LAGOS: IT was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
Nigeria is in dire straits. The economy is in recession. Oil, the backbone of Africa’s largest economy, refuses to move back above US$40 a barrel, and the national currency, the naira, is in freefall.
The country lacks stable power and many a Nigerian will tell you that life gets harder daily. Nigeria elected president Muhammad Buhari with the expectation that things would get better, yet it is over a year now and in some respects the country is worse than under Goodluck Jonathan’s much-maligned administration.
Enter Mark. The Facebook founder is a visionary and recently invested in Andela, a startup that trains world class coders, first in Nigeria, then in Kenya, and was in Lagos to look at the investment among other things.
To many it was a vote of confidence in the Nigerian tech scene that he took time to look there. It was a “we see you” when it seemed like the world was trying to forget Nigeria, a giant that often struggles to be the master it should be.
LAGOS vs NAIROBI
Now contrast Lagos, with the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Nairobi has in recent been the leading “tech hub” in Africa. The home of the much-touted MPesa, a mobile money transfer service that makes your phone your bank, as well as the world-renowned crisis crowd sourcing app Ushahidi, the city saw many investors and entrepreneurs arrive post-2007 to get immersed in what has always been a very innovative place and try make their fortune.
Then, the narrative in Kenya changed. The solutions getting the most press stopped being those built out of necessity; a crowd sourcing app to help track pockets of violence after the disputed elections of 2007 and an easy, safe way to send money to the village, to “business solutions to social problems.” Low cost energy solutions, schools in boxes, and tech for good became the new face of innovation in Nairobi.
Impact funds, looking to invest in “business with a conscience” flooded the country, and with them came the expats building these businesses. It is a very foreign – or perhaps new – idea, this building of parallel services such as healthcare and sanitation and charging for them.
These have traditionally been government functions, and critics argued that instead of charging for them, resources should have been spent on strengthening government systems so they can deliver them “free”.
The problem is that it actually is double taxation; asking citizens to pay for services their taxes should take care of. Think NGO 2.0. But no matter, the $25 billion dollar needed a home and Nairobi was it.
ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS
Nothing is more telling of this than having MKOPA, a pay as you go solar company founded by foreigners be one of the companies President Barack Obama visited during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit held in Nairobi in 2015.
Business stopped being about meeting a need and more about convincing your consumers you were better than the status quo.
In comparison, the solutions in Lagos are still all about the need. There is a business case for every solution that manages to get any form of traction in the market. The basics of business and, most importantly, the profit motive are still front and centre here.
Take for example GRIT systems, a smart metre that uses data to help you manage your power expenditure. Despite is energy woes, nobody uses just a generator and the metre can help you track your usage from the various sources, relevant in a country where your generator costs can soar when a fuel subsidy simply goes away.
Or even Zikoko, an online site dubbed the Buzzfeed of Nigeria. The site catalogues Nigerian culture in hilarious memes and lists. A quick easy read, the site is said to be growing 600% month on month. You need a reason to laugh in Nigeria and they provide it.
After Mark Zuckerberg, there will be an avalanche of interest in Nigeria and hopefully more investments in the amazing businesses that have kept their heads above water in these difficult times. It would be great to see capitalism and scalable solutions remain the hallmark of startups in Lagos or, as the rap song goes, “remain all about the Benjamins.”
Nigeria’s pain is building its future. Better days are coming.