Mark Zuckerberg’s two-day visit to Nigeria has done a lot for the country; it is a pity no government official or agency has tried to tap into the gains of that visit. He arrived at a time there was much talk about economic recession, concerns about companies folding up or retrenching staff, or international investors leaving the country in droves, out of frustration with the uncertainties in the system. Zuckerberg’s arrival raised our hopes: co-founder of Facebook and the 5th richest man in the world, sneaked into Nigeria to meet with developers and entrepreneurs and to discuss investments in Nigeria’s growing start-up ecosystem. And for two days, he went round the city of Lagos, visiting start-ups and interacting with young entrepreneurs.
The way Nigeria is often painted abroad, and in those travel advisories that foreign ministries issue, you would think Nigeria is such an unsafe place where kidnappers are permanently on the prowl. Zuckerberg helped to show the rest of the world that Nigeria is not so bad at all, and that something really exciting is happening here among the country’s young population.
He had no bodyguards. He did not have to hire a lorry load of Nigerian policemen to keep watch over him. He trekked on the streets of Lagos, surrounded by a few of his hosts. On Wednesday morning, he jogged across the Ikoyi-Lekki bridge. He ate pounded yam, shrimps, snails (I thought they said he is a vegan!) and jollof rice (Nigerian jollof (!) not that one from Ghana). His visit went smoothly. More investors may well be encouraged to visit Nigeria too, seeing how confidently a whole $53.7 billion walked freely about in Nigeria, and he was not stolen or kidnapped.
Zuckerberg’s visit also provided great publicity for Nigeria’s emerging Silicon Valley, and the young entrepreneurs to whom Zuckerberg paid compliments. He has already invested in a Nigerian start-up, Andela, and he has made friends with other young Nigerians, the guys behind Jobberman and C-Creation Hub (CcHUB) and so many others. Zuckerberg cut the picture throughout his visit of a true inspirational figure. His simplicity and humility was impressive. He kept going about in a T-shirt, and interacted freely with everyone he met.
Many young Nigerians can learn from his example: the way some people whose biggest possession is a laptop sometimes carry their shoulders in the sky, if they were to be half of what Zuckerberg is, they won’t just claim that they are voltrons or overlords, they will look for more intimidating labels. But Mark Zuckerberg, who is just 32, shows that it is not all about money, or influence, character matters. There is no doubt that his hosts were also impressed with him. And that probably explains the protest that greeted the attempt by CNN International and American artiste, Tyrese Gibson, to refer to the visit as Zuckerberg’s visit to sub-Saharan Africa. Young Nigerians kept shouting back that Zuckerberg is in Nigeria, not sub-Saharan Africa! They wanted the publicity for their country.
Inspired by Zuckerberg’s visit as the tech entrepreneurs in Nigeria’s Silicon Valley may have been, the Nigerian government should see in the visit, and the excitement that it has generated, the need to provide greater support for technological innovation in the country. There are many young Nigerians out there who are gifted, hardworking and innovative. They belong to the 21st Century. They are aggressive. They want to operate at the international level and become superstars. They have ideas. They are ready and willing.
The basic thing that government owes them is to provide an enabling environment for their talents to flower. It has taken a few young men and ladies to bring Mark Zuckerberg to Nigeria. There are other young Nigerians doing wonderful things in other sectors of the economy who can save this country if they are given the chance. There is also a large army of untapped and yet-to-be-discovered talents, whose future we cannot afford to waste. Investment in education will help. Uncommon sense will make things happen.
Zuckerberg’s visit also did a lot for Nollywood. He described Nollywood as “a national treasure”. That statement should be framed and sent to every major agency in the private and public sectors in Nigeria. He may not yet have invested in Nollywood, but there was no doubt that the members of Nollywood and other celebrities who met with him appreciated their being recognised by one of the most successful young men of the 21st century. I watch Nollywood movies, but I don’t think I have ever seen those Nollywood stars who met with Zuckerberg smile that heartily and broadly – not even in the movies. The ones who did not bare their 32, were staring at the Facebook ambassador in that typical Nigerian fashion: “ah, see money, Mark, abi make I send you script make you sponsor?”