Sunday, 23 October 2016

(115): Recession, Innovation and the Nigerian Youth

The youth of a country are its greatest assets. During my last visit to Nigeria, I saw that asset at work. Many of these youths are working hard to earn a living; others are sitting comfortably waiting for manna to fall free of charge. One example of such hardworking youths was the taxi driver who took me from the airport to the city of Abuja.

You can tell that life is not easy for this young man. Despite the obvious hardship and difficulty he was going through, he remains optimistic. What made his story even more interesting was that there are thousands of youths like him who feel too big to do the kind of business he is engaged in to earn a living.

On our way to the city, I became curious about the story of this driver. I asked him to tell me more about his experience in life. It turned out that he is a graduate from the University of Port Harcourt. After searching for job endlessly, he decided to take his life in his own hands. He asked his uncle who works in the United States for help. The uncle decided to buy a taxi for him.

What impressed me the most is that he has big ambitions. He was using the taxi as a means of making connections, so that one day he could meet the right person who would help him find the right job, or engage him in a business. When he makes a break through, he intends to support his family, establish a successful business- and as you might guess-achieve the dream of many Nigerians, ‘travel abroad.’  I don’t blame him, many of us grew up hoping to travel, study or live abroad.

Having ‘connections’ or ‘long leg’ are words/phrases you commonly hear among our youths. Our society has sacrificed merit so much that people believe that their effort will never bring success. For one to make it, he has to know somebody, who knows someone somewhere, before he could be fixed in the right place. Largely, people have a point, but they are not completely right. As I told many of the youths I spoke with, favour has a limit. If you work hard, pray and remain consistent, one day your chance will come.

With Nigeria officially in recession, I believe Nigerian youths have a great opportunity. The opportunity to create businesses that could provide income for them and provide jobs for others. Some of the best inventions and businesses in the world were created during recession.
In today’s essay, I would like to look at innovation as a mechanism for Nigerian youth to get themselves out of the economic recession that is biting hard.

In doings so, I would like to share the story of one of the most interesting innovations of this century. The story of the hotel chain, Airbnb.

I chose the story of Airbnb because it is a simple innovation that turned into a multibillion-dollar industry, estimated to be worth $25 billion.

Airbed and breakfast, the full name of the company was an idea conceived by students in San Francisco who were struggling to pay rent and earn a decent living. Like the taxi driver who drove me from the airport, they decided to take their lives in their own hands. However, what is even more impressive was they didn’t think about ‘connections’ and ‘long leg’. They look at the opportunities in the city, and decided to create a business out of these.

In 2007, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky came up with an idea of converting their apartment into a source of income. They were aware that a design conference would take place in the city of San Francisco, and hotel accommodation will be a big problem. So they decided to purchase three air mattresses; they created a new website called, and advertised to conference participants seeking for budget accommodation. They used their cooking skills to prepare breakfast for their guests. The idea became successful, and they invited another schoolmate, Nathan Blecharczyk to join them.

A simple idea by unemployed university graduates has become a multibillion-dollar industry operating in every part of the world. So what is the lesson for Nigerian youths, especially university graduates?

Well, I will simply say your university degree is simply a tool, and a license to be different, to think differently and create an opportunity that can make a difference. 

I am not na├»ve about the context and the challenges that youths face in this period of economic recession in Nigeria. However, with technology at your disposal, particularly the explosion of the digital mobile and telephony industry, this recession might be your chance to create a job for yourself and others. 

Just like the Airbnb college graduates, look around you, think of an idea, be humble and pursue it with dedication and keep striving to make things better. Innovation does not have to be disruptive. 

You do not need to create Google or Facebook to be considered innovative. Just look around your neighborhood, identify a need and think for a business solution; and who knows, you might be the next innovator-in-chief in your community.




Tuesday, 11 October 2016

(114): Al-Andalus: The Mosque-Cathedral and the conscience of history (IV)

As we set our foot in to the Mosque-Cathedral, on the right-hand side of the entrance was an old washbowl, or what is popularly called sink. It was engrained in the wall. Probably it was used for ablution when it was still a mosque. As we stood inside the magnificent structure of Mezquita, Christina looked us, and started narrating the history of the mosque.

Christina has a mastery of the story of Mezquita; she explains it with the erudition of a scholar, the enthusiasm of a historian and the emotional vibrancy of a nationalist. She was courteous in her explanation, but firm in her attachment to the mosque turned cathedral. Christiana told us about the role of Caliph Abderrahman III in building the Ummayad mosque, the expansion the mosque has undergone at various times, and how Islam as a civilisation contributed to the development of arts and architecture in Andalusia.

