“These are my people!”
Mark Zuckerberg has been in Nigeria for barely an hour and is already rhapsodic. His remark does not reflect his biological heritage — obviously — but rather a connection based on the behavioral DNA that engineers share. Facebook’s CEO has come to Lagos, the continent’s most populous city, to seek out software developers and startup founders; after making a beeline to the Co-Creation (Cc) HUB, a six-story building on Herbert Macaulay Road that incubates startups, hosts investor gatherings, and organizes a kid’s coding camp, he has found the kind of people for whom he was looking. His people.
All of this comes as a shock to the young engineers and entrepreneurs at CcHUB. They have been told that this afternoon, the last Tuesday in August, an important Facebook executive will be visiting, but they have no clue that it will be the person that, in their most daring moments, they dream of becoming. Zuckerberg entered Nigeria in near total-stealth, not even a murmur on the rumor mill. And now here he is, strolling onto the sixth floor workspace. “Hi, I’m Mark!” he says. The greeting is hardly necessary. Things like this don’t happen in Nigeria.To see Zuckerberg in their workspace, in the crowded and cacophonous Yaba section of Lagos, was at once thrilling and disorienting for these techies, who struggle everyday against obstacles that are unimaginable to their brethren in San Francisco. Though Yaba is the hot tech neighborhood in Lagos, it bears zero resemblance to San Francisco’s SoMa startup hotbed. In the overcrowded mainland of Lagos — a city of 21 million— it’s a long bridge away from the center of commerce and luxury on “The Island,” the tony part of the city. In contrast to San Francisco, August is actually hothere. Retail sales are conducted from shacks, containers, and collective pop-up convenience stores that form around cars stalled in traffic. People cook on sidewalks from big kettles, and women carry goods on their heads.
For startups, there are particular challenges. Every hour or so, the power goes out. Most people do not have bank accounts or credit cards, so it’s hard to collect money from customers. Funding is elusive. The nearest Philz Coffee is 5,418 miles away. Though the energy and creativity of Nigerian founders are prodigious, there is a role model gap the size of a continent. “We have a trust issue,” says Ade Atobatele, an investor and founder familiar with the nascent startup scene in Lagos. “There’s no legacy system. People don’t believe they can succeed.”
Yet an ecosystem of new tech companies is emerging, based on talent and grit. As one founder puts it to me, “The economy is not so great, but my desperation is a way to give it a shot.” And here to see this rise is Mark Zuckerberg, offering what Atobatele will, after processing the event, call validation. Almost as one being, the young tech founders mob him. An orgy of selfie-snapping commences and they push forward to describe their companies. VR…carpooling…a Facebook Messenger bot to report sexual assaults. Zuckerberg, maintaining his blissful smile, nods at the descriptions, proclaiming each one awesome and turning his head to the next. Then his team ushers him to a lower floor, where a group of startups a bit farther along will give him more formal pitches.
Zuckerberg is particularly taken with Temie Giwa-Tubosun, a woman with a blood-tracking system called LifeBank which spans from potential donor to patient. She explains that her system will be a faster and cheaper way to deliver blood. He asks questions about health, the range she will cover, and other things, before he bestows his “awesome” to her plan.
Then it’s to the bottom floor, where children between 5 and 18 are completing a “Summer of Code,” learning to program and maybe one day join their elders on the floors above. Some of the tiniest students, either insufficiently briefed on the importance of their guest or just indifferent, hardly look up from their screens. Zuckerberg heads for a monitor shared by a pair of boys perhaps 7 or 8 years old. “Can you tell me what you’ve built?” he asks, bending down to their level. “A game,” says one, showing him animated characters moving on the screen. “How did you build it?” he asks.
“Can you show me the code?”
Other billionaires come to Africa to be photographed with emaciated babies in rural villages. Zuckerberg has come to a throbbing, chaotic megacity to check out the programming styles of children.