Facebook CEO ‘sneaked’ into Sub-Saharan Africa but got more than he bargained for in Lagos and Nairobi. In this report Olubayo Abiodun brings out the highpoints of the visit
WHEN Mark Zuckerberg departed Italy after his visit to Pope Francis, his first stop was Lagos, Nigeria. Zuckerberg, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Facebook, arrived in Lagos on Tuesday, 30th August and by the next day; he was already aboard his private jet to Nairobi, Kenya before most Nigerians could come out of the shock of his stealthy arrival in the country.
While the conversation on his surreptitious visit was still reverberating on the social networks, the Facebook icon was back in Nigeria, on Friday, as guest of President Muhammadu Buhari during the grand finale of the “Aso Villa Demo Day”. Aso Villa Demo Day was a platform that promotes innovation and provides opportunities for entrepreneurs and start-ups to collaborate with the Federal Government of Nigeria. Different innovators and start-ups from varying pedigrees participated in the pitches held in Lagos and Abuja where successful innovations were picked.
Before this maiden sojourn to sub-Saharan Africa, Zuckerberg had built a cult-like followership in Africa because of his techpreneurship attributes that resonated beyond boundaries. But rather than become the spectator, African youths became the spectacle in the eyes of this 32 years old technopreneur worth over $54billion. He was impressed by the interest, energy and entrepreneurial spirit displayed by young Nigerians in all the ICT camps that he visited. “There’s so much energy and so much potential here. I just want to walk around and meet folks,” he said.
And rather than carry in his head the subconscious image of a people overwhelmed by hunger, disease, insecurity, poverty of the mind and lifestyle which are regularly making the headlines in the Western media, Zuckerberg was rather enthused about his visit to one of the ICT communities in Lagos: “I was highly impressed by the talent of the youths in the Co-creation Hub in Yaba. I was blown away by their talent and the level of energy that I saw.” That was his signature comment after his visit to a local innovation center and tech hub in Yaba, an area on the mainland of Lagos known as Nigeria’s Silicon Valley.
While he was busy at the ccHub in Lagos, Zuckerberg used his time in Nairobi to visit the iHub technology hub in Nairobi, meet with developers and partners, and explore how the country’s pioneering mobile money ecosystem is evolving. “I’m here to meet with entrepreneurs and developers, and to learn about mobile money – where Kenya is the world leader” says Zuckerberg. “I’m starting at a place called iHub, where entrepreneurs can build and prototype their ideas. Two of the engineers I met, Fausto and Mark, designed a system to help people use mobile payments to buy small amounts of cooking gas, which is a lot safer and better for the environment than charcoal or kerosene. It’s inspiring to see how engineers here are using mobile money to build businesses and help their community”.
Before jetting to Nairobi, Zuckerberg who was ‘sneaked’ into Lagos, as his visit was kept a closely guided secret suddenly broke away from the mental siege of his publicists and organizers on his second day in Lagos. He escaped from the security edges weaved around him. “Quick run this morning across the Ikoyi Bridge with entrepreneurs in the Lagos Road Warriors running club. Best way to see a city!” he wrote enthusiastically on his Facebook Timeline. He excited passers-by when he jogged on the iconic Lekki Bridge on Lagos Island, Wednesday morning. Later, he also trekked over 2km through the streets of Yaba, Mainland part of Lagos to get to Andela, the talent accelerator where he invested $24 million In June via the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Andela is a startup with offshoots in Lagos (Nigeria) and Nairobi (Kenya) and headquarter in New York (USA). What shocked misanthropists was his courage to walk around the streets of Lagos without any signs of armed guards or heavy security.
Just like Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, who had visited Nigeria several times, Zuckerberg has soft spot for Africa too. In May, the world’s 7th richest man launched Free Basics, a partnership with a local telecoms provider, which allows people to browse websites for free in more than 20 under-served African countries including Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania.
“Thanks for such a warm welcome; there are so many talented people here and I am excited to get a chance to meet some of them,” he said while appraising the raw talents and acknowledging what most leaders on the continent are oblivious of. Zuckerberg was humble enough to also admit that he was in Nigeria to learn from the budding start-up community evolving out of Africa’s largest market for Facebook. He told techies at the start-up hub in Lagos he was willing to “learn and take ideas back to California on how Facebook can better support tech development and entrepreneurship across Africa.”
The Facebook boss talked about plans to make the company’s tools and apps more affordable for SMEs in Nigeria. He assured his audience he was in the country to promote the penetration of “fast and cheap” Internet connectivity, express-Wi-Fi that would help people to create online businesses and reduce poverty.
