Wednesday, 2 November 2016
(116): Why Nigerian youth were unable to create Google and Facebook
“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships,” said Michael Jordan, in one of the most powerful statements ever made by a sports icon.
The responses I received on my article last week on how Nigerian youth can utilize the current recession to create jobs and stand on their feet inspired the writing of this piece. As individuals, a number of Nigerian youth are smart, intelligent and resilient.
About 11 years ago, I purchased a new mobile phone in the UK via a contract with Vodafone. I wanted to travel to Nigeria before the end of the contract. I went to Vodafone and asked them to unlock the phone for me, so that when I arrive home, I can use a Nigerian sim. It was few days before my trip.
Vodafone told me then, that it would take about two weeks to unlock the phone. They mentioned the long process, which I was not ready to wait for. I went to the shop nearby that sells second hand mobile phones to ask for help. They told me that they can unlock the phone, but it would take a few days. “Good bye,” I said. Before I walked out of the shop, the gentleman, a British-Pakistani asked me, “Where are you from?” Nigeria, I responded. “You don’t have problem, there are smart guys over there, they will fix it for you,” he said. I smiled and left.
On my arrival in Kano, Nigeria, I asked one of my brothers for help. He told me that he would take it to some phone repairers at Daula Hotel. He assured me that they will fix it, and so they did immediately.
The repairers at Daula Hotel where able to unlock my phone because they have one major quality, thinking out of the box. For you to innovate, you have to disobey conventions, something Nigerians are good at doing. One of my childhood friends, who is now an IT guru in Abuja, defied conventions in the early 1990s. He created a satellite dish using florescent lamp. The satellite was able to receive signals from CNN. It was the talk of the town, and to date, he remains an IT genius.
If my friend who created the satellite dish, and the phone repairer who unlocked my phone were brought up in the Bay area in San Francisco, the global hub of innovation, perhaps, they might have been the founders of Google or Facebook. However, they were unable to progress and become the equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates because one fundamental ingredient of innovation was missing. It is called innovation ecosystem. To say it differently, what where the chances of Mark Zuckerberg creating Facebook, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin inventing Google if they were working in Nigeria?
Nigerians are individually intelligent. Many of us have studied with, or knew people who are innovative; some of them have graduated with first class honours in engineering, law or accounting. Some of them who were lost to brain drain are doing exceptionally well in their chosen professions in Europe, North America and Asia. Nevertheless, their stories simply remain stories, because the country was unable to benefit from the fruits of their geniuses. They went into oblivion because there is neither public nor private structure that could bring them together to work as a team and invent the technologies that could be the Nigerian equivalent of Google or Facebook.
I attended an executive education programme last year on innovation and entrepreneurship organized by Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. As part of the programme, we visited one of the innovation hubs in Boston, the Cambridge Innovation Centre (CIC). It was a skyscraper established privately by MIT graduates Timothy Rowe and Andrew Olmsted. Inside the building were cubicles and offices, fully furnished. There is kitchen, private sitting areas, meeting rooms and anything required to make a person comfortable at work.
Young entrepreneurs and students after graduation rent a space at the centre. In some sections of the building, it is just a laptop table, because that is what they can afford. The entrepreneurs spend the first few months or years at the centre, thinking and coming up with business ideas. The beauty of it is, once you need help to fine-tune your ideas and thoughts; you will find somebody next to you to offer a helping hand. You can see the entrepreneurs working in groups in some areas. On regular basis, investors visit the centre and interact with the members.
If they find an idea interesting, they invest in it. The centre has large offices for rent in case the idea reach an implementation stage. The surrounding environment, particularly Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), were part of the larger ecosystem. One of the successful innovations that came from CIC was Android, the operating system you possibly used to download the app that helps you to read this article. The start-up that became Yahoo also started there. On our way out, we saw a group of young entrepreneurs and students coming into the centre from China. A powerful statement on how China supports the youth to make a difference.
Despite the challenges faced by Nigerian youth in testing their ideas in order to join the league of global innovators, I remain optimistic that the future is bright. Notwithstanding the difficulty in the land, I still see glimpses of hope. In the next article, God willing, I will present some ideas on how Nigerian youth can work together as a team to create an innovation ecosystem that could help their cause.