BUSINESSDAY: “40 UNDER 40: Gbenga Sesan, CEO, Paradigm Initiative”

By Funke Osae-Brown for BusinessDay

Gbenga Sesan grew up in Akure. He saw a computer for the first time ever during his third year in secondary school, but he never had access to it until another three years. His inability to satisfy his curiosity about computers was a very big challenge to him. Instead of getting discouraged, he made up his mind that not only was he going to touch a computer, he would also teach others how to use it.

He recalls, “I was determined to prevent the kind of embarrassment I faced each time I tried getting closer to the ‘magic beast’. Instead of getting frustrated when I was told that computers were not for people like me, that I was too small to understand, I determined never to back down until the tool became a valid force for my personal progress.”
Three years after he was kept away from computers, Gbenga graduated from secondary school and thought it was a good time to get started on computer training. Though his parents initially felt it was too much money to spend on “something that will not earn you a bachelor’s degree and a good job”, his persistence would not keep him away from computer school.

“I enrolled and graduated with the best feeling any human being could have,” Gbenga recounts nostalgically. “I was connected to my dreams and I knew it.”

Eight years after that first encounter with a computer, he met James Sotomi who gave him the opportunity to do his fourth year industrial attachment in his company, Neural Technologies Limited. While there, Gbenga garnered enough experience to start him off in his career. By the year 2000, he had completed his first task of helping people use Information and Communication Technologies for development.

“I organised a training session on website design with a friend, Ogemdi, and about sixteen young people graduated from the training course with a glow similar to the one I had some five years before then. Maybe I’m impacting my generation,” he says proudly.

Now a member of the United Nations Committee on ICT/Youth and an Ashoka Fellow, Gbenga is a social entrepreneur who is quick to express his passionate belief in the potential that Information and Communication Technologies holds for developing economies. “Each time I consider what Nigeria and Africa keep losing as we clamour for wealth from mineral resources while ignoring the potential benefits of investing in the Information Society, I am inspired to take another step towards helping the situation in my own little way.”

Maybe that explains why the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) put it this way in 2003: “Nigeria…appointed a youth as an Information Technology ambassador…and while he has no personal computer himself, he holds the dream of helping over 4,000 young people learn new ICT skills within his two-year tenure.”

After working for 6 years, Gbenga resigned on February 13, 2007 to start Paradigm Initiative Nigeria as a vehicle of connecting young Nigerians with ICT opportunities. “Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN) is a social enterprise that connects underserved Nigerian youth with ICT opportunities, with specific concern about the ill effects of unemployment and cybercrime, among other vices that limit the potential contribution of young Nigerians to the nation’s economy. Having worked with government, civil society, private institutions and international organisations including the United Nations, PIN has set standards in ICT education, telecentre support, ICT applications in rural areas, and other ICT interventions in Nigeria.

PIN’s projects include Ajegunle.org; Internet Safety, Security and Privacy Initiative for Nigeria, and TENT (Techie. Entrepreneurial. Nigerian. Talented). PIN is not a traditional business in the sense of profit and loss; we are a social business that reinvests 100 percent of income into our projects.”

Gbenga explains that PIN services underserved youth primarily. “We also serve partners who provide us with technology-related tasks that generate income towards the sustainability of our projects. Our primary clients are young Nigerians who may otherwise not have the opportunity to improve their livelihoods. For example, Ajegunle.org is a model that we have designed to create better livelihoods – through ICT opportunities, entrepreneurship training and short-term internships – for young people in Nigeria’s underserved areas. Ego, like many other young people in Nigeria’s most popular slum, was not sure of what tomorrow held for her. Now she works at the Visa Section of the British Deputy High Commission in Lagos, thanks to her participation in the Ajegunle.org project.”

Another project participant grew her business of N2,000 by over 2,000 percent after the training.

The challenge of cybercrime in Nigeria is very close to Gbenga’s heart; hence he is creating awareness through a social campaign that involves sensitisation workshops in selected schools, annual one-day events and a rehabilitation project. The task of redirecting the energy/skills of these at-risk youth, he says, involves working with PIN partners, Microsoft and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), to retrain the youth on how to use their passion and skills to develop a legitimate career in technology.

Break-even for Gbenga means sustainability, and he is fortunate to have been able to achieve that. “But even with that, the task of growing our earned income – from consulting and other assignments – to 70 percent of our annual budget is tough in an environment where the cost of completing such tasks can shoot up with policy changes.

We had projects running through into 2012 that we had signed MoUs for, and no thanks to the January 12 economic shake-up, we took some beating with our final numbers. Our work focuses on developing Nigeria, so we take the harsh environment as an opportunity to prepare our students for the reality of becoming entrepreneurs or managers in Nigeria.”

So, what has been sustaining PIN? “Results,” he says. “Each year, when we look back at the number of people who have come in contact with our projects – and who are much better for it – we look forward to doing more. With excitement, even. Our Q2 report (attached) shows a reach of over 6,000, and we look forward to improving on this for the new quarter. The reward of hard work is more work, and in our case, more (exciting) work.

When asked what’s his next big move is, Gbenga answers matter-of-factly: “In December 2012, PIN will host the first edition of our Techie. Entrepreneurial. Nigerian. Talented (TENT) Gathering. With official figures from the Nigerian government on unemployment at 24.9 percent and a minister revealing that only 10 percent of graduates get decent jobs two years after graduation, we have often imagined the opportunity to reverse the trend of producing job seekers and producing employers of labour instead.

Imagine what the best of today’s young Nigerian code-spinners and ICT gurus-in-the-making – those who are exposed to the technical, business and leadership requirements of ICT and innovation – can contribute to Nigeria’s economy, tech businesses operating in Nigeria and the businesses that these young men and women build. TENT, as PIN’s response to this huge need, is based on analysis of the current circumstances and our team’s experience with national and global best practices spanning a period of over 10 years – and over 30 countries.”

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