ICT stakeholders that have contributed to the development of broadband infrastructure in Nigeria opine that the role of technology in advancing the global economy is unrivalled, writes Emma Okonji

Technology companies have transformed the world over the last two decades. They have overtaken oil and gas and the manufacturing sectors to become the biggest contributors to the global economy via the largest public companies in the world, with billion-dollar unicorn valuations previously never envisaged. Technology companies have been termed disruptors, and have leveraged increased internet adoption to chart new territories, creating new industries and reinventing older ones. No industry is left untouched as technology has transformed fields as diverse as shopping, education and even mobile wallets. Its swift, pervasive rise globally has created possibilities hitherto unimagined.

Technological progress means employees can produce more goods and services. Inequality is being eroded in education with remote learning tools, while new intelligence in personalised healthcare is increasing efficiency and enabling health practitioners make better decisions. Technology pervasion has led to what has been called the one-tap economy, where people are only one touch away from booking a flight, making payments, stocking up on groceries, hiring staff and buying food. The rise of these on-demand companies offers a paradigm shift from stability to flexibility and herald a digital-only world.

Enabling support systems

One of the technology stakeholders, Mr. Temitope Osunrinde, who is based in Lagos and has contributed to the narrative of West Africa’s most prominent broadband infrastructure player, is of the view that technology companies are the biggest players in recreating this new world and their entrepreneurial founders are revered as the crazy ones, the misfits who deliberately challenge the status quo for greater good.

According to him, quite a lot is said about these founders, their backgrounds and the challenges they battled in building long-term focused and sustainable companies. But little focus is paid to the enabling entrepreneurial ecosystems around them.

It informal in the case of parents, families and friends that helped them articulate their ideas or lent a helping hand or in most cases, a purse to entrepreneurs, and formal, when they are supported in slightly more structured start-up ecosystems. The availability of these support ecosystems have contributed to the ability of these companies to scale.

A historical analysis of successful entrepreneurial ecosystems has identified several features that help foster entrepreneurship, technological innovation and resilience. While each ecosystem is unique, the entrepreneurship ecosystem generally consists of six factors: a conducive culture, enabling policies and leadership, availability of appropriate finance, quality human capital, venture-friendly markets for products, and a range of institutional and infrastructural supports. “For the interwoven ecosystem encompassing Silicon Valley and Stanford University, its top factors are its risk-taking culture, student body of Stanford, the culture of giving back, abundant capital, collaboration with industry, and government support,” Osunrinde said. According to him, Silicon Cape, South Africa’s most vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems credits its talent/industry, government, community, access to funding, university research, broadband infrastructure. This approach, he said, had also been adopted by other entrepreneurial ecosystem programmes including the Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which lists government, risk capital, academia, entrepreneurs and the industry.

Inclusive innovation with academia

For a somewhat successful ecosystem, short-terministic partners must include risk capitalists such as venture capitalists (VCs) and investors, the entrepreneurs themselves, a handshake with the industry and to an extent, government. But for long game innovations, the role of the academia, alternatively universities, cannot be overemphasised.
Osunrinde posited that as a rule, universities are built to serve a mission greater than any individual or short-term gain.

Their stock-in-trade is the sheer adventure of ideas. What make universities uniquely essential to the innovation ecosystem are the things that make them different from businesses and governments. Universities are built for collaboration, for learning and discovery, and for unlocking the imagination.

He cited the response to billionaire libertarian, Peter Thiel and his beef against universities, where a science journalist, Tom Clynes, wrote in the New York Times:“We don’t have enough of the desperately needed inventions — nuclear fusion energy or cancer cures — that emerge when credentialed scientists tinker away for years on expensive machines that have nothing to do with Snapchat. Of course, this sort of tinkering most often happens in…academic institutions.”
“He said universities are powerful incubators for startups and technology transfer. “When encouraged, their spillovers are what make its way into innovation ecosystems. Deliberate academic participation provides us the opportunity to practice “inclusive innovation” in our technology innovation thus enhancing democratic outcomes. By this, we go beyond the narrow definition of a technology start-up and use innovation for the public good, opened up to address the broader range of issues we face as a society such as poverty, relevant education and inequality,” Osunrinde added.

