“Tida, don’t smile so much in Nigeria if you want to survive, o!”
“Never leave your food lying around – you could get poisoned!”
“Make sure to tone down your accent so that you don’t seem foreign!”
“Beware those smooth-talking Naija boys!”
“Shine your eye, o!”
This is the advice I got from friends and family on how to ‘survive’ my three months in Abuja, Nigeria. Almost everyone around me seemed worried when I chose to do my Responsible Leaders Fellowship (RLF) there – if you read some of the messages I got, you’d think I was heading out to a war zone! Especially for my Southern African family, my decision to go to Abuja instead of Cape Town (which would only be 2 hops away from home in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe) was beyond comprehension. Let’s just say Nigeria(ns) don’t have the best reputation in Zimbabwe and the image of Nigeria is mainly formed through Nollywood movies whose storylines often centre around witchcraft, cult-killings, drug cartels, kidnappings, love ‘hexagons’ and evil mother-in-laws. Oh, and the fact that my cousin eloped to Nigeria with a Nigerian guy some years back didn’t make matters better for me – mom’s suspicion levels were at maximum 😉
This was not going to be my first time in Nigeria, though, so I was really relaxed and excited about the opportunity – until the week before I left Berlin. I love love love travelling, but the fear mongering got to me at some point. My heart was beating fast the whole time, I was restless and I could hardly eat nor sleep. To top it off, I got a really bad cold (my immune system was probably protesting the strain I was putting it under). I came thiiiis close to emailing Nick Barniville and asking if I could still go to ‘safer’ Cape Town. Instead, I emailed a scan of my life insurance to my good friend, and said, “Brenda, if anything happens…” It now seems hilarious and ridiculous in hindsight, but fear, I learnt, is dangerously powerful in its ability to crush and hold you back.
I could hardly sleep on the flight, and so Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory kept me company instead
My friend and fellow MiM-classmate, Christos, joked that knowing me, I’d probably hired a cargo plane to transport all my luggage. I was quite proud of myself as, with only two suitcases, I stepped out of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport arrivals building at 5am in search of a Michael, the man who had been hired to pick me up. Groggy and fighting suitcases along the uneven flooring, I heard a big, “Aunty Matida! Welcome o!”
Aunty? Me? Ok.
Over the next three months, Michael became my go-to and trusted taxi driver and passionate explainer of the Nigerian tribal, political and economic landscapes (these three, I was not surprised to hear, like in most African countries, are all intertwined and interdependent). Michael has a degree in Economics, cannot find a corporate job, drives a taxi to take care of his siblings and make ends meet and is desperately looking for ways to leave the country.
Abuja is quite an expensive city in terms of real estate, with rentals comparable with even those of Munich. To rent out a place short-term like I needed to was almost impossible – it would have been cheaper for me to live in an hotel because such short leases are usually given only to expats working for oil companies. My aunt introduced me to her Nigerian friend who she goes to church with in Durban, who in turn introduced me to her aunt who lives in Abuja. My aunt’s friend’s aunt, Aunt Lilian – that’s who I was going to live with. Michael and I got onto the airport highway, and I watched the sun rise over the hills that dot the city. ‘You are welcome’ read a big white sign that stretched high in the middle of the six-lane highway.
It was only about 5.30am, but the heat, although not yet too much, already promised a hot day ahead. Michael told me that Aunt Lilian was already attending Mass, and that he’d be taking me directly to church first before I got to go home.
Church? At 5am? Wow.
Church is a big thing in Africa, but church is a huuuge thing in Nigeria (feel free to interchange ‘thing’ with ‘business’. It could make for an interesting Marketing case study). It’s a music, dancing and fashion extravaganza every single Sunday. The sermon of my first Mass in Nigeria centred around President Buhari’s tagline of the week: The other room. While in Berlin and standing next to his host, Chancellor Angela Merkel, he’d been asked by a journalist which party his wife supports (background to this question is that his wife had come out guns blazing in the press, castigating her husband’s leadership and the ruin it was allegedly causing the nation). The president replied the journalist, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen, and my living room and the other room.” The priest assured the women of the congregation that their contribution to Nigerian society and nation-building went beyond ‘the other room’ – they cheered wildly. The encouragement to take the term ‘the other room’ to mean ‘the boardroom’, ‘the courtroom’ and ‘the lab room’ for themselves and their daughters were greeted with loud shouts of ‘Amens’ and ‘Alleluyahs’. As much as the feminist in me reeeaaally wanted to hear this and observe the reaction of the congregants (male vs female), I was beyond exhausted and my head bopped up and down as I tried to keep awake for the entire hour-long sermon. Talk about first impressions.
I was lovingly introduced to Aunt Lilian’s church friends, my new church aunties, as “Matida, Lilian’s new daughter from Germany” (note: not Zimbabwe – not as fascinating). I felt really welcome as hugs and greetings flowed. “Nne, welcome to Nigeria o!”, “I’m sure you’ll have a good time in our country – Nigeria is a nice place,” and “If you need anything, let us know o, we are here for you.” I felt then that I was in warm hands, and felt reassured that my time in Nigeria would turn out just fine.
