Coefficients and Startup Ecosystems

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For all the welcome gung-ho in the African startup community, there seems to be a blindspot to perhaps the lowest ramp to global stardom which is to ideate and build something really useful that piggybacks on an existing solution by solving a tough (and often irritating) problem. An example: think of the 1bn+ users of Microsoft Office – what if your startup solved (pun intended) a simple problem with the way Microsoft Excel works – what do you think would happen?

In the days before continuous updates, enterprise consumers in particular used to shade Microsoft by saying “wait for version 3 before buying” not only because the software was buggy but also because its features were never really complete or finetuned in the RTM version. One approach to solving that problem was to harvest the work of ISVs (independent software vendors), the partners who developed solutions that extended the capabilities of Microsoft software. The other not-so-well known approach is housed in a building on Microsoft’s campus in which a class of independent Microsoft partners work on IP that ends up in one of its 3,000+ products. We mostly get to use these solutions as features in a product that we just can’t do without. Why would a true innovative startup take this road less travelled and less heralded?

Well, a compelling reason is that these ISVs get to revenue (usually quite a lot of it and consistently too) much faster than the burn rate of the bootstrapped startups we love to love. They aren’t burdened with the need to validate a primary market of significant demand because it already exists in the symbiotic host product.

Another reason for taking this route is the unparalled access to the embedded intelligence, quality, robustness and unparalled access of the host product. Building a product that is not only good enough to co-exist with a world-class, market-validated solution is tough but rewarding. In trying to do this, a startup becomes as its host.

Microsoft and other global OEMs offer huge support to ISVs often reaching out to encourage, support and work with the independents to grow the value propositions in their solutions. Sometimes, it is a bit like riding a tiger – it will eventually have you for lunch – but there are many successful startups that have developed a way to have their own lunch. Unicorns like WhatsApp emerged from the bellies of other organisations, literally incubated while providing symbiotic value to their host.

Away from the biological metaphors and back to the maths. A coefficient is so named because it is efficient, and that is exactly what Africa is missing in its startup ecosystem. In adopting the pulp fiction version of How Silicon Valley Came to Be, we do ourselves no favours. Not only is the historical context vastly different especially with regard to the timing, but also with regard to the availability of resources and opportunity. An ecosystem that emerged at the onset of the Information Economy is not a model to follow nearly 6 decades into an accelerating dimension.

African tech needs to find its coefficients if its aspirations are to equal its promise. Finding those (usually hidden out in the open) is the equation we must solve.

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A Right to Live

There are only two reasons credible enough to willfully end, or desire to end a life: when compassion calls forth mercy and when breaches can no longer hold back evil. Neither applies to President Buhari. Should the President lose the fight  and succumb as we all will someday to death, he should not be ushered by our voices and worse still, our prayers.

A man whose public record admittedly includes the questionable exercise of the power over the right to life for others, lives today in service of a country and a cause that he believes in and has literally given his life to. While we have our opinions as to his inner motives and his outward performance, he is neither deserving of a compassionate euthanasia nor guilty of such an evil intent as to cause us to seek his end. That this undercurrent should have a place in our discourse is reason to question our reason.

I am reminded of the dangers of a mind liberated from its soul; how far it can travel on its own untethered to the values that ordinarily constrain and channel its unfathomable capacity to build or destroy, create or extinguish, coalesce or disintegrate….

If we cannot, in conscience, find just cause for ourselves to will an end to another’s life – mercy or an evil of such irreversible malevolence that cannot be chained – then it is us that have crossed the River Styx, becoming the very evil which we would cloak our perceived enemy with. Not only would we have transfigured into the very same form against which we protest we would ourselves have become irredeemable and requiring of a final solution.

Arising from the accumulated ill-will surrounding his “ascension” (his own words from the Inaugural Speech), we have marched relentlessly down a road to an increasingly polarised society disposed more toward violence as a resolution mechanism than discourse.  Rather than seek an advised posture of reconciliation, the President chose to go to war with the people of Nigeria by establishing a narrow and puritanical boundary between “us” – those few conforming with his worldview and opinions, and “them” – everyone else, including even those he did not know. By so doing,  he set in play the forces of an ethnic irredentism as well as those of an economic recidivism deeply rooted in a system of patronage that orders all aspects of life as a Nigerian. As with any malignant cancer, the severe trauma induced by the aggressive and partisan approach has only accelerated the metastasis leading to the situation we face today.

