‘Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria wrote this article as part of the World Economic Forum on Africa 2017.
Over 100 years ago, Napoleon reportedly said of China: “Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world.”
In light of China’s rapid economic growth in the 21st century, the French general’s view seems justified. Although it still has deep developmental gaps, China has made rapid progress to become the world’s second largest economy as well as the world’s workshop — filling every corner of the globe with an amazing range of products.
A striking fact that is often overlooked in this transformation is that, in attaining this new status, China had to overcome an ugly reputation as the origin of substandard manufactured products. A decade ago, Made in China was to many people a signature of dubious quality. Fast-forward to today and it means pretty much the opposite. There can’t be many people today who will argue that China has not woken up.
Half the world away, in West Africa, there is a country not very dissimilar to China. Demographically, China’s population represents approximately one-fifth of the world’s population. Similarly, Nigeria is sometimes referred to as Africa’s China, because with a population of over 180 million, Nigeria’s population alone accounts for almost one-sixth of Africa’s population of 1.2 billion. Nigeria, like China, also suffers deep developmental challenges, with over 62% of the population living in poverty.
The rise of Nigeria’s Yahoo boys
An important demographic for Nigeria is young people, who represent a huge chunk of the population, with over 40% of Nigerians under the age of 14. These young Nigerians have borne the brunt of the country’s economic and development woes, with youth unemployment estimated at 45% by the National Bureau of Statistics. Some Nigerian youths have responded to this economic pressure by resorting to crime, and particularly the sort of crime that has given the country a bad reputation globally: cybercrime.
Unlike China, which has largely shrugged off the reputation of being the producer of substandard goods, Nigeria has gained a reputation for being the haven of online fraudsters, or what are known colloquially as Yahoo boys.
However, the same technology that enables cybercrime in Nigeria is also the very tool that can transform the lives of millions of young people in the country. What erring youth need to know is that if they’re tech-savvy enough to defraud, then they’re smart enough to build a business online, or even develop apps.
A new digital future
I am no stranger to how technology changes lives, having positively changed my own career path thanks to an opportunity to learn how to use computers, and rare (at the time) access to the internet, which exposed me to career options no teacher could have suggested. This new knowledge empowered me to improve my life and build a social enterprise that is now connecting other young people to digital opportunities. Through the Paradigm Initiative, I tell them they can use technology to improve their chances in life, without any ill motives.
The evidence suggests they are listening. One young man, One Martins, has created an app that helps young people stay away from age-inappropriate online content. Through a voice recognition algorithm, it can detect the age of online visitors and shield vulnerable age groups. Then there’s Brenda, whose app, MobiCheck, allows patients to access medical information in real time. They’re not alone: there are many other stories of young people from underserved communities in Nigeria, whose lives have been transformed by a mastery of ICT tools.
I believe that, like China over a hundred years ago, there is greatness lying dormant in the lives of millions of Nigerians. They just need digital technology to come and unlock it.