Universities in technology ecosystems

Technology experts are of the view that foremost entrepreneurial tech ecosystem, Silicon Valley has benefited immensely from the pivotal role Stanford University has played in building its tech industry. As the world’s eyes fixate on the booming tech scene in Silicon Valley, Stanford’s affiliation shines brightly in the periphery. Stanford shares a relationship with Silicon Valley unlike any other university on the planet, chartering a self-perpetuating cycle of innovation. But what’s at the root of this interdependency, and how did Stanford University, overcome its status as a second-rate engineering school to become the world’s top three choice, outpacing some of the biggest Ivy League universities, remains a big question to be answered.

It started with a Stanford Academic, Frederick Terman, who had served the Department of Defence and led a team that attacked Germany’s radar system during World War II. Seeing government’s eagerness to invest in cutting-edge electronics research, he secured sponsored projects that helped strengthen Stanford’s reputation in electronics and military technology. When the Cold War began, Terman pushed for an Industrial Park at Stanford, to ensure a new revenue stream for the university, foster collaboration between the academia and industry and ultimately inspire students to start their companies. In a self-perpetuating cycle of innovation, industry folks took part-time courses at Stanford, while tech companies in return, offered job opportunities for Stanford graduates. Since then, over 40,000 companies have sprouted from the collaboration between Silicon Valley and Stanford including Google, HP, Yahoo!, Cisco, Uber, Facebook and Airbnb among others. A survey of 2,500 start-up founders in the United States also revealed that Stanford graduates have received more funding than any other university in the world.

Nigeria’s technology ecosystem

While some technology entrepreneurs have stressed that Nigeria does not have a tech ecosystem, this may be unfair to the work done by the Co-Creation Hub in Yaba, which has become the model for innovation ecosystems across Nigeria.

“Over the last eight years, more tech communities have sprung up across different locations in Nigeria, fostered by over 30 accelerator and hubs,” Osunrinde said, adding that though leading technology cluster in Nigeria, Yaba Innovation Headquarters, which is a brainchild of the Co-Creation Hub (CC-Hub), led by Bosun Tijani, has been described as Africa’s most valuable startup ecosystem, it still doesn’t have all the required features of the ideal ecosystem.

The Yaba cluster enjoyed initial policy support during its early days when the project was a partnership between Lagos State, Technovision, the Co-Creation Hub and MainOne, but which has since dwindled to a trickle. The sought after academia engagement, expected to source talent is sorely lacking despite the proximity of the Yaba cluster to talent hubs like Yaba College of Technology, Federal College of Education, Akoka and University of Lagos.

A roll-call of partners at the CC-Hub reads like a Fortune 500 list: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Oracle, Nokia, Microsoft, Ford Foundation, Tony Elumelu Foundation and MainOne among others. It is home to companies including Paga, Hotels.ng, BudgIT, Paradigm Initiative, Paystack, and birthplace of Andela, Flutterwave among several others. Cumulatively, Yaba has attracted millions of dollars investment and created thousands of direct/indirect jobs.

The challenge before UNILAG

Osunrinde strongly believes that Lagos and by extension, the University of Lagos (UNILAG) holds the key to Nigeria’s development. For Nigeria to be pulled out of poverty, Lagos must take the lead. And it has noticeably set the pace. Lagos is the seventh fastest growing city in the world, the second largest city in Africa and the largest economy on the continent. Its public private partnership (PPP) stance has been identified as the strategy to power the desired growth in physical and social infrastructure in the state. Politically, Lagos has also done well for itself. The reforms in Lagos have also kick started wider changes across other states.

As a result of its location, the UNILAG must also step up its ante and actively engage the private sector and technology leaders. There is no evidence to show that the university has taken advantage of the technology ecosystem right in its backyard. And this is sad, a stirring reminder of how Nigeria does not take advantage of available opportunities.

UNILAG must take advantage of Yaba. A collaboration between UNILAG and the tech cluster in Yaba will benefit both parties, but more importantly, will further Nigeria’s technology trajectory. The ability to transfer out technologies developed at academic institutions is another benefit for the tech community. Academic institutions produce intellectual property (IP) through research which, are protected through patents, trademarks, or copyrights. Yaba can transform these IP into real products fine-tune them before showcasing to a global market. Ultimately, the more successful a university is at transferring technologies out of the laboratory into products, the higher its return on investment (ROI).

UNILAG must also revamp its curriculum to include Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and other relevant courses, and attract sponsored research to address industrial needs.
New Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe has his work cut out for him. The university must partake in the real technology ecosystem and execute its responsibilities. Government and risk capitalists must join hands with the private sector and tech entrepreneurs in Yaba to mutually work towards enabling platforms and raise Nigeria’s profile. This is the time for Nigeria, according to the views of Osunrinde and other technology stakeholders.