The Lagos State government is partnering with private sector organisations to transform the state into a leading innovation and technology hub in West Africa. The target is to produce world-changing entrepreneurs. One of the partners in this project is Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), a not-for-profit organisation, which invests in and trains African entrepreneurs. DANIEL ESSIET reports.
In the past five years, Lagos has become one of the leading technology hubs in Africa. With a four-year Economic Development Strategy aimed at creating 100,000 new jobs, the government is working to make the state the investors’ destination and exciting headquarters for technology startups.
At the inception of his administration, Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode pledged to make Lagos the most business-friendly state to step up the economic growth. Ambode hit the ground running with the creation of Ministry of Wealth Creation and Employment.
The Lagos Startup Week held at the weekend provided an opportunity to bring the growing entrepreneurial community in the state together under one banner and show people across the globe why Lagos is such a great place to start and grow a business. It was the third consecutive year that Lagos hosted the event.
This has generated a new, positive narrative about Lagos’ entrepreneurial eco system internationally. It is also drawing international business incubators into the state to establish their bases and support young entrepreneurs. One of them is Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), a not-for-profit organisation that invests in and trains African Entrepreneurs, with the aim to create next tech entrepreneurs and provide jobs for the continent.
MEST provides funding, space and expertise. It powers a cluster of innovation networks for startups in Lagos.
Headquartered in Accra, Ghana, MEST has invested $20 million since opening its doors in 2008 to aspiring African entrepreneurs and has gone on to recruit talents from not only Ghana, but Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Cote D’ivoire.
It has a footprint in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. MEST has helped numerous entrepreneurs and start-ups to establish companies and start developing products that have gained national and international attention.
At its event at the weekend in Lagos, which was part of Lagos Startup Week, its Managing Director, Aaron Fu observed that as entrepreneurship is growing in Nigeria, the push for greater technological growth has also enticed multinational businesses, investors and institutions to establish a foothold in Lagos.
He noted that the internet has become a catalyst for the growing movement of technology start-ups. This is helped by mobile innovation and the large part of the population using devices that allow users to access the Internet.
According to him, Nigeria cannot afford to lag behind because technology is driving growth across key industries, including advanced manufacturing, energy, ICT, financial and business services, and healthcare and life sciences.
Fu said it was important to empower younger generations to grow the economy into an international tech ecosystem if Nigeria was going to lead the new wave of technological transformation.
According to him, the tide of optimism triggered by the internet revolution has to translate into a tidal wave of talented and tech-savvy programmers, determined to put Nigeria and other key parts of Africa on the map as a technology hub.
MEST, according to him, is a pan-African technology and entrepreneurial training programme, seed fund and incubator, building world-class, globally successful tech companies.
He said the organisation received ‘Entrepreneurs in Training’ (EITs) from Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe.
The organisation, he added, gets thousands of applications yearly and the most promising candidates are hand-selected to form 60-person cohort brought to Accra for an intensive one-year training programme. Teams, he said, complete an intensive year-long programme, learning business, technology and communications, while forming teams, validating ideas and building companies. They pitch ideas three to four times throughout the year, and the final exam is to deliver an investment pitch.
Successful teams, according to him, receive capital to launch their businesses and enter the MEST incubator, where they will receive continued support and mentorship.
EITs, according to him, learn about software development and entrepreneurship from senior faculty.
The EITs also benefit from working with university graduates from around the world who serve as teaching fellows (TF).
Every year, the programme accepts the brightest and most driven entrepreneurs (with university degrees) from Ghana and Nigeria.
The MEST programme accepts trainees with diverse academic backgrounds including French, theater, computer science, engineering, business, and the social sciences.
He said the company takes pride in carefully selecting strategic partners who will help them better support its entrepreneurs in reaching their full potential.
The benefit of business incubators, according to him, is that they support start-ups and reduce their risk of failure, allowing bright ideas to flourish into a commercial reality that sustains high-value jobs.
To qualify, MEST General Manager Neku Atawodi-Edun said applicants must have a deep passion to start a software company, have three to five years entrepreneurial or corporate work experience and be able to commit to a year in Accra, Ghana participating in the MEST training programme.
Once enrolled, she said, EITs receive a full scholarship to an intensive programme that blends hands-on training in software development with business and communications education. During this period, she added that EITs are also challengedwith forming new business ideas based on the tech skills they’ve built, with the guidance of teaching fellows and staff.
Upon graduating from the MEST training programme, she said, EITs stand to receive funding from MEST ranging from $100,000 to $500,000to pursue their business.
Investment, according to her, hinges on EITs’ “final exam” (a business pitch to the board) and is based on specific key performance indicators (KPIs) as well as the commercial viability of the business idea.
Mrs Atawodi-Edun said the organisation was open to startups across the country, with a focus placed on mentoring and market access strategies.
She said MEST was recognised as an international leader in promoting entrepreneurial opportunities and economic development.
According to her, the organisation offers an unmatched opportunity for entrepreneurs by connecting them to capital, talent and mentorship.
What makes MEST unique, she explained, is the interaction of successful companies with the startup ecosystem to help entrepreneurs build companies that will transform their markets.
The robust level of participation from leading entrepreneurs in the programme, she added, ensures its success by providing a world-class incubation programme for high-potential start-ups.
Mrs Atawodi-Edun said the emergence of tech enterprise has created high demand for developers as a result of the rise of the software-driven enterprise.
She added that the emergence of coding as a highly valued skill is redefining business strategies and labour demands across the sector.
According to her, adoption of new technologies brings structural changes that increase the demand for certain skills that are not immediately available in the labour market, creating skills shortages even when unemployment is high.
She noted that the demand for coding specialists was increasing with international companies in the application development looking for people with such skills.
“The economic outlook is optimistic for tech startups in Nigeria, but human capital from this country still requires significant improvements. According to them, the main barrier for young Nigerians to start their own business is their lack of coding,” she said.
Former Pulse Nigeria Chief Executive Rich Tanksley said coding skills were highly required for all tech startups. If the incoming labour force lacks these skills, the ecosystem would suffer from labour shortages, making the country unsuitable for developing startups.
He added that sourcing the right talent for startups was a particular problem area.
He said : “They require candidates who are self-driven and are ready to take up new responsibilities every day and not just be a stickler for job descriptions.”
The founder, eWorker, a technology company that connects businesses with talented and vetted developers in Africa, Ike Okosa, said the challenge his organisation has is recruiting quality software developers in Nigeria. Finding qualified and experienced workers in programming, according to him, continues to be a challenge as growth outpaces the domestic supply of talent.
He said the company saw immense opportunities in the United States and Southeast Asian markets.
He explained that his organisation recruited developers on the basis of their coding abilities.
As a result of the accelerated pace of technological change, the demand for skilled digital talent has never been greater. As technology continues to become more embedded in the nation’s daily lives, former Managing Director, Asset Management Company of Nigeria (AMCON) Mustafa Chike-Obi said digital literacy became increasingly critical.
He called on entrepreneurship organisations to bolster the pipeline of skilled talent by providing partnership towards establishing a curriculum that creates job-market ready graduates, and a climate that fosters entrepreneurship.
Obi added that the need for organisations to promote tech, entrepreneurship for the concept to begin to be embedded in the minds of young people as incubation became a new buzzword.
According to him, universities need to be encouraged to train techy and to replicate the incubation model.
Obi stressed the need for startup incubators to partner universities to transform their traditional computer programmes to ones that prepare students to compete in a globalised, knowledge-based, and innovative economy.
One-time Lagos State Commissioner for Finance Wale Edun said organisations, such as MEST, would provide the foundation to kick-start a resurgence of tech innovation.