Upping Our Collective Game Part 2 – Can We Create Our Own Silicon Valley?

A few months ago, I went to the E-Center in Yaba to hang out with OoTheNigerian. He told me to meet him at a self service laundry in the building, run by his friend, Ebun Okubanjo. I entered the place, and the first thing I noticed was that it had Wi-Fi for it’s customers — Oo was there working on his computer, and there were a couple of other people using their tablets. And surprise, surprise, there were a bunch of guys, including the laundry’s owner, drinking beer and arguing about technology.

I got to learn that Ebun is a closet techie, and not only did I have a great time arguing loudly with him, I got to meet a number of smart guys in local tech, including the co-founder of Private Property, and we exchanged cards. On my way home that night, I remember thinking — how cool it would be if that sort of gig happened every night, but in many more informal, nondescript settings just like that laundry?

Personally, I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood where there’s hackers who live downstairs, a gadget shop across the road, and a cafe with free Wi-Fi just around the corner. Time has been devoted to the study of whether or not geography does fuel innovation, and it’s been found not only is geography a strong factor, innovation is also inherently a social process.

Think about it. What if we could have a proliferation of informal focus points where devs can go to hang out simply because there’ll be a lot of other devs, VCs, inspirational figures, free wi-fi and such there too? They wouldn’t just skulk around there, they’d be going about their normal business — eating, working, having meetings, buying groceries or just hanging out at these places.

These places won’t carry the official label of “hubs”, but that’s what they’ll be, nonetheless. Get nerds, VCs and business types to hang out in these sorts of places long enough, and boom — Silicon Valley. And if I had to choose a particular location where that sort of thing is most likely to evolve right now, it would be the Yaba/Surulere axis.

Not only is that area a central location in Lagos, it is silently becoming a hot bed of startups, modern business, and technology concerns. There’s Paga, Private Property, Bloovue, Wakanow, and many more tech startups than I can recollect right now, in that area. There areat least two notable higher institutions — the University of Lagos, and the Yaba College of Technology. Don’t forget, the almighty Co Creation Hub sits right in the middle. And then there are scads of what I’ll describe as tech-complementary businesses, like cafes, delis, malls, and laundries, scattered around. Just throw some free Wi-Fi into each of those places, and watch the nerds troop in.

While I think that in a way, the whole of Lagos is our own Silicon Valley, I daresay the Yaba/Surulere axis could have the makings of our own bay area-type innovation cluster. To quote a friend on Twitter, we could call it Silicon Nalley. But even beyond that corny quip, just take a look at the CCHub’s Lagos innovation map to get an idea of how a potentially explosive mix of creative, academic and technology businesses are clustering around Yaba and Surulere.

Sure the area has it’s own issues. It’s certainly not the most beautiful, the most high brow or the most serene part of Lagos for starters. And it’s got more than its fair share of traffic snarls, due to the high volume of business and traffic to and from the Island. And like an entrepreneur I talked to recently observed, vacant office space in that area is more common that unicorns. Housing isn’t easy to find either.

I still think the place  has some essential stuff going for it however. The area is fairly middle class, and things are generally priced more sanely than on the  vaunted Lagos Island, which puts the cost of living within better reach of geeks on a budget. There’s a lot of high level business activity going on there, in almost any sector you can imagine. It’s got not one, but three academic institutions, if you count the College of Education that is also just a stone throw away from UNILAG.

Replicating Silicon Valley is hard because it’s difficult to get the necessary ingredients together. To create another Silicon valley, you’d have to find lots of nerds, lots of investors, and then figure out how to get them to live in a place that is conducive to startup activity. That it won’t be easy is the understatement of the year. However, Yaba/Lere seem to have some of these elements in place. Definitely not at the right mix or levels, but the area has a better chance of becoming a Nigerian Silicon Valley than any other I can think of. The universities aren’t quite pulling their weight, but they are there. There are businesses there, but a few more VC-focused ones wouldn’t hurt. And if I search more, I’m certain I’ll find more  interesting places like Ebun’s Wi-Fi enabled laundry.

This Silicon Nalley idea might have a fairly quixotic ring to it, but I think it’s worth a thought, especially if we could somehow find a way to deliberately stimulate startup hotspot growth, not just in Yaba/Lere, but in other parts of Lagos and across the country. What do you think?

I plan to visit Ebun’s laundry more often in the days to come. If you’re gonna show up, be sure to bring your dirty clothes too. One last thing. If you’re into tech, happen to be in the Yaba/Lere area, you wanna hang out sometime, and don’t mind buying your own drinks/booze, I’m always up for that —  just holla.