Nige­ria’s Tech Dark Horses

They are bril­liant and have done great things. Can they go on to greater things, Solomon Elu­soji en­quires

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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.

Ques­tion mark

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

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