The awesome Aunt Lilian and I on my first weekend in Abuja
The organization with which I did my RLF is called AfriLabs, a network of over 50 tech and innovation hubs across the African continent. Tech hubs provide a space and resources for entrepreneurs to launch and scale their startups. On the African continent, they play an even more vital role as they provide ‘little’ resources that are usually a given in Western countries such as a stable electricity supply, office space, relatively-reliable internet connection, printers and scanners. Access to investment funding for startups is also sometimes provided, with hubs bringing together like-minded techies who are looking to launch and or accelerate their startups. AfriLabs’ mission is to connect these tech hubs through knowledge-sharing and providing access to business projects through partnerships with the corporate world. AfriLabs is also working towards building itself to become a trusted partner for organizations and corporations looking to roll-out tech projects on the African continent by matching them with the best and most competent hubs within its network. With the financial sustainability of these hubs being a major headache, I believe that this is a worthy mission. Hubs are typically (Western) donor-funded, or financed by forward-thinking governments e.g. those of Rwanda or Tanzania, or personally financed by their founders. Being financially dependent on an external source for survival is especially tricky because when their mandate in a particular country changes, or government changes hands, this leaves hubs in a vulnerable position.
While on a work trip to Lagos, I also got to visit the Co-Creation Hub (cc-hub) in Lagos and talk to its co-founders about their business model which includes an accelerator and co-working space.
My particular project was to lead the setting up of a digital learning platform for hub managers that would cater to their challenges. Although many platforms such as coursera or edx exist which do have entrepreneurial courses, there are problems which are specific and unique to the African context which they do not cater to. Before my arrival, it had been identified that managers felt that some of their business management skills could be improved, which they saw as a key to strengthening their hubs and making them more financially sustainable and less grant-dependent.
A platform called the Manjaro Virtual Learning Platform (MVLP) had been kicked off, but at the time AfriLabs lacked the personnel to bring it fully to life. This project was going to be my contribution to AfriLabs and my little part in paying forward to the African continent with the skills I had learnt at the ESMT.
One of the website development teams that I worked with for the MVLP. Late-night meeting over ice cream in Lagos.
Two days after my arrival in Abuja, I had successfully managed to set up a bank account, get a SIM card and set up a WIFI subscription. It may seem little, but believe you me, the hustle was real. Then I was off to Accra, Ghana, for the AfriLabs Annual Gathering. The first was held in Berlin in 2015, but the team was super-excited about this one because they’d managed to pull it off within two months and it was going to be the first to be held on African soil. I would be using this four-day event to sit down and talk to the hub managers who had managed to attend to find out what kind of content they would look forward to in a Virtual Learning Platform. It was, after all, supposed to meet their needs, and hence had to be customer-centric. A couple of Master Classes were organized throughout the week, as a way of reaching out to not only hub managers, but entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs. The number one hot topic was, by far, “How do I get funding for my hub/startup?” Bootstrapping is almost impossible unless an entrepreneur comes from a well-to-do family or has had a well-paying job from which she/he could save up money to kickstart their business. This is usually not the case for Africa’s youth.
The Annual Gathering was hosted by iSpace Ghana – a member-hub of AfriLabs. Its founder, Joshua, is a ‘returnee’ – which, in Nigeria, means someone who lived in the diaspora for a while and has come back home…the implication is ‘someone who has come back home to hopefully do great things’ (no pressure). Having worked and studied in the UK, and held a lucrative position in a Nigerian conglomerate, he co-founded iSpace in 2013, and it has become a community space for entrepreneurs to work and get support for their businesses.
AfriLabs, enspire hub and Impact Hub Bamako, The Next Economy at one table (Lagos)
In-between supporting the AfriLabs team in running the Annual Gathering, I managed to sit down with a few hub managers to hear from them how best they could benefit from the Manjaro Virtual Learning Platform and which courses they would best benefit from. The good thing about taking a bottom-up approach is that, if you listen well and ask the right questions, it will help you come up with a more solid product at the end of the day. The way my project had been outlined was not exactly what the few hub managers that I spoke to needed and or wanted, so I made it a point to take two steps back in the project timeline to take the time to reach out to as many hub managers as possible and simply ask: “How can WE help YOU?” instead of prescribing a remedy that is not optimal for their needs. While this is the more arduous route, if it had turned out that the hub managers did not really want or need a Virtual Learning Platform at all to help them expand their skills, then we would not waste any more time on that project. This was super tricky for me, because if that had been the outcome, I’d have to change my mandate within AfriLabs, and I may not have gotten something I found as interesting. However, it was a necessary foundation to lay if the project faced any chance at survival in the long-run, even way past my departure.
The first two weeks after returning from Ghana, I immersed myself into reaching out to the managers of the over 50 hubs that form the AfriLabs network. Email responses were really slow, so I resorted to phoning them all up. While arduous, I got a pretty good picture on what format my project would have to take in order for it to be relevant for the hub managers and set out revamping the old project outline.
But first…let me take a selfie. The awesome AfriLabs Team (plus me) at the Annual Gathering in Accra (l) and on our way to visit one of our hubs (r)