iCog in Nigeria

By Hruy Tsegaye

My one-month trip in Nigeria, on behalf of iCog Labs, was full of drama. Yet, here, I am allowed to write only the ‘not too exciting’ part of it and unfortunately, this does not include ‘the horse, the girl, and I’ incident on Elegushi beach.

iCog Labs was invited to attend the Disruptive Africa Expo and I arrived in Lagos Muruthalah Mohammed International Airport midst a very hot and sunny day. August 21 is usually a rainy day in Nigeria; it is the rainy season there. However, on that particular day, the sun was out with all her kinship.

Thinking that it would be rainy, I had packed two jackets and a sweater;  my punishment for complaining about Addis Ababa’s recent climate change via a cruel jock for I had never got the chance to wear those. Nigeria is hot through and through and you will feel hot while standing in the middle of the rain wearing nothing but a t-shirt.

After passing through the usual boring boarding process, I am now standing in front of the sign that says “Welcome to Lagos”

1: The New Face of ‘The Yellow City’

It took me few minutes to leave the airport and to my surprise, it took me even fewer minutes to reach at David’s office. David is the man, one of the young enthusiastic futurists from the Nigerian tech community, who organised the Disruptive Africa Expo. Before I knew it, I was in Ikeja engaged in an introductory conversation with David.

Yes, Lagos isn’t the ‘city of cruel thieves’ and all the internet hullabaloo; scary accusations, fear mongering gossips, and hyperbolic travel-journals about that city are either an obsolete history or an undeserving smear campaign. Before I march to Abuja, Nsukka, and Ilorin, I spent two weeks in ‘The Yellow City’ and of course, remarks like “you cannot walk on the streets of Lagos unarmed” or even “unaccompanied” are old wives’ tale!

As always, me being the curious alien, I have boldly explored the city— if not all the crannies then at least most of its nooks. I marched alone and unarmed in daylight, and in the darkest of midnight through, the ivory towers of Victoria Island (one of Lagos’s islands populated by expats and white tourists), the floating slums of Makoko (aka the Venice of Africa; the headquarter for the poorest fishers of Lagos who live under the tyrannical governance of Area Boys), and the notorious Alan Street.

My verdict goes like these; to the lone travellers, the frontiers of Lagos are not, by no means, the lifeless fences of the hotels they check-in. You can walk, dance, jump or rollover in the belly of the Yellow City and the dangers of being robbed are not anymore in favour of the odds in your hometown. You know how to avoid those people and those situations in your own city don’t be the cry-baby and apply the same common sense in Lagos. That city has a new face now, and targeting tourists for a daylight robbery isn’t part of it!

Why ‘The-Yellow-City’?

 Photo Courtesy: Getty Images

The word coinage belongs to a humble amateur poet in Lagos. I met Favour (His English name) in my hotel and regardless of his degree in Journalism and Communication, he works as a full time waiter there. We become good buddies in no time and he lend me his unpublished poetry book. One of his poem was titled “The Yellow City”. Yes, it is about Lagos— his beloved hometown. In the end, you will see why he called Lagos the Yellow City. Actually, I should have seen it in the beginning because countless Yellow Buses serving the public 24/7 mark Lagos.

Imagine a city populated by nearly 25 million people where the majority of these enormous subjects use a yellow minibus for their day-to-day travelling. How can you miss those swarming yellow public buses! It is not just the minibuses; the cubs are also yellow.  Indeed, Lagos is The Yellow City.           

2: The Expo and the Blooming Tech Community in Nigeria

On the fourth day, the long awaited Expo started. On behalf of iCog Labs, I was supposed to give a speech along with the famed AGI researcher Dr. Ben Goertzel. Unfortunately, Ben was deported from Nigeria on arrival and you can read the whole shenanigan in his [Ben’s] own words here.

Because of the rescheduling, I was just introduce as the brother from Ethiopia and offered a front seat. The speakers list was rich; people from the Ministry of Science and Innovation, from the Diaspora Community, and Defence Minister were given the spot to discuss the potential of disruptive technology in today’s African Socio Economic realm. David has also managed to secure a speakers list composed of notable Futurist/Technologist from Ireland and some of Nigeria’s TV/broadcasting giants.

