Nigeria’s Tech Dark Horses
They are brilliant and have done great things. Can they go on to greater things, Solomon Elusoji enquires
In October 2013, three young software developers from the Federal University of Technology (FUTA) – who christened themselves ‘Team Eagle’ – were at the Tinapa Knowledge City in Calabar to compete for the ISPON software cup. They were among 70 students from 21 higher educational institutions in the country jostling for the cup.
For the competition, Team Eagle built a Road Traffic Detection System, using the Microsoft Kinect. Basically, the system helps drivers understand road signs. It took them two days and two sleepless nights to build the software, but when they faced the judges, in order not to sound unrealistic, they reported that it had taken them six weeks. Still, the judges were shocked: after asking for their ages, they could not understand how the team could have built such a complex and intricate design in six weeks. Team Eagle won the ISPON cup.
“What they told us was that the solution we had was not for now, but for the future,” a member of Team Eagle, Mofesola Paul, recalls during an interview with this reporter in July. “At that moment, the three of us realised we were capable of great things.”
Team Eagle, which also included Aboluwarin David and Oladapo Glory, was a product of FUTA’s Computer Science Class of 2015. Between 2012 and 2015, the trio won 15 software competitions, travelling across the country, wowing judges. They became Nokia Ambassadors for West Africa and Microsoft Student Ambassadors. But it was after the ISPON win in 2013, realising the potential that lay before them, that they – absent Oladapo – decided to incorporate a company on the side: Planet Nest.
When Planet Nest was in conception phase, the trio were still attending classes at FUTA and travelling for competitions as Team Eagle, but they also began to build software products that could scale, commercially; “We did our industrial training in our company, just to keep building solutions,” Aboluwarin said. “A lot of people in our class thought we were trying to stay in comfort zones. But it wasn’t like that for us. We slept at work. We worked on solutions that didn’t even fly at the end, but we learnt.”
One of their failed start-up ideas was EasyPrint, an online platform where students could print their assignments online and pay. But they didn’t have the right processes to make it work. They also tried to scale SurfFree, which involved putting WiFi in public spaces – malls specifically – and showing users short advertisements before they could log in. “The technicality was okay, the workability was fine but the malls were not willing to accept,” Aboluwarin said.
But they also worked on ideas that did not fizzle out like a firecracker. A major one is Now.ng, a WordPress-like website that allows small and medium scale business build an online presence (elevator pitch: host a website for just 800naira a year). “I loved working on the architecture of that product,” Mofesola, who now functions as Planet Nest’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO), said.
Working from nowhere Akure is a sleepy city. With its cheap taxis, rocky horizons and under-500,000 population, it is, perhaps, not the place you expect a Nigerian tech revolution to spring up from. For that, all eyes are on Lagos, where virtually all the successful homemade companies have their base.
But Akure has FUTA. The institution is renowned for the number of successful computer programmers it churns out every year. While many of them subsequently leave the city to work in Lagos and Silicon Valley where the big bucks reside, some stay behind to build an uncertain future. More importantly though, a tech ecosystem thrives on talent – it does not matter if the said talent is residual.
Today, Akure’s tech scene can be described as bubbling, like a steaming pot of okro that is about to spill over. According to Aboluwarin, “there are about 50 tech start-ups that have started business and even expanded to other
cities with their principal place of operation in Akure.” Among them are: Prunedge, Fourth Canvas, Tab Digitals, Whitespaces and, of course, Planet Nest.
Still, considering the enormous talents at their disposal, staying in Akure to run Planet Nest takes courage. In 2014, Dapo, one of the original members of Team Eagle, joined Microsoft. But Aboluwarin and Mofesola stayed put, digging in to build the company they had just started. “Akure is the perfect place for us,” Aboluwarin said.
In July, this reporter took a trip to Akure to visit Planet Nest’s main office, which is on Redemption Road, a stone throw from FUTA’s South gate. When it rains, Redemption Road is muddy and riddled with small seas of brown water.
The neighbourhood is quiet, but as this reporter approached Planet Nest, which is housed in a bungalow with graffiti walls, a medium-sized generator whined.
Inside, the front door opened to a spacious room. There were young people seated in an L shape formation, their faces glued to laptops. At the middle of the room, there was a cushion. To the right was a small office where the first of the interviews for this article would take place.
Aboluwarin and Mofesola, since 2014 when they started Planet Nest, have gone through quite a few iterations of what the company does. They started with building their own products. Apart from now.ng, they have also built DigiSchools, an enterprise solution they sell to schools.
Then they started to help other companies solve their start-up problems. “World-class tech solutions at your reasonable budget,” the headline on their official website reads. They are CTOs for a couple of start-ups, including a Silicon Valley start-up, Swiftly. global, which is in the business of helping customers get the best freight deals.
However, a huge part of what Planet Nest – a major reason why its founders are happy to stay back in Akure – is running a school where developers are bred: NEST School of Technology (NeST). “Lagos favours tech companies who have a consumer facing business,” Aboluwarin said. “We are not.”
Under NeST, they run a paid internship programme, TechCrib, where potential developers come in, get paid for learning and, after being inducted as fellows, are hooked up with companies who need developer talent. It is the same thing Andela, the company which raised $24 million from Mark Zuckerberg in June 2016, does. “Over 5,000 people apply to Andela every month,” Aboluwarin said, “where do you want the rest to go?” They currently have 10 developers in the programme and are prepared to take in more if their funding grows.
Also under NeST, they run a non-profit, SeedDev (Seed Developers ICT Initiative), which plans to reach one million kids in Africa and the Middle East with technology before 2020. “Tech is the new oil, and it is not fair that a child born in Ilaje does not know about tech until he is 20,” Aboluwarin said. “So we want to spark that interest in them.” Currently, they have reached about 2,000 children in Ondo state, giving them books and food while introducing them to elementary coding.
“Most of these kids have never seen a computer before and they were very excited at the sight of one.”
For every community they visit with SeedDev, they plan to install a Seed Box – a container that has ten computers and air conditioning powered by solar power and run by a university student around the community who comes on weekends to run computer trainings.
Mofesola started coding before he knew what it was called. The year was 2007 and he was 14. “My brother showed me how to browse the net,” he said. “Our mum had a Samsung phone, so she configured it and showed me how to do it.” From there, he discovered instant messaging and became fascinated with his cultivation of long distant friendships. “I was curious about how it works.” He started by writing HTML codes on paper, until his mother bought a laptop and he could start running them. Before he got admitted into FUTA in 2010, he had built his own chat application.
Aboluwarin’s journey into tech also started in 2007, when he got a NIIT scholarship to learn java programming, without knowing what it was. “Prior to that, I had had a lot of exposure to computers, because my dad made sure every school I attended had one,” he said.
But, these days, Aboluwarin barely gets involved in the technical aspects of the work. “I am more of the business guy,” he said. He fits the bill – tall, dashingly handsome and with a winning smile to complement and a smooth way with words, he is the Wall Street archetype. He’s got good business genes too.
While his father is a missionary who sold the gospel, his mother was a music teacher who did a lot of trading on the side. As a child, he used to pick plastics and sell to recyclers, save the money and use it for vacation trips.
The big question that hangs over their heads, like the twirling sword of Damocles, is whether they can leverage their early successes to become mainstream legends. Still in their mid twenties, the odds are in their favour. But tomorrow, as they say, is known to no man.
A SeedDev curator teaching school kids computer basics
Aboluwarin (left) and Mofesola
Oladapo Glory . . . left Team Eagle to join Microsoft