Nigeria, Anger and the Funnel Effect

Five years ago, I turned in my resignation letter at Junior Achievement of Nigeria. The vision of what I started at the time was simple: connect young Nigerians with technology-enabled opportunities, with a strong focus on improved livelihoods. Thousands of stories later, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria continues to do this all-important work. Over the last few weeks, we have invested heavily in scaling up our work, and it is always exciting to read from young people who have benefited directly from our projects. The stories of Famous, Esther, Favour, Funke, Yinka and many others continue to assure us that the hours of investment eventually turn into a better life. You can imagine my delight when, few days ago, Yinka told me about how he joined forces with other friends to implement a bore hole project in Ajegunle. Our trainees have gone on to become tutors, mentors and changemakers, and we are proud of that.

However, a recent in-house study shows that our work, that focuses on investing in the bottom of the pyramid, can only reach 1,000,000 young people directly in about 10 years. We focus on a complete cycle that begins from trainee identification to demonstration of improved livelihoods, and we avoid the temptation to focus on numbers instead of quality, but reality is that the many young people who need to be connected to the kind of opportunities our training offers have increased over the years. Even when we looked at the numerous organisations investing in a similar demographic, it is clear that massive scale can only be achieved when structures managed by government complement such.

As I continue to discuss with more young people, I sense an increasing level of anger that seems to ask: “do we really have hope?” I am not sure if anyone has studied the connection between the level of crime in Nigeria and the funnel effect, but there will be no surprises. Funnel effect refers to how various layers of young people fall off the opportunity radar. Beginning with those who are born into abject poverty, this trend continues with those who drop out of elementary school in order to earn an income to support their family. Many households depend on what children bring home, hence the huge loss of value as long as income is concerned. If I came home with a new item (regardless of cost) while growing up, my parents would ask me where I got such from. Now, some parents simply thank the child for being a star and ask his/her siblings to watch and learn, without any question about the source of the sudden income.

Government-issued numbers for the Nigerian economy will keep looking good. They are numbers. These numbers account largely for the top 20% (and that is actually generous) while the bottom 80% will continue to groom disenfranchised young people who can become anything from success stories (in spite of the challenges) to criminals (who blame the system for their situation). For example, who are the kids who knock on windows to ask for phones they didn’t buy? The funnel effect continues beyond elementary school drop-outs to those who can’t continue to secondary schools for cost reasons. In my work, I frequently discuss with kids whose parents have asked them to forget tertiary (university) education so that their brother/sister can also benefit from secondary school education. And it continues on and on. At each level, the funnel effect creates a bulge in the size of angry young people.

Many have said that the funnel effect is unreal and that those who end up on the bottom of the pyramid are only unable to grab opportunities around them, but my eleven years of work in the third sector – and everyday reality – tell me that Nigeria encourages the funnel effect. At the very least, there are many young people who will never know if they’re truly lazy because the opportunities that many squander don’t even come close to them. Every day, as I read the various complaints on social media channels, I can only imagine how many young people will gladly trade places with those who think they are angry with Nigeria. Paradigm Initiative Nigeria’s work in technology and development continues to be my primary assignment, but I worry about this rising anger. We can only take on so much, and will seek to expand our reach, but Nigeria will have to tackle this funnel effect before our opportune youth bulge goes the way of oil.

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Ten Things Travelling Teaches

Ten Things Travel Teaches

1. Destination is more than important. If you don’t know where you’re travelling to, one thing is quite sure – you’ll get lost. Even if the plan is to tour multiple destinations, it’s important to know where the first stop will be. Where am I headed in life? Where would I like to be after this flight? Of course, I don’t know everything about the destination right now, but I have few ideas around where it is and will learn much more on my way there.

2. Preparing for a trip is increasingly being outsourced, thanks to new generation destination managers who take care of everything in exchange for money, but the more attention I pay to each trip – exploring options and checking out alternatives, the more I’m able to save. Many times, I actually get better itinerary options. What is the purpose of outsourcing my entire day to chance? Well, that’s what I do each time I start one without a deliberate prepare.

3. Visa. That word. It’s one of the most annoying processes in travel, no thanks to embassies who take ages to look through documents. Well, to be fair, some countries call for more checks. Like visas, the things that allow us gain access to more opportunities in life require time, attention, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.

4. Tickets actually prove that one is ready to travel. Well, folks who don’t fly commercial can skip this. But beyond the document itself, one key lesson from tickets is that we can actually spend much less by exploring options. Life should never be about settling for the first available option, explorers discover more and can even live with that feeling of satisfaction that comes with knowing that you made the best choice among a whole lot of options.

