privileged to be a part of this. You are here because of destiny. You are counted worthy to have been selected.”
There was so much emotional buildup to make it seem as though it’s a privilege. Words like selection and partnership were thrown around to make it seem as if they were doing participants a favour. But in the actual sense, they earned more if we paid.
They even showed us pictures taken with former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, noting that they were some of their top partners. They told us they have global partners, too.
If there was anything I was grateful for, it would be their civil approach in persuading us to drop some money. Some network marketers will hurl insults and condescending remarks at participants who walk out during their sessions or fail to show commitment via payment.
From what I got during Ndali’s session, asking questions, procrastinating, saying one will start tomorrow or even consulting with one’s spouse before paying was tantamount to failure.
She said this to create a sense of urgency and immediacy as though the offer would never be available again.
One of the middle-aged participants wanted to know if we could ask questions before paying but she said questions would come after payment.
When someone asked why she kept emphasising that they would work with three people, she said it was because they could not work with everybody. But I sensed a sort of reverse psychology at play. These people would definitely be glad if we all paid N49,990 or made a part payment of N10,000.
Based on my previous experience, I knew that making that part payment was as good as biding adieu to hard-earned money forever.
I stepped out of the hall around 2:30 pm without dropping a dime.
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