Is Tech in Nigeria ‘Bougie’?

During the 2016 Communication Technology Retreat in Ibadan, I queued up to withdraw some money from the only ATM in the vicinity. The wait felt lengthy as the man withdrawing money fidgeted in front of the ATM for close to 10 minutes. Already impatient, the lady in front of me questioned the man and discovered he couldn’t operate the ATM. Understanding his predicament, she translated and walked him though the steps needed to withdraw money.

In that moment, I realized I took the ability to withdraw money from an ATM for granted. Operating an ATM required a basic grasp of the English language, which quite a number of Nigerian citizens do not possess. (Don’t ask me how I know. I’m not NBS)

Here we were at this conference discussing smart cities and futuristic public technologies and right outside the hall, a Nigerian struggled to operate a decade-old machine. The tech was there, but there was a clear barrier to entry – education. If a portion of our population cannot access technology, its impact remains limited. Hence the question — does tech in Nigeria improve lives collectively or is tech limited to making the lives of the middle class Nigerians more convenient?

Different answers exist depending on what one defines as tech, but I’ve chosen to base my model of exclusion on Nigeria’s mobile and internet penetration. Nigeria has a population of 178 million, 152 million active telecom subscribers, and since people have multiple lines, and 97 million Internet users. Take out those who have access to such ICT resources, but can barely use these devices, you’re left with roughly half of what we started with. We’re left with a large portion of our population excluded from the access to technology or its benefits – not including multiplier effects of technology.

The numbers do not indict tech, instead they highlight the absence of other factors that attenuate the reach of tech. Other infrastructural and socioeconomic indicators have to improve concurrently for tech to be inclusive and effective.

Tech is limited in effectiveness if people can’t read, face difficulties opening bank accounts, or lack access to electricity. Hence, when internet bank transfer gets better, social media interaction burgeons, e-commerce websites spring up…such progress all remains so exclusionary to the majority of Nigerians. A number of issues on the commercial and administrative levels arise due to such exclusion.

How do tech startups scale within the domestic market that is limited to the meagre middle/upper classes? Oh, did I forget they also have to compete with foreign services/products for these same classes? The market is much smaller than it seems.

How can one possibly wish to digitise the majority of government processes when the majority of the people lack the ability to use the technology needed to access electronic content? Heck, a number of public sector servants can’t even use their email.

From a productivity angle, technology’s effectiveness is also limited to ability. In Economics, an additional unit of any input has a marginal effect on output. A student switching from paper to a laptop marginally changes her level of productivity. However, this margin differs from person to person. While a student limits herself to checking Linda Ikeji on her laptop, another student teaches herself to code with the same device. Clearly, the productive value of tech is derived not only from the functionality of the device, but from the ability — and initiative — of the user. Raising this ability requires cross-sectional elements.

The effectiveness of tech is influenced by a couple of other exogenous and endogenous factors. If you wish to grow the market and make tech more inclusive, productive and impactful, tackling these factors is key. Focus on the cross-sections: education, health care, roads, and electricity. Without these, most people will be isolated from tech and its full effectiveness will remain limited to we ‘bougies’. Given tech’s potential to spur development and improve the lives of many, such a future sound unappealing.