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‘How Google accelerator programme enables Nigeria’s tech startups’


Victor Asemota

Victor Asemota founded SwiftaCorp over 20 years ago, a pioneering African software and technology services group with subsidiaries and operations in over 14 African countries. He is also the Co-founder of MFISA, a unique African Mobile Financial Services Accelerator that has powered a number of payment platforms around Africa.

Asemota, who is The Guardian contributor, is a mentor for Google Accelerator programmes. He spoke with ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, in San Francisco, USA, at the just concluded Launchpad Accelerator programme, organised by search giant, Google. He shed lights on the imrtance of the initiative and how it is enabling start-ups in Nigeria, among others.


What is the drive behind Google Accelerator programme?

First of all, this is the fifth class, since we started in 2016. The goal is actually very simple, if you look at all the startups present here, they are major market startups and we realised that the place where growth will happen is in technology. It is a ready market.

People who are going to make this growth happen are technology startups. Google is looking for the next billion technology users.

For instance, India alone, records yearly 100 million new people getting on the Internet, Africa too has like 100 million people getting on the Internet as well, so that is where the real growth is going to happen.

For you to get to the next billion users, you need to know what is going on to be able to partner with the right people.

The right people are all the people in the programme. I won’t lie to you; I have met some of the most phenomenal startups in the world in the last four classes. The ideas they are championing are mind blowing

We, as mentors, have been educated by coming here, seeing what is possible. Other startups have seen that there is a whole lot more to see. It is actually one of the best programmes that Google has ever thought of. They also have apart from this, regional programmes. This is the global world; they have the local programmes too.

In Africa, we have done one in Nairobi, South Africa, and another one in November, in Lagos. In March, we are having something similar to this in Lagos. It is for African startups, not just Nigeria. We are taking Africa very serious.

For them to do that in Africa, it showed their commitment to Africa. They are committed to training 10 million Africans, and helping start ups leverage their platforms for growth.

So it is serious commitment to the continent, which means they know that technology is going to grow; there would be a lot more users coming from Nigeria and other African countries.

Between last year and now that Nigeria joined, what impact has it really brought?

First, it had made other people sit up too, remember, Facebook is also doing something similar now. It is actually giving us more feasibility internationally, it also changes the way startups look at the ecosystem and the opportunities there. This is not a short term effort, but a long term plan.

A particular startup, which was here last year got about $1million grant, which was equity free; the Startup never expected it.

The firm is doing well now because of Google grant, so that is actually one of the bigger successes. So many things have happened and much more would still come.

What does it take to be selected?

It is a very rigorous process; people at this stage are not in early stage, they are in the growth stage. You have to validate your market hypothesis to show that there is a market for your product.

Those are the guys selected; most likely, you get some funding, build a team, so the kind of issues startups here have are very different from the issues other startups will have at a very early stage. The selection process starts from the end of one class.

What does it take to be a mentor?

The mentorship programme is one of the strongest. You know Google also has the expert programme. One of the things they look at are people with main knowledge and experience, and also are willing to share some of the knowledge and experience, and also ready to use their time.

So it is really more of recognition, the ability to give back or willingness to give back, and they do their mentors workshop very carefully, most of the time, you are referred.

They don’t just pick people on the street as mentors; there are mentors from different parts of the world. I have colleagues from Pakistan, Indian, among others here, sharing possibilities.

Looking at the startup ecosystem in Nigeria, can big companies emerge from the tech space, looking at programmes like this?

Yes. Two years ago there was nothing, but look at them now, I mean a team that grew for almost zero to 50 people a year, and have done over $1billion in transaction within a year.

They may be young, but they are already a company. They were here in the last class that is why the programme is called accelerator. The purpose is to create big companies and very quickly.

In doing that, they provide the right advice and funding. It has already started happening in Nigeria, so there would be more like that as people now understand that we need to stop doing things the way we have been doing them, and become more innovative.

From the experience and interactions you have had before now with the tech ecosystem, what do you think are the challenges confronting tech startups?

The very first problem is that there is no data in the market. I was talking to one of the Nigerian start-ups, and we realised that getting that data is also a startup opportunity, but a lot of people just walk blind.

The thing is, Nigeria is also a very rewarding place, because people are afraid of walking blind, it also creates lot more opportunities for this. What really happened is that most startups have ended up becoming bigger companies. They are the ones who build data by trying to understand the market, and to gain insight.

You can have all the money in Nigeria and no data, because the data is what gives you understanding not just for the market, but knowing if what you are doing makes sense.

Do you know how many startups we have, we still have that problem. It is a market maturity problem that we have. If the market is a bit more mature, the opportunity to grow exponentially would come.

So right now, a lot people create their own data, it is like going to school all over again. It is learning to read, write, meanwhile someone would have taught you, you learn all over again, and that brings in mentorship. That is also what is missing. A lot of the older startups see the younger ones stressed and all that, they don’t get enough support as they ordinary would in other places than in Nigeria.

For an initiative like this brought up by Google, is there anything the government can do in this space?

Government should be the biggest player in this space. The government should try to understand what is going on. Like Lagos State for example, I spoke with the Commissioner for Information recently; I didn’t know that the e-contact is a function of where you live.

Most young people can’t live in Lagos but faraway, they are losing a lot of big contact. If you empower your young people and they are productive they make money. It is an investment for the future.

Government should invest in everything tech; Indian had invested long ago, especially in training institutes, which is why Indian is doing so well now. Like I said, it is not a short term thing, and it is only the government that have the capacity for such huge investment.

They shouldn’t be doing things directly, even if it is to be supporting Google and other initiatives, it will go a long way to increase the tax base and help the government as well.

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