So Jason Njoku got $8m. Now you want to make yours too?

Jason Njoku
Yep, that's him. Copyright

A few days ago, we got news the Jason Njoku and the Iroko Partners team for $8m in funding. First question a close friend asked was “What are we building? In fact what are you going to build?” I have heard this same question in different forms over the last couple of days. Now I have a question of my own.  Actually, I have questions?

  1. Must you build?
  2. Why are you building?
  3. What are you bulding?

To put these questions in perspective, I’m mostly asking: now that you want to do your own startup because Jason Njoku got $8m in funding (and you want to go get yours too), what exactly are you thinking?

I’m not going to go into the whole argument of what to or not to build, there’s EContent and Afrinnovator for that for that.

I’ll want to point out that Njoku/Iroko did not begin in one day. You just don’t get up to build something because of Iroko – it’s great to feel inspired, and indeed we all are, but there’s a name for jumping in that excited, inspired state to build ‘that app’ just because – it’s called suicide. Maybe there’s a softer name. Maybe it’s knocking your head in with a wooden mallet, which is sure to put out your lights for at least week and half, but it’s just not the thing you’d like to do.

There’s at least a million things to think about in order to build a successful app or startup. You won’t and can’t figure them all out in a day. You will need to put a decent, emotionless amount of work into the thinking process. You’ll need the equivalent of a ballistics resistance test on your idea before you even begin building – you take the idea out to the shed, setup a firing range, unload a few magazines of lead into it. If it survives, take it out again, do same with a business hat on. If it survives, then maybe you can start building.

Why is the business idea so important? In all of this hoopla, it should not be forgotten that Njoku didn’t sell an app or a complex, built up product. What he sold was an idea, a business plan! If your app or idea does not cut the business mustard, you are not going to see a dime. Because the funding is NOT free, funders will need to know that they will make money from their investment – I’m going to emphasize this, funding is AN INVESTMENT. This is why Njoku isn’t closing down his street for a major owambe anytime soon.

Here’s a few thoughts if you’re sure you are ready for that startup.

Be ready to not make money – yet. In fact, be ready to lose money. It’s important to not think your startup will magically start making money from Day 1.

Recognize the local environment. A tip on this is that the biggest impediment to monetization of apps and startups in Nigeria is payment systems. Ask any business minded developer, or startup owners. Until a mainstream payment solution is available for those little payments you need to collect from your app, most apps will not be profitable. Unsurprisingly, the big problem the Iroko team is still trying to nail is the “monetization problem”. The monetization problem has NOT been solved yet!

What to build? You could begin from where you know, where you have strong background knowledge. If you grew up in Alaba, think Alaba. If you know SMS, think SMS. You could then work it backwards, from the known to unknown. Of course this is not the Law of Moses, but it’s a bit of common sense.

Read. It is possible someone may have thought about that bright idea you have and walked away. Do you research. You just may find why the person walked away, or crack the kink that drove the previous idea owner off the land.

What this blog isn’t saying is for you not to build your app or startup – that’ll make me an effing idiot, you see. What it is saying is, think through it before you begin. Don’t do it just because someone else did, or you want to make money like Iroko Partners. Do something ridiculous, that actually makes sense, and maybe then, you can ask Jason how to get funding.


If you can’t do anything else, be a mentor

Two weeks ago, I was in Akwa Ibom, and I was going to be there for five days. It was going to be the longest time I would be visiting in a few years, so I planned an extra activity into the family event I was attending. I was planning to visit with the principal of the oldest senior science school in the community.

I had attended this school for what I would describe as some of the lowest periods of my life, and until recently, every memory form that place was horrible. However, I’d recently thought about some of the programmes I have thought about getting involved in, and could not find a better place to begin. I had decided to work with a couple of young entrepreneurs and professionals, and old successful professional to setup periodic mentorship rounds in this school, and a few others in the local communities, to help the kids in secondary school see what’s out there.

The reasons for getting myself involved in this mentoring business are two or three fold:

A few years back, I had also gotten involved in teaching basic computer classes to local kids, which opened my eyes to the opportunities for giving back to our communities.

The little I want to reference to my short time at this science school is that we had a lot of fantastic students back then, who were a lot more brilliant than I was. However, life happens – a lot of these brilliant chaps are still out there looking for work, with their top class papers. They are looking in the oil industry, or ExxonMobil to be specific.

