Digital Explorers: A Journey of talent development and knowledge transfer.
A huge portion of Nigeria’s teeming youth population is unemployed. More than 8 million of them, at the last count. The thought of that many young people milling about with nothing to do is unnerving. If nothing is done, bad things could happen. With an economy largely dependent on dwindling oil revenues and barely managing to stay a few decimal points off an official recession, it is difficult to forecast that the situation gets better soon. I sincerely hope it gets better. But this source of anxiety is also our biggest opportunity. Our young population are a much more valuable asset than crude oil could ever be. All we have to do is, well, find them jobs.
What jobs, you ask? I’ll get to that in a bit. Before that, let’s talk about how the global demand for digital talent, as foretold by this 2013 report by Capgemini Consulting continues to grow, and how the supply can hardly keep up. This demand has fueled the rise of businesses that recruit, train, and hire out digital talent to companies across the world. One of such businesses is Andela which has assessed more than one hundred thousand applicants, hired over a thousand software developers, and integrated these developers into hundreds of companies including Safaricom, Percolate, and InVision. Today, Andela has raised $180 million and recruits talent from Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and most recently, Rwanda. But all of that began in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2014, out of a nondescript building in Yaba.
Andela was the first to demonstrate, at scale, what could happen if you matched Nigerian talent with global opportunity. But the evidence of Nigerian excellence finding global demand continues to multiply. Nigeria is the fourth fastest growing developer community on the Github platform. Nigerian startups account for nearly half of the African ventures that have made it into Ycombinator (a leading startup accelerator). 6 out of 7 of the African startups in 2019 Winter Class are in fact Nigerian.
Today, the stories of Nigerian developers and creatives getting recruited by global tech and software companies are a daily staple of my Twitter timeline. But I suspect that there are even more stories of developers who work for foreign companies and do so quietly from right here in Nigeria. Sure, it doesn’t sound as enchanting as a fancy relocation to Europe or North America, but the implications are no less life-changing for those getting these jobs. They get to work with world class teams and earn multiples of any salary they would ordinarily be able to earn locally.
This brings me back to the question of jobs I alluded to earlier. We need to create a lot of them, as fast as we can. And these jobs don’t necessarily all need to be in Nigeria.
At Ventures Platform, besides investing, we do a lot of work that supports entrepreneurship, “intrapreneurship” (the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working within a large organization) and capacity-building. In October 2018, we were visited by a high-level delegation from Lithuania led by the Afriko team, who wanted to learn more about what we do. Our teams had several conversations, and I eventually found myself on a plane headed to an obscure country in the Baltics that I knew little more about than I had picked up in books.
As an economic case study, Lithuania is fascinating, going from communist roots to a free market that is friendly to multinationals and is increasingly powered by a vibrant technology sector leveraging emerging technologies in transport, banking/fintech, e-commerce, e-government, and lots more.
Now that I was in Lithuania, the original idea that had come up in our initial interactions with the Afriko-led delegation during their visit to Abuja, made even more sense. Here was an opportunity to facilitate a symbiotic relationship of talent and knowledge transfer between both our countries, and that is how we conceptualized and set in motion the Digital Explorers program.
How the Digital Explorers Program works is simple:
- The program connects Nigerian digital talent — developers, creatives, and tech business developers — to ICT companies in Lithuania.
- The ones who make it into the program get to work, learn, and earn in Lithuania for one year. Digital Explorers from Nigeria can choose the type of training they receive, the company they will work in, and really experience the local ICT culture from the inside.
- At the end of the program, the Digital Explorers return to Nigeria with all the knowledge and connections they’ve acquired, and through the reintegration program managed by Ventures Platform will be in a vantage position to access strong local employment opportunities in Nigeria, work for Lithuanian companies remotely or start their own companies altogether.
Applications to the first cohort wrapped up on the 1st of April, and we are looking forward to welcoming the successful applicants this month of May.
I realize that it is easy for some people to get carried away and see this as an opportunity to “leave Nigeria”. This is most assuredly not necessarily the case or at least our intention. There’s also others who are afraid of “brain drain”, but they need to look at the bigger picture of how these sorts of talent exchanges have a net positive impact on the economy.
First of all, this is about upskilling the next generation of Nigerian entrepreneurs and knowledge workers with global networks and connections. Our Digital Explorers will be working side by side amazing people, on world class teams, building products and services for global clients, and spending a lot of time in structured learning and networking activities. Also, through the reintegration component of the program, they will be bringing their skills and experience to bear on Nigerian problems and leveraging their global networks to attract funding and the best talent. Looked at from a certain perspective, the people who make it into the Digital Explorers program are effectively being paid to learn and acquire world class skills. You know what’s not free? Sending young Nigerians to study abroad. Every year, Nigerians spend over $2 billion on foreign student education.
Second of all, diaspora remittances are huge.
An excerpt from Stears Business:
“Typically, Nigerians living abroad remit (send) money to friends and family back home. According to the World Bank, in 2017, the diaspora remitted $22 billion back to Nigeria, equivalent to our total crude oil earnings. In essence, Nigeria receives as much money from its diaspora as it does from crude oil, the backbone of its economy.”
Our Digital Explorers will be earning in Euros, and their remuneration will be on par with the pay that workers in their respective Lithuanian tech companies earn. Here’s how E puts it — “get the guys out, get the remittances in”.
Of course, our guys are coming back.
I am not deluded that there is a ton of ready-made talent running around, waiting to be scooped up and plugged into these opportunities. There is the fact that most of those 8 million unemployed youth cannot find jobs because of deep-seated societal, economic and educational dysfunction. If we fixed education, the argument over the pros and cons of people leaving Nigeria would be moot ab initio, because there would be lots of talent to take the place of the ones that leave. That is unfortunately not yet the case. And no long term effort to build a secure future can ignore the fact that we will have to be deliberate about the foundational work that must happen to educate the next generation. It is one thing to upskill people to world class, and match them to global opportunities. But the underlying work, which is obviously even harder, investing in and building the systems and infrastructure that create world class talent, at scale. That is why Ventures Platform is forging long-term partnerships with communities like Forloop and initiatives like NESA ( a VP portfolio company) to, like Emeka Afigbo puts it, boil the ocean.
The road to 8 million jobs is going to be a long one. One that will require a lot of innovative thinking and the will to try new things, from the government on the one hand, and the private/innovation ecosystem on the other.
Our government needs to realize that we are at crisis point and urgently begin to revamp the education system, including overhauling the entire curriculum and teaching methods to make it fit for the new economy. As I explain here, priority must be placed on developing the digital economy by the federal and state governments.
The Digital Explorers program is private sector attempt to tackle this from the other end, and everyone from Nigeria and Lithuania who helped conceive and design it is putting a hundred and fifty percent into it. I’m grateful that my team and I get to be a part of it, and can’t wait to see what we can learn and accomplish. To learn more about the program please visit the program website at: www.digitalexplorers.eu
For the people who make it into the program, you have an exciting journey ahead of you. Please, fasten your seatbelts.
Thanks to my friends and colleagues; Adia Sowoh, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, Dotun Olowoporoku, Adaeze Sokan, Akintunde Oyebode, Feyi Fawehinmi, Bankole Oluwafemi, Ola Orekunrin, Ukot Umezinne and OO Nwoye, for reading early drafts of this essay.
I will also like to appreciate the consortium of partners that have made Digital Explorers a reality; the European Union, ICMPD, Enterprise Lithuania, AfriKo, Diversity Development Group, Code Academy and the Ventures Platform team.