Unilag as a missing piece in Nigeria’s tech ecosystem

May 16, 2018
8 min read

Technology companies have transformed the world over the last two decades, and for good reason. They have overtaken oil and gas and manufacturing hegemons to become the biggest contributors to the global economy via the largest public companies in the world, with billion-dollar unicorn valuations previously never envisaged.

Termed 'disruptors', these technology companies have leveraged increased internet adoption to chart new territories, creating new industries and reinventing older ones. As such, their entrepreneurial founders are revered as the crazy ones, the misfits who deliberately challenge the status quo for greater good.

But while quite a lot is said about these founders, their backgrounds and the challenges they battled in building long-term focused and sustainable companies, little focus is paid to the enabling entrepreneurial ecosystems around them.

A historical analysis of successful entrepreneurial ecosystems has identified several features that help foster entrepreneurship, technological innovation and resilience. While each ecosystem is unique, the entrepreneurship ecosystem generally consists of six factors:

  • A conducive culture,
  • Enabling policies and leadership,
  • Availability of appropriate finance,
  • Quality human capital,
  • Venture-friendly markets for products, and
  • A range of institutional and infrastructural supports

For the interwoven ecosystem encompassing Silicon Valley and Stanford University, its top factors are its risk-taking culture, student body of Stanford, the culture of giving back, abundant capital, collaboration with industry, and government support. Silicon Cape, South Africa’s most vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem credits its talent/industry, government, community, access to funding, university research, broadband infrastructure.

This approach has also been adopted by other entrepreneurial ecosystem programmes including the Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which lists government, risk capital, academia, entrepreneurs and the industry.

An argument for inclusive innovation with academia as core

university graduatesFor a somewhat successful ecosystem, short-term partners must include risk capitalists (VCs and investors), the entrepreneurs themselves, a handshake with the industry and to an extent, government. But for long game innovations, the role of the academia (alternatively, universities) cannot be overemphasised.

As a rule, universities are built to serve a mission greater than any individual or short-term gain. Their stock-in-trade is the sheer adventure of ideas. What makes universities uniquely essential, to the innovation ecosystem are the things that make them different from businesses and governments.

Universities are built for collaboration, for learning and discovery, and for unlocking the imagination. Responding to billionaire libertarian Peter Thiel and his beef against universities, a science journalist, Tom Clynes, wrote in the New York Times, “We don’t have enough of the desperately needed inventions — nuclear fusion energy or cancer cures — that emerge when credentialed scientists tinker away for years on expensive machines that have nothing to do with Snapchat. Of course, this sort of tinkering most often happens in…academic institutions.”

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Universities are powerful incubators for startups and technology transfer. When encouraged, their spillovers are what makes its way into innovation ecosystems.

Suggested Read7 prominent Nigerian startups that started from the university

Deliberate academic participation provides us the opportunity to practice “inclusive innovation” in our technology innovation thus enhancing democratic outcomes. By this, we go beyond the narrow definition of a technology startup and use innovation for the public good, opened up to address the broader range of issues we face as a society such as poverty, relevant education and inequality.

Universities in technology ecosystems: A case study of Silicon Valley and Stanford University

Foremost entrepreneurial tech ecosystem, Silicon Valley has benefited immensely from the pivotal role Stanford University has played in building its tech industry. As the world’s eyes fixate on the booming tech scene in Silicon Valley, Stanford’s affiliation shines brightly in the periphery.

Stanford shares a relationship with Silicon Valley unlike any other university on the planet, chartering a self-perpetuating cycle of innovation. But what’s at the root of this interdependency? How did Stanford University overcome its status as a second-rate engineering school to become the world’s top 3 choice, outpacing some of the biggest Ivy League universities?

It started with a Stanford Academic, Frederick Terman, who had served the Department of Defense and led a team that attacked Germany’s radar system during World War II. Seeing government’s eagerness to invest in cutting-edge electronics research, he secured sponsored projects that helped strengthen Stanford’s reputation in electronics and military technology.

When the Cold War began, Terman pushed for an Industrial Park at Stanford, to ensure a new revenue stream for the University, foster collaboration between the academia and industry and ultimately inspire students to start their companies. In a self-perpetuating cycle of innovation, industry folks took part-time courses at Stanford, while tech companies, in return, offered job opportunities for Stanford grads.

Since then, over 40,000 companies have sprouted from the collaboration between Silicon Valley and Stanford including Google, HP, Yahoo!, Cisco, Uber, Facebook and Airbnb among others. A survey of 2500 startup founders in the United States also revealed that Stanford graduates have received more funding than any other university in the world.

Stanford PhotoLittle wonder Stanford and Silicon Valley have emerged the world’s leading tech talent pools.

A look at Nigeria’s technology ecosystem

While some technology entrepreneurs have stressed that Nigeria does not have a tech ecosystem, this may be unfair to the work done by the Co-Creation Hub (CcHUB) in Yaba, which has become the model for innovation ecosystems across Nigeria.