Still, what was his desire, what lies at the heart of all that President Buhari has done thus far? I have no doubt personally of a long-held, deep-seated desire to leave this country a better place than he perceives it to be. I have no doubt of his confidence in the people of Nigeria to rise to their promise. I have no doubt as to his commitment to the rights of the poor and the powerless to a better life and opportunity. I have no doubt of his overwhelming distrust of wealth and the successful in Nigeria. I have no doubt of his default to an ascetic, reductionist approach to market-oriented economics and the capitalists that drive it. Which is why I was certain that Nigeria would only embrace him for a while then enter a turbulent and mutually destructive seperation.

Hence I was not surprised to have heard many voices, loud and whispered alike, who long before his ascension had looked to his early exit, a blissfully unaware sacrifice in the cause of a people he sought to lead into his vision of our Tomorrow. Like vultures, they have waited for a time like this but what reason do the rest have for denying him a right to life? Surely, our desire to see a change in leadership or the direction of leadership cannot equate to a desire for a blood sacrifice however egregious his faults may be?

We return to  the beginning: there are only two reasons credible enough to willfully end, or desire to end a life: when compassion calls forth mercy and when breaches can no longer hold back evil. Neither applies to President Buhari. Should the President lose the fight  and succumb as we all will someday to death, he should not be ushered by our voices and worse still, our prayers.

If we cannot, in conscience, find just cause for ourselves to will an end to another’s life – mercy or an evil of such irreversible malevolence that cannot be chained – then it is us that have crossed the River Styx, becoming the very evil which we would cloak our perceived enemy with. Let our turn our thoughts and prayers to the sanctity of a human life and restore ourselves and our land to a sanity that heals not destroys. Pray for Muhammadu Buhari today and everyday that we ourselves may also receive the healing balm so desperately needed in this land of ours.

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Get Lost

I was speaking to an audience searching for answers to how to be successful but at the back of my mind, I had parked my own self-doubts, questions that I had asked myself in preparing my presentation the night before: was I really a successful person? Why did they choose me to give this talk? Surely there were people who had much more to show in their careers? Maybe they would be sitting in the audience even, smiling at the ‘nonsense’ I was presenting? If I knew how to be successful, had I practiced it first on myself and what did I have to show for it? Would anyone really learn anything from my journey?

If I was to be true to these people, I had first to be true to myself but rather than question myself, I set out to explore my personal journey in an open, honest and uncritical way. Uncritical in the sense that I wasn’t looking to find faults, things that were wrong (we all have plenty) that I should have or could still make right (we are all hooked on getting the formula for life).  No, I was looking to find turning points – places where the course of my life changed Direction; tipping points – moments when the sum of my specific experiences made a change in my Approach to something; meeting points – encounters with people and relationships that profoundly affected my Views on the various paths and outcomes ahead of me; marker points – events, insights and circumstances that influenced Decisions I made along the way; and anchor points –  convictions that made sense or not, of my actions allowing my compass of Values work to show me my True North.

These then are the markers that together made up my own story of personal success: my Decisions made about my Approach based on my Views that guided my Direction and measured outcomes by my Values.
My talk probably helped me more than it did those who were in the audience. I realised that I had gotten lost on my  journey and that more than just being ok to do so, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Getting lost is the first step to finding your way. When you’re lost, you are forced to question all your assumptions and validate them against the compass of your Values. The values help you retrace your steps to find your Markers, and lead to the realisation about what and where your Views might have shifted to change your Approach and your Direction.

I found that the roadmaps that we set out as plans sometimes constrain us because they force us blinkered into tracks we then race down, so often missing the turning points that could lead us to where we need to be. That by leaving oneself open to getting lost, we not only get to see a larger world of possibilities but also get to challenge the assumptions (blinkers) that constrain us. That being lost is not a stigma if you understand where you are, understand that you might be lost but still have your compass pointing to your True North so in a sense one is always lost, always found. That no-one knows better than yourself how successful you have been if you lay down the markers yourself – openly, transparently, and consistently based on your Values. That success is not an event, not even a place but simply a state of being that can be a buoy in a turbulent sea for you and those around you.

Often times it is our self-doubts arising from wondering if the other buoy  bobbing in the waves distant is doing better that makes us let go of ours. And swim. It is only then that we are truly lost.

On Chasing the Wind

NASA_QQAxN.jpgI wrote an article once on Chasing the Wind…I had more head on my head then and thought I could catch it. I didn’t, haven’t yet but it’s the chase that has brought me to this place where I can see – and it’s amazing what’s out there for the brave.
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s never been a more effulgent time in post-Renaissance history; ideas as numerous as the stars in the sky are born and dying in milliseconds, chestnuts growing to mighty oaks magically on days, Leviathans of a like never seen bestride the land, while brave elfin companies routinely deliver Goliaths, knowledge reaches across 1.7bn miles in space to touch the face of a planet;….

