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Why government’s sudden interest in tech is bad for the Nigerian tech ecosystem

March 14, 2016 · 4 min read
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Recently, the Nigerian tech community hosted Adebayo Shittu, the Minister of Communication in Yaba, Lagos. During his visit, there was a roundtable with stakeholders of the Nigerian Tech ecosystem where deliberations were made on the way forward.

The Buhari administration had previously made a pledge to be primarily focused on the advancement of Nigeria’s cause via science and technology — from the proposed budget allocation to cater for free science and technology education, to the proposed replication of tech clusters, down to the recent unofficial policy that forced civil servants to acquire computing skills before they were considered for promotion.

The list of the efforts being made by the Federal Government of Nigeria to reconnect Nigeria technologically with the rest of the world is long, very impressive and still being updated.

All these are visible indications that the Federal Government of Nigeria has recently developed a sort of inexplicable interest in technology and the Nigerian tech space as a whole.

Everybody is applauding the government for starting to pay attention to an all-important sector that has hitherto been completely ignored. I am applauding with one hand too and snapping the other in exhaustive skepticism because this sudden love affair is as late as it is suspicious.

Over decades of Nigeria’s independence, tech has been conspicuously relegated to the background, never minding the fact that it is the wheels on which some of the greatest nations on earth today have risen to world power. China and the United States of America are good case studies. As earlier stated, I am happy we as a country are finally asking the all important tech question. After all, the saying goes “better later than never”, yes?

The nagging suspicion

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After he was inaugurated, President Muhammadu Buhari lamented the fact that he came into governance at a time when the price of crude oil had fallen from $140 to an all-time low of $30. Bearing in mind that the 2016 budget was made with the benchmark for crude oil set at $38.

Even though recently, the price of crude oil rose to $39.48 by all indications, things are  still not looking rosy for a heavily oil-dependent economy like Nigeria’s. In lieu of trial and error, the government has been taking desperate measures to shore up, like the recent introduction of stamp duties which trailed a lot of mixed reactions.

My fear is that this interest in the tech ecosystem is borne by more than just a need to develop it and move to the next level. It seems to me like an urgent grasp at every available lifeline by the government to rescue an already flailing economy. This is a good thing, but the fire-brigade methods, funding and policies that would follow such a rush into a sector that ordinarily requires passion, motivation and a will for betterment might spell doom for the infantile Nigerian tech ecosystem.

The impending age of ‘Onitsha Startups’

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When the federal government becomes interested in the ecosystem, monies would come in at an uncontrollable rate. Venture Capitals with true ghost angel investors will spring up everywhere, and before you say Onitsha, startups will become a legit avenue to launder money. Massive chunks of corrupt government monies would be funneled into meaningless startups that somebody’s sister’s son has been forced to dream up, you get my drift now?

At present, Nigeria’s tech ecosystem consists of idealists that have Martin Luther-like dreams to change this country. Some dare to take on the world at large, most are not worried even if this change does not occur in their lifetime, they are happy to just precipitate the change.

The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA)  is the body that regulates college athletics in the USA and the quality of athletes that are produced from the NCAA are top notch because most of them are in for the passion and love of whatever sports they are involved in. Most of these young athletes are aware that they may never make the professional leagues or go on to earn the showy big bucks. They all know but still play because their motivation is pure. Last year, there was a raging debate on paying NCAA athletes, but it was stopped dead in its track by an injunction. It was obviously not an issue worthy of debate as they knew the effect money as a motivation would have on the otherwise innocent students.

With all the talk of tech being the new oil and gas and rife speculations that we are in a tech bubble, if the Federal Government of Nigeria was to officially come into the tech ecosystem as an entity, there would be bastardization of the system as we know it. And the otherwise purely motivated startups would be corrupted like NCAA athletes plied with too much money.

A worrisome trend has risen with this sudden Federal Government romance, every business now is  forcefully attaching the “Tech Startup” label to their nomenclatures. Even business that prior to now have not had a visible online presence are now calling themselves “Tech Startups”.

The way out

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This subheading may sound like some sort of farce or nightmare for those who have been clamouring for a Cinderella-like scenery like this one for a long time now. But if the Nigerian tech ecosystem is to stay healthy and sustain a future generation, structures and policies need to be put in place to determine a standard.

This sounds like a fix as the ecosystem cannot exactly reject the juicy benefits that come with working with the government in different capacities, but there has to be a middle ground. A committee or group should serve as a go-between with the government; a pipeline of sorts between startups and the Federal Government. This group of people should be scrupulous enough to able to determine when any advances made by any government body or parastatal is in the best interest of the tech ecosystem.

That in my opinion is the best way to overcome this dilemma. Do you have any contrary opinions? Please share them in the comments section below

Photo Credit: G@ttoGiallo / Funky64 (www.lucarossato.com) via Compfight cc

Victor Ekwealor

Victor Ekwealor

Author

tech. media. startups. africa. vc | Twitter: @victor_ekwealor

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