The Future of Work: How Nigerians Will Shape the Global Economy
Ever worked with a Nigerian? If not, you likely will soon. Nigeria's tech community is in ascendance. Surging demographics, rising connectivity, and the proliferation of remote work are rocketing young Nigerians into the software industry.
Tech CEOs have woken up to the opportunity. Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma, Sundar Pichai, Jack Dorsey, and Nat Friedman have all visited Lagos in recent years. Both Google and Microsoft have setup offices. Facebook just announced one too.
Why should you care? There are more under 25 year olds in Nigeria today than in the US. Rising connectivity is enabling them to self-educate and hustle their way into tomorrow's jobs. Understanding what's going on in Nigeria will help you make sense of the changing landscape of education and work at home.
This is not a simplistic story about Africa rising. Continents and countries are far too complex to predict. But when I speak with young Nigerians in tech, I feel optimistic. Not only because of their rising power in the global economy, but also because of their civic spirit.
City of Hustle
I first visited Nigeria in 2016. At the time, I was starting to feel jaded by venture capital in the US and was fascinated by Lagos' small but vibrant tech community.
Not knowing anyone, I booked an AirBnB in Yaba, Lagos' startup neighborhood. With bucket showers, no air conditioning, and intermittent electricity, the lodging was basic but it came with an amazing host, Tayo. He worked as a software developer and graciously introduced me to his friends. One of which was Emmanuel Adegboye.
Emmanuel exudes a calm industriousness that's common in someone who's found what they want to work on in life. He articulates his mission as building Africa's entrepreneurial talents. When we first met he was a project manager for Venture Garden Group, a Nigerian startup builder. Later, he took a job running an entrepreneurship center at Andela, a software developer staffing firm. Today, he leads a startup studio focused on urban innovation and organizes educational events for the founder community in his free time.
Emmanuel and I a few years later in Boston.
Emmanuel embodies a civic-mindedness I've found often in the Lagos tech community - people who are personally ambitious yet deeply committed to developing the talent around them. During that trip I met a number of people who shared his community-minded ethos. These friendships drew me back to Nigeria every year for the next 4 years. Their civic-mindedness made me decide to move there full time.
The list of community-minded tech leaders in Nigerian is long. Highlights include:
There are countless others. During the coronavirus lockdown, a group of Nigerian developers, frustrated by the country's lack of social safety net, launched a crowdsourced relief funding website called wearetogether.ng. The site was developed in 3 days. Two weeks later they had raised $40,000 from small donors, disbursed money to 1,600 needy recipients, and published a full audit of transactions.
What makes Nigeria's tech community so willing to pay it forward? Maybe it's Nigeria's uniquely difficult working environment. Shared adversity can bind people together and it's clear that working in Nigeria requires grit and stamina. Headlines highlight the difficulties:
"Nigeria produces as much electricity as the city of Edinburgh"
"Ex-President's wife indicted for money-laundering"
"12 soldiers killed by Boko Haram in attack on Northern Nigerian military base".
Add to this Lagos' legendary traffic jams. When an acquaintance mentioned his 5 hour commute I was sure he was exaggerating. He was not. Also that 5 hour commute? It was only one-way. Listen here as the sounds of Lagos traffic blend into one long car horn.
Suffice it to say, Nigerians have a special kind of fortitude. And from what I've observed of Nigerian tech leaders, also a special kind of altruism.
If Nigerians are known for their grit, they are also known for their number. While population statistics in Nigeria are unreliable due to a politicized census, estimates place Lagos at 20 million and Nigeria at 200 million people.
And in contrast to the United States where birth rates have declined, Nigeria is still growing quickly. It's on track to surpass the US by 2050 to become the world's 3rd most populous country. The future is African. Within the next two decades there will be more people living in Africa than in North America, South America, and Europe combined.
Demographics like these pose serious challenges. Unemployment is one. Currently estimated at 30%, this lack of jobs forces young people into insane labor market competition. At one infamous recruitment event for Nigeria's immigration service a few years ago, over 500,000 people applied for jobs at stadiums across the country.
Nigerian Immigration service recruitment event in 2014
But for all the challenges, a story of progress can be told too. Since independence in 1960, the country see-sawed from one military dictatorship to another. Yet since the country returned to civilian rule in 1999, democratic progress has been positive.
Nigeria's electricity sector also has reason for optimism. Residents are accustomed to daily blackouts and high generator costs. However, few people realize just how dramatically the cost of solar has dropped, from around $1 per kWh fifteen years ago to about $.04 today. This makes it the cheapest electricity generation option around. While fuel subsidies, storage costs, and debt financing still hinder adoption, the future of the country's 60 million diesel generators will eventually be the dustbin.
More importantly, as much as demographics create difficulty, they also drive dynamism. Development economists talk of a "demographic dividend" where a country's working-age population exceeds its dependent population, creating an economic flywheel that drives progress. Over the last 30 years, childhood mortality in Nigeria has halved and polio has been all but eradicated. While Nigeria's fertility rate remains high, it has been declining and seems on track to continue to do so.
In short, Nigeria's burgeoning demographics have created a wave of young people. They're hardworking and hungry for opportunity. Now, connectivity is enabling their ascendance.
The roots of Nigeria's tech boom can be traced to the introduction of improved connectivity options in the late 2000s. Some of this was led by telcos like MTN, Globacom, and Airtel, as mobile subscriptions tripled from from 57 million in 2008 to 152 million a decade later. Improved connectivity can also be attributed to the tireless work of Funke Opeke.
