I used to be very worried that even if we assume Nigeria finally gets its act together, and gets on the economic path to greatness, the world would have moved so far along the rapid technology and development evolution curve that Nigeria will essentially be too far gone to save.
It is difficult not to reach the same conclusion when you think about the massive gaps we face in infrastructure, healthcare and education alone. You cannot but come away with the impression that the current gaps in our systems are too large to be adequately filled unless in another couple life times. My biggest worry was that our young people would be doomed to another century of playing catch-up to the rest of the world.
However, as I have come to gain a more nuanced understanding of the global technology ecosystem and the role of emerging markets like Nigeria’s in it, I have come to understand technology in countries like ours is not only, a great democratizer but also as a great enabler. Technology, when applied with the right support from government, academia and other ecosystem partners actually has the potential to turbo-charge a country out from laggard status to leader status in a very short period of time.
For example, the technology behind the mobile phone, allowed Africa to effectively “double promote” itself in the telecommunication spectrum, skipping landlines and successfully enabling mass access to communication at a very affordable price even for the very poor. This African driven growth in telecoms ensured that some of the world’s largest and most successful mobile phone operators in the world are African owned and managed.
The interesting thing however is that although the story of the remarkable growth in Africa’s telecoms sector is impossible to tell without mentioning Nigeria which is historically one of Africa’s fastest growing telecoms markets, the vast majority of the returns have gone back to innovators and investors elsewhere in Africa like South Africa and Egypt who prepared their entrepreneurs to become global leaders in this space. As the fast followers we typically are, Nigeria eventually got Globacom, but in my mind we lost in this equation, because we did not capitalize on the growth opportunity happening here in our backyard to build an ecosystem of global technology leaders around telecoms as South Africa (MTN) and Egypt (Orascom) were able to do.
The telecoms opportunity is now long gone but there are new sectors of the economy, in broadband, entertainment, education, healthcare, security and infrastructure where Nigeria is the growth opportunity and Nigerian technology businesses if prepared to take advantage of the growth opportunities in their backyard can become the global market leader.
The question now is how are we preparing our entrepreneurs –Nigerian technology entrepreneurs –to become the global market leaders in these new and emerging fields?
The Nigerian government’s approach to this problem has typically been to adopt the Dangote play book – impose artificial barriers to entry for foreign firms prepared to take advantage of the opportunity in the hope that this might provide advantage to domestic firms who might want to capitalize on the local demand. The trouble with this strategy is that Nigerian entrepreneurs as talented and driven as Dangote is are few and far between. Many times they are not equipped with the talent, capital and mentorship to take advantage of these opportunities. Despite the advantage handed to them on a platter of gold by the government, they end up executing very poorly and soon enough the market demands the government pulls the artificial barriers down and allow in foreign competition whether they like it or not.
Now, as a young and fairly inexperienced entrepreneur myself, I can’t say I know exactly what we need to correct this failure but I have a few ideas.
First, we need to solve for the talent question. I agree, lack of access to capital is a huge problem but lack of access to talent is an even bigger problem for Nigerian businesses. Nigeria needs to acknowledge how dire the situation is and correct its educational system especially at the tertiary level. Our Universities need to be talent factories and not talent drains. The Nigerian Governments needs to engage Nigerian business in figuring out how to mold Nigerian talent that can scale well enough to capitalize on the hyper growth opportunities in our backyard. If the government doesn’t do this, the South Africans, the Indians and other foreigners will continue to reap from growth opportunities in our backyard.
Second, we need a more structured way to bundle capital and mentorship so that successful Nigerian entrepreneurs like Dangote and Adenuga amongst several others who already have experience capitalizing on growth opportunities can both angel invest in and mentor younger teams not only on how to take advantage of growth opportunities here in Nigeria, but how to scale beyond Nigeria to international markets. The government can do more to incentivize successful entrepreneurs to do this by offering tax incentives and recognition to successful entrepreneurs willing to replicate their success by mentoring other Nigerian entrepreneurs.
Finally, we need to convince our entrepreneurs to dream a lot bigger. I had a moment of realization when I saw a popular Nigerian Internet entrepreneur I very much admire proclaim his “victory” has defeated him with subscription revenue of just around $1.5m – $2m. In my mind, (and perhaps this is a function of the entrepreneurial culture I grew up in here in Canada) this hardly qualifies as a “victory”. I have watched countless Nigerian technology companies confine their impact to our boundaries when they should be looking for new ground to break.
Dangote is an important role model in this respect. His hunger for global domination is one of many things that inspire me to get up and go to work very hard to build the same thing in education technology every day. We are Nigerians. Our dreams need to match our swagger. As an entrepreneur building my next company in this country and on this continent, I don’t see any reason why the next Orascom for online higher education or healthcare technology can’t come from Nigeria.
At the end of the day, we simply need to recognize that the age of being proudly Nigerian is over. These days it is not enough to be “Proudly Nigerian” when we can build global companies that are “proudly from Nigeria”.
This article was originally published on Iyin’s blog.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji is passionate about people, ideas and technology and is working to change the world of education. Follow him on Twitter here.