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Nigerian Tech Ecosystem: From Underwhelming to Amazing in Ten Years & Lessons Learned [Startup]

Tech, Nigeria, Kenya, Start-up, Unicorn, Tech Ecosystem, Starup Growth, Tech Hub, Tech Industry.

Founder, Ideas Come to Life Ltd

Business, Law, Leadership, Entrepreneurship. Nigerian Tech Ecosystem: From Underwhelming to Amazing in Ten Years & Lessons Learned [Startup]
Oyemaja; Nigerian Tech Ecosystem: From Underwhelming to Amazing in Ten Years & Lessons Learned [Startup]

Ten years ago, almost to the day, I went on my first visit to Lagos as the CEO of Africa's Talking, eager to expand our business to Africa's largest country and market. My first instinct when I got to Lagos was to seek out Yaba, the tech centre of Lagos from where I expected to connect with startups that were likely to become our customers. Yaba was a sensory assault, heat, humidity, dust, noise, people hustling and bustling and the common arguments in the streets by frustrated people who found themselves in a mess that stretched them to their limits.

Ignoring that scene, I was relieved to be visiting the co-creation hub a place where I expected to find kindred spirits and familiar surroundings. Climbing up the stairs to the ccHub, the scene before me was a far cry from Nairobi's bustling tech hub, the iHub: there seemed to be much fewer startups than I expected and at the rooftop was a carpet of faux grass from where you could see the chaos unfolding below.

It was impossible not to draw parallels. Nairobi's public matatus, as unpredictable as they were, seemed luxurious compared to Lagos' danfos. The Co-creation Hub, despite its ambition, appeared subdued next to iHub’s vibrant energy, a tech hub that had garnered attention from international media like CNN.

A constant theme kept coming up: underwhelming. Everything in Nigeria just seemed underwhelming. The co-creation hub didn't stray far from that script. It seemed to be so much less proper compared to the iHub especially considering Nigeria's population was four or five times more than that of Kenya. Where were all the developers I expected to see working away on their MacBooks?

I remember having a conversation with a Kenyan I met at the ccHub then. "This place is like ten years behind us" I said in a whispered tone. "This place is really underwhelming" he agreed. It was a foregone conclusion that the Kenyan tech ecosystem would be much ahead of the Nigerian tech ecosystem over the next ten years.

Fast forward to 2023.

The Co-creation Hub, once overshadowed by Nairobi’s iHub, now owns it. As in the ccHub actually bought and took over the iHub. Think about that. You would have no idea from the article announcing the acquisition how much the tables had actually turned.

Out of seven African unicorns, Nigeria boasts four, while Kenya has none.

Dr. ‘Bosun Tijani , once managing the humble Co-creation Hub, is steering the country's digital future as the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy. Platforms like Andela have carved out a talent pool, revolutionizing Nigeria’s tech landscape. A culture of collaboration in the Nigerian tech industry, marked by events like Founders Connect, has birthed initiatives such as the Nigeria Start Up Act of 2022 while Kenya's Startup Bill languishes in parliament.

But the journey here is not just about growth. It's about collaboration, resilience, vision, and a relentless struggle to rise above obstacles.

"We were forced by circumstances to come together to fight for our industry because things were so hard" says Iyinoluwa Aboyeji when I asked him how come their startup industry is so well organised and connected with both the industry and government . That's how they got their StartUp Act 2022 and how one of their own is now in charge of the tech industry in Nigeria. The Kenyan tech ecosystem meanwhile seems held back by a lone wolf mentality that makes the entire industry much less powerful than it could be.

Then there's ecosystem builders, people who forsake the allure of personal glory in building or trying to build the next unicorn but focus on building the ecosystem or as Iyinoluwa Aboyeji puts it "moving from thinking about building the next unicorn to building a trillion dollar economy in Nigeria." Training a critical mass of world class developers such as was done by Andela was critical in supplying the basic building blocks of the technology industry; the software developers. Once you had people who could build, then the tech hubs such as Co-creation Hub (CcHUB) took over providing a space for developers to build out their apps.

The next challenge which is connecting with the industry and government was solved by forming relationships with politicians, civil servants and industry titans and working on certain initiatives together with them which was made possible by the organisation of the tech industry. That has made it much easier for startups to find their way into the market quickly and because of that funding has followed. Exits such as the recent one by Paystack enable capital to circulate within the ecosystem as previous founders fund new companies, creating a virtuous cycle.

Granted, it has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears for the Nigerian tech industry to get where it has. It seems like a fulfilment of the African proverb, "if you want to go fast go alone and if you want to go far go with others."

What lessons should we take from this improbable success?

We often judge situations based on their current status, blinded to the seeds of potential that lie within. In being discouraged by all the negative signals that I saw around me in Nigeria and retreating to my comfort zone, I missed an opportunity to contribute, to be part of this transformative journey. Nigerians who did not have the luxury of another market to retreat to were forced to pull up their bootstraps and organise their efforts to solve the problems that they faced. In so doing they also developed a super power which has got them to where they are today.

As we step into the future, it’s crucial to remember this lesson. Places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, currently overlooked or discouraging, are brimming with untapped potential. We must refuse to have our vision blinded by the temporary solvable challenges that blind us from seeing the diamond in the rough. Instead of making judgments based on the present, we must engage, nurture, problem solve and envision a brighter future.

Because, as Nigeria has shown, today's underdog can be tomorrow’s leader.

The blueprint is there for countries trying to figure out how to grow their technology industries.

One thought lingers.

If the Nigerian tech industry has been able to achieve this much over the last ten years with all the obstacles in its way, how well could it do in the next ten years with one of their own in the drivers seat at the government?

Let's find out in 2033.

Originally published by Eston Kimani on Linkedin


Oyemaja Executives on Nigerian Tech Startup Ecosystem.


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