Meeting up with some of these old mates, the big conversation was jobs. There were no jobs. Because the Nigerian system was so Nigerian, they just could not get jobs in the oil industry. All of then were currently doing trainings, similar trainings, to better their chances of getting into the oil industry.

The other topic was a slight disappointment on the part of my friends, at me, that a thoroughbred scientist like myself, would be out here, building a career in advertising. The fact that my company had hands in online advertising, applications development, bla, kini, ko, etc. made no difference.

I realize now, that growing up, the only difference between my life and a lot of people I grew up with was the support system of family, and more importantly mentors. My family built my values, and my mentors, specifically, my MENTOR, opened my eyes to what the world really needed. My mentor used to spend hours talking about what the world really needed, what the industries needed, and how important actual experience was in life after university.

Because of the insights I had, I spent a great deal of my university years outside of the university. Before I met my mentor, I was an A student. Two years later, I was getting ducked marks for not meeting minimum attendance requirements – but I was spending quality attendance in the oil industry and volunteer projects.

My friends where still making great grades. When I set up a project group, to get my friends to be more involved in building experience, very few friends were willing to put time on it. Not a lot of people were willing to follow an ex-A student, who was now a B student (because I hardly met attendance %, there was no way I could score As). It got to a head when I decided to build an application for use in the oil industry for my final project – I could not find a supervisor. No one was willing to supervise such a silly venture, till I met a man who took a risk by supervising me, despite his doubts about the project. When he finally saw what I was doing, he gave me an A without seeing the final product.

When I graduated, I had a job waiting for me. A few months in, I got offered a project and moved to Lagos. I haven’t returned since. In my time in the oil industry as a student running a project, a position was opening for me, which my mentor had groomed me for, but because he had done such a fantastic job of mentoring me, I knew the oil industry was not the place for me. I disappointed my mentor by not taking the oil route, but he supported my decision. When I wanted to setup my business, he was there to support me, and I owe a lot to him.

It was during my conversations two weeks back that I realized that without my mentor, I probably would have been a good student, come out and hugged my papers, waiting for a job in the oil industry. Because we grew up in the oil industry, it was all that some of us knew, the beginning, the end.

And it is probably what the kids in the science school are currently thinking. There’s not a lot wrong with our teachers. They were trained in the 70’s and 80’s, and back then, finishing school and getting a job was all they knew. Nothing had happened to change that. This is the reason they have nothing better to teach the next generation. Because they are limited by what they can see, and they can only teach what they know, the students will have no options different to what the teachers tell them. The oil industry cannot employ up to a million Nigerians (upstrean/downstream), but no one is telling that to the teachers, or students. ExxonMobil can only hire so many graduate engineers with little skill and no experience, but the teachers may not know that.

This is why, if I expect better from this generation, I have to help share a different perspective with these young people. If the next generation is to be better, if they are to do better, they need exists to open them to alternatives. They may not see alternatives in their local communities, but their minds should be opened up to these alternatives. They should be made to see the need to question the norm, to dare to be different, to branch out, off the beaten path, to be crazy and not be afraid. They should be made to see that getting good grades is fantastic, but also that there’s nothing wrong with building skill and experience outside of the walls of the classroom.

We should mentor.

We should work with schools to provide perspective. We need to help build extra-curricular activities which help the students see more, and experience difference. We need to expect change, but more importantly, we should be the change we want to see.

I have never believed in one perfect way, but I am hoping to take a few trips down to that school, and with the support of the teaching staff, hold talk sessions with the students, and share experiences which I hope, along with other experiences better than mine, would help these kids make better decisions, and see beyond what exists in their communities.

Nigeria: The Technology Future, Education & The Lower 60%

I will begin by saying this post has a yet unwritten prequel. My earlier intention was to take on my understanding of ‘functional education’, before this, but I will get to writing that soon. For now, I’ll focus on building the tech economy for the future, and how the chief with a foot long chewing stick holds the future of the tech based economy in Nigeria.

I would also like to warn that this post is NOT about the top 5% – if you believe Lagos in the rest of Nigeria, you probably should not be reading this.

A few weeks ago, I visited CCHub for the first time to attend the pitching event for  #TechInEd, an event which focused on technology developed for use in education. I was really interested in the #TechInEd for two reasons:

  1. Recently, Apple had launched a project which would increase the use of iPads for education – I wanted to see what our own developers were thinking in that direction
  2. Every Sunday, I dress in my most ‘unfavourite’ pair of jeans to church, where I take care of 30 – 40 children – I wanted to see if the pitches would have anything that would interest the kindergarten teacher inside of me.