5. Airports can be anything from manageable to pleasurable. However, regardless of how nice the airport is, the increasing level of checks in a post-911 world can erase the lounge experience. Reality, though, is that everyone goes through checks for the safety of all. If I submit myself for checks and don’t bring danger, and everyone else does the same, we can all be sure of no heart-stopping man-made inflight drama. If you want safety, bring it. If you want change, bring it. Many times, people-groups can only enjoy the sum of what each person in the group brings.

6. Airport lounges make all the difference when it comes to looking forward to those minutes (or hours) before a trip. If you live in a city that is known for terrible traffic – the type that is responsible for nearly 100% of missed flights – then arriving too early is something you probably want to avoid if you’ll have to hang out on those metal chairs. If you’ll spend a long time at airports, you should probably fly fewer airlines so you can get a loyalty card that entitles you to relaxing – and free food/drinks – at those nice lounges. I like how focus is often defined as looking at one thing so much that you hardly see others. As with walking into airline lounges when you have the right loyalty card(s), focusing on one thing towards becoming an expert in it will open many doors.

7. Like lounges, Air Miles also come with loyalty and focus. The more loyal (or focused) you are, the more miles you earn. The more miles you earn, the more things you don’t have to pay for. That free date change, some more leg room, extra luggage, getting ahead of the long queue without being unethical, the obvious attention to details when you show your card… and much more. As with air miles, so with life. Give your career 10,000 hours of hard work and it brings you many things others pay dearly for.

8. Electronic gadgets, especially those tiny plugs, can mess up your trip – if you leave them at home. You spend the first night, after arriving late, unable to send the “I’m there” eMail and you may have to do some shopping even before settling in. Even little things matter! If we don’t fix the seemingly small things, we may end up paying dearly later.

9. Weather is something we have no control over, but it’s best to check ahead of the trip. Otherwise, you may wear the wrong shoes and end up on your back in a quiet city in Germany, or end up without a jacket in Nottingham during one of those very cold days. Maybe when, like me, you experience what it means to travel without checking what the weather will look like, you’ll appreciate the importance of packing the right stuff in your bag. Or for life, packing the right set of skills that can keep you warm even when the economic temperature is in the negative.

10. As far as luggage is concerned, travel light, as much as you can. If the trip doesn’t exceed 2 weeks and I have the chance to either buy more stuff or replace/renew them, I travel with only one bag that I don’t need to check in. That way, I’ve been able to get on flights even when I run late. Check in online print your boarding pass and walk to the gate with your light-packed cabin luggage. Did I tell you that I’ve never lost a luggage since I started doing that? In life, as with travel, the less burdens you carry, the better your quality of life. Travel light.

Move! Ask! Don’t Sit On The Dream!

Few days after posting Equip Them! Don’t Kill Their Dreams! on this blog, Favour (not his real name) sent me the eMail below. I think it’s a moving story that speaks to why today’s young Africans must learn to reach out for help. Facebook and twitter have opened up huge opportunities to connect with potential mentors, or folks who can help connect you with opportunities. As for tech skills, so others: make a move towards your dream and ask for help, don’t sit on your dream hoping to see it become reality someday. Don’t just use social networking for gist, checking out new pictures/videos, confirming/debunking rumours, etc, use the platforms you’re on to connect your dream with enablers. Let me get out of your way so you can enjoy Favour’s story, which he’s asked me to share with the hope that it can inspire others.

Dear Sir,

Good morning. My name is Favour [edited, not his real name]. I’m 19 years old, see my story below. Please don’t mind the errors or the long story, it’s just that I felt you were sitting in front of me and I was talking to you. I pray you have time to read it all.

The story so far…

I still remember like yesterday that faithful hot Saturday afternoon. My brother’s friend asked me to accompany him to the cybercafé. I was just an 11 yr old whose previous knowledge of the computer was queuing with my classmates to type 2×2 on our school’s computer system. If I was told that the event of that day will change my life and shape my dream I will call you names cos like other kids, I had made up my mind to be either a lawyer or a doctor so I can have enough money to take care of my parents.

I followed him just so he doesn’t get angry cos my elder brother who was supposed to go with him went to the market with my mum. Fate? On our way he was so excited, telling me all the cool things a computer can do; like playing games, chatting, drawing, etc. I did not believe him cos the computers I’d seen before in school were only used for calculating. He said that he spent the last 6 months in a computer training school that he even paid hefty sums for it. I still did not believe him.

