Photograph — BCG

Lagos State is Africa’s biggest innovation hub. The Technology ecosystem in the state has witnessed significant advancement not just by the ingenuity of Lagosians but by direct investment from the Government, Venture funds, Development Finance Institutions, Strategic corporate partnerships and an array of ever-growing innovative communities. The Babajide Sanwo-Olu-led government in Lagos initiated the T.H.E.M.E.S agenda as part of plans to change the socio-economic narratives of the state and the results have been striking. Olatunbosun Alake is the Special Adviser to the Governor on Innovation and Technology. In this interview, he speaks on the rationale behind the Lagos State Technology and Innovation masterplan and why the state is leading innovation across Africa.

Tell us about your background and what your role as Special Adviser to the Governor on Innovation and Technology entails.

As the special adviser to Governor Babajide Sanwoolu on Innovation and technology, my portfolio entails driving technology and innovation outcomes for the state.  This involves implementing numerous technology projects and essentially helping to catalyze the technology ecosystem in the state through different interventions.

Before I joined the Government in 2019, I was in the private sector. Delivering value across the technology value chain. I was the General Manager of one of the largest cinema chains, Filmhouse and FilmOne, and General Manager of IT and innovation. Prior to that, I worked in telecoms and also across business intelligence, media and learning and development.

Olatubosun Alake, Special Adviser to the Governor Babaji Sanwo-Olu on Innovation and Technology.
Olatubosun Alake, Special Adviser to the Governor Babaji Sanwo-Olu on Innovation and Technology.

How would you describe the Level of Innovation in Lagos in the last 5 years?

The innovation capacity of Lagos from the African context is really strong, considering that a great number of the startups from Africa, come from Nigeria and Lagos specifically. In 2022 about 88 per cent of inward venture investments that came into Nigeria came to Lagos-based startups and this is quite impressive.  Within the last 5 years, we witnessed the spread of strong software as a service platform, solid fintech startups and the ability to use and leverage technological tools to solve major problems as becoming strong tenets of our ecosystem.

While Nigeria is strong in the African context, in the global context there is quite a bit of work to be done and here is why; Today we are very good adopters of technology, and we are experts at using technological tools to drive innovation .and business outcomes. We however need to shift the pendulum more towards technology creation and invention, this constitutes a significant part of my work with the Lagos State Government. This is why Research and Development (R&D) is a very important component of what I do.

What has been your strategy towards digital transition and how is the state enabling inclusion?

One of the things that we have been addressing over the past couple of years has been digital skills training for young people. Today through the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund, we have implemented about 4000 beneficiary skills training across our digital skills interventions. These beneficiaries have learned digital skills from coding to artificial intelligence, from digital design to digital marketing. We believe that for us to be able to drive digital inclusion we need people that are digitally savvy.

We have also ensured the inclusion of young startups in the execution of some of our digital initiatives. The “Cowry Card” for instance, was implemented by a young technology startup called Touch and Pay technologies. Touch and pay basically built that digital payment framework from the ground up, which ultimately speaks to using local solutions to solve problems within our digitization agenda. Touch and Pay technologies are run by young entrepreneurs who have shown innovative prowess in solving problems. The startup essentially built a fintech backend that has enabled cashless transactions on the BRT system alongside waterways transportation. This technology has also been integrated into the rail passenger service that is now going through the testing phase.

We have been digitizing Government processes and it is exciting to have some startups partner with us in driving these implementations. In 2019, the state held a transportation pitch to see how young startups could solve transportation problems. The runner-up of that hackathon developed the entire digital platform and commercial operation that the LagRide service is operating. This is part of our deliberate efforts to include young people and innovative startups in our digitization journey.  We believe that to create value in Lagos, technology and innovation must be leveraged, with young people as active collaborators in our digitization.

In the areas of policies and relevant frameworks, how is the state providing an enabling environment for innovation and technology?

One of the major things that we have pushed is the localization of the startup bill because most of the stakeholders are in Lagos and we envisage that the Lagos startup bill will be passed before the end of this year to help drive the proliferation of startups in Lagos. Apart from the general provisions provided by the federal government, we are drilling down on specificity that affects our environment and looking at additional incentives for startups that engage in Research and Development.

Another thing we have been looking at is free trade zones for startups in Lagos. One of the areas that we are starting with is Yaba. Yaba has been in focus for us because it has some of the highest numbers of startups in the state. So, we decided to concentrate on Yaba as our first free trade zone in Lagos, where international capital can come in without any hindrances and we are working with the Federal Government to achieve this. We also help some of the businesses that qualify for pioneer startups to enjoy tax holidays and other benefits

What is the role of innovation and technology in the overall development of Lagos and what trends do you predict would drive innovation in the coming years?

