Wanted: Nigeria’s Own Silicon Valley

ICT

VENTURES AFRICA - Let me quickly state that I am amongst the few who truly believe that a way to accelerate Nigeria – and Africa – up from the present state of economic growth towards greater maximization of its rich potentials lies in the motherland and springing up genuine solutions to challenges; not copying every western act. So in writing about a Silicon Valley for Nigeria I do not mean to have the government and private sector carve out a physical space to call Silicon Valley.

This article is a case for a serious overhaul of government thoughts, acts and subsequently how the little but growing technology and media industry behave. Silicon Valley is synonymous to the United States of America and so far several countries have failed in their bid to replicate the exact success and story basically because they do not understand that Silicon Valley is less of a physical thing and more of a mental and societal approach to creating radical solutions on a wide scale level, complete with the necessary environment to make these happen.

Silicon Valley cannot be replicated as the argument goes. And I agree. The tech Jerusalem is simply America’s answer to building a solution creating and processing environment akin to its challenges and Nigeria certainly can never hope to have a replica of that because the two nations are far apart and have diverse challenges at this period of their existence.

The only way then for Nigeria to create its own Silicon Valley is to create its own indigenous framework, environment, educational system and infrastructure to give birth to a unique ecosystem while borrowing vital foundational lessons from the start and beginnings of Silicon Valley.

Before I delve further into the key verticals of building a Nigerianised ecosystem that will perhaps become pivotal to Africa’s push for greater relevance, I remain fascinated with the beginnings of what we now know as Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is a location in the southern region of the San Francisco bay area in Northern California. Silicon Valley did not start as the high tech business area we know it for today but was originally home to the largest number of silicon chip manufacturers. Yes. It did not start with web and mobile technologies. It was home to many of the foundational technologies that make most of the web and mobile technologies we see today work. Stanford University was a strong player in the emergence of today’s Silicon Valley as its affiliates, graduates and academia played a vital role in the development of the area. Frederick Terman, Stanford’s Dean of engineering and provost is credited with encouraging graduates of the school to start their own technology and engineering companies and was believed to have nurtured companies like Hewlett Packard and other high tech firms until what would become Silicon Valley grew up around the Stanford campus.

Private Corporations like Bell Telephone Laboratories, Xerox PARC, and Fairchild Semiconductor actively supported solid state technology research and development at Stanford to drive three waves of industrial innovation.

The key is to note that only until recent years did Silicon Valley become known for software and internet technologies and services. And so when other nations want to establish something akin to Silicon Valley they miss the point. Building the foundations of a thriving tech industry cannot be overlooked.

Now to how Nigeria can kickstart its own indigenized (emphasis mine) tech revolution and industry we must change lots of things to get started.

A Local Framework and Environment

It is laughable that at a time when we are mouthing the importance of technology, the web and mobile cyberspace etcetera that the government does not have a proper policy framework to help stimulate the growth of a new tech industry. Much of what is happening in the country are made possible by hard-fighting individuals who improvise as they go with no concrete framework to guide and shape the development of technologies, distribution and protection of new ideas.

I tried uncover what it took to get a patent for example and was heavily discouraged at the total lack of processes, data and record keeping culture.

In many quarters, it is believed that the recent ICT policy draft document made by a committee selected by the Minister for Communications Technology, Omobola Johnson, is shortsighted and limited having been produced largely by civil servants who do not have the requisite ideas and knowledge to produce something ubiquitous enough for the very large technology and communications space in Nigeria. Stakeholders like the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria , ATCON, Nigerian Computer Society, NCS, Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria, ISPON, Nigerian Internet Group, NIG, Internet Service Providers Association of Nigeria , ISPAN, Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria , ALTON amongst others were supposed to form an integral part of whatever framework being developed for the sector. But, as usual, they were not.

While Nigeria’s software and internet technology human resources are slightly looking up we have to be reminded that these two are not the total picture of a technology ecosystem. The seriousness of government to stimulate an indigenous tech ecosystem should be shown by practical plans and steps to increase Internet and Broadband penetration, overhaul the ICT curriculum in the education sector (which currently is appalling), develop and strengthen a universally acceptable Cyber Crime regulations systems, overhaul and put up efficient Patent and Copyright Protection system, embark on vigorous upgrade of the nation’s infrastructure. Without these steps, we will have little more than individuals and private entities doing their best to scrap and build up a shadow of the potential the country can realize.

The Educational System

That our educational system is wacky is just stating the obvious and perhaps over flogging an issue already clear to the man on the street. While Silicon Valley was built up with the active participation of the university system in America and the active support, funding and collaboration from private technology and investment firms here we have a university system that is so bereft of ideas and lethargic that the first and only strategy that occurs to a typical sitting Vice Chancellor on how to increase funding for his university is to hike up the fees paid by students by as much as 100 percent. The universities of Agriculture barely have fish ponds and even the barest improved crop hybrids to show for all the funding they receive. The universities of technology (the FUTOs, FUTAs etc) are moribund and regularly churn out graduates in high numbers many of whom do not know the numeral system responsible for most scientific and technological calculations going on in the world today. I am an engineering graduate and know firsthand the real futility of seeking to acquire technological knowledge in a Nigerian university. I’d rather spend the five years doing something else if given the chance again as most of what I know has been learnt on my own outside the walls of the university.

The flaks do not only belong to the government and these institutions the investment firms and so-called technology companies in Nigeria rarely give back to the community the way Xerox PARC and other technology companies did that stimulated the beginnings of what is now Silicon Valley. Investment firms and groups like the Tony Elumelu headed Heir Holdings and many other well funded for profit and non-profit bodies do not seem to think it important to invest in new technologies and support institutions to take more active role in stimulating research aimed at providing cheaper technological solutions to our problems and challenges. Solar energy gets more exploited in Togo for example than in Nigeria. The possibilities are huge but there is needed a growing development of our human resources to develop the most effective means to tap these huge resources at our disposal.

Forward and long term thinking is some of the things lacking in most of our investment organizations and funding foundations as most are more willing to invest in oil today to reap some profit tomorrow. Accepted that is not wrong but a certain percentage of business has to be devoted to seeking ways to break Nigeria into an advantage other nations will find difficult to match to and bring a new wave of prosperity spurred by innovations and far greater risk taking.

Holistic Technology Growth

When you hear of Silicon Valley it does not only refer to internet or web tech companies. To grow a real technology centre biotechnology, industrial/agricultural technology etc are not to be neglected. This is to say that Nigeria can grow a technology and innovation centre known for exploits and innovations in as many business areas in technology as possible thus creating a Mecca for industrial and technological growth in Africa.

To achieve a real revolution in technology in Nigeria the stakeholders (government, educational institutions, private investors and tech enthusiasts etc) must assume a real aggressive, risk taking attitude to turn inwards and create the atmosphere that is needed for the Nigeria the world continues to hope for, a Nigeria that leads the African revolution of business, technology and prosperity. The government however holds more of the keys to set the foundation and the other stakeholders will definitely get the ball rolling.