Choosing home: Young Nigerians retracing their steps one pace at a time
While marking the Nigeria in the Diaspora day in 2015, Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister at the time, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala observed that remittances by Nigerians in the Diaspora are in the region of $4 billion yearly. This will frankly be a staggering amount until you consider that just last year, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and The Diaspora, Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa announced that about 15 million Nigerians live in the Diaspora.
These numbers should be rightly considered whopping sums that could – if properly applied – boost the economy of any developing country. However, there’s an increasingly new crop of returning Nigerians that are looking at making that impact on the upward curve of the economy with the application of their skills in the labour market, while simultaneously contributing to help build the Nigeria of their dreams. Data on the actual numbers of returnees is still lacking, but it is broadly acknowledged, based on the increasing visibility of the diaspora in society, that there has been a steady increase in returns in the past few years.
The raw energy of youth, a millennial generation, and the recent rise of many technology-powered companies in Nigeria are the common denominators present here. These companies try to address the country’s problems with their unique solutions. One of them that works at such a company is Ope Adeyemi, a Solutions Architect at Softcom Nigeria.
Not so surprisingly, Ope just returned last year after an almost 2-year stay in the United Kingdom during which he studied for a Masters Degree in Control & Systems Engineering. The urge to bridge a knowledge gap and experience other cultures were on his mind when he left, but because his decision to willingly return will no doubt have come as a surprise to some Nigerians, I ask him about his thoughts on his return to the country.
Q: You’ve just moved back to the country in a move that will come as a surprise to the majority of Nigerians active in the labour market, as there are a lot willing to at least try the opportunities they believe are more available abroad. Can you share the main motivation behind your decision to move back to the country?
Ope: I got sponsored for a Masters Degree Program by a government body called Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF). It was a very few of us picked out of a thousand of applicants after an exam. It was supposed to be a kind of implicit agreement between us and the government, to transfer the knowledge we gain the during the duration of the program back into the country. PTDF, however, wanted to make it official, so they demanded we sign a bond. Some objected to this initially, but for me, the question has always been that if the government is willing to invest about ₦50m on you, why wouldn’t you want to exchange that for an opportunity to apply some of those skills in contributing to the development of the country? For me even before going there, I took it is an obligation to come back and help in my way.
He is right about the impact of the returning diaspora in offering vital assistance to the country’s reconstruction and development efforts. This is backed by the reasoning that they can help to bridge the infrastructure gap with innovative ideas. He also talks about the presence of more
opportunities in one’s country of birth as opposed to being a minority in societies that are fast becoming openly race-conscious. The excitement of returning home can be palpable among new returnees, but living in a country one hasn’t been in a while is always going to take some getting used to. Nigeria is a unique place to stay in such a way that unlike almost no other country in the world, you never quite know what to expect. Curious to hear his thoughts on this adjustment process, I ask about some culture shocks he’s experienced since he got back here.
Q: You have been away from the country for a while and being back now, sometimes it must feel like you are relearning how to live in the country. What are the more interesting aspects you’ve had to readjust to?
Ope: I can’t speak for everywhere, but in Lagos, I can say the first thing that had me surprised was the heat. It immediately felt like it was a whole lot much hotter than before. I don’t know if it feels this way because I just got back after being there for a while, but I definitely had to adjust to that. Another aspect I had to understand is how Nigerians keep time. There’s a true story about me missing the bus to school on the day after I got to the UK. I was told by my aunt that the bus will arrive by 7:05 AM and me being the typical Nigerian, left the house at 7:05 not knowing that the distance to walk to the bus stop will take about 15 minutes. I got there 7:20, missed the bus and had to wait a further 45 mins for another one. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by their timeliness and now I have to get used to people telling me they are “almost there” when giving a time frame.
There’s a degree of truth to the almost mythologized belief that Nigerians aren’t time conscious, but a factor for that might genuinely be – in the case of Lagos – due to the notorious traffic congestion the city’s infamous for. Lagos, Nigeria’s popular former capital, is its most populous state; which makes the astronomical high amount of internal revenue it generates on its own (the state governor puts Total Revenue Generated for 2017 at ₦503.7bn) not so surprising. Lagos is expected to gain from policy reforms focused on improving the support for private firms and has been touted to become the 2nd largest African city by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) according to an Oxford Economics report. By 2050, experts foresee that the country’s population is set to rocket to 397 million. While the population boom will impact the whole country, nowhere will it be more profound than in Lagos, putting it on the level of the world’s megacities but with less infrastructure than any other large cities of the world.