Disruptive Africa’s Organizer

Almost all of the attendees were young Nigerians; students from Lagos and other nearby city’s universities, fresh graduates, startup owners, and young tech entrepreneurs dominate the audience along with few government people and distinguishably suited up experts from the private sectors.

We, Africans, are marked with the mentality that tends to focus on immediate profit generating solutions. Well, who can blame us, try to live under a 2-dollar income a day and see where it gets you! As a result, many of the participants were worried about how to tap these super-hot and sweet cakes of hi-tech’s in the disruptive technology market into a bread winning business without spending time and money.

It is not fair to compare the situation in Africa with that of Europe and North America. The number of organizations (governmental or non-governmental) willing to fund a research project in this continent is zero! Almost all African researchers, tech entrepreneurs, or visionary Startups has to cover each and every expense on their own and now it doesn’t need a super intelligent from the future Singularity figure out that many of these people live in a subsidiary income that covers barely the cost of housing and food. Furthermore, the cost of food and housing in Africa is Super Expensive.

Other concerns were focused on Intellectual Property (IP) rights and how to find funds/grants while protecting one’s idea from the ‘big corporations’ who can implement it before the average Joe blinks twice. Well, there was no clear answer, from the expo, and personally, I don’t think there could be one. These kind of things are mostly super vague and maybe a dozen of lawyers could make it a bit clearer. To your surprise, the expo has invited one lawyer but the way he explained it didn’t help my ‘dull wit’.

The first day of the expo was concluded with a demo session. A young Nigerian engineer [rumours had it that he works with the Defence Minister] entertained the audience with a homemade drone and self-driving mini car.

According to most of the attendees’ testimony, it was super ‘crazy-cool’ and the perfect way to conclude a full day expo!

Next day, the number of the participants had significantly diminished but the spirit was not. It was a discussion that focused more on the telecom business with the topic being cloud service. Participants from the giant telecom companies in Nigeria were so enthusiast to know about this ‘cloud service thingy’ and the utilization of big data.

3: iCog’s March to Nigerian Universities

Located on the mainland, University of Lagos (Unilag) is one of the oldest and the biggest universities in Nigeria. Here, I think I should clarify the elephant in the room. Emm, there is indeed an elephant in the room because the State University of Lagos, also located in the mainland (Ikeja) although not as old as University of Lagos, is humongous with all its 90 thousand students and should have been iCog’s priority.

I was either mislead by David to believe that the State University of Lagos (Lasu) lacks undergraduate programs in Computer Science or we both has forgotten, totally, about the existence of this extra-large elephant right next to the couch. I have travelled as far as the capital Abuja or relatively to smaller towns like Ilorin just to discuss with other universities but never stumbled at the main gate of Lasu. Strange!

My discussion with the officials in Unilag (University of Lagos) was not heart-warming. For some reason, the university officials were in a super hurry. Maybe they are trying to catch up with the singularity or maybe they were trying to ditch me, but the pace of the whole presentation could have been a defining moment to a certain Usain Bolt. I was surprised to see that they have responded to my emails in the next day, because from the looks of the presentation they weren’t even in the room while I was reading my conclusion lines.

David told me to relax. “This is Lagos you handle business while jogging and trust me if they like it they will let you know and if they didn’t like it, it doesn’t matter whether they attend the presentation sitting or running”, he said while smiling.      

My Second trip was to the University of Abuja. From Lagos to Abuja, it is nearly 900km. I took the night bus and it turned out to be longest nonstop drive of my life. Compared to the long-distance buses in Ethiopia, the bus I took was a luxury bus, but due to the road condition, it took 14 hours to reach to the capital. What a night!

The city, Abuja, is the complete opposite of Lagos. They say silence is gold then Abuja is most certainly the gold mine of Nigerian cities! Wide streets, super clean roadsides, very fair cab drivers, and tourist friendly markets are a given; enjoying these, in Abuja, is your birthright!

