Move Back to Nigeria is a new series which aims to engage professionals in the diaspora who might be considering a move back to Nigeria and those who are not. In collaboration with the brilliant team at MoveBackToNigeria.com, we hope to bring you a weekly interview with individuals who have successfully made the leap and those who unsuccessfully moved back and returned to the west. The idea is to share their successes and their challenges as they made the decision. A lot of Nigerians in the diaspora have questions about making a change at home in Nigeria. Many suggest really good ideas on how to make things better; others would like to contribute to making a difference back home but are just not sure where to begin.
This week we are delighted to launch the series with this debut interview featuring self acclaimed geek, Tolu Adelowo. He moved back to Nigeria, from the UK, to carve a niche in the I.T industry. Tolu is blazing the trail and setting his sights on bigger projects! Read on to hear his simple yet inspiring story and his objective perspective on life in Nigeria.
Thanks for speaking with us. Can you tell us who you are and what you do?
My name is Tolu Adelowo and I trained as a software engineer at Imperial College, London. I am quite the geek but without the glasses and the suspenders. I genuinely do have a passion for everything software and could probably do this without getting paid. I left Nigeria to the UK for my A ‘levels in 1998 after which I went on to Imperial College, London.
Why the interest in computer science?
I had always been fascinated with computers right from secondary school. I remember my excitement when windows 95 came out because it was like nothing I had ever used. However, I didn’t quite enjoy computing during my A’ levels which led me to think computing probably wasn’t for me after all. So I took a gap year to more or less explore different options. During this period, I worked with Philips in their research laboratory, doing some programming for digital set top boxes. This experience really reinvigorated me and led me right back down to the computer science path. I certainly don’t regret going back into it because, oddly enough I believe it fits my personality.
That’s interesting. What personality traits does one need to be a software engineer?
I think you have to be a focused and analytical individual who enjoys problem-solving. You must have a genuine thirst for knowledge because that is the only way to keep up with the fast pace of technology changes. You really must have a very creative mind as well because as the world’s challenges become more complex, the solutions need to be more creative.
Okay. How did you launch your career after your gap year and first degree?
I went straight into work after graduating from my first degree which was a four year course. I initially did not want to do anything computing related and so I got a job as a management consultant at Accenture where I worked for two and a half years. Management consultants have to solve very broad problems for organizations but I realised I particularly enjoyed those projects that had more focused problems requiring software analytics. This made me realise I could not escape my calling as a software engineer and so I joined a smaller consulting firm where I gained some key software experience. After which I joined one of Europe’s largest hedge funds, Lansdowne Partners which I stayed at until my eventual move to Nigeria.
What did your role there entail?
It was as a senior software engineer and basically involved designing and developing real time trading platforms for their traders. There was the project-based aspect of this role and also support services, which involved dealing with issues arising from existing platforms.
My role also involved connecting brokers around the world to the trading platforms as electronic communication is a vital part of the trading process. For the Lansdowne traders to trade globally, trade instructions had to be sent electronically to brokers for instant executions, which meant that a lot of the work involved seamless two-way communication. It was my last job in the UK before I moved back to Nigeria and I loved every aspect of it from the team I worked with, to the location in Mayfair. It provided me with a lot of exposure and helped me develop and hone my skillset in the financial services industry.
You moved back to Nigeria from a role you clearly enjoyed. Why?
Well, I had always known that at some point, I was going to run my own software company, and due to the fact that I had gained experience working in different places and nurturing ideas, I just knew that I wanted to apply and utilise those experiences on a personal level. I also consider Nigeria to be the next frontier for technology in Africa with our large population and the platform the mobile revolution has created. Given I am Nigerian, it really was a no brainer. So about a year ago, I decided to start working part time with Lansdowne Partners, so I could have sometime to myself to build up on my own based on some of the Africa-focused ideas I had.
How did you begin the moving back process and what was it like?
Sometime last year, I came to Nigeria for a week, having meetings with doctors and other healthcare practitioners, because my initial idea was to build software and explore electronic records management for the healthcare sector in Nigeria. A few months after that visit, I decided to take my chances and do this full time, because that’s what I wanted to do, even though I didn’t plan to fully move back to Nigeria yet. I decided to visit Nigeria for a longer spell, 2 months this time around which I hoped would provide me with more insight and clarity. The plan was to return to England and build on some of the feedback I got from my visit. However, when I came to Nigeria, I stayed and didn’t go back to England as planned.
