In the past few days, I have felt truly ashamed of myself for underestimating my country and my people because it never occurred to me that there could be a tech start-up in Nigeria. If not for the ability to read and the existence of Google, I would likely still be in that state of shameful oblivion. It may have been coincidence or a date with destiny, but a few days ago I just happened to flip through the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Lo and behold, there was an article about a Nigerian by the name of Sim Shagaya (founder of DealDey). After reading the article, I reflexively performed a Google search (I am addicted to Google searches) and there began two hours of exploration into the world of Nigerian tech start-ups.
Not surprisingly, Sim is not the only Nigerian to have tried his hands at tech entrepreneurship. He is accompanied by Tayo Oviosu (founder of Paga), Julius E. Sea Jr. (founder of Kukurookoo – yes you guessed it, a Nigerian version of Twitter where you cluck instead of tweet) and the Encipher Group (developers of the Inye Tablet) amongst others. There are several characteristics that the current generation of Nigerian tech entrepreneurs share. However, one of the most striking is the fact that the products on offer are imitations of products that already exist elsewhere. Of course, the imitations have been tailored to the tastes of a Nigerian audience. Regardless, the fact remains that the idea behind these new products is borrowed. In itself, this is not a bad thing. But surely, one longs for the day when Nigerians will create something that has not been seen anywhere else in the world. This should be our goal and it appears that imitation is the first step that has been chosen by the current generation of tech entrepreneurs.
The rise of tech entrepreneurs in Nigeria signals the development of our country and an important shift from a goods based economy to a service based economy. Just as a baby must first crawl before it begins to walk, Nigeria’s tech industry is beginning its own development via imitation – DealDey imitates Google Offers and Amazon, Kukurookoo imitates Twitter, the Inye Tablet joins a long list of IPad imitators and Paga is similar to the M-Pesa platform used in Kenya. Regardless of whether they are imitations or not, credit must be given to the individuals who have realized the opportunity that exists in Nigeria and have sought to take advantage of it.
It may come as a disappointment to some but it certainly is not a shock to many – all of the tech entrepreneurs that have been mentioned so far have been educated in Western tertiary institutions. Sim Shagaya (DealDey) attended the George Washington University, Dartmouth and Harvard Business School. Tayo Oviosu (Paga) was educated at the University of Southern California and Stanford Business School. Julius E. Sea Jr. is an alumnus of the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Kean University. The Encipher Group founded by Saheed Adepoju and Anibe Agamah is somewhat of an anomaly. Of the current class of tech entrepreneurs, only these two were educated in a Nigerian university. Saheed attended the Federal University of Technology, Minna while Anibe was educated at the University of Abuja. Their undergraduate degrees were however followed by graduate degrees from British institutions. Saheed received a Master’s degree from Bournemouth University while Anibe received one from the University of East London. The moral of this story is one we have all heard before – Nigerian educational institutions are lagging behind their peers in the U.S. and in Europe. While some may argue that the quality of one’s university education does not determine entrepreneurial ability, the fact that Nigeria’s tech entrepreneurs attended non-Nigerian institutions should at least be a cause for concern.
Despite the difficulties associated with operating a tech business in Nigeria, the entrepreneurial bug appears to have affected a new generation of individuals determined to overcome the challenges. While the rise of the tech industry in Nigeria is a sign of development and a reason for excitement; it also brings to light the state of the Nigerian educational sector. If our nation is to take advantage of the age of technology, there will be need for infrastructural improvements that will allow tech businesses’ to thrive. Improvements in education are especially important because technological advancement cannot exist in the absence of a skilled workforce. With improvements in education, the development of a culture that seeks to solve Nigerian problems and encouragement of the entrepreneurial spirit, future generations of tech entrepreneurs will be able to make the transition from mere imitation to true innovation.