 

Meandering Thoughts on The Road to Yesterday

There will be no shortage of professional commentary on the new film by Genevieve Nnaji and Chinny Onwugbenu’s Ten Productions so this is not one of them. Instead my thoughts wander in the very intentional metaphorical paths that the film compels one to explore; like wisps of smoke carrying hints of skewers of marinated meat cuts on a grill somewhere out in the softly lit garden ahead. There’s music in the background, voices and laughter sprinkled intermittently like riffs between the chords, they tempt but do not distract. And there are the gusts of emotion that lift hemlines suggestively and blow errant hair to tease the bare-skinned faces, ears and necks, they taunt but do not occupy the evening.

It could so easily have been a story told in simpler allegory but it is in answering the last question in the last paragraph below that the Road to Yesterday reaches an eloquence which speaks louder to the throbbing heart, than to the sterile sense of mind. The film plays teasingly with the latter but moves solemnly to the beat of the former. I find it fitting that in the end both meet in the triumph of a stillness. That would be a very appropriate state for the critics who expected “more” but got “less” of their pre-determined fare. I enjoyed the film and have watched it twice and the perspectives I share below will tell you why

Why do we love? The question assumes we know what love really is and can recognise its outlines; even when blinded by our insecurities we can run our hands over its face, trace out its features and colour in the picture with our imagination and hopefully never have to open our eyes to see the caricature we often create and vaunt as masterpieces.

The answer is we love as a compulsion to complete our self. Like a proboscis enables a butterfly to extract sweet nectar from the flowers it feeds upon, regardless of the shape of the blossom, our hearts roam the earth restless and seeking mates that continue to elude us and our biased vision of a perfect blossom. However, when not being used, a butterfly’s proboscis is rolled up out of the way even as it flits from flower to flower – pretty much unlike humans as the story unfolds….

Do we love or live love? Apparently we can do both, move seamlessly, cynically and remorselessly between the reality of the emotion and the mechanics of its expression; all the while free of the constraints of conscience. Until some spoiler decides to take it serious and hold us accountable. Then the s**t hits the fan, the masquerade must dance in daylight and we can see the splayed toes of its feet moving deftly beneath the raffia skirt to sway the torso above.

Does love include an open ticket, second and third chances? Maybe even fourth? The rules are different for everyone, are negotiable and have no expiry dates. For everything there is a time and a season indeed but the hands of the clock that ticks for love do not tell its complete story. In the name of love, under its banner and in its shadow we find and excuse licentiousness, mischief, betrayal, and yes, murder. Love is the ultimate scapegoat, the “why” he did it, the “what” she needed. Love is also a gate pass, a tag that changes our expectations of behaviour, outcomes and consequences.

Can love endure all things? The answer is probably yes but we cannot know this answer unless we first venture out to discover love. Again, the analogy beckons – we are like salmon swimming furiously against the surging stream intent on getting to its end and dying. Therein lies the mystery that has enthralled man from the beginning of time and will into eternity: there is this void within us all that the journey through joy, sadness, pain, bitterness and all the turmoil and tempest of our emotions somehow only captures and holds momentarily. It is that futile moment that we live for – to love and live again, in the knowledge that we must live and love yet again, and again, and again if love itself must live.

 

Of Rain, Incantations and Clouds: Why Transforming Education is Our Key Imperative

All over Nigeria, the Education Sector is like a shattered clay pot of water – no-one seems to be able to get the water back to drink or cook or wash away our shame. The many shards of different sizes and shapes strewn across the floor beg the question: which do you pick first if you want to piece it back together? Bewildered, we have tried (and continue to try) at many levels and using various methods to fix pieces of the broken puzzle together – it should surprise no-one that the puddle of water is still on the floor and spreading.