As she was explaining, there was a deep silence among the tourists listening to her. It was emotional, but the feeling of entitlement to this important structure among both Muslims and Christians cannot be missed.

As the tourists go round the Mezquita, both Muslims and Christians, the feeling of entitlement by members of both faiths was apparent. “It is difficult, wasn’t it?” said Christina at a point, as she explains the struggle that took place between the Muslim leaders of Andalusia and the Christian leaders who reconquered Cordoba and turned the Mezquita into a Cathedral.
One of the amazing things about Mezquita is the interior design. The mosque was built more than 1000 years ago, yet the architectural design of the mosque resembles the interior design of Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Madina (peace be upon him). It is almost a copycat. It simply tells you the level of advancement Muslims have achieved early in architecture.

One of the areas of attraction in the mosque is the mihrab. The mihrab is a niche area in the mosque showing the Qibla (direction to the Kaaba in Makkah, where all Muslims face during prayer). The Mihrab in the Mosque-Cathedral suggests so many things about Islamic civilisation in Muslim Spain. It shows how advanced the Muslim world has been in the area of arts. It shows the level of thinking and advancement in knowledge at the time. The calligraphy that decorated the interior part of the Mihrab, with verses of the Qur’an adorning the entire wall tells you about a society that has knowledge, arts and culture embedded in its DNA.

In relation to the advancement on knowledge and culture, which the Cordoba mosque symbolizes, please permit me to quote at length the contribution of the historian, Tim Wallace-Murphy in his classic work, What Islam Did For US: Understanding Islam’s Contribution to Western Civilisation.
 “Cordova eventually became the dominant centre of Islamic culture during the ninth century. The phases of construction of its extraordinary mosque, which became the second largest mosque in all of Islam, reflect the cultural changes that took place between 785 and 980.” He said.

Wallace-Murphy went to state that, “in Cordova, Caliph al-Hakkam created a library of 400,000 books which were indexed in 44 catalogues, and he added his own commentaries to many of these volumes. Thus, Cordova became one of the greatest libraries in Europe, second only to the greatest in the world located in Baghdad at the heart of the Islamic empire. This almost insatiable passion for learning, stimulated the production of between 70,000  and 80, 000 bound volumes each year, which not only reflected local demand but also demonstrated the country’s capacity for a phenomenal high-volume, top quality production, many centuries before the invention of printing. Sciences, such as geography, agriculture and irrigation, astronomy, medicine and mathematics were actively encouraged, as was the serious study of philosophy based principally on classical Greek thought.”
Tim Wallace-Murphy added that “much of the classical knowledge of ancient Greece that we now treasure and take for granted would have withered away had it not been preserved and enhanced by Islamic scholars.” He concluded that “the well-attended and richly endowed colleges of Andalusia were later to provide a model and template for those founded in Oxford and Cambridge in England.” (pp.108-109).

Inside the Mihrab, as Christina told us during the tour, is the seclusion room, preserved for the Caliph. The Caliph, who leads the prayer, uses the room to engage in total devotion to Allah. As we walked from the Mihrab area, we moved to the next part of the mosque. It was another exclusive area covered in glass. Inside were white triangular stones with Arabic inscriptions on them. What is this, we asked. “This section is about the people who built the mosque,” said Christina. Each builder during the time will write his name so that the amount work he has done can be identified, and receive payment accordingly. Interestingly the names have been preserved, and so the heroes of who built this structure, which is now a UNESCO heritage site, can still be remembered.

The Mosque-Cathedral has undergone a lot of expansion and changes due the shifting of ownership between Muslims and Chritians. Although the mosque operates as a Cathedral, the main church was built at the centre of the old mosque. The surrounding walls were used to bury various Christian clergies.

But what is interesting also is the Islamic design that was used in the calligraphy of the sections of the Cathedral. Christina told us that even after the Christian reconquest, Islamic arts and calligraphy was the fashion in those centuries. So even the Chritian leaders used Muslim designers for interior decorations.

If I were asked to describe the atmosphere to someone unaware of the historical altercations that took place at the Mosque-Cathedral, I would simply say Mezquita is the place where you see two contending forces of psychological and physical ownership living together.
Yet, in contemporary times, the two contending forces result in the appreciation of history rather than a symbol of confrontation.  If history has a conscience, it would definitely face one of its stiffest test in the Mosque-Cathedral.  Here, I am not referring to conscience at face value, or from a more literal interpretation. I am referring to conscience as a subjective philosophical term that denotes ‘moral knowledge’. A knowledge that is tied to the values, belief system and ethical orientation of the individual.

