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ISPON 2012 Conference: A European perspective

By Matthew Herren

Initial impression of Nigeria and Lagos

For the first six years of my life I lived in Nigeria (Ibadan), but arriving on October 26, 2012 marked the first time that I’ve been back in the country in 23 years. It was clear instantly, right from the airport, how much had changed. As I last remembered, flights were much fewer (and some big names of the day then, such as Air Afrique – no longer exist. But, I was immediately taken aback by, not just one, but two, US airlines directly serving the airport.

Junior Pius Ekeh greeted me at the airport, and we immediately developed a close rapport, which I hope will be followed by a long friendship. We drove to our Lagos hotel where I met ISPON President Chris Uwaje, whose dedication, commitment, generosity and friendliness are amongst the highest I’ve ever experienced, and whose logistical abilities are, I think, unparalleled.

At the hotel I also met Professor William Megalos and Daniel Molina for the first time. They too, I believe would have developed relations that will exist for years to come. While I have been heading a game development company for some time, I had not really thought about how much the fields of television/film share with the field of games. (In my defense, I’ve never sold myself off as game designer – technical architecture, concept and product managements are where my time is better spent.)

Tinapa and Calabar (C-River State)

To say the least Tinapa and Calabar were completely unlike either what I had expected them to be or imagined they could be — in terms of the scenery, the development and (certainly not least) the people. When government officials were describing Calabar as the most environmental state in Nigeria, we drove along scenery that left no doubt to the statement.

The governor of Cross River State, His Excellency Senator Liyel Imoke, has made strong commitment to building the types of infrastructure that is conducive environment for technology-driven companies, and results of some of these stand testament to the resolve of these commitments.

That said, there is still more to be done. I do believe that with follow-through in this regard Tinapa surely has the potential to develop into the Silicon Valley of Africa. As someone who has gone through the arduous process of starting two companies, I believe that most important further steps for Tinapa (and, indeed, most apply to Nigeria as as whole) are as follows:

Connectivity: In order to develop into a hub for technology innovation, and the base of a vibrant community of young start-ups, both internet bandwidth and reliability of cell-phone communication must be radically improved. To a certain extent this process has already started, as evidenced by the sponsorship of conference by companies such as MainOne Cable and Airtel (and the participation of Mrs. Funke Opeke, CEO of Mainone Cable Company and Tobe Okigbo, Director of Airtel Nigeria).

Mains Electricity: Although we did not experience any power breaks while in Tinapa, many of the people I talked to mentioned that one of the biggest impediments to Tinapa’s realization of its (vast) potential is insufficient and unreliable electricity.

Start-up Incubation: In my opinion, this is perhaps the most fundamental challenge that needs to be overcome. In the few days that I was in Tinapa, I was fundamentally surprised at the number young Nigerians with first-class technical skills, most of which had been developed into functional software.

However, the transition from having a groundbreaking concept, or even a functional product, into being a successful company with profitable product (or line of products) is — in my opinion — a significantly more challenging phase. I think that one of the most promising ways in which Tinapa can fully realize its calling as a ‘Knowledge City’ is to provide the necessary resources for entrepreneurs going through this process.

I would point to such incubators in the US such as Y-Combinator or the Unreasonable Institute. They have similar concepts: both provide housing, office space and a stipend to the entrepreneurs, but most importantly, coaching and training, and vitally, a small round of seed financing.

They also serve as networking hubs, connecting entrepreneurs to their peers, future clients, and further investors. The best part about these (especially Y-Combinator) is that this is not done (solely) out of benevolence on their part. In return for what they provide, they take (reasonably-sized) stakes in the companies. Some of the biggest ‘stars’ of the Web 2.0 era were hatched in the shared workspaces of Y-Combinator.

The conference

In general, I view my participation at the conference as having two elements – the first was in the meeting rooms, where I delivered a presentation on how CodeSustainable designs and develops social games, and the second was all the ‘informal’ discussions that I had with participants (especially the students) during the time.

I found both to be highly rewarding. I was particularly surprised however at intense focus on the topic of security-focused application development, especially in light of high barriers to entry in such a market (a situation even more pronounced when your company is a small, ‘newborn’ startup.

I think that the proliferation of App Stores on the various mobile platforms totally revolutionized the start-up industry, and chances of success for small companies with big dreams. I would strongly encourage Nigeria’s entrepreneurs to focus more on it. It will be to your benefit!

Future prospects

I would be honoured to continue sharing ideas, mentoring and doing what I can to help the incredible talent that I witnessed in Nigeria. At a point, doing this through a forum hosted on the ISPON website was mentioned. In addition, I would be most eager to explore the opportunities for collaboration between CodeSustainable and people and companies in Nigeria to design, develop and launch mobile applications for the Nigerian market.

I believe this journey is only beginning, and I whole-heartedly look forward to it. Once again, many thanks to all the organizers, the amazing group of presenters, and the future tycoons of Nigeria that I met. It would be remiss of me to not once call out ISPON’s Chris Uwaje, and thank him for the amazing opportunity, and salute him for a wonderful conference.

Matthew Herren, Co-Founder and Executive Director of CodeSustainable wrote in from Zurich, Switzerland.


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