While his promoters discussed the visit in hushed tones, Zuckerberg was over the moon on the visit. The visit was so shrouded in secrecy that some of those working at the Co-Creation Hub (CcHUB) were not privy to it. On arrival at the hub, he watched children learning to code and he interacted with at least 50 local start-up founders and developers at a summer coding camp. The young techies have found the Hub a veritable tech community to build and launch their apps.
Zuckerberg’s visit would give Nigeria’s fledgling start-up scene the shot in the arm it desperately needs. 65 million Nigerians are currently online. Nigeria is the largest market in Africa for Facebook; 16 million Nigerians use the platform monthly, with 7 million logging onto the site daily: 97 per cent of them on mobile, according to figures given by Facebook itself.
This billionaire did not hide his love for the Nigerian market. He was proud of recently putting the Hausa language, largely spoken in northern Nigeria, on the platform and revealed plans to expand to other Nigerian languages. He also explored other opportunities during his visit to Nigeria. The New Yorker also expressed his interest in the creative ecosystem with open arms for partnerships, at exploring, where tech and creativity intersect. Nigeria’s Nollywood is globally rated third after Hollywood (USA) and Bollywood (India) in terms of popularity and assets. Zuckerberg consequently seized the moment during his visit to meet with leading figures in Nigeria’s Nollywood film industry and talked about how the burgeoning industry could be a huge revenue driver for the country.
He said: “One of the things I am most excited about my trip to Lagos is going to check out Nollywood. Nollywood sounds like a national treasure and the ability to produce video content that is moving and emotional transcends boundaries and will help tell stories of the amazing innovation, engineering and culture to the whole world.” To underscore his excitement, he went to his Facebook Timeline and posted: “Visited Nollywood, crashed a hip hop music video, and met some of Nigeria’s biggest stars.”
By the time Zuckerberg ‘conquered’ Lagos, he came up with a submission that could be a shot in the arm for the youths of this clime: “Nigeria is shaping the whole continent and influencing how things are going to work around the world for the next generation. After being here for a short period of time, I do believe that there’s no way Nigeria will not end up shaping what is being built around the world.
“The world needs to see the energy in Nigeria. Here in Lagos and in the continent, things are changing really quickly. The economy is shifting from a resource-based economy into an entrepreneur- and knowledge-based economy. And you guys are the ones bringing that change not only in Nigeria but around the world. “That is the story that is under-appreciated around world. People don’t have a feel of how much energy and entrepreneurial spirit are in here.”
Zuckerberg is convinced that Nigerian software developers have the opportunity of emerging the next phase of internet billionaires, based on the software entrepreneurship model being developed in the country even as he praised Nigeria for leading Africa’s Facebook users with 18 million people. He admonished the young developers in Nigeria to focus on creating value and solving problems for people rather than the gains they would make from their business ventures. He said that the stakeholders must focus increasing ICT infrastructure in order to strengthen Nigeria’s position as the continental leader. According to him, this could be achieved if the focus is on promoting affordability and the development of home-grown solution that drives more local interest in the usage of the Internet. He urged young techpreneurs to create solutions that enhance life and drive businesses for the people. While telling the start-ups to stay focused on learning, he cautioned that they “should not be afraid of failure”
He went into Kenya to see how technology innovation is changing the country, learn more about what mobile entrepreneurs are doing with the latest technology, and find out how Facebook can better support small businesses, developers and content creators across growing markets. He was particularly excited to see how mobile money and social media are driving commerce in the region and creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs and communities. At iHub, an Innovation hub and hacker space started in March 2010 by TED fellow and entrepreneur, Eric Hersman, he met developers and entrepreneurs.
He also had time to savour local cuisines in Lagos and Nairobi. According to him, Nigerian jollof rice, shrimp and goat, tasted delicious when he tried them. Ugali local delicacy in Kenya also formed part of the indelible memory of Mark Zuckerberg’s maiden visit to Sub-Saharan Africa. “We ate at a place everyone recommended; MAMA Oliech Restaurant (http://APO.af/zOr0sJ). One of my favourite parts of traveling to a new place is trying local food. I enjoyed ugali and a whole fried tilapia for the first time and loved them both!” he said.
Africa leaders should not just savour the visit with excited chortles; the real reward is in seizing the momentum to create a tribe of wealth creators in the mould of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerbergs on the continent.