The head of the Computer Science simply loved the proposal. For the Professor, creating a strong link between African Universities by itself is a big step. We discussed further on how the iCog Makers Initiative can facilitate research collaborations between several of its partner African universities.

Here, the pace is comfy; “take your time and sell what you come to sell” seems the motto. If there is any room for personal favourites, then I would have said the University of Abuja is… but there isn’t.

Next on my list was the University of Nigeria. The people there call it UNN, it is one the few federal Universities with a name as big as the river Nigger. On Monday, I set my foot to Nsukka, a city located 390km from Abuja. The sun was not up yet and I thought I can make it by nightfall if I took long strides, then I smiled and said ‘it is better to take a bus’.

To my surprise, the university was deserted; it was only 3:35 in the afternoon and not even an idle retired professor was on sight. Did I miss something? Monday, afternoon, university… but no crowd and closed offices, it doesn’t add…

I was told, I think it was the campus security who was eyeing me like an African lion waiting for its pray, that it is Holiday and I should live the campus ground before I got into trouble. “No I won’t leave the campus”, I said, “the holiday was in Saturday and Sunday and I am here on official business”.

The thing I learned that day was a big surprise for me. I think the public servants in Ethiopia will love it more than their cute children! The Government of Nigeria extended the Eid-el- Kabir holiday which was celebrated on the weekends to the proceeding Monday and Tuesday.

Later that night, on my return drive to Abuja, I read the official statement and the Interior minister has announced something like the following. “The government enjoins all Muslim faithful and Nigerians in general to support, co-operate and join hands with President Muhammadu Buhari in his sustained efforts to diversify the economy and progressively accelerate the pace of economic recovery…

Extending public holidays from weekends to weekdays, in a time of economic recession, so the civil servants can help to overcome the crisis… Who knows what idle mind can brew?

Instead of spending the two days in Nsukka and enjoying the Sallah (another name for the holiday), I decide to assign a friend of mine from Abuja to represent my case. I did call the officials and inform them about her. They understood my reason; I couldn’t wait that long because I had to see the fourth university before my return flight. They set an appointment for her on Wednesday which also includes me via phone conference.            

Located at Ibadan, Oyo State, the University of Ibadan is one of Nigeria’s premier universities with more than 35 thousand undergraduate students. I make it there on Wednesday Afternoon. It is just 135km away from Lagos.

At the Gates of University of Ibadan

At the Gates of the University of Ibadan

How did I make it in such short time whilst land travelling? I took the night bus from Abuja on Tuesday and when I reach to Lagos, I was no better than a zombie who is considered dead among his fellow zombies. I just took a shower and leave my hotel in a hurry— imagine the fastest Zombie— and head straight to the bus station.    

I took care of my nap and my conference call during the 2-hour drive. By the time I reach at the gates of Ibadan, Boxer’s vigour on animal farm was like a hen’s cackling compared to my vigour roaring like the Mount Dashen’s Lion and shook the walls of Ibadan University. Okay, I think someone is stretching a bit…

The meeting was rich and it went smooth. It was a bit faster compared to Abuja; obviously, that must be the effect of the Yellow City after all Ibadan is just 135km away from Lagos. My return journey, that dusk, was the most perilous trip ever. The traffic crowd was… ‘Hell’ would be too weak to describe it in one word.


The temperature, for many Nigerians the temperature in September is cold, was 38°C and the minibus was the flawless manifestation of unbearably overcrowded public transport without any regard to the law or the broken air conditioners.

These kinds of minibus are allowed to carry only 12 passengers but excluding myself, I had counted 22 souls in that filth box. The sun departed 55 minutes after we start the journey. “So what”, you might say. Well, both headlamps of the minibus doesn’t work! The driver did not stop to fix at least one of the headlamps; he just mumbled something in Ibo and continued driving. In fact, I suspect he knew about the headlamps before that moment and was simply pretending that it was some unexpected odd. I had to admit that he was super good at following the other cars in front, though.