Finally we reached the cafe and I just shouted Jesus and surprised cos I saw a man talking with somebody abroad and they could see each other through what I later learnt was called a webcam. Still surprised, I asked if it was done with magic or what. Everybody there laughed at me. My brother’s friend was so embarrassed that he threatened to take me home if I disturbed him again. He sent me to buy time and asked me to type it in the log-in page. My mind was beating; I was so nervous that I made a mistake typing it. He logged in to what he told me was yahoo mail which took 10 mins to load a page. We checked live scores of the matches been played and I was astonished.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept visualising the events of that afternoon, what made the computer work? If somebody was controlling it and so many other questions inundated my thoughts from that day; a dream was born – to know more about computers, how and why it does the things it does.
From the next Monday, I started saving my lunch money at school so I can have money to go to the cybercafe alone and explore it. I remember the 1st time I went alone, I forgot where and how to type the log-in PIN I bought. People laughed at me but that did not stop me from learning what I wanted. I learnt how to log in, open a website, etc, all alone with no help. I started frequenting the cafe cos the more I know the more I want to learn more. At 12 I was already good that I took my classmates there to show off and teach them. The next time I went to the cafe with my brother’s friend he was the one that needed help getting around.

The next year phones with browsers became popular. I learnt how to configure phones at 13; I was the youngest and the best when configuring phones for free browsing was concerned. I was seen as the last resort for phones that are hard to configure, even Chinese phones. I was so popular that people visited our house as early as 6 in the morning, all older than me, and the funny thing is that I never owned a phone till I was 17. To cut a long story short, I grew from phones to PCs but I had a problem. My father insisted I must be an art student in my senior secondary so I can study Law.

I wrote my WAEC as an art student in 2010 but I had a D in Maths so I couldn’t gain admission into any university. I saw that as a blessing cos I never wanted to study Law, I wanted to study computer science and be a web developer or programmer. I re-wrote WAEC as a science student though I was not good in Maths or the other science subjects, but I believed I will learn it cos computer science is the only thing in my mind. Not just that but to be a web developer and programmer. To His glory I passed the required subjects.

Still on the dream, my passion for programming grew day by day. It is that or nothing. I started downloading different books on Java which I chose to learn first cos of its universality. I have never been to a computer training school, all the things I know I learnt it myself. Nobody taught me. I started reading and trying out the codes but the more I learnt, the more confused I got cos there is no one to direct me or tell me why I get errors.

Sometimes I feel like giving up, its so bad that I have not opened the book or my netbeans in the past 3 weeks. To make matters worse, my dad had an accident and is no more working so things are hard. So I had to come to Lagos to stay with a cousin, working in a company to see if I can get admission and pay my way through school. I promised myself that I will be good in web designing and Java before I enter school but now I have learnt none and I was on the verge of giving up till I read your blogpost, “Equip them! Don’t kill their dreams!”

Well written, it inspired me to know I can still make it. I seriously want to learn this and I believe you will help me achieve this. How you will do it, I don’t know, but I know you are God sent and you will help me achieve this dream of mine.

After posting a tweet asking for help with his specific Java quest, four amazing techies have accepted to help out one way or another. When (not if) Favour becomes a pride to Nigeria and Africa, as a code-spinner with influence, we can look back to say, “Thankfully, we joined hands to connect him with his dreams.” Favour’s story should inspire other young Africans to get to work and ask for specific help. Favour will be writing university entrance examinations later this month, and I wish him the best as he hopes to study Computer Science at the University of Lagos (“so that I can work and pay my way through school”, he said) or Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife (his 2nd choice).

Maybe all the young people who’re still wasting time on cybercriminal activities can learn from Favour. Pick up a programming language, then call out for help. Don’t blame the system for so long, others are helping themselves with alternative skills. Young (wo)men who search for credit card details to scam others can do research if exposed to alternatives; those who clone websites to defraud can obviously design websites; and those who have hacked government websites (National Assembly, NDDC, EFCC and the First Website,, have been victims) can help protect our critical infrastructure. Looking back at the last few years of work with young people through Paradigm Initiative Nigeria‘s projects, it’s obvious that amazing stories can follow those who move, ask for help and don’t sit on their dreams. Move! Ask! Don’t Sit On The Dream!

Local Climate Change Response Strategies in Lagos: Civic Participation through Social Media

Community Conservation and Development Initiatives (CCDI), a partner organisation of Heinrich Böll Foundation, has been working with local government officials and community members in three local governments (Yaba, Eti-Osa and Lekki) to raise awareness on causes and consequences of climate change within their local communities and build capacity for identifying/formulating action plans to respond to the most urgent needs.

