A quick recap.
Yaba, a town in Lagos Nigeria, has been billed to become “Nigeria’s Silicon Valley” — the primary tech startup cluster for Nigeria. This status culminated in Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to Yaba.
Mark Essien, founder of Hotels.ng recently raised the observation that a number of companies like Konga and Andela had moved out of Yaba and raised the alarm that something needs to be done or else the “Yaba is Nigeria’s Silicon Valley” dream would fizzle away.
As a result, I can sense some “panic” about Yaba “failing” and there has been an assembly of stakeholders that want to work to ensure Yaba does not “fail”.
This post is my position after thinking about it for a bit.
I’ll start with a question:
If all the software startups in Yaba today had a “blank cheque” to choose any place in Lagos to have an office and it would be given to them free for the next 5 years, where will they choose?
Yaba? VI? Ikoyi? Lekki? Ikeja?
Would Yaba rank 1? 2? 3? 4? 5?
Let’s sweeten the offer. In addition to having a blank cheque to chose an office anywhere in Lagos, all employees of the company will be guaranteed free accommodation a maximum of 30 mins from the office.
Where would Yaba rank now?
What would happen to Yaba if this offer is expanded across Nigeria? Africa?
To be the best tech cluster, you have to be the best place to live and work for the most talented of people. At least the best place in a geographical area or region.
That’s where the best people and companies will gravitate to eventually.
Today in Lagos or Nigeria, is Yaba that place?
I don’t think so.
A good counter argument could be “Why not make Yaba become what we want it to be?”
My response to that:
Does Yaba have what it takes to be THE place for tech entrepreneurship in Lagos or Nigeria? Should it?
What Does Yaba Have; To Give?
Nemo dat quod non habet — You Cannot Give What You Do Not Have.
I quite like that the title of this post “what does Yaba have to give” is polysemic — open to multiple interpretations. What does Yaba have to give could mean what is Yaba’s capacity and at the same time, what should Yaba’s capacity be.
Let’s start with a map. Maps give clarity.
The size of Yaba is at best 18 km² while that of Lagos itself is 3,577 km²
In comparison, San Francisco is 121.4 km² and San Francisco is just one of the cities that make up the San Francisco — Silicon Valley amalgamation (Bay Area) which is about 18,000 km², which is one of the tech clusters/cities in the United States.
[San Francisco wasn’t even part of the original Silicon Valley. The talent merely gravitated to the nearest best city to live]
Is it feasible for the new “industry” of a “megacity” like Lagos or a massive country like Nigeria to focus on developing 17km² as THE tech cluster?
What will happen when 300 companies move into Yaba? When Yaba is the only place with loads of fibre and consistent electricity? Will any of the present residents be able to afford it?
Can Yaba even afford to absorb 500 companies? 10,000 employees?
Here is a summary reality as I see it; people will at present move to where they aspire to as they become more successful. If by a stroke of luck, Yaba becomes better than VI or Ikoyi then 85% of the startups in Yaba presently, will not be able to afford Yaba.
In fact, at the current rate without displacing anywhere, Yaba will soon become out of the reach of the average young company. It’s the reality of demand and supply.
We need to start thinking beyond Yaba.
This means including other towns in Lagos as part of one Lagos tech area that needs development and concurrently working with other cities and towns in Nigeria to be credible alternatives for tech clusters.
What Does Yaba Have To Give?
I no longer buy the idea that Yaba is failing just because people are moving out after getting to a particular size or success. I don’t even buy that Yaba is failing at all. What has been achieved in Yaba championed by Bosun and the folks at CcHub is impressive. However, it is important we do not lose sight of the bigger picture of developing Nigeria through technology.
Here’s an excerpt from a blogpost by the folks at Basecamp (formerly 37Signals)
It’s ok for software to be “temporary.” Everything else is temporary, why not software? You probably don’t use the same computer you did 5 years ago. You probably don’t live in the same apartment or have the same car either. And you may be in a different relationship too. Why are software companies afraid if people grow out of things after awhile?
It’s ok for startups to outgrow Yaba. It is ok for there to be alternatives.
What I think Yaba should focus on is to be the best in what it can be considering the reality as I have outlined above. Yaba can focus on perhaps being the best place to start out in Lagos? Nigeria? Africa? It can be a model that should be imitated across board. It doesn’t have to be the only one. It shouldn’t be the only one.
[BTW, why is Yaba always being treated differently from the rest of Lagos? Even Surulere that fuses with Yaba is seen as different. Shouldn’t the startup companies and components in Lagos (Ikeja, VI, Lekki, Ikoyi etc) be part of the same structure at a minimum? I think they should]
It is important to point out the need of concurrent development of our various aspiring tech clusters, because I see a number of people in Lagos being dismissive or at worst, not being encouraging to the burgeoning technology ecosystems in Port Harcourt, Enugu, Jos, Kaduna, Abuja etc. Because “we have not finished with Yaba yet”.
I disagree with that approach.
The reality is this, Yaba’s “competition” for attracting Nigeria’s talent isn’t in Nigeria. Nigeria’s competition in attracting and retaining talent isn’t on the continent.
With an amount less than the cost of a Master’s degree in the UK/US/Canada, Africa’s best technical brains have France available to them not to talk about the other western countries using sweeteners to attract the continent’s best in the name of Startup Visa. Why should they stay in Africa talk less Yaba? That should be the bigger picture to be addressed.
As I said in a previous post, to be the best company, you have to position yourself globally and be able to attract the best.
The same goes for our techosystem if it wants to be the best.
To conclude, my primary suggestion suggestion is: the Yaba Manifesto should be modified to at least, encompass the Nigerian techosystem as a whole. And the aim should be in working to give multiple places in Nigeria the chance to compete, to at least, be the best place to live and work on the continent.
Because, it is beyond Yaba.