As if not all these anarchy was plentiful, the driver blessed our trip with Hollywoodish stunts. Instead of driving on the main road, he decided to drive through the unkempt roadside with a torchlight held by a passenger at the front seat; a shortcut to pass the traffic. Furthermore, from time to time, he embellished this deadly stunt by frequent attempts to pass between two cars even if the space between them is not enough to slide a fat burger. It took us four hours to reach to Lagos and I heard a women saying “May god bless the torchlight”. To this day, I am not sure whether she was joking about it or not.

Ilorin was the last city in my map. I took another bus the next morning, the sun was not up yet, and the 380 km drive took seven hours. The condition of the roads is really super bad! That afternoon was gloomy. Unfortunately, I could not get an appointment and neither the department head nor the faculty dean was in the compound. It was my last day in Nigeria; my flight was scheduled for 1pm next day afternoon. “Yur fada”! I shouted in anger. It was a phrase I pick up in Lagos, yeah, it’s an insult.

The Artifact Market in Illorin

4: The Can of Worms            

In my one-month stay, the ‘Giant of Africa’ had treated me well. Yes, Nigeria is a beautiful place, green, and full of creative people. However, there had been quite a few things, which I wish they could have fixed. Sadly, these things are not fixable, at least in the foreseeable future.

Corruption in Lagos is now the culture! Yeah, indeed culture is the right term. It is not frowned upon whether it is done on the streets or behind a parliament curtain. I have literally bribed police officers on the street and government officials in a traffic office. I was forced to it, or in other words, I was encouraged to follow the culture by those officials.

Believe it or not, I was given a receipt for a bribe money from the traffic office. Yes it has an official stamp and all the necessary government signatures and the amount of money written is the exact bribe money. Why would they even care to give me a receipt and why would I care to have one? The money is to hush hush and once that is taken care of, who cares for the receipt? Nevertheless, this is now the culture; you will get a good-for-nothing receipt for your bribe money!  

A friend tried to explain why Lagos is most corrupted. According to his explanation, Lagos has the most ridiculous laws and regulations in the world. The former mayor of Lagos was a lawyer by profession and while he was in office, he come up with all sorts of laws that are good for nothing but open all the doors to bribery. “Neither the people nor the cops and officials believe in the validity of most of these laws; hence bribe is accepted as the rational shortcut”, explained my friend.

This, I think, is half-true, because ridiculous laws triggered both incidents in which I was invited to this cancerous culture. The first time the cops threatened to arrest me was because I had violated the ‘environmental sanitary day law’. Apparently Lagos has this sanitary day which falls on every last Saturday of every given month, I arrived on August 21 and Saturday 27th was the Sanitation day, how was I supposed to know that no one is allowed to walk, from morning 6am to afternoon 1pm, in the streets without a broom in one’s hand?

“The law is the law”! The cops said to me. “We don’t care whether you come from mars or Lokoja, unless you have a broom you have no business on the streets! You should have been either cleaning your neighbourhood or sitting in your hotel. Now you will have to pay the fine or spend a day or two in jail. If you ask us, it is better for you to be a gentlemen and help us to buy breakfast so we can accompany you back to your hotel before other cops caught you”! I helped them to buy the most splendid breakfast!

The other incident involves a one-way drive offense. My good friend David was taking me to some place (was it to the university? okay I am not sure but it is not important) and cops stopped us. The road, which used to be a two-way drive, according to David’s testimony, was changed to only a one-way street. David argued fiercely, there was not even a sign at the beginning of the street. The cops pointed to a sign that stood at least 200 metre in front of our car. How on earth is that helpful, we took the turn without any sign warning us and the sign was located even further from the point they stopped us. Is it a trap or a warning sign?

Yet, my surprise was when we found out that the charge for this offense (to drive through a one-way street) includes an additional fee for psychiatric evaluation and at least a two-day clinical treatment! The total charge for the fine was more than a hundred dollar.       

We argued fiercely but the cops threatened to pull their guns. Even though they encouraged us to the cancerous culture, David was in rage and demanded to be taken to the nearby traffic station. It was only good to be at the mercy of a bigger shark. Instead of paying the ten-dollar bribe we end up paying a 35 dollar bribe to the government official inside a traffic station and profited a bribe receipt.

