Why you do not know about the northern Nigerian tech ecosystem by Abubakar Gambo


BY ABUBAKAR GAMBO, APRIL 27, 2023 | 09:42 AM

A friend called my attention towards a graph showing Nigerian startup founders that have raised money. His concern, just like that of many others is how Northerners are almost absent in the chart. I explained some of the reasons to him. But given that this is something I've found myself talking about on many occasions, I thought I should write up something more persistent on it.

First of all, about the tech business. One thing I've always said is that the tech industry is not part of the entertainment industry. If you want to get into tech because you want to be famous, then you are in the wrong business. Do people get famous in this business? Absolutely. But that is a side effect (hopefully) of some success they had in their business.

But anyway, the complaints are resurfacing once again. That the North is being left behind in the startup scene. My instinct is to just remind us that this is not a North versus South thing, it isn't some competition over the proverbial national cake. But you can guess that will not be a satisfactory response for many. So is the North lagging behind in the startup scene? The short answer is yes, and I thank God for that. Because the tech scene and the startup scene are not exactly the same thing. The startup trend involves the creation of a typically single product company that mostly delivers its services via a web or mobile app and then going ahead to raise funds from venture capital investors. This is the model Silicon Valley operates on and is the model that the Lagos tech scene has adopted. This business model mostly needs a lot of media hype to thrive. Because it is built primarily to chase funding by showing user growth, not to aim for profitability.

But that is not all there is to the tech scene. I particularly am not very much inclined towards the dominance of such model in the Northern Nigerian tech scene. Some might want to ask; is there a northern Nigerian tech scene at all? The answer is yes. I know that because we have operated in it for close to a quarter of a century now. And we're not the only ones around. We have contemporaries and people that were around before us.

However, our operations just like that of many others around here is in the software consulting business. This is different from product companies or even the modern online startups. In our model of business, we do not just create a product and put them on an app store or deliver them as a web apps. We instead create solutions that drive organizations. We have to work closely with client organizations, understand their existing processes, come up with improvements to these processes and develop the necessary software applications needed for efficient operations. It is not a very colorful work from the perspective of media hype. A project can last a couple of weeks or a couple of years.

Solutions delivered by firms like ours are what provides the infrastructure that the very visible and colorful startups often rely on. For example, there has to be software solutions working in sync between banks and the electronic payment switches before there can be electronic funds settlements. Then fintech app developers may be able to plugin to that infrastructure to create there own solutions. Those backbone infrastructure can not be found online and downloaded or found on any app store. There is no one size fits all for such solutions. It takes long processes of presentations and convincing before a firm is brought on board to implement the solution.

So when you go to the bank, when you get paid via a payroll system, when you pay your tax or even when you have your academic results processed and published, know that such tech solutions are what primarily make it possible.

So does the Northern tech ecosystem needs switching from this model to the fast startup model? Maybe, maybe not. Let the demand of the market, not media hype, not the feeling of "we versus them" drive the need for that switch if there is any.

Our philosophy is that we are in the business of problem solving. We use technology to fix real pains in our environments and get paid for it. This has over the years had us working in different sectors from education to finance to defence to health to mention just a few. We have in the process also created lasting jobs for many people over the years. Sometimes we even have to be directly involved in recruitment processes on behalf of client organizations.

Are we ever going to shift ground into providing the typical tech products that most people are familiar with? That is something worth considering if it is best way to reach the greatest number of end-users while at the same time making business sense. I believe there are a good number of our past projects, some of which we have even converted to off-the-shelf products that can be modified and delivered as web or mobile apps.

Many young Northerners think nothing is going on because they are not out there in the field yet, and the way you can get in the field around here is by building solutions first. Not by being an excellent speaker or marketer only. Those are also important skills but they come after the ability to build the solution as an individual or preferably as a team.

In late 2019 I participated in an NCC organized event that brought a number of tech players from the North-East together to discuss the state of play in the sub-region. The array of participating firms is something that is quite heartwarming. It is a wide spectrum of solution developers both in the hardware and software sectors. It is true that many of them obviously need funding, but not the ponzi-styled startup type of funding that is popular in the media. They are mostly firms that require patient money that can sustain them for the long haul to profitability.

This is a quick insight from our experience as software developers based in the Northern Nigeria, we also have a good number of contemporaries with similar stories. The tech scene in the North is not in anyway nascent. It is just much less noisy and not driven by media hype. Think of it as having a different culture altogether. I believe that culture needs to be sustained and only appropriately adjusted where there is a need to. The aim should not be to just to raise rounds of funding as an end in itself. It also should not be to produce celebrity CEOs, but to build real solutions and profitable tech businesses.

Abubakar Gambo aig@cerebrosystems.com 26.04.2023

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