So, what do you really do?” Anyone whose job specification or professional practice has anything to do with delivering the intangible to clients for a living, must be familiar with that question. Often, at the point of remuneration for service rendered, one is confronted with the cynical question – What did you really do? Were you the one who carried the block by yourself? Did you not just ask questions as you held your stethoscope, read some test results and scribble some prescription on a piece of paper? Is that not all or what else did you do? Why would we have to pay this much for a job done within a few hours or for some professional advice offered?
It might not be peculiarly Nigerian, but it seems so native to us that its hand can be felt all around us. It is to be seen in the disrespect for intellectual exertion, a disregard for the time and input of the professional. It lies in that cynical disposition towards creativity and a shabby treatment of its fruits. After all, anybody can write. Anyone can sing or draw. What does it take to code? Anyone can sketch. Who is it there that cannot draft or vet an agreement? What is the big deal?
That is why we have scant regard for software and venerate hardware, while paying little attention to the thought and controls embedded in the software that drives it. That is why we take to plagiarism without pretence to any form of shame. That is why we effortlessly take to piracy. We have no respect for intellectual work to respect that property rights can apply to creative exertion. That is just how we see it.
It is always all about the external – the hardware. We are easily taken by the casing, enamoured with the facade, hardly ever bothered or as keen on the substance. The bigger they come, the easier we fall. It is all about padding. The special effects grab us by the mind and our pockets. It shuts down our more important senses, leads us into temptation in every realm, only to hand over to us the handkerchief to wipe the tears that come thereafter.
So, when Mark Zuckerberg wades through the little pool of water in Yaba, we salivate. We do not see a human being, simply achieving purpose, we see money. We do not see the power of ideas at work. We see the billions and gawk. We do not see the challenge he throws at us. We are obsessed with the inanities. We see the man jog, but we lose the symbolism of it. We take to debating the presence or not of body guards and drones. We even managed to bring in that bit about his wife, carried away on the wings of our penchant for the banal. We trivialise what we need to cherish. We go physical when we desperately need to get mental. We lose the sense of moment to appropriately mine from a major endorsement of a city and people much maligned.
It is always about the physical for us – the size of our house, car, phone, office, luggage, land, population. It is always about the size of everything and anything. Even the shape and size of the midriff and posterior seem to matter to us, these days. We are so easily moved by the little things and hardly moved by the things that should or do matter. What about us paying greater attention to the size of our thought, dreams and vision? What about questioning the size of our determination to break this vicious cycle that has overtaken us, leading us nowhere?
Or could it be that this is a major reason why we are where we are today? Could it be that this is who we truly are or have become? How much of respect and acknowledgement do we have for thought, creativity and strategy in driving national development and fostering nation-building? How much thought and rigour goes into the processes of governance? How accommodating is the system we run for thinkers, strategists and creatives in fashioning a way out of this hole we are stuck in?
Two decades back, when private entities made their entry into broadcasting, I cautioned some of the pioneers on the primacy they seemed to be placing on hardware acquisition at the detriment of quality software. It was to let them know that even as the quality of equipment does matter, content would always be the primary driver for relevance and sustainability. It only took a while for the one with an understanding of that philosophy, even while on a shoe-string budget, to outclass that which placed emphasis on national spread and the acquisition of equipment, in disregard of quality content and presentation. That many of them chose to embrace the philosophy in reverse only speaks to our emphasis on the material over the mental.
That was why when, last year, some commentators chorused in support of the Kogi Senator about payment due to one of Nigeria’s, SystemSpecs, for services rendered via its REMITA platform to the Federal Government in facilitating the Treasury Single Account (TSA), some of us felt concerned at the query, largely raised out of ignorance. As long as there is transparency in the procedure for the acquisition of software and there is an agreement validly executed, a Creative/Tech entrepreneur ought not to be barred from benefiting from its foresight, creativity and investment. For if as the potential benefit of an invention or innovation becomes apparent to all, gatekeepers rise to whittle down the benefits to the rights holder, there would be no Microsoft or Oracle, in the form it is today. We will definitely not have Bill Gates, Larry Ellison or Mark Zuckerberg.
For many years, a number of Nigerian software developers, especially of the older generation, have toiled in obscurity. They have coded in anonymity with everything about Nigeria – policy, patronage, the body language of government and people – drunk on oil, paying little attention to them and a sector with so much potential. It is only in the last decade that the internet has enabled dreams built on the back of technology to come true. Interswitch, eTranzact have begun to find their places in other parts of Africa. IrokoTV, Jobberman are latter day stories, along with popular e-commerce platforms like Konga. Many of these ventures have drawn in the much sought after foreign capital, even as they played largely below the radar of the government, which seems hampered by a limited knowledge how the new economy plays out.
Many might not know it, but there have been some considerable interest, for a while, in the emerging technology space in Nigeria. Venture Capitalists and Angel Investors (local and foreign) have put seed and early-stage funding in a number of start-ups. So much is happening at such a rapid pace that only two months after the celebrated 24 million dollar investment by Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation into Andela, in which Nigeria’s Iyinoluwa Aboyeji is co-Founder, Iyin has left Andela to concentrate fully on Flutterwave, a payments company operating in Nigeria and Ghana, which provides on-demand access to modern cloud-based payment technology. The company is said to have processed about $20 million in transactions in only a few months of operations.
Such is the promise and level of activities going on silently in the Tech Space. Lest we get it mixed up, Mark Zuckerberg is not the first to see the potentials there. What is baffling is that the government, over the years, has not been able to respond much more appropriately by, at least, enabling the setting-up of a Fund, placed in private hands for management, to disburse seed capital and make early stage investments. Aso Villa Demo Day has its place but it might not be as effective as it could be, if it had been left to the private sector to manage. Reports on what transpired at the event last week is difficult to come by, but a reported grant of N3.5 million for three of the Thirty Finalists only amounts to a scratch on the surface, just as a uniform grant for the start-ups, if true, irrespective of the peculiarities and demands of each, is strange.
What Mark Zuckerberg has done in wading through water to visit dreamers and developers striving, with little support, for solutions in technology to the problems that confront our everyday living, is to validate their audacity. Hopefully, it draws the necessary attention to the tireless work and determination of many of our young men and women developing applications, teaming up to found start-ups, investing their blood and sweat in ventures, looking for seed capital and validation, hoping to catch the attention of Angel Investors and venture capitalists. They have failed with some ventures, yet have refused to give up on yet another one, hoping that this one will scale and accelerate a break-through for them and make life easier for us. What Mark’s visit has done is to validate their right to dream, in spite of us all and hold on to hope, against all odds. Wading through water would be worth it if we take on-board the lesson from Zuckerberg’s visit calling for our attention, the need to embrace and straighten the pathway for these Nigerians building something out of nothing, walking on water for the sake of our tomorrow.
Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise. Twitter:@simboolorunfemi