Funke Opeke of Main One Cable
In 2008, after a career in telecommunications in the US, Funke moved back to Nigeria and founded Main One Cable. By 2010, she had laid West Africa's first open-access submarine cable, lowering the cost of connectivity and improving speeds greatly.
Around this time, the tech community began to coalesce, spurred with the founding of CcHUB, Nigeria's preeminent tech space. CcHUB was instrumental in nurturing local startups, offering funding, workspace, and connections to global firms. Working alongside MainOne, they brought fiber internet to the Yaba neighborhood in 2013, cementing it as a tech cluster.
This early community created the first major wave of Nigerian startups, known primarily for ecommerce companies like Konga and Jumia. Critical also was the founding of Andela in 2014, a training and staffing firm for software developers. They infused the local ecosystem with better development practices by facilitating high quality remote work experiences with global firms.
Spurred by these developments, the startup sector took off, taking in $100M, $300M, then $600M of venture capital in 2017, 2018, and 2019. This made Nigeria Sub-Saharan Africa's top destination of venture capital, surpassing both South Africa and Kenya.
In the last few years, about 50 African companies have attended Y Combinator. Half of them were Nigerian. One was Paystack, a Nigerian equivalent to Stripe. I recently visited them in Lagos and could have easily imagined myself in Silicon Valley - not by the fancy office, but by the caliber of people. They are widely regarded as one of the best run startups in the country. Rising connectivity goes beyond internet speeds. It bridges culture and professional acumen too.
Young Nigerians want what workers all over the world want. Good work, good pay, and high impact. Tech jobs in Nigeria often provide all three so there has been intense demand for training.
In its first 5 years, Andela saw over 130,000 applicants for about 1,000 spots. Although they've since pivoted away from training and now only hire senior developers, similar organizations see comparably high numbers. Decagon, a Lagos-based IT services organization, saw 30,000 people apply for training last year, its first year of operation. They only had around 100 slots. That's a 0.3% acceptance rate.
Those that don't get into a bootcamp often self-educate. Coursera, Udacity, and YouTube have enabled developers to access free classes from the world's top universities. While self-study doesn't yield credentials, software development as a field is not very credential driven. Hiring managers recognize top schools like Stanford, but generally prefer technical interviews and work samples to academic degrees. Many use skills assessments on Hackerrank, Codility, and Triplebyte to assess technical prowess.
So, while the Nigerian developer community is tiny (based on Github accounts, 1/50th - 1/100th the size of the US), it's one of the world's fastest growing. Last year Github saw a 73% increase in Nigerian contributors.
They are also the 3rd biggest demographic of users on FreeCodeCamp.com, behind only the US and India.
All of this education is combining to make Nigeria an increasingly attractive destination to look for skilled workers. Over the next decade, IT services will become an increasingly important part of the economy. How important? As a reference point, India's IT industry currently generates ~$160B yearly and directly employs over 4 million people. In under two decades it went from 1.2% to 7.7% of GDP. The growth of IT services in Nigeria could be similar.
Rising Remote Work
As this ecosystem grows, more and more developers are landing remote jobs at global firms. It's increasingly common to find Nigerian developers working freelance for talent marketplaces like Upwork and Toptal or full time at any number of distributed startups.
This makes sense. Nigeria is well positioned in the internet labor market. Lagos has numerous direct flights to the US and Europe. Salaries are more affordable than in Eastern Europe and unlike India, it's on a favorable timezone. GMT +1 (Nigeria's time zone) has the second highest number of internet users after China.
Communication challenges are also less of an issue here than in other locales. There's an ease of understanding I've found among Nigerians that's eluded me elsewhere in Africa. Some of this is driven by English as a first language but it's also driven by internet culture, large diaspora communities, and the increasing influence of Nigerian media. Nigerian pop artists like Burna Boy are crossing over to the US and collaborating with Beyonce. Nollywood filmakers and top writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gain world renown.
Cost, timezone, and communication aren't the only factors. Remote work will grow in Lagos because it's resilient to the frictions that plague other jobs in the country: traffic, corruption, and infrastructure.
Most of Lagos' startups already operate partly remote as a way to cope with the city's terrible traffic. It took a pandemic to force the international business community to allow work from home. The pandemic of traffic forced Nigeria's tech community to adapt much earlier.
Remote work is also resistant to corruption. Setting up an outsourcing office in India 20 years ago may have involved bribes to local officials. Remote work, on the other hand, is hard for officials to track.
And unlike outsourcing 30 years ago, developers need not commute to large corporate offices. A laptop, solar power, and mobile internet suffice.
The Promise of Nigerian Talent
As an American, I'm fascinated by Nigeria because many of its problems parallel our own. How do we manage complex, multi-ethnic democracies? How do we infuse dynamism into government institutions? How do we prevent the great stagnation of modern society, characterized by inequality, tribalism, and diminished state capacity?
I don't know, but I have a firm belief that to fix things, we need to look forward. In the US, the conversation is mostly regressive - people yearn to return to a fictional pre-globalized, pre-technological world of the past. Nigerians, however, are looking forward. The civic mindedness of their tech community inspire me. We have something to learn from them.
I recently posted a job ad on Twitter for a Lagos-based research assistant. It received 700 applicants in 2 days. Most had college degrees, passed the technical test I gave them, and were decent writers. Also, I'm not popular on twitter and have about 1,000 followers. I thought I had a sense for Nigeria's untapped potential, but the response continues to surprise me.
Demographics, connectivity, and the rise of remote work are combining to create an optimistic future for Nigerian talent. The world is beginning to notice. Young Nigerians can see it too. They're filled with promise and potential. You should consider hiring them!