BY Paul Ndiho
Tech firms in Nigeria are rushing to get office space in Lagos’ Yaba district, a university town that has transformed itself into a vibrant technology hub.
At first glance, Yaba is like many other parts of Nigeria’s sprawling commercial capital: a cacophony of car horns and shouting street vendors, mingling with exhaust fumes. But in between the run-down buildings in this seemingly inauspicious part of Lagos, a city of around 21 million, tech start-ups are taking root and creating a buzz that is drawing international venture capitalists and more established digital firms.
Online retailer Jumia, dubbed the Amazon of Africa, has set up shop here…hoping it can propel the continent’s rising consumer middle class out of the street markets and onto its websites. Nicholas Martin is the chief executive at Jumia.
“Lagos has the potential to become something that is relevant and on the map in the global scale. It’s going to take time, it’s going to take support, it’s going to take a lot of infrastructure work because there is still a lot of work to be done. But the full amount of potential is here, the market is here, the appetite is here. We have started to also seeing a strong flow of repatriate talents coming here and irrigate that hub, so Lagos is actually very hot and that drives Yaba,”
Yaba draws on a pool of talent from the nearby University of Lagos and Yaba College of Technology. African tech centers are a recent phenomenon that mix web business concepts borrowed from other parts of the world with start-ups focused on Africa-specific challenges in creating opportunities in areas such as mobile payments and e-commerce.
Yaba also has a growing number of established tech companies that hope the area, where rents are relatively cheap, might breed success.
Africa Internet Group, backed by Germany’s Rocket Internet, South African mobile phone giant MTN and Sweden’s Millicom, moved six of its tech firms, including Hellofood and Easy Taxi, to Yaba last December.
Guillaume Leblond, is the managing director of hellofoods.
“The presence of UNILAG (University of Lagos) as well is important for us because we recruit a lot of people. If you look at my staff behind me, probably sixty percent of them come from UNILAG so they know the area well, they have good network of friends that we recruit or that we hire for ambassadors,”
Investors have taken an interest in several Yaba-based start-ups. Nigerian hotel booking company hotels.ng got seed funding from the EchoVC Pan-Africa Fund and the Omidyar Network, created ed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
The potential market size of Africa’s most populous nation makes Nigeria, with around 170 million people, an attractive location. Google and Microsoft ran coding workshops, while a deal between CCHub, the Lagos state government and local telecoms firm MainOne brought cheap high speed Internet via fibre optic cable.
“You won’t find warehousing space in Yaba, you won’t find warehousing space that is big enough to host a company like the size of Jumia. Jumia is by any measurement not only the biggest e-commerce and also the biggest retailer of the land and therefore we just need warehouse space and that ware house space, as long as I can keep it tight and tied together with the office space I will,”
Even though it is Africa’s biggest economy and top oil producer, Nigeria’s Internet speeds and network coverage have lagged behind other countries such as Ghana and Kenya. But that in itself is an opportunity, with a 2013 report by consultancy McKinsey suggesting that only 1.5 percent of Nigeria’s nearly $500 billion economy took place online.