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“Things don’t work like that here,” someone in the audience responds as Gareth Knight, founder of popular tech conference Tech4Africa, talks about the need to learn on your feet. There seems to be an underlying negativity when it comes to the tech ecosystem in Nigeria. There’s a sense that it will always be a struggle and a hustle; one with no glorifying future in sight.
I am at lunch with three startups: one has a solid footing in the market and is well on its way to becoming an SME, another tried a few things but reckons this new thing is the ticket and the third sits across from us as it tries to convince us of its market share. What followed was an almost arrogant display of “I know what I am doing and trust me, it will work”.
To the outside observer, the Nigerian tech scene seems to be one where egos wins, talent suffocates and economics will out. Just have a look at some of the less than gallant displays by Rocket Internet proprietors and iROKOTV’s front man.
But actually it is not
“I believe there is a lot of progress now, and so much more to be optimistic about,” says Akinola Odunukan, freelancer and commentator on the Nigerian tech ecosystem. “Two or three years ago, it was never this good.”
He argues that there is more structure in the ecosystem, thanks partly to an increase in the number of hubs and incubators. There are now also more support structures when it comes to venture capital and big international tech companies making their way to the country.
“There is increased participation from the government, payment issues are getting better with Interswitch, Mastercard, Visa and now PayPal,” Odunukan says.
For him, there are more opportunities now in the in the ecosystem, which warrants optimism.
“Things can happen very fast around here,” he adds, “even after there has been a long wait. You can’t help but stay positive.”
Making a whole from the fragments
We talk about the Nigerian tech ecosystem and what it is and possibly could become, but many in the space would argue that there really isn’t an ecosystem to begin with. What Nigeria has is fragments and communities all hustling to make it in a highly contested space.
This is “not good” for the space, Ayo Dawodu tell me. He runs Lean Startup in Nigeria. He reckons that these fragments are battling to make a whole because there is a deep sense of egotism that makes it harder to belong.
“The reason for the disorganisation, I would think, is that there are so many fragments of workforce or communities,” he says. “Yes, there could be a bit of ego here and there, which I think kills the sense of belonging to some of the fragmented communities.”
He does concede that there are some efforts being made to unite the fragments such as “the Lagos Startup Scene”, coined by Tomi Davies of Lagos Angel Network.
“It aims to involve all the stakeholders in the Lagos startup scene and channel their resource towards evolving a viable tech industry,” he explains.
Money, money, money and more money
Nigeria is an incredibly commercial place and Lagos is possibly one of the most commercial cities in the world. Very few people do things here if there isn’t profit in it for them. Profit drives the day, but how does that translate in the tech ecosystem? When money is the key driver, it usually means there is too much short-term thinking and egos that outweigh any benefits the people attached to them bring. But does this mean the tech scene is about to implode?
Very possibly, some tech entrepreneurs think.
Though an industry driven by egos will inadvertently implode on itself, Mark Essien of Hotels.ng offers a much more plausible scenario. He reckons that in the case of Nigeria’s tech scene, what will likely happen is that it will be run by big foreign companies, lots of small Nigerian companies and a few large local ones. This scenario is indeed very likely as it has already happened twice in the country: first with the oil and gas industry and then with construction. These big dominant industries are dominated by international companies with a few smaller Nigerian players.
The reason for this, according to a number of tech entrepreneurs in the country, is that Nigerians respect business people, not tech guys or engineers. This means that companies end up focusing on big deals and handshakes rather than product or excellence.
“But I really doubt the scene will implode,” says Essien. “The current generation of top guys will not be around forever but remember, tech is a really cheap way of making money and there are so many people who have no money, but they have smarts. A laptop is a low investment and the market is global”
Lessons from the age of 419
If you explore the Nigerian tech ecosystem as just another industry, which depends on Nigerian know-how and savvy for survival, then chances are it is headed for formidable things. Nigerians ran the 419 space, which is pretty technical and chances are the same thing will happen again (not the scams, just their formidability). There has been a lot of cash thrown into this tech space by big and well known foreign investors like Tiger Global and Investment AB Kinnevik. The top tech companies right now are the ones that happened to be in the way when these companies began throwing money around. They are the lucky ones.
That does not, however, mean they were the best.
Nigeria lacks the right skill sets says Editi Effiong, founder of digital agency Anakle. He reckons there aren’t enough skilled people with good ideas.
“There’s the dearth of execution people that only time and experience can solve,” he says.
So what comes next for Africa’s giant and its oncoming storm of technology innovations? What comes next in the battle of egos, the upskilling, organisation of the fragments and building a giant in Africa’s tech industry?
You can’t help but get lost in the heady energy and romance of Nigeria and its most populous city. Truth be told, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. So Nigeria’s tech industry is Nigeria’s to make or break.