Naturally, this increases pressure on the city’s job sector and accounts for the notoriously difficult to navigate setup of the Lagos labour market. Talking about getting situated and finding one’s feet in such a landscape, Ope reveals that in his own case, he had gotten the job at Softcom before he travelled, and was still fortunate enough to be absorbed back into the fold on his return.
“It has allowed me to continue my work with a sense of continuity and purpose that I probably wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. The process of having the most qualified candidates get the jobs they deserve still needs a bit of fine-tuning, but I’m glad I get to work in the ICT industry because yes I love tech, but I’ve always primarily wondered how technology can help provide solutions to some long-standing problems.”
In 2016, Nigeria recorded an all-time high contribution of 12.6% by ICT to its Gross Domestic Product and just last year, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) announced that the quarterly contribution of ICT to the GDP has increased to ₦1.6trn from ₦1.4trn. This recent rise in the importance of ICT as a major contributor to the success of Nigeria’s economic diversification plan has birthed companies like Softcom.
Softcom tag themselves as “a thinking company” and their solutions portfolio includes specialization in “creating and directing the implementation of strategic roadmaps that place organizations at the cusp of technology”. Ope agrees that Nigeria’s Information and Communication Technology industry can be a major factor in finally transitioning Nigeria’s economy from being less reliant on oil, but understanding exactly how might still be vague to a lot. I ask him about how his work at Softcom is helping to improve ICT’s position as a major tool for socio-economic development.
Q: What are some of the more challenging but ultimately rewarding projects you’ve had an opportunity to take part in as a member of the staff at Softcom?
Ope: I think they are 2 different things: challenging and impactful. A project might be challenging without being necessarily impactful, but I’m more interested in the latter. One of such projects was the MTN Trade Visibility Project. Basically, it was about the client needing an analysis on exactly which locations to prioritize their distribution of merchandise materials like chairs and banners among their retailers. The problem was that they weren’t getting any data needed for that. What we did at Softcom was to come up with a Trade Visibility analysis which entailed going around the country to gather information on MTN’s visibility against its competitors in certain areas. What this does is allow the client to optimally allocate resources to places where their presence is low as compared to competitors. The outcome of this project has driven down their expense by about 70%, which is objectively a whole lot. In this case, the project was challenging and very impactful at the same time.
The move of the world towards becoming a technology-driven society means the future of Information and Communications Technology is very promising in Nigeria. The ease of the networking process that involves brands and individuals is being constantly reimagined almost daily especially in the age of social media. A lot more people are also being made more aware of the changes good technology solutions can bring to present-day challenges in agriculture, health, education, banking and finance, and other areas.
In Nigeria, this sense of a technology revolution and the progressive pace at which it’s currently growing makes the decision for people like Ope to return from the overseas and try to carve their way, not so far-fetched. On his work at Softcom aligning with the motivation behind his return to the country, he talks about how the ICT industry was the most obvious fit for the application of the knowledge he gained abroad.
“I studied Control & Systems Engineering for my Masters Program and while we could talk about the Oil & Gas industry, I had already been exposed in the tech industry prior to leaving, so it felt like a natural decision to come back and continue. Softcom’s different departments mean that the members of staff have ideas of how what they do aligns with their own individual goals. I currently work in a department called Client Services where I work as a Solutions Architect. Some of the things I do involves IT Solutions Designing, Business Development, and Brand Management. However, I specifically chose to come back to this role because I feel like while building the tech is the easy part, building the business around the tech is tricky.”
“The concept of Business Development has always interested me so this is my way of exploring the processes behind developing and implementing growth opportunities within and between organizations.”
The idea behind Nigerians in the Diaspora, now established as a euphemism for Nigerians living outside the country, particularly in Europe and America, is fascinating. Nevertheless, lanes should be opened for youths skilled or educated in the West to return and contribute towards the process of achieving real growth in the country. The drive and resourcefulness of people like Ope in different sectors of the country is important as Nigeria moves towards becoming a globally competitive nation. Questions surrounding how experience gained by these Nigerians can be harnessed for the direct benefit of the country needs to be asked, alongside awareness campaigns spreading word of the opportunities that are beginning to spring up in the country.
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