The TechInEd was revealing – there are serious thinkers out there, but I came away with this feeling that the startups out there are mostly thinking about the top 15%. Of course as the business man in me has nothing against developing for the top 15%, but the event being about education (and there exists this healthy bias on my part about education, especially education in the lowest 50%), I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that my ‘constituency’ seems to have been overlooked.

Many of the apps on display at #TechInEd seemed to be targeted at “lego, BMX and PS3” club, kids with regular access to computers, and the internet. While these may become viable, profitable businesses, my personal biases in the field of education app development mean that if an app makes money, but does not solve the problem of tech education, then it’s a failure. Much as there is an education deficit in Nigeria, that deficit has not place in the Lekki *Insert first world country name* School, where kids play PlayStation Portable during break periods. The deficit is live and breathing in the local primary school, scattered in everyone’s village around the country, and that’s where my every thought about technology education goes.

Now why am I so interested in technology education in the local schools and communities? (Please note, the cross from #TechInEd apps to technology education is intended – they’re intrinsically linked for me, you see?) Because over and over, I have heard people talk about growing technology in Nigeria, how the future is technology, and how this future would be driven by mobile apps deployed in education. The allusion that mobile apps are going to help us build capacity for a tech based economy of the future, I believe is a fallacy.

I have nothing against mobile apps, and truly believe they have a place in the future.

However, the lowest 50%, much as we want to believe, won’t get computer literate on mobile apps. Yes, information will be accessed on mobiles, but I still don’t see a future where my iPad replaces my PC as my coding station. If rural children will have to take over the tech future, then they have to have access to real computers. If we want to bring technology into education, for me, it’s the simple nuts and bolts act of teaching basic computer usage at the most rudimentary level. This thinking is one I’ve had for the last eight years.

To test my thinking, I did something crazy.

In 2008, I went with a few friends of mine into a local community to conduct what later turned out to be my first experiment in rural computer literacy. We had earlier met with the leadership of a local church to give us space and let us teach basic computing to local children in the community. These children were ones who previously have no experience with computers. The idea was simple, give opportunity to these children to experience the same knowledge that children in the fancy schools has access to.

We had one university graduate, an undergraduate, 3 secondary school students and a bright cousin of mine in primary 4 at the time, armed with two desktops computers, two laptops and a handful of accessories. Classes started in the open church auditorium. No fancy tables, just pews, dusty floors and a handful of very excited kids.

The challenges of the first two days was getting the fear of new technology out of these kinds, who were too afraid of ‘spoiling the computer’ to do more than stare at the equipment, but once that fear had been dispelled, wonderful things happened. These children, who mostly had only seen computers from a distance, were typing, drawing and generally kicking butt with Windows.

We had earlier explained how the computer works, and what a wonderful piece of work the CPU is, and a day later, every child wanted to see what the insider of the CPU looked like. So we dismantled the white box and pushed and pulled a few things, and the kids put them back, put the equipment back together under supervision, and put the PC back on.

The best part of the one month was when we introduced the best performing children to the Internet. It was the wow moment of wow moments. Email to them, was magic and an hour into training, my box was flooded. I got a few of my friends to write regularly to these kids, and the facts that they could sit in an internet cafe, write to someone in America, a real person, and the person wrote back in an email was unbelievable to them. Every once in a while, I still receive an email from one of those kids.

So then I realized, building a critical mass for a technology based economy is very simple. It’s simply dependent on if we can get a whole generation of kids prepped to provide a fertile ground for this to grow.

At this point, you may want to read this

A 15 year rural program, which ensures every kid in primary school can use a PC will build the base. Tree shaking tests can bring out the real gems who will go on to special scholarship trainings, but if every child, irrespective of where they come from  – ijebu ode, or Atan Onoyom, can use a computer, a whole new world opens up.

No, don’t flag off huge money guzzling programs. Semi-nomadic, community supported programs can work if the right consultation is done.The future is dependent on whether we can build a knowledge based economy, driven by functional education (there again, a reminder to write that prequel). We may need to use equipment share programmes, and nomadic teachers to compensate to teacher deficit, but it can be done.

Public education is broken, but technology can bridge that gap. Local governments, churches and local communities are strategic to achieving the target of a technology driven economy – yes, the illiterate chief with the foot long chewing stick if the future of technology.

