Nigeria’s first multi-stakeholder policy hackathons held in Lagos and Abuja
In bottom-up policy brainstorming sessions held in Nigeria’s economic and political capitals, Nigerian innovators identified education reform, broadband infrastructure, investor incentives and more as critical opportunities for the Government to accelerate startups, job creation and innovation-led economic growth in Africa’s most populous nation.
What would happen if you could get entrepreneurs, students, and business support providers to step into the shoes of policy makers for one day? That was what the two policy hackathons, which were successfully completed in Lagos and Abuja on the 20th and 22nd of March 2018 set out to determine.
Nigeria’s Policy Hackathon was organized by i4Policy, Civic Innovation Lab and Impact Hub Lagos, with support from “Make-IT in Africa”, a project of the German Development Cooperation. The unique policy workshop format developed by i4policy requires participants to become “policy shapers” for a day, wear the hat of a policy maker with a mandate to create legislation that can break through barriers to innovative entrepreneurship. More than 100 people participated in the Policy Hackathons across the two cities and over 40 policy proposals emerged from the brainstorms. A whitepaper that distills the outcomes of both workshops and sets out actionable policy recommendations will be shared with the public and Nigerian policy makers who are invested in the process.
The word “hackathon” typically summons mental images of dozens of cups of stale coffee, empty energy drink cans strewn all over the room, thick vines of messy cables snaking across the floor and underfoot into a phalanx of laptops with lines of unintelligible characters (aptly known as “code”) on their screens being frantically typed in by casually-dressed and sleep-deprived nerds. However, a policy hackathon is not caffeine-fueled code slinging. Rather, it borrows from the hacker community’s proven collaborative problem-solving format that condenses the brain power of an intelligent and invested group of people in a compressed span of time (typically 24 hours or less) into a cannon of raw creative energy that is capable of obliterating a collective issue or triggering a cambrian explosion of inspired solutions, and repurposes it for use in the context of policy. In this case, the question of how to improve the regulatory environment for startups and innovation in Nigeria.
The Policy Hackathon concept itself was born out of an initiative that was launched with hubs across the African continent in 2016, called i4policy.org. i4policy works to advance bottom-up policy advice for innovation across the continent. The first i4policy hackathon happened at Impact Hub Kigali in 2017 and led to the local technology community being directly invited to draft sections of Rwanda’s national strategy for private sector development. In Ghana, the Kumasi Hive leadership worked with other hubs to establish the Ghana Tech and Business Hub Network, a national association of innovation hubs, that has lobbied robust incentives for startups and has opened up Government data for entrepreneurs.
The work of i4policy has already been recognized by regional, African policy-making bodies. Dr Hamadoun Touré, the Executive Director of the Smart Africa Secretariat and current Malian Presidential Candidate wrote last year to say that the work of i4policy “is critical, and will no doubt lead to increased innovation, improvements in entrepreneurial ecosystems, and expanded civic participation.” And, he invited i4policy to share recommendations with the Smart Africa Board. Since December last year, i4policy has been supporting the African Union Commission on Trade and Industry to convene the largest hub gathering so-far on the continent during the Transform Africa Summit in May to advance innovation-positive regulation and policies.
Hacking Nigerian ICT policy
The Nigerian policy hackathons began with a facilitated brainstorm about the constraints to ideating, starting, and growing innovative businesses in Nigeria. Next, the participants were asked to imagine that they had just been appointed by Nigeria’s president to be their senior special adviser on economic affairs. Their first assignment? “You have the lunch break to come up with one strong policy intervention to transform the entrepreneurial environment in Nigeria.”
In a room full of intelligent and engaged domain experts, many participants had little to no previous experience drafting policies. But, several of them proposed multiple solutions.
“The room was buzzing with ideas and enthusiasm all day, and we pretty much had to be stopped, or we could have kept going into the night,” said Sanusi Ismaila, the founder of CoLab, Kaduna State’s first innovation hub. “It’s always special when you have a bunch of smart people in the same room, trying to solve shared problems and the Policy Hackathon was a fine specimen of that phenomenon. Hackathons such as these are important, because not only do they get you to appreciate the amount of work that goes into making policies, but they also expose you to a wide breadth of perspective and insight that helps you appreciate the problems and possible solutions a lot more.”
As the policy recommendations were collected, broad themes emerged around tax relief, startup funding, broadband infrastructure, procurement, education, research and development, and more. With the assistance of the Hackathon’s facilitators, the most popular policy themes were then workshopped into legislative templates that painted the broad strokes for policy interventions such as executive orders, bills as well as other government or legislative interventions that could be implemented in short, medium and long-term timeframes.
“Government is becoming entrepreneurial”
Ordinarily, it would be difficult to put the words “government” and “entrepreneurial” in the same sentence. But one of the main objectives of i4policy is bridging the divide between the people that policies affect and the people that make policy. To that end, it was important to the organisers that public sector officials who have demonstrated an affinity for innovative approaches to governance and are committed to advancing startup and private sector innovation were brought into the room to ensure a robust and nuanced conversation.