The recent weather disasters in Lagos have indicated that the new rainy season might cause more havoc to life and property than ever before. To prevent the worst scenarios or to alleviate the suffering of affected people, quick and decisive action from the part of the responsible government officials would be necessary. Meanwhile, the experiences of the project have shown that local governments have difficulties in taking swift actions because of bureaucratic and financial bottlenecks..

In order to hold the local governments more accountable and to ensure the implementation of the proposed projects, young volunteers from the communities are required to support the project by reporting and monitoring project activities and other incidents relating to the topic through blogs, tweets and facebook posts. The aim is to increase dialogue around climate change issues at local level and to monitor and probe the performance of their local government representatives in this regard. This social media-enabled project activity will also increase the political involvement of interested young people and create awareness about climate change and local response initiatives.

Call for Volunteers
The project seeks to recruit and train volunteers (4 for Yaba, 3 each for Eti-Osa and Lekki) who will work in close cooperation with CCDI and the project consultant. Selected volunteers will receive training that will introduce them to CCDI’s project on climate change and local response initiatives, the importance of Social Media for transparency and accountability, the role of volunteers as watchdogs, and detailed expectations of their contributions.

The project consultant will monitor the performance of social media volunteers and hold regular meetings with the volunteers. Volunteers are expected to post frequent blogs and use other social media channels to promote the blogs and encourage feedback/interactivity. The volunteers are also expected to attend CCDI meetings and carry out their own independent research on local climate change and environmental issues depending on individual interests.

This is a volunteer role but it can serve as an opportunity for anyone looking for unpaid internships or an opportunity to work on a project with an international foundation and a Nigerian non-profit working on local response initiatives to climate change. To cover the cost of transportation, a nominal monthly stipend will be provided. Residents of Yaba, Eti-Osa and Lekki who are interested in using social media tools to support local response initiatives to climate change and can devote some time towards blogging, tweets, facebook updates and physical meetings between April and October 2012 should send their CV and a Statement of Interest to gbenga.sesan[at] before 5pm on March 15, 2012.

Equip Them. Don’t Kill Their Dreams!

It was just like any other evening. Ala Quarters in Akure, Ondo State, Nigeria, was its usual quiet self and everyone was getting set to watch the 9pm network news on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) network, as was a daily ritual at number 80. When my dad gave me the letter, I looked for his accompanying reaction. Mr. J. O. Sesan was a strict teacher who read all the letters that came through P. O. Box 2618 and his face could always warn you about the content of your letter.

It was what I’d been expecting, my letter of admission to study Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the school whose t-shirt I owned at least 6 years before I knew what happened within its walls. Great Ife, the t-shirt screamed each time I looked at myself in the mirror. It wasn’t long before I pulled out my Higher Education Notebook and edited my notes; the notes I started preparing the moment Opeyemi Olugasa’s choice of engineering as a career made me change my mind from studying Medicine & Surgery, at the University of Ibadan, to becoming an engineering graduate from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

Ope was my friend in primary school, though he was a year ahead of me at St. Peter’s Demonstration Primary School, Akure. He went on to become a prefect in Federal Government College, Idoani, and my respect for him soared. Rumours of extremely brilliant Senior Ope’s course of study in Great Ife was quick to spread, and few minutes with him – when he visited F. G. C. Idoani again – helped me decide that my love for gadgets gave me the liberty to move away from Medicine & Surgery, which was what I was expected to study. As it was said in the late ’80s and early ’90s, “you can’t waste your brain o, na Medicine you go study.

When I returned to my notes, memories of the few times I’d blown up stuff at home came to mind and I smiled. I knew I was born to be an engineer, and I would solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Or so I thought. At about the same time, another letter arrived from University of Tokyo, Japan. It invited me to join the university and because my mind was made up on Great Ife (talk about the power of a t-shirt), all that caught my attention was their advanced degree in Mechano-Informatics and Artificial Intelligence. Senior Ope had mentioned it too. Okay, he was the reason I also wrote to the school. We need many Senior Opes in Nigeria today, whose career choice can serve as an example for other young people in the dark. Being a Senior Ope to someone else is a role I’m always excited about when I get the opportunity to do such.

I arrived Great Ife with my edited notes. The content was confusing (and I had no idea I would regret losing that book) but I had come up with an idea – from my love of Magnetism in Physics – that would help solve Nigeria’s power problem. I was convinced that by the time I spent 5 years studying engineering at Great Ife, I would be selling millions of units of the device through what I called Sesan Manufacturing Company (SMC). My device would use the principle of magnetism to generate electricity in large quantities. “Imagine a device that generated power without noise or the use of any ‘fuel’, and was risk-free,” I kept thinking and saying.

