In 2011 Sarah Lacy, who was working at TechCrunch at the time but is now running a new tech blog known as Pandodaily, did the unthinkable by travelling to Nigeria on a mission to unravel its startup scene.
As a result of far reaching legacy issues and misconceptions (beginning with 419 internet scams), Nigeria is often treated as a no go zone by Silicon Valley natives like her. In fact a number of established tech firms like PayPal deliberately block Nigerian traffic. Her foray into this “murky” world should then be taken into context as the actions of a brave and open minded woman to top it all off she was pregnant but still went where grown men would fear to tread. This journey through Nigeria can very much be mistaken as a script for an Indiana Jones flick. It was that adventurous.
Perhaps the most valuable insight Sarah was able to meticulously capture is that beyond perceptions of crime, corruption and 419 scams are real people trying to get on with their lives. This not only applies to Nigeria, but to countries like us here in Zimbabwe. The truth is that “targeted sanctions” have significantly affected the ability of startups and the ordinary man to make a decent living online. Just one example is the fact that Facebook does not allow locals to advertise on the site, yet for many SMEs and netizens the compound benefits of doing so could transform their revenue streams and ability to reach out effectively. I personally come across similar practices by other websites on a regular basis.
Sarah’s discovery of a hardcore entrepreneur known as Jason Njoku therefore came as a huge surprise and dosage of inspiration. This guy began with nothing but a belief he could build an internet based company from Nigeria, 4 months into venturing in he was reportedly grossing US$ 1 million and employing over 30 people…in Nigeria.
As the founder and CEO of Iroko Partners, Jason began by licensing content from Nigeria’s booming movie industry and simply posting it onto a series of YouTube channels. While the country is the third largest producer of movies after Bollywood, its young status means that there’s often no solid commercial structure. This motivated Jason to satisfy a massive and unquenched thirst for Nigerian content, emanating from the African diaspora.
With channel views breaching 8 million a week and ad revenues booming, it can be viewed as both a surprise and insult that Google’s YouTube kept on blocking him and giving him harsher terms than smaller channels. It seems that regardless of the success he was achieving, an element of mistrust hovered over business. Not to be a cry baby, he shifted content onto his own platform and pulverised both perceptions and infrastructure challenges like access to power (ZESA) and bandwidth. Iroko Partners is now aggressively expanding into a world renowned entertainment company, the recent addition of iroking.com seeks to achieve similar success with music.
In many African countries building a startup is not for the faint hearted. Choosing an idea, putting together a team and getting the technical stuff right is only the beginning. You need to understand the operating environment and the needs of the market. Have your ears to the ground such that you can even hear the grasshoppers jumping. Access to risk capital is almost nonexistent in a lot of countries, power outages are the order of the day while access to reliable bandwidth traditionally costs an arm and a leg. But guess what? The benefits far outweigh the risks, as Jason puts it:
In the end, it didn’t matter. I am rich now, more so than 99.9% of my peers. I have achieved things that most (including me) would never have thought I would achieve in a lifetime.
For me it was my right of passage. It was my MBA. It was important in shaping me into a person who never complains, but just gets on with things. I never had money to indulge in consumerism so don’t suffer from its afflictions.
Someone who has settled into finding happiness in waking up and having control of my time and life. Poverty has fundamentally humbled me. Brought out my humanity.
Whether ‘aluta continua’ or ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’ charges you up, keep your eye on the prize. Find people who genuinely buy into your mission, think long term and stick to your beliefs like glue.
Together Everyone Achieves More.