Truth is the concept is possible. If we can export Yahoo Yahoo, getting worldwide infamous in the process, then a movement can build something positive to export to the world. If teenagers are learning Yahoo in cyber cafes, then we can channel that energy into building an economy which will allow even the poorest of us, if they have the right aptitude, get opportunities to do something really great.

Nigerian technology bloggers: A search for relevance

Image credits: Seyi Taylor

For the record, I’m not a tech blogger, or any sort of classified blogger for that matter. However, yesterday, I inadvertently got mixed up in a conversation revolving around a Nigerian tech blogger who felt more than a little insulted by being excluded from the CNN list of Africa’s leading tech voices on Twitter. I won’t go into the details of the story, but my imperfect take on the matter follows below.

As the biggest market in Africa, depending which indexes you believe, we Nigerians tend to assume leadership of almost any issue on discussion across the continent. We are a nation with a big population and even bigger potential to do great things (whether we do go on to do great things is a matter for another day). We love the fact that we’re the largest internet market in Africa, and that our mobile telephone market is the largest on the continent, as well as one of the fastest growing in the world.

Make no mistake, bragging rights is great stuff, and is great for innovation in my opinion, but the rights to the stuff that matter in the telecoms industry is one we have not got a firm handle on.

The leadership of Nigeria in the telecoms market notwithstanding, Nigeria is NOT the leading country in terms of technology innovation and emerging technology startups. The size of Nigeria’s telecoms market is based on the sheer purchasing power of its 160 million population, and this doesn’t translate into leadership in innovation in the spinoff startupshpere which is associated with other emerging telecoms markets around the world .

So in other words, as concerns the matter of technology and innovation, we’ve not arrived yet. This is not saying we’ve “carried last”, but we definitely aren’t top of the pile.

So how does this relate to tech bloggers and relevance? Simple: if we’re not the biggest technology market in Africa, it’s likely that the leading ideas people, or thinkers and influencers may not be from our shores, notwithstanding what we may think of ourselves.

Honestly speaking, I have tried but failed to remember when a Nigerian technology blog delivered really hot industry news to me, long before anyone else knew. My thoughts on whether this is because the average tech news day in Nigeria is slow, or that I’m generally cynical depends on my daily mood, but I’ll just say it comes down to “e no dey, e no dey”. So how is a technology blogger relevant if all I get is old, rehashed news that I’ve already heard, read, digested and moved on from? How do I respect a ‘top’ tech blog which does not have any unique insights on emerging tech events? How relevant is a technology blog, whose enduring  claim to fame is the founder’s oversized sense of entitlement?

On the question of relevance in itself, I would like to think of the relevant blogger or “Twitter voice” as the guy who always has the scoop in his area of expertise. Say, if I want information on what’s going on in Kano and the general Nigerian North, I would most likely check up @dawisu. General info on politics? That’s @eggheader. Am I worried that this new tax code looks funny? That’s a discussion I’ll be taking up with @doubleph. And then there’s @toluogunlesi who’s mouth (or handle) is in everything, and @tejucole who’s likely to reduce the mundane details of our daily existence into “small fates.” That’s relevance to ME!

Two days ago, one of Nigeria’s top three telecoms brands was launching their “3.75G” network in Lagos and I waited to see the news break on Nigerian tech blogs or on Twitter. Nothing happened. My honest expectation was that there would be leaks in the blogoshpere about the impending launch, and leading tech bloggers would be at the event to cover it, but that did not happen – at least as far as I could see. So if a ‘major’ industry is happening and Nigerian tech bloggers aren’t covering or reporting it, what exactly are they supposed to do? Peel news from TechCrunch?

Relevance is when the industry respects and recognizes not only your existence, but your importance. If you have not been given priority pass to an industry event (not conferences, but A brand events, launches and briefings), if you’re not quoted by industry leaders as first rate authority, if the people who REALLY matter do not contact you for information, then just maybe there’s some ways to go towards being as relevant as we would like to think we are.

So if our bloggers feel a need to lay entitlement claims at the doorsteps of international media organizations (who, by the way, are not the leading voices in technology), isn’t it a basic requirement that they at least be relevant? If a Nigerian (read Naija) blogger is really badass, and gets snubbed by international press, I’m sure the Nigerian people will defend their own (not that we need validation form outside to prove our worth). But until our bloggers arrive, make we humble small.