In her address to the participants at the hackathon in Abuja, Dr. Amina Sambo-Magaji, the National Coordinator of the Office of ICT, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OIIE) under the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) said that the youth are the future of innovation, and Nigeria must invest in them. Dr. Sambo also took the opportunity to explain the policy making process to the hackathon participants, and emphasized that good policy must be consultative and take into consideration the interests of all concerned citizens.
“The OIIE has held stakeholder meetings and consultations, and is developing a policy framework that supports IT, innovation, and the Nigerian startup ecosystem. We support the Policy Hackathon organized by GIZ, i4policy, Impact Hub Lagos and Civic Innovation Lab,” she said.
Reacting to the concept of the Policy Hackathon, Senator Abdul-Aziz Nyako of Adamawa Central and the sponsor of the “Not Too Young To Run” bill in Nigeria’s Senate said entrepreneurship is Nigeria’s way out of unemployment. “The government cannot be the primary source of employment for millions of Nigerian youth. The main employer of labour should be the private sector. But you also have to create an enabling environment for the private sector to grow and thrive. And as such, we are very happy to work with GIZ, i4policy, Impact Hub Lagos, Civic Innovation Lab and all the participants in this interaction.”
At the Lagos leg of the hackathon which took place at Seedspace in Ikoyi, the honourable Commissioner for Environment, Babatunde Durosinmi-Etti congratulated the entrepreneurs, business service providers and observers present on the undertaking, and said that government itself is becoming entrepreneurial and increasingly exploring innovative approaches to delivering on its mandate to serve its citizens. The example of the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF) featured prominently in his description of how the Lagos State administration was committed to accelerating high growth startups with competitions, coworking vouchers, low-interest debt facilities and more. Mr. Durosinmi-Etti was just before his current assignment, the Honourable Commissioner Wealth Creation & Employment, which is the state department that oversees the LSETF.
“We live in exciting times where, with technology, opportunities are seemingly limitless and tantalizingly possible”, says Solape Hammond, the co-founder of Impact Hub Lagos and one of the lead facilitators of the events. “The only factor that could potentially hold us back is policy. This is why I’m excited about this Policy Hackathon, the first of its kind bringing key actors to the table to chart a way forward. As technology and entrepreneurship gain momentum in Nigeria, it is imperative for all stakeholders—techpreneurs, policymakers, financiers and civil society—to have a say in how this next global revolution will affect us.”
A post-hackathon survey of the participants indicated an overall optimism that the policy recommendations emerging from the sessions would eventually be adopted and legislated. According to one participant of the Abuja session, “the fact that it is a bottom-up approach to policy development gives this hackathon credibility and increases the likelihood of implementation.”
“I’m very excited to see the results of this implemented”, said Obinna Okwodu, the founder and CEO of Fibre.ng, a startup that offers flexible living options to Lagosians in a city where landlords typically demand two years of rent upfront, in spite of state regulation to the contrary. “I really liked the granularity this had, and the way we focused on the entrepreneur’s journey—from ideation to massive success—and mapped out the problems that we face along the way, and the policies that can be put in place to make the road smoother and increase the likelihood that we actually achieve success. This was one of the best policy sessions I’ve attended.”
One of the main takeaways from the turnout at the hackathons was a willingness to engage. Chiemelie Umenyiora, Make-IT in Africa’s Regional Coordinator for West Africa said, “civic engagement is the most important part of the political process and many young Nigerians feel removed from that process. The Policy Hackathon was an opportunity for entrepreneurs and innovators to discuss the most persistent constraints that they face in an environment that was supportive and encouraging. The solutions that they presented demonstrated their need to see policies that represented the common interests of all Nigerians.”
“The Policy Hackathon should not be a one-off activity,” said Mimshach Obioha, Director of Programs at Ventures Platform, a startup accelerator in Abuja. “I believe that if this activity is sustained, and the recommendations tracked, change will happen very soon”.
Obioha’s group, prolific with a total of four policy recommendations, suggested among other things that a pragmatic regulatory approach be enacted to lower right-of-way fees that have inflated the cost of deploying broadband internet across Nigeria. Obioha also said that he was impressed by Dr. Sambo’s speech and the OIIE’s openness to collaboration, new ideas and their genuine interest in supporting innovators.
Jon Stever, co-founder of Impact Hub Kigali, who developed i4policy’s hackathon methodology and led these events, emphasized to participants that “the outcomes of this hackathon will be shared publicly. i4policy will package this work to present directly to senior policy makers and will support ongoing policy development in the Nigerian Government, such as the excellent work being done in NITDA and the OIIE.”
Adaeze Sokan, the Director of the Civic Innovation Lab in Abuja senses that something revolutionary is about to happen: “At a time where Nigeria’s youth are embracing the task of solving Nigeria’s complex development problems, the Policy Hackathon provided an opportunity for the key players in the ecosystem to shape the type of policy that suits us, and will work in our context. I loved the inclusive, informal and creative way we all worked together to come up with real policies for our ecosystem. This time, it wasn’t just all talk.”
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