Thirty  years ago , I sat in a staff room of a Secondary School, Solving a Simple Puzzle 1 Solving a Simple Puzzle 1 dazed by the pupils’ scripts that  I held in my hands. Earlier on, I had given a final lesson and test in Social Studies to JSS2 class using a lesson plan I had developed from the JSS1 curriculum – the students had passed with an average of 70% in the preceding year but I quickly found out on my first day in class that those results were fraudulent. The results in my first test had averaged less than 30% but after a full term of interactive teaching including nature walks, class debates and localisation, I was hopeful that my class would push back the fog blocking these children’s view of a future empowered by scientific enquiring and a healthy curiosity about a world in which so much seemed to “just happen” mysteriously.  The two scripts in my hands stood out because the first was filled to the very end of the folio with totally unintelligible writing – not poor, simply unintelligible scribbles without a single English word. The second was much better but caught my attention because of the diagram the pupil had drawn to answer the question: illustrate with a diagram the 3 levels of the Earth’s atmosphere. As I followed the beautiful arcs that disarmingly created 6 levels from the interstices, my heart lurched and tears welled up immediately. I sat in the staff room staring through the tears at the labels – earth, sky and heaven. Innocence is indeed disarming, but this expression would in itself provide the framework for a mind that would interpret science as witchcraft; and act in the same context throughout his/her adult life. A beautiful mind, capable of producing a cure for cancer, sickle cell disease, or pioneer bio-mass fuelled transportation and hydroponics that could end hunger in a lifetime would now turn its creative energies to incantations and incarnations, invoked over chalk marks, beads, chicken feathers, and ….spattered blood, as smoke curled from the smouldering fires passing from Earth through Sky to Heaven.

As the Staff Room filled up, I wiped my eyes without shame and approached my Subject Head and the finally the Principal both of whom encouraged me to award the entire class extra points to boost the results over 55%, even after an oral examination in English and Igbo showed clearly that the results reflected the truth of the children’s understanding of the fundamentals of Social Studies. I disobeyed the instruction, took my tears home that day and buried my naivety about our people, our country and its dance with Mediocrity that we have nurtured through these past 5 decades. The school would subsequently report me to the NYSC Secretariat for failing pupils who I had failed to teach. I was charged with delinquency, refusal to live in the school premises (I lived in nearby Nsukka and had a personal car) and refusal to teach the JSS2 curriculum (to children who could not pass the JSS 1 tests). Cabals are not new to Nigeria – when it became clear to the cabal that had locked up the future of those children that I would not back down, they chose to listen to the counsel of an NYSC employee  who threatened to nominate me for an award and expose the rot if the cabal persisted in persecuting me – they passed me out of NYSC and let the cloak of a choking red dust settle around the perverted system that ensured school teachers, principals and administrators were promoted using deliberately forged results from a system designed to perpetuate the failure and dysfunctional education of the children that have become our Today.

I retain till this today contrite, an abiding guilt around an even greater failure on my part to rescue those children from the future of poverty, dis-empowerment and mediocrity that our system was preparing them for. I still feel the weight of their eyes on me in front of the classroom, openly accepting my leadership with vulnerability with innocence and a desire to become that I would help them fulfil…and they are millions.

I often wonder what has happened to those beautiful kids crippled at such an early age by a country’s abject negligence. 30 years have passed and where are they now? How are they coping with a world for which they are handicapped ab initio in dealing with? I do not mean to offend but merely to speak with truthfulness of the things we would much rather hide away in our national closet. Our task is to salvage our youth and so our future. To do so, we must defuse the idiot bomb by a massive revolution in education. Social forces, though created by Society, have emancipated themselves from Society’s direction and are following their own inherent laws. In its helplessness with respect to its own creation, Society has become like the sorcerer’s apprentice who, looking with horror at the forces he has released but is unable to master, cries despairingly, ‘The spirits that I summoned, I cannot now dismiss!’ And yet there is hope and we must seize it with both hands. What then do we do? How do we begin to realise the outlines of a workable plan? How do we determine the parameters for evaluating the potential outcome of a plan or plans?

We have, like Archimedes, first to make a fundamental change in our perceptual maps to find a place to stand, and then take hold of the modern lever of technology to move our world. A few key considerations stand out clearly (bit by no means the only ones in the forest) and most arguably albeit form the elements of the solution.