As we concluded the tour, we realized that we did not pay attention to an important item in our itinerary. We had fed our brains with enough historical diet. It is time to pay attention to our stomach. In the two occasions that I visited the Mosque-Cathedral, we walked down the alleys to nearby restaurants.  We ordered Paella rice. It is the Spanish equivalent of dafaduka in Hausa language, or what is popularly known as Jollof rice in West Africa. The difference though is that Paella rice is a mish-mash of everything. If you love seafood, please don’t miss it. It is cooked with seafood especially shrimps, lemon and some vegetables. Some restaurants also use chicken. It tastes better when it is freshly made, and eaten after an exhaustive tour like the one we just had.



Wednesday, 5 October 2016

(113): Al-Andalus: The Mosaque-Cathedral and the conscience of history (III)

Just like the Hammam Al-Andalus, some of the historical edifices in Madrid still bear the hallmark of Andalus. This includes the famous cathedral in the city of Madrid, called Almudena Cathedral, a name that clearly resembles the names of one of the holiest cities of Islam, Madina Al Munawwara.

Historical accounts suggested that Almudena was originally a mosque but later converted into a Church after King Alfonso reconquered Madrid.  Another historical site of interest in Madrid is Palacio Real (the Royal Palace) of the King of Spain, although it is more of a museum now. The King no longer lives there; it is utilized for ceremonies and visit by tourists.

Now that we have visited some of the remarkable historical sites in Madrid, my attention has returned to Cordoba, that magnificent city that represents the intellectual hub of Andalusia. I visited Cordoba twice during our study period between 2014 and 2015. The first was with my friend and colleague, Muhammad Ahmad Bello. After experiencing the aura of Cordoba’s historical significance, we agreed that we should bring our family with us, so that they will equally witness this interesting adventure. We decided that after our graduation ceremony, we should embark on another visit to Cordoba.

The visit to Cordoba was made more interesting by the surprise appearance of my friend, and brother, Suleiman Baba Suleiman. Before departing to Madrid, I called to tell him that I would be away for my graduation ceremony. Suleiman told me that he would also be on holiday in the United Kingdom around the same period.  I shared many stories with him on my previous visit to Cordoba.

Few hours after defending our final project at the IE business School, Muhammad Bello and I went back to the hotel to have some rest and prepare for the graduation ceremony scheduled for the following day. Guess who is there on our arrival at the hotel lobby? It was Suleiman and his wife checking in at the hotel. That was awesome. It was a pleasant surprise.

On Saturday 19 December 2015, about five different families embarked on the journey to Cordoba, primarily to visit the most historic site in the city, the Mosque-Cathedral. There is something unique about the Mosque-Cathedral; perhaps, it is only in Cordoba where the mosque means a church, and vice versa. If you meet any resident of Cordoba, ask him about Mezquita (mosque), he would refer you to the Umayyad mosque, though it is operating as a Church and tourist site at the moment.

During our first visit to Cordoba in 2014, we walked from the train station to Mezquita. We asked a lady for a description of the Mosque-Cathedral. “You mean the mosque?” and she went on to tell us what Mezquita means to the people of Cordoba. “Everyone here calls it the mosque,” she added.

The Mezquita is a huge building situated in the old city of Cordoba. It is adorned by the minaret, which historically was used by the Muezzin who makes the call to prayer. Inside the premises, surrounded by a huge wall, which partially resembles ancient city walls that you find in Hausa city-states like Kano and Bauchi. Some beautiful orange trees were planted in different parts of the inner wall. There are several entrances to the Mosque from different alleys surrounding the mosque.

There are several shops and restaurants around the building, some of them managed by North African Arabs. The premises was full of tourists from different countries. A number of the visitors travel in groups with a tour guide providing explanation in different languages.

On arrival at the Mosque-Cathedral, we purchased tickets and headed to the door. At the entrance, there were security officials who would give you brief guidelines about the dos and don’ts of the tour.
“Are you a Muslim?” one of the guards enquired. “You are welcome to make the tour, but please no prayers are aloud.”  He advised.

We then asked if there is tour-guide, who will take us through the mosque and explain the historical monument in English. The security guard looked at the officer next to him, and spoke in Spanish. He walked away briefly, and then returned with a lady named Christina, most likely in her late 40s or early 50s.

“I am a private-tour guide, so you have to pay.” She said with a smile. “How much” we asked. “It is 50 Euros” she answered. Without hesitation, we asked her to go ahead, and within seconds, we set our foot into Mezquita.

To be continued…