It is interesting to see the increasing level of interest in the technology space in Africa and in Nigeria to be specific. However, I still strongly believe that we do not have a proper technology ecosystem yet considering the dearth of key elements that I have observed and will try to summarize in the next few minutes.
We have quite a number of good engineering and programming talent but the number is too small to build a proper technology ecosystem. Based on personal observation, I doubt if we have up to 200 world class developers in Nigeria that can develop technology products that are up to global standards. A technology ecosystem cannot be well harnessed without the proper and adequate quality of technical talent.
Angel investors are almost non-existent, even those we can regard as angels act more like institutional VCs without a similar financial backing. You can’t blame them though when you consider all the risk factors in the country and the few number of major wins/exits. It is easy to assume that we have angel investors in Nigeria, but try counting the people you can regard as angels and see if you can count more than 10. You need to have some money to be an angel and most rich guys in Nigeria either do not understand, have not seen enough to attract them or are just not interested in the tech space. We are beginning to see a few interests coming from some quarters, but this is totally inadequate to form an effective ecosystem that can build ground breaking technology companies.
A lot of us young entrepreneurs in the technology space still battle to understand the concept of product/market fit, I will not even try to act like I can do justice to that topic. You can google and read loads of articles on that. However, it is essential to build unique products that people love, borrowing from the Y Combinator mantra. The best way to connect this to building an ecosystem is to mention that I know a lot of people that started using the internet as a result of Nairaland and Facebook. Products that people love create a new level of engagement that doesn’t just positively affect a single company or product but create a multiple effect that influences the entire technology community. Think of iOS and Android platforms. The success of Linda Ikeji and Nairaland has created a lot of blog and forum startups respectively. Jumia and Konga’s relative successes have led a train of e-commerce startups. Jobberman has led the bandwagon of various career portals and the list goes on. The more products that fit our unique market are being created, the better the level of participation in the ecosystem across board.
Things that don’t scale
A lot of us have read the popular articles by the experts from Silicon Valley and the likes about the importance of doing things that don’t scale at the early stage, but we still find it difficult to do things that don’t scale, perhaps because of some peculiarities of our environment. Distribution is still a major startup problem in Nigeria and even in societies where they have a better distribution channel, they still emphasize the need to do things that don’t scale at the early stage. I won’t get into the discussion of reasons or advantages of doing things that don’t scale, you can read here and here for that. However, in the light of an ecosystem, doing things that don’t scale is the best way to create and identify your specific customers, unique distribution channels and create a conduit for other startups to follow. This helps to solve the distribution challenge which is a major hindrance to startup growth in Africa.
Startup is all about growth. A lot of us local entrepreneurs lack the skill, experience, ambition and perhaps resources to grow. An ecosystem cannot be built by just many companies that are not growing, even if they have a good product that fits the market. The growth of startups stimulates an ecosystem and encourages more activity and involvement from all the needed stakeholders. There is a need for us all to go back and review a fundamental principle known as “compound interest” to have a rethink of growth. This is also connected to the problem of distribution as discussed above but personally I think one of the reason for lack of major and fast growth especially for consumer internet products has to do with product as I will discuss next.
Be the smartest in the room
I smile when I hear some young tech entrepreneurs describe themselves as product visionaries. You don’t have to call yourself that, the products you create will show it to the world if you are or not. The late Steve Jobs to me is the greatest products person I know about and he did a lot of things that are quite counterintuitive. I personally do not believe people lack great ideas in Nigeria, in fact I believe we have a lot of creative and innovative ideas.
When you think of ideas like Rap Genius, Twitch, Quizup etc that turn out to be big successes abroad, the ideas aren’t so special but the quality of products that the creators brought to the market shows you the importance of a great product vision that is much beyond just an idea. I believe we have good and maybe better ideas than the saturated West, the problem is that we have not been able to create out of our ideas, products that are truly awesome. This relates to the product/market fit I mentioned earlier but takes it a bit further. We have not seen product thinkers that are bold enough to do unpopular things and create truly innovative products that inspire people. I have read that such ideas are moon shot ideas and that nobody will fund such here, maybe that is true but that is a discussion for some other time.
A lot of the successful internet companies have smart creators at their helm but I have not seen someone I can regard as a thorough product visionary in the league of say Snapchat Co-founder, Evan Spiegel. We have great leaders, great executors, great operations guys, great developers, great fund raisers, great marketers, great cloners, etc founding technology startups here, but considering that almost all our successful tech companies have products that a similar successful or better option already exist in the more advanced community, we are still in the lookout for Nigeria’s Steve Jobs.
The ecosystem needs inspiration. We can’t wait to see the first technology billionaire. We have not had big wins or major exits that will inspire more smart people to come into the community or drive angels and VCs to throw in more capital. Kudos to the likes of Sim, Jason, Tayo, Olumide, Chika, etc and Linda (We should stop famzing Linda because I consider her more of a blogger than a tech entrepreneur), but we need people like Deji, Seun and Mark to get more aggressive and ambitious because they are the “local guys” that young tech entrepreneurs look up to. I have to join the bandwagon here in saying with respect that people like the great Naira guy of Otta has not done enough to inspire or influence the ecosystem. I am not advocating for tech entrepreneurs to become inspirational speakers but they need to pull their weight and influence the ecosystem positively. I strongly believe startups begets startups, people who work for startups start their own, people who got rich from startups fund new ones and the cycle continues.
About the author: Segun Adeyemi is passionate about building technology products that people want. He's currently working on SoccerQuiz.com.ng alongside Adams Ib.