  1. Population and Demographics: at 168m and counting, Nigeria is on course by United Nations estimates to be the 7th most populous nation on earth in 40 years only (250m). The current generation in our schools today will be the inheritors of the “Nigeria Problem” if nothing is done to correct the basis of our being useful citizens of Planet Earth
  2. Too Big to Fail; with an estimated 23% of Africa’s population of 800m, Nigeria is too big to fail yet by the most important parameter for success in the Information Age/Knowledge Economy of  the 21st century, human capital assets, we have apparently failed already. The critical human infrastructure needed for growing an economy does not exist, and each passing day counts
  3. People are living longer, working longer: with an estimated 60% of our population under the age of 30, the capacity of the national economy to sustain the burden of a mass of unemployed (and unfortunately, largely unemployable youth) is a crisis already come true
  4. John Dunne’s Theorem is real: there is general agreement that innovation and wealth creation are attitudes as well as activities of which sufficient quantum drives the energies of all economies in a free market system. By extension, the best bet of any nation is to empower the greatest number with access to these life-enhancing activities on the basis of the understanding that no-one really knows whose potential unleashed will lead the transformation of a country.
  5. Reach and access can be universal: but we must first decide to pursue this goal in alignment with the previous statement, and we have not. By very simplistic reasoning, if we have 50 students per classroom and 40m needing to be in class each day, we need to build 800,000 classrooms, equip them and train an equivalent number of teachers with diverse skills sets appropriate to the needs of the learners. There are hard choices to be made we have been in political denial rather than constructive engagement for the last 30 years (at least until the current administration which has declared a national emergency in the sector).
  6. Learning has always been a path not a destination: an apparent fixation with what has always been is underpinning the current initiatives and failure beckons across the land if not in the structural soundness of the programmes, than in the most important value, the learning outcomes that we see. Much of existing policy, and in fact policy-makers, have a limited view of what should constitute a 21st century education eco-system. And we are desperately in search of a vision but drowning beneath clichés and sloganeering
  7. IT is indeed the silver bullet (or at least one in the gun): yet IT has fallen into the abyss of clichés and sloganeering with ill-conceived programmes, initiatives and procurements, parachuting computers into schools and bidding the students to learn, learn, and learn! Yet in almost 6 years of investments estimated at over N70bn across all tiers of government, we have yet to find a single case-study proving best practice.

The potential of IT to balance this lies in four areas:

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  • Qualitative teaching can be captured in e-learning formats that ensure relatively even service levels across the state irrespective of rural-urban classification
  • The physical barriers of availability of classrooms and learning tools/materials is mitigated by the many-to-one models of collaborative learning
  • Costs of service delivery are disrupted by IT based on the above factors which leverage common infrastructure to serve a larger number
  • Enhanced learning is made possible by the use of IT to monitor, support and track both teachers and learners in near real-time

We must envision a tomorrow for our children and seeing the outlines of an educational system that powers the possibilities in that future, move with the “fierce urgency of now” to bring it to pass.

Knowing Right from Wrong

For many who hear the word “Nigeria” spoken outside the country, it invokes images drawn from a narrative crafted by the infamous scam letters originated from every country in the world but postmarked indelibly it seems by my country.

With over 10m of its almost 190m people living and leading in the US, European, Asian , African and Oceania Diaspora, its not Nigeria’s sons and daughters in the NFL, NBA, Hollywood, European parliaments, UEFA football clubs, NASA, music, arts, medicine, research, academia that make the brand, Nigeria. Not even the unexpected and resounding triumph over the potential plague of the Ebola virus, the eradication of polio or its emergence as Africa’s biggest economy (thumping South Africa by over $200bn) has added context to Brand Nigeria. Evil is not only insidious, it is persistent and much-loved by an insatiable public whose fascination with its darkness is best understood by the media that casts its own dark light into its depths.

Of late, the brand, Nigeria, has also acquired another evil association – Boko Haram and the missing school girls of Chibok. In the first few days of the abduction of the #ChibokGirls, I would sit staring into space trying to discern the logic behind it because we have been brought up to believe that every action of man is directed. Our entire life is resolved into the pursuit of the Purpose for which we are born. And because we map out this journey with every act we take, we are tutored in making the most of the talents we are born with. In this way, we can recognise each other, fellow travellers on the way, by the “schools” they went to.

Or so I thought until the deranged drivel spewing from the mouth of the so-called leader of the unspeakably evil ones came hurtling at me from the TV. Nothing in what I heard helped my understanding of how advancing their cause translated to slaughtering 12yr olds like goats. Or tearing teenage girls away from their families for a life in slavery. What “schools” did these fiends go to and how did they get to be so many while we watched?

We left our nation and its schools to the fiends it seems. While we went in mad pursuit of the material, they occupied the spiritual and from there, they have begun to execute a vision created in the crucible of a deep-seated hatred and vengefulness. Or was it the other way around? Did we not create a society from an economic system that excluded and continuously intentionally blocked access to wealth and self-actualisation? Did we not conveniently ignore what we knew was wrong, and deny ourselves the burden of the obligation to do what we knew was right?

For all its promise inherent in the indisputable intelligence, energy, enterprise and aspirational human energy of its people, the brand Nigeria will be defined more by its acts of omission than by those of commission. It seems to matter more in the final analysis, to know right and not do wrong than to know wrong and do right since doing wrong actively creates the context for social disintegration while doing right often is inadequate to the perceived needs.