What startups may come: a look at Silicon Lagoon in Nigeria

Lagos bridge

“What exactly is a business plan?” a startup says to me. Life in Nigeria’s booming startup scene is not like any other. “We don’t really take on a lot of risk,” he says to me, but the business he is running will probably hang on risks that he will have to start taking soon.

A business plan is not really a fully formed idea for some of the startups I have met. I ask about business models and revenue projections — “I don’t know” is the standard response. This ecosystem is not actually an ecosystem, I am told.

“In Nigeria, we don’t have an ecosystem, we have clusters of people doing their own thing,” says Gossy Ukanwoke, founder of online university Beni American University Online. The way he sees it, this space is full of different people trying to do different things, and there is very little organisation or an established process. But a thriving tech space Nigeria is nonetheless, and especially Lagos’ startup scene.

As interesting as some of the startups I have met here are, some battle to articulate what they do. However, they can show you — and all of a sudden it makes sense. There are business models, they are just not articulated in the ways I am used to, and revenue projections are based on the realities of the moment.

Startups are rock stars here, there is no denying that. You can tell by the turn out and engagement that tech news blog TechCabal got for its inaugural startup competition — Battlefield. The competition was touted as a showcase of Nigeria’s rising tech startup scene. Seven startups presented their products and businesses to an audience of users, geeks and investors. It felt less like a startup competition and more like a spectator sport.

“You guys have stumbled onto something big here,” key players in the Nigerian tech scene tell the organisers, Seyi Taylor (CEO of BigCabal, parent company to TechCabal) and Bankole Oluwafemi (editor-in-chief of TechCabal). They smile knowingly because they know what they have. They saw the ecosystem before the ecosystem knew it had this potential.

PrepClass and techcabal

The winners are announced, and education startup PrepClass wins the big prize. The room is electrified with conversation about what just happened. The judges are accosted by the audience — they want to know why their favourites didn’t win — and littered through the crowd are pixie-like fairies with shirts that read, “we are the cabal” dodging masses of people all wanting to talk about their startups.

Nigeria’s techpreneur ecosystem is growing rapidly and this event is just another way to galvanise the movement.

Tomi Davies, Chairman of the Lagos Angel Network, reckons that ,”Battlefield represents another milestone in the fast-developing techpreneur space in Nigeria. It is helping showcase the best of Nigerian developers, and I am excited about being part of it.”

On the other side of the bridge, you can feel the many worker bees of Lagos’ growing tech scene at work in the Co-Creation Hub (ccHub). This is the place that Nigeria’s constitution came to life in app format, a BlackBerry app. The app, which now has close to a million downloads, has been deployed to other platforms as well. There is no revenue model to it. “It’s our way of giving back,” the creator, Zubair Abubakar, says to me.

startups at ccHub

The hub is quite the beast itself: three floors and a roof top.

“We want to create a space for entrepreneurs to be free with their ideas,” Tolu Agunbiade, the hub’s community manager, tells me as she hands me a slice of cake (I have come on a cake day). “For Nigerians, building something that involves computers is harder to do from your bedroom because your parents don’t often understand. That’s why we have this space.”

The roof is every geek’s dream: a place that isn’t constrained and allows for play. Fake grass and all, with a 360 view of Lagos, you can sit here and code away while the city moves around you. Young high school kids are also encouraged to come play with robotics at the ccHub — it’s pretty cool.

CC hub

As I navigate this world of heavy traffic and contact lens destroying humidity, the veneer of the Lagos I thought I knew begins to peel away. This city is on the cusp of something amazing and the locals know it: 30-million people in this small space, they must be after something big.

One of Nigeria’s most celebrated techpreneurs, Konga’s Sim Shagaya, sums it up quite nicely. He reckons that technology for Nigeria means breaking the shackles of an old world, a world dependent on oil and steeped in corruption. Tech means a youth rising up to take back a country that has for too long been left in the hands of the state.

There are many things broken here, to the frustration of the entrepreneur, but they soldier on anyway.

“When I came back to Nigeria, I wanted to build eBay here,” says the founder of TopUp Genie, Adebola Adeola, a popular airtime purchasing app. “But we needed a payment gateway and there was none, so we thought let’s solve that first. That proved difficult so we ended up building the easiest thing we could serve online, airtime.”

This startup understands the pulse of its audience, its most popular product is perhaps “Flash for Credit”, a feature that allows user to add dependants to a list, and all those dependants have to do is call a toll-free number and their mobile number is credited with the airtime.

“That could be dangerous for boyfriends in the Nigerian context,” I joke to him.

“Why do you think we did it?” he smiles.

Give the people what they want indeed. The other startup sitting next to him at the hub is a social gaming company attempting to organise a very unorganised space — ChopUp.

“People are playing games on their phones everyday, the security guards, shop keepers, everyone, they just don’t classify it as ‘gaming’ but what is really important is they want local content, and that’s what we want to do — give developers the opportunity to give them content, that’s what our platform does,” says Bayo Puddicombe, founder of ChopUp.

Educating the audience is key. On the ground floor of the hub is a mobile experience centre, a room full of mobile devices for consumers to play with and use apps created by hub members. There is a Raspberry Pi here too, hooked up to a television.

“We try to have everything,” I am told.

There is competition here, but from what I gathered it’s all friendly. After the winner of TechCabal’s Battlefield is announced, Mark Essien, founder of Hotels.ng, is buzzing with excitement as he walks the room with his favourite startup, the 2nd runner-up Autobox, trying to raise them some money. He succeeds. He is not the only one doing this, all the mentors are hustling for their favourites. Startups helping startups, that’s the theme of the night, because if we are being honest, the Cabal is just starting out and here they are organising an ecosystem. The multinationals are getting involved too. Intel hosts a competition that encourages entrepreneurship that sends young Nigerians to compete on the world stage. Clusters or not, an ecosystem is in the making here.

Believe what we will about Nigeria and what its place in Africa is, the onslaught of its tech revolution and impending dominance cannot be denied.



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