In my first year, a Laboratory Attendant (who obviously isn’t a true representation of all others) told me that my results from an experiment that sought to verify the value of the popular gravitational constant were unrealistic. He forgot to tell me that my readings went beyond 12 because the environment was not controlled but he never forgot to warn, “if you like, be doing I too know there. What does Halliday say? You better write what you see in the textbook and stop feeling like Einstein.” Stubborn ‘Gbenga went on to submit the original results, and my score reflected more of the warning than the effort I put in.

From my second year to the third year, I learnt more theories that explained why my magnetism discovery was literally impossible to achieve. What some of our lecturers forgot to tell us was that their notes were from the years they studied engineering themselves. Needless to say, I didn’t even remember the dream by the beginning of my fourth year. Sad, but thankfully, the story didn’t end there. I had the chance to complete an Industrial Attachment program with (now late) Dr. James O. Sotomi who had just returned from the UK and set up a software company even though his eyes were really on Neural Networks. In fact, his company was known as Neural Technologies Limited and we operated from one of the offices of (now defunct) RIMS Securities Limited in Lagos’ popular Kingsway Building.

Dr. Sotomi introduced me to web development and threw me into meetings where a 4th year engineering student had to speak in defense of Neural Technology Limited‘s web development proposal. In one of such meetings at the SNEPCO Towers in Marina, Lagos, I was pulled aside by someone who introduced himself as the chairman of the selection committee. “You guys can’t win this bid for some reasons I can’t explain, but you were great. You speak so well, how old are you,” he said. At Neural Technologies, I learnt how to write HTML code. I returned to Great Ife reignited, but the power project was off my mind. Completely.

Within weeks of returning to school, I organized a training program for fellow students. Each of the students Ogemdi Ike and I recruited (using flyers, a computer demo in front of Ife’s popular Moremi Hall, etc) paid two thousand naira to learn what I’d learnt weeks before. It wasn’t long before we jumped on converting Year Books to Year CDs, and we made some money. We spent nights writing HTML code, days training students and any time we had left dreaming of how to register Concept Group Limited. It wasn’t long before we had to write our final year thesis and I chose to write on eRegisteration: Software-Based Student Registration Procedure Using Html and Java Hosted on the University Intranet.

I was reminded that students were not allowed to create project topics and that we had to select from one of the topics displayed on the department’s notice board. I looked through the list and found nothing that fit my future plans, so I approached Prof. Kunle Kehinde, a very senior lecturer in the department whose word was law – even when it was against the popular thought. He accepted to supervise the project and encouraged me to make my first presentation off-campus, at the 2000 Expo of the Information Technology Association of Nigeria. The final product exists in two forms: online and in a CD case (see pictures at the end of the blog). Prof. K told me to keep a copy for myself, and I styled it up a bit with the knowledge gained from designing commercial Year CDs.

It became an available topic for other students to research and write on, and I’m glad to see the idea of reducing the physical burden of student registration in action these days. I followed the new technology dream until I discovered the use of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) but I wonder… I keep asking myself about how many other dreams got killed in campus laboratories across Nigeria while I was in Great Ife. I wonder how many dreams – power problem solvers, etc – get killed daily after students walk through the gates of our academic institutions. Please don’t tell them it’s not possible, equip them to do it.

Few days ago, I was invited by Junior Achievement of Nigeria to speak to 1,200 secondary students who had gathered at the Shell Hall of MUSON Centre in Lagos. The theme was Creating Tomorrow Today and as I listened to the students describe what they hoped to create tomorrow, I kept hoping that they won’t meet a Laboratory Attendant who would tell them to copy textbooks and belittle the curiousity of new knowledge and possibility of breakthrough experiments. This is by no means a judgement treatise on the collapse of education in Nigeria, but a call to young Nigerians to become Senior Ope or Dr. Sotomi because of the many factors that kill dreams around here.

While Nigeria hopefully continues the journey towards reinventing education, you remain the only hope of today’s dreamy young (wo)men. Let’s equip them and not allow anyone kill their dreams. This year, I return to Great Ife to work with a department on a bold new project that will walk with students all through their 5 years in school, equipping them to dream instead of killing their dream(s). There’s no reason why students can’t go to tertiary institutions to build businesses or expertise around the many problems begging to be solved in Nigeria. How about students graduate with business plans, not just CVs? Equip them. Don’t kill their dreams.