As Nigerians head to the polls, they will be taking part in one of the most highly anticipated Presidential races the country has ever seen. Comprised of a population of around 220 million people, what happens in Nigeria, inevitably, has a ripple effect felt far beyond its borders. However, with over half of young Nigerians under the age of 24 being unemployed, insecurity, endemic corruption, a nationwide cash shortage that is wreaking havoc at banks and with citizens, zero healthcare, crumbling educational systems, no electricity or clean drinkable water, it is clear, this President-elect has his work cut out for him. With such a list of political and socio-economic problems that are plaguing Nigeria, it begs the question, how are we going to get out of this hole?
Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Keys to Development
The Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT believes that innovation and entrepreneurship are key to developing a country’s ecosystem. For a country to survive, its ecosystem should maintain a delicate balance between different stakeholders: entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, universities and government. I had the rare opportunity to visit three countries that are working every day to put innovation and entrepreneurship at the forefront of their agenda: The United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Senegal.
As an MIT Legatum Foundry Fellow, each visit had me retrospectively thinking about how they’ve been able to improve versus why we’re still getting wrong in Nigeria. I learned that in their own unique ways, each country is showing how the government can work in tandem with the private sector, to drive the goals of visionary leaders that Nigeria’s President-elect could learn a lot from.
In the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, prayers are said 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Imams, prayer leaders and up to 50,000 people a day come there, some of whom pray for the soul of the departed leader Sheikh Zayed. The Sheikh had a vision for his country: to build a new reality for his people, a new future for their children and a new model for development. One man’s vision decades ago, transformed the destiny of generations coming after him.
In the UAE, those goals carry through today. The country has created what they call their ‘2031 Vision,’ a national development plan for the next 10 years, with an eye on the power of tech. Today, Dubai has a Ministry of Artificial Intelligence, and they didn’t just stop there. The country has also established the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence. An institution that is fully dedicated to advancing A.I. and using it as a force for good. It’s such a critical time for that industry, with companies like ChatGPT and Midjourney now dominating conversations around the future of tech, with even Meta recently announcing new A.I. products are being developed for Instagram and WhatsApp. It is clear that A.I. is going to quickly become an invaluable and crucial piece of technology for industries and countries.
Outside Dubai, Sharjah is another notable city in the region, that shows the government’s push to support innovation and entrepreneurship. In Sharjah, they’re working to bring in entrepreneurs from outside the UAE and support them through initiatives like the Khalifa Fund and other opportunities given to entrepreneurs and Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs). This openness ensures that Abu Dhabi emerges as a thriving destination so that people coming from outside the region can equally benefit and contribute to building the economy.
Beyond tech and business, Abu Dhabi is also positioning itself more and more as a touristic and artistic destination. For a long time, people have often only associated countries in the Middle East with oil; but, within the last few decades, Abu Dhabi is working to change that narrative. From the Louvre to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, one sees how Abu Dhabi is also actively looking beyond oil, diversifying its economy and attracting tourists to visit and enjoy what the country has to offer.
It’s a similar story in Egypt, where they’re also building on their history to move them into the future. One clear example of this is in the majestic Sultan Hussein Kamel Palace. A historic site that has been around since the early 1900s… And today, it has been morphed into a modern platform for entrepreneurs, offering incubation programs for Egyptian start-ups. The Palace also has a working partnership with Egypt’s IT, Industry and Development Agency (ITIDA). Through this, up-and-coming businesses get access to support through a competitive application process. And, they’re actively impacting businesses. At this point, ITIDA has worked with hundreds of local start-ups. It also helps that it’s located right opposite the University of Cairo. Being this close to the school also means being close to young, curious minds to easily explore whether start-up life is for them. All of this was a real eye-opener and a sad cry for what we call universities and research institutes back home in Nigeria.
Finally, not too far from us in Nigeria is Senegal – but, compared to us, they’re making leaps and bounds when it comes to innovation at multiple levels. Although it’s considered a developing country, its ecosystem is thriving. The Senegalese government is deliberate in making sure women and young people are included through the Office of Digital Economy and Youth Employability. The government is also highly focused on bringing marginalized groups into the financial system, especially in a country where 97 per cent of enterprises are in the informal sector according to the International Labour Organization. In Senegal, resources are made available to women, and small and microscale enterprises, at no interest, something Nigeria could benefit from as so much business here is also done informally.
Like the UAE and Egypt, Senegal also values the importance of a solid education for building the next generation of leaders. Dakar American University of Science and Technology was founded by Dr Sidy Ndao and was started with less than $50,000 of his own money. His goal? To educate future engineers, scientists, astronauts and people of African heritage. Implementing an American style of education with a reputation for excellence, students come out with a five-year engineering degree with critical thinking abilities, and strong communication and entrepreneurship skills from a university focused on practical learning.
The entrepreneur is one of the most critical stakeholders in driving a thriving innovation ecosystem in any nation; how they’re perceived, conceived and frankly, whether the government supports them or not. In Nigeria, it’s sad to realize that there’s a huge bias against entrepreneurs. Most have very little or no capital, they can’t access funds; and even if start-up funds are available, the entrepreneur is knocked down by huge costs in the form of multiple taxes, federal tax, state taxes, local government fees, business licensing, infrastructural license fees, business-related licensing and other tax obligations; fees can topple any business within two years of starting out.
In witnessing different ecosystems, it’s clear that of the three, Nigeria could learn the most from the UAE, as it’s closer than ever to the original vision of Sheikh Zayed. His vision stated very clearly that he hoped to build a new future for people, and a new model of development. Through his goals, the UAE has embraced the use of technology to the point that they have an entire Ministry dedicated to A.I. linked to the Prime Minister’s office. Their government has embraced innovation as the hallmark of development; their ‘2031 Vision’ aims to transform the country from a dependency on oil to a knowledge-based economy. In Sharjah, they’ve set up an entrepreneurship centre providing support to entrepreneurs to gain access to finance, working spaces, investors, legal support and more.
Please, say a prayer for Nigeria.
Our next leader must have a clear vision. He must be insightful and ingenious; one who will unite the nation with a strong mission and purpose. Lee Kuan Yew had a vision for Singapore, and Sheikh Zayed had a vision for Abu Dhabi. Will the incoming President of Nigeria be able to step into the role and be a visionary? Not just to lead, but unite our country with a vision so strong that it overpowers tribe, language, cultural and religious bias. Our leaders must practice adaptive leadership, have a purpose, be in line with current realities, and be intentional about our future.
Written by: Bolanle Austen-Peters, MIT Legatum Foundry Fellow, Founder, Terra Kulture and BAP Productions.