We have a responsibility to develop the continent
I was very fortunate. I make no bones about it. I was born into a hard working family and had access to the best education available.
Growing up, my parents were very clear that their children would not be raised as ‘children of privilege’; born with silver spoons in their mouths. All of us had to go out and make an impact in this world. Today, I know they would be proud of us and how we’ve channelled their earliest wishes for us all to be impactful.
My parents wanted their children to see the world and be exposed to different cultures. After our high school years were spent in Nigeria, they sent us to school and university in the U.K, a country they were both familiar and comfortable with, having also completed part of their higher education there, largely as a result of Nigeria’s colonial past. My brother ‘rebelled’, and went to university in the US!
But one thing was always clear, to my parents, to us, and now also to my children; we were always going to return to Africa. We were not going to ‘donate’ ourselves to countries that were already developed. At the end of the day, regardless of privilege and our education, we are Africans and we have an even greater responsibility to develop the continent. This is central to everything we have worked towards.
Every country, every continent, must have its own path of development. We cannot simply replicate what other countries have done. African development cannot follow the same path as that of the U.S. or indeed Europe.
Dr Omobola Johnson
I believe that technology is going to help us do so. Lagos State should be commended for what they are doing to support Nigeria’s ability to ‘leapfrog’, with the development of a technology cluster in Yaba, a strategically located district in Lagos that today has the highest concentration of tech and tech related companies in the country. The Lagos State government is supporting the building out of infrastructure to really make Yaba a tech cluster – terrestrial fibre, 24/7 power and work spaces for tech companies, incubators and accelerators to support innovation and the scaling of tech companies. The expectation is that this catalytic effort will attract further investments from private companies and perhaps encourage more State governments to do the same, whilst cultivating an environment for business growth, technical excellence and technology innovation.
Crucial in our ability to ‘leapfrog’ is the development of local skills and talent required to function in, support and sustain our digitally-led development. Nigeria has to prioritise the development of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) skills, especially in our large youth population.
Women in STEM
My personal career has been, and continues to be, centred in the STEM field. Unfortunately, it continues to be overwhelmingly male dominated, although we are now seeing more women breaking through into the sector, ensuring we are better represented than ever before. However, we have much more to do, to ensure women can participate meaningfully in the digital economy and deliver a genuine impact.
I am a firm believer that role modelling is an effective means of achieving this, especially for women. For instance, if women see me, Omobola Johnson; an engineer, a former minister for ICT in Nigeria and a Senior Partner in a tech VC firm, then they can start formulating their own plans for their own career trajectories; they know that it is possible for women to achieve these feats, because they’ve seen someone else do it. I hope they feel inspired and confident to beat their own path, and subsequently go on to inspire others.
I am regularly approached by young women who are looking for mentorship and I am always happy to oblige and support them. It does take time, but it is important and extremely gratifying for me, not only in the STEM field but also in business and now even in the public sector, especially after my short stint in government. My desire is that we get to the point where the news that a woman has just been made CEO of a company or elevated to a senior leadership position, or elected as President of a country, is a business celebration and not a gender-based celebration – much the way it is with men.
Apart from a skilled workforce, we also need private capital to build businesses, businesses that will employ people, that will offer services that people really need and that will scale and make a significant impact on the wider economy. Development Finance Institutions like BIO are very useful here. They are able to take a long-term view and make long-term investments, corresponding to the specific context of the country involved. This then catalyses other private investments. If a DFI brings in money, others will think, “something must be happening here” and this acts as a stimulus for further activity. This allows us to keep pushing the technology agenda and to ‘leapfrog’.
Private capital is also welcome because it demands greater efficiency. After the Nigerian telecoms market was liberalised in the early 2000’s, over 70 billion dollars of private capital has been invested in the ICT industry in Nigeria. In this sense, it is this private capital that has put mobile phones into the hands of almost 70% of the Nigerian population. This mobile penetration is now supporting the creation of tech companies that are providing services on this platform – creating jobs and attracting more investments and facilitating our digital transformation and development.
The opportunity to deploy capital to these companies and entrepreneurs, to help them grow and scale is an exciting one, and I am very much enjoying my role as a partner in TLcom Capital, a tech VC firm with a recent focus on Africa, after being a policy maker advocating for this very thing when I was Minister for ICT in Nigeria. The private sector allows me to make direct impact, working with some of the continent’s most exciting entrepreneurs who are critical to re-shaping our economy.
Dr. Omobola Johnson
Partner TLC Venture Capital Fund and former minister of ICT, Nigeria
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