For MIT team, early entrepreneurial success in Nigeria

This group is building the infrastructure for startups to thrive in Lagos.

Nigeria has one of the fastest growing — and youngest — populations in the world, making cities like Lagos poised for entrepreneurial growth.

Why It Matters

Building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Nigeria, one of the largest markets in Africa, could set a template for developing countries worldwide.

In Nigeria, a young, driven population bolsters smart startups. But sometimes the lack of capital and getting businesses to scale are challenges, said several members involved in the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, commonly known as MIT REAP. The two-year program strengthens entrepreneurial ecosystems in different regions around the world by convening representatives from local government, corporations, the entrepreneurial community, and local universities, as well as risk capital providers.

MIT REAP’s team in Lagos is the first in sub-Saharan Africa, said Sarah Jane Maxted, director of the program, which has seen more than 30 other teams in regions ranging from Iceland to Japan. MIT REAP collaborates with approximately eight partner teams, consisting of five to eight members, annually.

The Lagos team plans to take advantage of Nigeria’s burgeoning young population and will confront challenges such as rising unemployment rates to launch initiatives like OneLagos, a central node of entrepreneurship in the city.

“We are not just working with the easy regions,” Maxted said. “We are working with regions that are really having struggles and challenges. There’s a lot of opportunity in that, and a lot of risk. I think we have to be OK with things not going as planned sometimes. [We need to] hypothesize and test and go back and rethink, and hypothesize again. That approach is important.”

Bolaji Finnih, SF ’15, the CEO of TechPreneur Africa and the leader of the Lagos team, said Nigeria has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, and nearly 70 percent is under the age of 25.

“It’s very entrepreneurial here, but not all businesses scale,” he said.

One of the reasons most often cited for that is the lack of infrastructure. The African continent’s inadequate power supply and unreliable internet connectivity are often blamed, but there’s also an overall lack of coordination among business startups and universities, Finnih said. Entrepreneurs need education, mentoring, access to capital, and a willingness to collaborate if they are going to succeed.

The Lagos team’s earliest achievement was opening an entrepreneurial center for students at a local university. The Entrepreneurship Center of the University of Lagos, which will feature programs based on MIT Sloan professor of the practice Bill Aulet’s “Disciplined Entrepreneurship” curriculum, will teach students the skills — including coding and software development — necessary to start their own businesses. The center features 128 networked computer stations, three servers, two high-capacity printers, as well as a lounge and a generator. The team plans to open more centers around the country.

2017-REAPMembers of the Lagos team at a REAP workshop in Cambridge last spring.

“The first thing we need is coordination across the universities so we can have a much more expansive initiative … for getting the curriculum right for entrepreneurial education so people can get higher-paying jobs and build bigger businesses,” Finnih said.

An all-in government
Another triumph, according to both Finnih and Maxted, was obtaining Akinwunmi Ambode’s endorsement. Ambode, the governor of Lagos State, pledged his support to the MIT REAP efforts last fall. In a region where the government’s role can be complicated and is also sometimes transitional, Ambode’s backing is crucial.

“I think this just speaks to how local Lagos entrepreneurs have really been able to change the way things are done. They are crossing boundaries that haven’t been crossed and working together in a way that we might take for granted,” Maxted said.

MIT REAP team member Akintunde Oyebode, executive secretary of the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund, agreed the government needs to be involved if Nigeria is to be an entrepreneurial hub.

“As successful REAP cases have shown, government is a critical partner for entrepreneurial development across the world,” said Oyebode. The Lagos State Employment Trust Fund is a government-created impact fund that also provides risk capital to drive entrepreneurial activity. Created in 2016, it is charged with helping Lagos residents grow and scale their micro, small, and medium enterprises, or to acquire skills and obtain new jobs.

According to Oyebode, Nigeria has many advantages that make it attractive for starting businesses, including a large population (180 million) and rising disposable income. Additionally, there are approximately 100 million mobile phone lines, which makes Nigeria a huge market, especially for mobile-first businesses, which see mobile phones as the primary tool for business growth.

The infrastructural challenges cited by so many really do exist, Oyebode said, however there are also “more solvable” challenges such as lack of talent and capital. The MIT REAP team has built a path toward more connectivity between all the stakeholders, in spite of an unemployment rate of 35 percent, which is “Nigeria’s biggest socio-economic challenge,” Oyebode said.

Finnih said the team’s next step is launching OneLagos, which will create a central hub of entrepreneurship that will combine three key components — mentorship, education, and infrastructure — to accelerate activity in the city. OneLagos, which will debut in early October, will initially operate out of the Entrepreneurship Center of the University of Lagos and will expand to other universities in the future.

Maxted said the successes in Lagos have opened the doors to having other MIT REAP teams in the region including a team in Ghana.

“In Lagos right now, there is so much excitement and energy … in 10 years, I fully expect this city and region to have really moved things forward. It will be exciting to see,” Maxted said.

The MIT Innovation Ecosystem Symposium, co-hosted by MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, will take place Oct. 12–13 at MIT Technology Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The deadline for registration is Wednesday, Oct. 4.