Next to corruption, the Yellow City is decaying with corrupted protestant preachers! I had nothing against Christianity but the things I saw there, ehm the good lord would spit from his heavenly thrones. Let us not talk about the private jets owned by those phony pastors or the staged dramatic miracles and pure capitalist approaches to the so-called ‘healing service’ by ‘the men of God’. Let us not even talk about the dozens of cases in which the poor people who had contributed to build a Christian Schools every Sunday via their congregation only to find out that they cannot afford to send their kids to the very same school they build with their own money. Let’s just stick to the aggressive nature of these protestant pastors, ministers, diplomats of Christ, Ambassadors to God’s Kingdom (you might think that I am ridiculing them but these are the terms they use to refer their business. No one is called a preacher there, it has to be some fancy term like ‘Christ Ambassador’).       

In all my travels, these ‘heavenly diplomats’ invade the buses and scream about the bible or pray (more like yell) to the good lord. I begin to doubt that the Nigerians must have been told that the Protestant God has incurred hearing loss. And after screaming for hours and hours, they will ask for money. Oh, the thing they do in the name of God!

Let me be blunt here, I had quite a few chances to make business deal (be it exchanging dollars, bargaining for cab fare, hotel rooms or buying traditional garments) and almost all the protestants tried to rip me off while the Muslims had been very fair and honest.

The belching, for lack of any better word, of these protestant preachers, is annoyingly invasive not only to tourists and to business travellers like me, but it is offensive to Muslims, Buddhists, Pantheists and people who prefer to travel in the appropriately silent-ish and universally accepted environment.

I say on to thee not only as Nigerians but as Africans, thou are not sick because entities of a phantom origin from the world of demons had wage war on thee, I swear on the name of the good lord that thou are sick because of microbes; germs, bacteria and viruses and of poor hygiene and of malnutrition. Thou are poor not because thy neighbour had cast some evil spell upon thine household, but because ye are illiterate, because ye are not creative, because ye do not work hard, because ye have corrupted governments, and it is because ye still think that there are demons and witches lusting after thy flesh.

Regardless of the fact that Nigerians are the most literate society compared to the rest of the continent, their protestant preachers are selling them a white lie, literally and metaphorically! The thing these so-called ‘Men of God’ are selling is not wisdom but fear mongering draped in the most hideous garb of stage acting inflated by ear-piercing howl.                

5: The Future is in Collaboration

I have spent the first two weeks in Lagos looking for partners. Of course i have found some but the thing that alarmed me was that for many African Startups, the word startup has lost its meaning. iCog, though it has the potential to be, is not a billion dollar company and it has partnered and will still do, with other partners based on both, a non profit (non financial) and profit based collaborations. Yet, as a startup the amount we demand from our partners is not millions.

I found it very amusing to see some of the entrepreneurs I negotiate with, on behalf of iCog, to ask a six-digit profit share and others a 50% agreement. The number they demand is not a significant number for companies like facebook but it is a mountain for a company like iCog.  Yet, the mistake is not in the exaggerated figure, but in the things they offer back. You ask to be paid based on what you propose to offer, how on earth can you bargain for a 50% share while the service you offer is a clerical one?

For us, Africans in general, the obstacles are so enormous and maybe not even the mythical ‘Atlas the giant’ can carry them alone. But still, we need to show to outsiders that we are capable of delivering. The rest of the world has little faith on us especially when it comes to the hi-tech business, but at least we can collaborate in the continental grounds and plant the seed of the future multi-billion African tech companies. In order to achieve this we should stop startling potential partners with ridiculous amount of profit share in the absence of a service that is worth the amount we demand.

Let us learn to collaborate first, let us focus on the task at hand, and most importantly let us be the continent that can deliver what is needed. I am sure the money will follow then.  

I have no better words than those of Chibueze, Opata— a young entrepreneur I met in Lagos. He said to me, “the strength of this generation has to be collaboration”!


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