Over the last eight years, more tech communities have sprung up across different locations in Nigeria, fostered by 30+ accelerators and hubs.

Though leading technology cluster in Nigeria, Yaba Innovation Headquarters ( iHQ; a brainchild of the Co-Creation Hub led Bosun Tijani) has been described as Africa’s most valuable startup ecosystem, it still doesn’t have all the required features of the ideal ecosystem.

The Yaba iHQ cluster enjoyed initial policy support during its early days (the project was a partnership between Lagos State, Technovision, the Co-Creation Hub and MainOne) which has since dwindled to a trickle. The sought after academia engagement, expected to source talent is sorely lacking despite the proximity of the Yaba cluster to talent hubs like Yaba College of Technology, Federal College of Education, Akoka and University of Lagos.

Fortunately, what iHQ lacks in government support and academia engagement, it makes up for in its vibrant, youthful culture, abundant capital and industry collaboration.

A roll-call of partners at the CcHUB reads like a Fortune 500 list: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Oracle, Nokia, Microsoft, Ford Foundation, Tony Elumelu Foundation and MainOne are only a few.

iHQ itself is home to companies including Paga, Hotels.ng, BudgIT, Paradigm Initiative, Paystack, and birthplace of Andela, Flutterwave among several others. Cumulatively, it has attracted millions of dollars investment and created thousands of direct/indirect jobs.

Unilag, oh my Unilag

I believe Lagos, and by extension the University of Lagos (Unilag), holds the key to Nigeria’s development. For Nigeria to be pulled out of poverty, Lagos must take the lead. And it has noticeably set the pace.

Lagos is the seventh fastest growing city in the world, the second largest city in Africa and the largest economy on the continent. Its Public Private Partnership (PPP) stance has been identified as the strategy to power the desired growth in physical and social infrastructure in the state.

Politically, Lagos has also done well for itself. Seth Kaplan of Johns Hopkins University opines that whereas national elections in Nigeria are a squabble over petrodollars, local elections in Lagos favour candidates who show competence and pragmatism. The reforms in Lagos have also kick-started wider changes across other states.

As a result of its location, the University of Lagos must also step up its ante and actively engage the private sector and technology leaders. There is no evidence to show that the 'University of First Choice' has taken advantage of the technology ecosystem right in its backyard. And this is sad, a stirring reminder of how Nigeria does not take advantage of available opportunities.

Unilag must take advantage of Yaba. A collaboration between Unilag and the tech cluster in Yaba will benefit both parties, but more importantly, will further Nigeria’s technology trajectory. The ability to transfer out technologies developed at academic institutions is another benefit for the tech community.

Academic institutions produce intellectual property (IP) through research which are protected through patents, trademarks, or copyrights. Yaba iHQ can transform these IP into real products, fine-tune them before showcasing to a global market. Ultimately, the more successful a university is at transferring technologies out of the laboratory into products, the higher its ROI.

Unilag must also revamp its curriculum to include STEM and MOOC courses, and attract sponsored research to address industrial needs. Koreangate may have left a bad taste in the mouth of its administration but we must not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Obafemi Awolowo University and Covenant University are already leading STEM education. A dalliance with Yaba offers Unilag the opportunity to wean itself off government funding. Today, Universities are in dire need of Chief Executive Officers who have a talent for maximising resources that can be invested in priorities.

Yaba iHQ is attracting top companies and significant FDI. Without Unilag’s presence, it may lack an organic succession. The failure of eCommerce players, if documented and codified would have stopped similar failures.

And when all this is done, Unilag will have a stellar reputation as the bastion of technology in Nigeria, with visits from far and wide. Its brand value will significantly improve with local and global recognition, more robust operating and research funding and national and international appointments of its staff.

More than ever, Unilag will be able to recruit top talent, as go-to Nigerian school for global tech companies. Other universities in Nigeria will come to see how Unilag has done it. More than any regulation, this pull strategy will create a demand for technology ecosystems and many state governments will voluntarily declare the need for smart cities.

Broadband demand will explode beyond current capacity and InfraCo will finally be implemented. And finally, technology ecosystem development across Nigeria will simply be plug and play, with replication across Nigeria.

Unilag has a vantage position to quickly lead Nigeria’s educational institutions, transforming education with technology. New Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe has his work cut out for him. Unilag must partake in the real technology ecosystem and execute its responsibilities. Government and risk capitalists must join hands with the private sector and tech entrepreneurs in Yaba to mutually work towards enabling platforms and raise Nigeria’s profile. It is time for Nigeria. It is time.

About the Author

temitopeTemitope Osunrinde is an avid technology stakeholder and has contributed to the narrative of West Africa’s most prominent broadband infrastructure player. He works in Lagos and can be contacted via temi.osunrinde@gmail.com.

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