On the 6th Floor of a discreet building on 294 Herbert Macaulay Rd, Lagos, Nigeria, lies Co-Creation Hub, CcHUB. It was Mark Zuckerberg’s first port of call during his visit to Nigeria in August 2016. The Facebook founder paid a visit to CcHUB to see for himself where the high-tech boom in Lagos has taken off. In years to come 294 Herbert Macaulay Rd will be to technology sector what 51 Iweka Road, Onitsha, is to Nollywood.
I paid a visit to the building a week after Zuckerberg’s stopover. But first, I started with a visit to GRA Ikeja where I met with Francis Ezengige, another high-tech engineer at the heart of hi-tech revolution sweeping across Lagos.
Below are the stories of techies turning Lagos, especially Yaba, into Nigeria’s Silicon Valley.
It was 8.30 pm in Lagos. While most workers were on the last lap of their journey home through the notorious Lagos traffic, the Chief Technology Officer (C.T.O.) and co-founder of Netop Business Systems (Nigeria) Ltd, Mr. Francis Ezengige, was still busy at his office in GRA, Ikeja, Lagos. It was another of those days that he works all through into the midnight. The project at hand was the design and development of a critical solution for MDS Logistics PLC – a division of UAC (United Africa Company).
MDS Logistics is the biggest third party logistic company in West Africa and handles the outbound logistics of several multinationals including Guinness, Glaxo, Promasidor, Michelin, International Distilleries and many others. MDS, which stands for Manufacturers’ Delivery System, is a distribution company with over 60 depots housing multiple warehouses spread across Nigeria. To deliver its function effectively, the company requires Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), and that was the task that kept Ezengige awake the night I interviewed him.
When completed, the critical solution would enable MDS handle inventory management, stock movement, sales order processing and storage management. The solution would also assist the company to efficiently deliver goods and services for several local and multinational corporations. Tough task, that is. But Ezengige is thoroughbred professional.
At 49, he has been at the cutting edge of Information Technology (IT) development in Lagos. Since he graduated in 1990 from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he obtained a bachelors degree in electronic engineering, he has worked as software developer and system analyst at different companies.
He later formed Netop Business Systems with his business partner and CEO of the company, Cyril Asuku, and discovered that the journey to nurture a technology startup in Nigeria is a tortuous one. Their attempt to design an identity management solution called Digital Evidence for banks in 2005 and the struggle to sell a software designed to mitigate fraud in the banking sector in Nigeria were their first litmus test.
“All the big banks turned us down until STB now UBA gave us a chance,” he says. And it took another three years before other banks started patronizing them. The software used miniature camera on the bank teller PC to capture customers’ images, the fingerprints and the transactions, merging the images with other data in one document and save it. Nestop was the first company to deliver such solution 10years ago. Later the government got interested and formed the National Identity Management Commission, which led to Bank Verification Number (BVN). In fact, capturing the biometrics of bank customers was a later exercise, which was supposed to be an extension of digital evidence. But the idea was later hijacked by other interests and was given to a foreign firm.
While Ezengige and his company have taken Ikeja, the capital of Lagos as their domain, a younger generation of technology buffs is redefining Yaba as the technological hub of Lagos. Tunji Eleso is one of those prime movers. As the former director of Incubation at Co-Creation Hub (CcHUB) and now a managing partner at CcHUB subsidiary, Growth Capital, Mr. Eleso was amomg those who came to Yaba in 2011 and helped to galvanize like-minded people to relocate to the area. According to him there were about four tech companies in the area when CcHUB arrived. They noticed that Yaba had all the elements of the ecosystem needed for technology to grow.
First, it is at the center of the city, located between Lagos Island and the mainland; two, it is in closer to talents pool such as University of Lagos, Yaba Institute of Technology and Federal College of Science and Technology; and finally there is fair presence of reliable broadband needed for internet connection.
The pioneers took up former Governor Fashola of Lagos State on his bold statement that he wanted to make Lagos the center of innovation in Africa. Working with Lagos State Innovation Advisory Council, Eleso’s team was able to turn the one and half mile radius of Herbert Macaulay Way into a technology hub that it is today.
“Now there are over 60 technological companies in the Yaba area because all major ingredients that are key to the development of the technological sector are there,” Mr. Eleso says.