 From where I sit, innovation and technology are more of a catalyst for economic growth. The idea is not just to implement projects but to catalyze the spread of innovation. For us, innovation means using technology tools to create economic value for the state across several sectors, while creating new pots of wealth. Whether it is in the area of circular economy and trying to dimension waste out of the environment, Lagos has been aggressive in catalyzing circular economy companies that use technology to reduce waste and help the environment.

Predictions of increased efficiency of government to citizens services through the use of technology range between 30-55% and in some cases up to 100% where newly created processes through technology are realized. 

In terms of disruption, one of the technological concepts that can put a positive dent in our economic trajectory could be blockchain and artificial intelligence. These technologies have the potential to disrupt a lot of industries. The artificial intelligence learning models and neural networks that are behind ChatGpt for instance, are also very exciting and can be applied to every sector. Whether it is Robo-doctors that can take over more routine diagnoses to free up doctors for more complex procedures; these present opportunities in also reducing the cost of healthcare. In the years to come, I strongly believe that AI and blockchain will drive more disruption as game changers for economic advancement globally and Lagos will continue to adopt these trends as we find positive applications for them.

How would you describe the overall environment for technology and innovation in Lagos?

The government is running a largely inclusive economy. Through the Lagos State Science Research and Innovation Council (https://lasric.lagosstate.gov.ng/), several startups in the state have received significant direct funding for their innovative products and services, their MVPs and their R&D work. Funding numbers have ranged in value from around $5000 for MVPs up to N50 million in R&D funding for applied research initiatives. Startups such as PricePally (an Agri-tech Startup aggregating purchasing transactions for customers to save money), Farmz2U (another Agri-tech Startup recently accepted into the Catalyst fund) and Shifa-Tech, a med tech startup that designed a non-electric ventilator and received the Royal Academy of Engineering prize in the U.K. are testaments to Lagos’ government enabling environment and the Governor’s belief in Innovation as an economic driver.

Yaba as an innovation cluster is a thoughtful and deliberate strategy of the Lagos State Government. The Government was involved from the beginning providing relevant infrastructure to help actualize its digital objectives. For example, when Main One provided high capacity and quality fibre optic cable in Yaba, the Lagos State Government was a partner and approver of the right of way in that project. An initiative that enabled startups to mushroom in the area due to the increased connectivity. So, whether it is fintech, Agri-tech, EdTech or any other startups that have a civic impact, the Government is enabling startups to thrive in alignment with its digital agenda. The government has also implemented other programs such as international investment roadshows as well as partner hackathons with innovation hubs.

Between 2019 and now we have seen around $3.2 billion in VC investment come into Lagos and this is an indication of not just the sheer number of startups but a testament to the market availability and allowable environment for innovation and business growth.

What accounts for the consistency in technological advancement for Lagos State

Across the world, there has been consistent advancement in innovation and technology and Lagos state has not been left out. The developments in Lagos are indicative of a focused government that is passionate about leading impactful developments.

As opposed to a whole lot of other states, Lagos has predictability to a large extent in projects, initiatives and policies and you need that predictability for business. It is no accident that all of the telecom giants have their headquarters in Lagos, as well as other multinationals and corporates. We’ve seen different cities rise and fall. To consistently maintain an attractive socio-economic environment for business, a certain consistency in an enabling environment must persist. This is evident in Lagos.

If you were to take up your current role in another state, what would you advise the Government to do towards advancing digitization?

I have received one or two requests from other states to contribute to program dimensioning. I have also been invited to panel sessions to speak on discourses around technology and innovation. My advice for any state interested in leveraging innovation to drive economic growth and development is to first do an on-ground assessment to ascertain the state of their respective ecosystems.

Further to this, it is imperative to codesign and codimension a plan of action and implementation with the private sector and here is why. The private sector also has to own your developmental agenda, otherwise, it becomes a siloed implementation. Also, it is very important to separate the digitization agenda into pillars, infrastructure, funding, data access, legislation, diversity and inclusion.

Across all those pillars there must be projects with certain goals objectives and clear KPIs that can be measured at agreed timelines. For example, our implementation of fibre optic cables in Lagos was done to increase connectivity and drive down the cost of the internet in Lagos. This is part of a connectivity KPI. Other implementations must be tied together by a coherent unified plan and strategy

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