That was daring and a bit brave. Were you not worried as to the outcome, especially if it did not go as planned?
I knew it had to be done sooner rather than later. I also knew it was one of those things that I had to put all my heart and soul into. I also figured that if I was not successful, there was always the option of going back to England to get a job. But despite that, I knew this was my dream and I had to push it. Although it’s still in progress and has been a bit rollercoaster, it’s finally starting to look positive.
Tell us about your ideas and projects in Nigeria.
The initial few months involved meeting lots of different people and exploring various opportunities which can be somewhat tricky because if you’re not careful, you can lose focus in all the ensuing activities. I eventually did set up a software house called Cousant Technologies and our particular focus is on building software for the financial services industry. We believe there is a massive opportunity in outsourcing, because of Nigeria’s sizable and educated labour force. We want organizations outside of Nigeria to out-source their software development and back office functions to Nigeria. The fact that we are in the same time-zone as most of Europe is also an added advantage over other outsourcing destinations like India, China and the Phillipines.
Fascinating Stuff. How has the process of owning and running a business in Nigeria been, particularly in your sector?
It’s undoubtedly unique in Nigeria. I went on a tour of the silicon valley area a few months ago and the energy there was so real. There is such an enabling environment there for young people to really impact lives with technology. Nigeria unfortunately does not have such an enabling environment at the moment as the old guards who are the titans of the Nigerian industries still practice antiquated systems. You are constantly fighting against the mindset and it really is like selling technology to dinosaurs. Nigeria is also a very price-sensitive market and the real innovation occurs by figuring out ways to reduce your input costs and still provide quality solutions at the right price.
What has the reception been like for your services?
It has been quite mixed. As an entrepreneur, you have the opportunity to meet with a lot of different people who can potentially add value to what you do. On the flipside, there is a phenomenal number of time wasters who are mostly full of fluff. It also takes a while to move past the bottlenecks to get one’s desired result.
Your service seems to be quite niche but still within the umbrella of financial services. Do you mind sharing your thoughts on the regulatory bodies in the financial services industry in Nigeria?
I’m impressed with the new leadership at the stock exchange as I believe they are doing a good job even as they face the same challenges of dealing with people who have obsolete value systems. I think they are on track to modernise and upgrade the system to what obtains in the west. The securities and exchange commission is also becoming an effective regulatory body that does not just grant licences willy nilly. Obviously, the age old bureaucracy still exists but based on my personal experiences, we are on the right track to progress.
On a different note, in terms of your lifestyle how has the transition being like so far?
It’s quite interesting as you’re sometimes initially viewed as a ‘repatriate’ who is likely to run back as soon as the going gets tough and it can be challenging fighting that mentality. It’s also quite difficult meeting the right people and being able to differentiate who means business and who is just unserious. When I first moved back, I fell into the trap of being swayed from place to place by people I met, which is something that can happen to anyone. I thankfully got my focus back and I think one of the factors that makes the experience bearable is the fact that you have family around you to support and guide you if the need arises. Also there is this mentality that since you are coming from a different country, you are coming to exploit or steal their jobs. That was a huge challenge for me dealing with unwarranted animosity from some people I met. Another recurrent issue is the horrendous traffic, which takes up a lot of valuable time. In my business, time is a direct cost input to the production of software and the more time I spend sitting in traffic, the less margin I can make on our products. Power supply is also an issue but has not been as problematic as I thought. The most I’ve gone without power has been a few days, and I am learning to work around that with the alternatives like generators, inverters and so on.
More grease to your elbows, as you seem to have a positive mind-set which has its advantages.
I cannot overestimate the power of prayer as I sometimes view the whole country as one big booby trap, so a considerable amount of time has to be devoted to prayer if you want to thrive in Nigeria, particularly Lagos. But on a serious note, it is probably easier because I am doing what I want to do so all the white noise does not really bother me, I just focus on my work and shut out everything else.
That’s a pretty cool outlook. Finally, what tips would you have for people who may be inspired by your story and those also considering a move back?
An important thing would be to always come with a plan of what you want to do when you get back. If you are the kind of person who wants to get a job when you move back, then try and take as many courses and trainings as possible, because this is what sells you and sets you apart in this environment. Even if you don’t have experience, at least get the trainings and qualifications. Although I know some people are wary of coming back to Nigeria, in the long run you will find that it is worth it. Nigeria is fast becoming the place that the outside world is now looking to and as an educated and experienced Nigerian professional, it is where you will have an edge.
Thanks for your time and best wishes moving forward.
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