As part of CcHUB’s goal of facilitating the partnership between citizens, social entrepreneurs and experts, in March of 2011, they threw a challenge to Nigerians asking anyone with exciting idea that would bridge the gap between government and citizens to submit ideas. And they received 45 ideas and which was pruned down to six. CcHUB took the six ideas into a hackathons where they brought experts, developers, artists and software engineers who were given 48 hours to build a prototype of the idea. At the end of the 48 hours, a panel of experts judged the various pitches. According to Eleso, BudgIT, which now monitors capital projects across Nigeria states, came second.
“So, in many ways, BudgIT and its development was as a result of the collaboratory effort around seeking a problem area and bringing all those that are critical to that problem area together to start the process of solving the problem,” says Eleso.
Using a similar process, Eleso said that in 2012, Efiko, a mobile testing platform for students that supplements learning, was developed. While Efiko came first, ASA, a platform that helps young children connect to their culture, came third. ASA uses games and animations to reinforce the learning of language, folklores and other cultural ethos.
In March 14 of this year, Growth Academy with Intel Africa had a 3-month accelerator course hosted by CcHUB. It selected 10 out of over 102 startups that applied. The 10 startups are EdvesSuite, VergeNG, Mamalette, Tuteria, GoMyWay, DropBuddies, Eazyhire, VacantBoards, GeniiGames and Wesabi. In April 12, Facebook in conjunction with CcHUB hosted a meeting for developers in Lagos at the Herbert Macaulay Way, Yaba, Lagos, office of CcHUB. Six startups were chosen for the meeting. They were Truppr, Lifebank, Genii Games, BudgIT, Mamalette and Grit Systems.
Eleso said that international high tech companies like Google, Facebook, Intel, Oracle, and Microsoft work with them to develop indigenous tech companies because Nigeria’s tech ecosystem helps them to extend their own services. “They come and do a lot of trainings to make sure that software developers are better skilled,” Eleso says. “But more importantly, they are better able to support the development of these applications either by preloading them or featuring them at conferences.”
At this year’s F8 Facebook Conference in San Francisco, four Nigerian apps were featured. Zikko, Afrinolly, Jobberman and My Music. Nigerian techies joined others across the world to watch at F8 Meetups in Lagos.
Abiodun Thorpe, a technology enthusiast, has an office at the CcHUB in Yaba, Lagos, where he creates phone and web apps. He said that having an office at CcHUB enhanced the work he does. “My relationship with CcHUB has been incredible knowing the space from idea stage to what it is today. Some startups like BudgIT, Wecyclers, Asa, Efiko and others have made the space attractive to social entrepreneurs,” he says. “The community space is great for collaboration, quick feedback on projects, amongst other things. “
Thorpe is currently working on a simple platform called KiniScore (www.KiniScore.com). It aims to give real-time, on demand, live scores updates on African Leagues games. He said that the government needed to do more to enhance the work they are doing. “Stable power, reliable connectivity, market research data and sometimes the huge disconnect between products and its target users,” he says are some of the obstacle they still face. “The government needs to do more than just throwing money at some elephant projects, because prosperity of a nation is a function of prosperity of the businesses in there.”
There is no shortage of ideas from Nigerian youths. Nigeria, with a population of 188 million out of which 70% are under 30, the human resources are enormous. Lagos state alone is home to 23 million people. The Nigerian Bureau of Statistics stated that unemployment rate in Nigeria is at 10.4% for the last quarter of last year. It is estimated that 22.45 million Nigerians are either unemployed or underemployed.
Last month, the Nigerian police opened a recruitment exercise for 10,000 positions. In less than a month they received over 800,000 applications. When Francis Ezengige advertised for opening for programmers at his company, over 200 people applied from different fields of study. He said that out of the number he was able to get ten good candidates who became great programmers even though most of them did not study programming at the university. “The rate of conversion from different fields of study to IT is very high,” he says. “Nigerian youths are great programmers and they can match programmers anywhere in the world.”
Ezengige pointed out that before MDX contacted his Netop, they tried to use solutions from foreign programmers and failed because those foreign solutions couldn’t provide solutions to peculiarities in Nigerian businesses. “The problem is Nigerians accepting that we are capable of producing software that is not just as good as what is out there but that could possibly out class what is out there,” Ezengige says.