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Nigerian High Tech Entrepreneur Seeks Profit, Progress


In Africa, the number of private technology companies is increasing as entrepreneurs and technology workers cash in on this growing sector. For VOA Naomi Schwarz tells the story of one such entrepreneur from Nigeria, Chijioke Eke, who attended a technology conference in Burkina Faso.

When Chijioke Eke majored in computer science and economics at one of Nigeria's top universities, it was a risky move.

"I had some running arguments with my father," he recalled. "He was like, gee, where are you going to get employment if you do not get employed by Shell, Mobil, Chevron. Where else?"

It was the early 1980s, and personal computers were just becoming available. Even in the United States and Europe, some people doubted that such technology had a future. In Africa, where many children were not able even to attend elementary school, and where electricity and telephone service was rare, such technology seemed like an even more distant dream.

But Eke says he knew things would not always stay this way.

"I am so excited that these days now people are beginning to see what we saw then," he added. "To say, hey, we cannot continue to be at the backwaters of information dissemination and processing. We just have to find a way, no matter how belated, to join."

For Eke, the gamble on technology paid off quickly. Soon after he graduated, he got a job with an international consulting firm. He later held posts at the oil exploration and production arm of Shell in Nigeria and, in the early nineties, at one of Nigeria's top
information technology companies.

By the mid-1990s, Eke and a few of his colleagues decided the time was right to take another gamble. They teamed up, Eke says, to found their own information and communication company, called Sidmach Technologies. The company works with the government and private companies to help them develop computer and Internet strategies.

"It was not easy. I remember those days we had just the five of us, used to sit around one table, and think of, 'now what,'" he said.

Eke says one of the projects he is proudest of at his company was the complete digital overhaul of the high-school examination system. The exam, standard across many Anglophone countries in West Africa, is required for entrance into colleges and universities.

In Nigeria, more than 1 million students take the exam every year, and registration paperwork for all these students used to take more than six months. Now the entire process is done with computers, in a project designed and partly financed by Eke's company, and the processing time is less than six weeks.

This makes the exam less expensive for the government and the student. It also is a safeguard against fraud, as every student is required to submit a photograph, and examiners can compare the photograph to the student who takes the exam.

Eke says he and his colleagues had a vision of a company that would not only make a profit, but have a social mission as well. He says this kind of community-oriented thinking is crucial if Africa is going to catch up to the West in the technology sector.

"I call it the crab syndrome," he explained. "When you have a basket of crabs, each one tries to climb out at the expense of the other. And anyone that manages to tumble out, go look closely, has lost a limb or two. So why do not I be patient, you climb on me, get out, and then you give me a helping hand."

But Eke says it is equally importantly that more advanced countries realize that their fate is also tied to progress in Africa.

"There is no way you are going to have very advanced society in terms of information gathering, dissemination, and processing and you have another continent sitting there with nothing," he added. "Somehow the developed areas are going to suffer disruptions. Because they also need information in and out of Africa."

Eke says he has great hopes for progress in Africa, but he also realizes much needs to be done.

Millions of Africans live on less than $1 a day. They cannot afford computers, even at low-cost Internet cafes. Low literacy rates, lack of electricity and phone lines are also factors that limit access to technology for many Africans.

The vision Eke had in the early 1980s of an Africa driven by computer technology is still far from being realized, but the advances he has seen make him confident in the future.

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