"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 hot here. 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.
Zuckerberg's trip was long in the making. For years now, Ime Archibong, a director of strategic partnerships at Facebook who has Nigerian family roots, has been bugging his boss to visit. In August, a window opened up. Zuckerberg was to attend the Lake Como, Italy, wedding of his friend, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. From there, he would head down to Rome, doing one of the town hall-style sessions he prefers over speeches. It made sense to extend the trip by a few days for an African sojourn.
Zuckerberg's interests are fiercely global. For several years, he has led the company on a mission to connect all of humanity to the internet, and, of course, to have the entire human race become flesh-and-blood data points on the vast graph of relationships that is Facebook. Nigeria has, by his estimate, only one fifth of its 170 million population connected. So it's a prime target for Zuckerberg's multi-pronged internet-for-all agenda that involves solar drones, rocket ships, and innovative business plans.
The most controversial part of Facebook's scheme is a scheme once called Internet.org and now dubbed Free Basics, offering a limited set of services from various internet companies with no data charges from the carriers and thereby enabling people with very little money to get the benefit of the net. This ultra-lite version of the internet is now operating in 49 countries. But despite two Zuckerberg trips to India, that country banned such "zero-rating" plans, citing criticisms that by including only a select few companies under its no-cost-for-data umbrella, programs like Free Basics violate net neutrality principles.
On this trip to Nigeria, though, Zuckerberg will not encounter a single opposition voice to Free Basics, which is now in 23 countries in Africa. "Africa is the opposite [of India in terms of opposition]," says Zuckerberg. Indeed, the only cavil I could find from a Nigerian was an essay written by well known "cyberspace lawyer" Timi Olagunju. The piece argued caution in adopting Free Basics. But when I met with Olagunju in Lagos, he clarified that by no means was he against Free Basics. After the piece, he was invited to share his thoughts with ministers and stakeholders who asked him, "Are we supposed to kick it out?" He said, "No, we should rather critique how to maximize the benefits, and minimize the disadvantages of it." One complaint was that in Nigeria only a single carrier, Airtel, offers Free Basics. (Zuckerberg says that Facebook would like more carriers, but doesn't call the shots on this.)
But while connectivity was a persistent leitmotif in Zuckerberg's African swing, the focus of the trip was interaction with developers and founders. Facebook wants software creators all over the world to write on its platform. Zuckerberg had heard about the startup energy emanating from Nigeria, and wanted to learn about it and encourage it. "Stuff happens here," he says.
Zuckerberg and his entourage move on to the local headquarters of Andela, a company co-founded by Nigerians that trains African engineers and contracts them out to tech companies in America and other countries. (It's pronounced like "Mandela" without the M.) Last June, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, a social impact corporation founded by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla, made its first major investment by putting $24 million into the two-year-old company. In a move that will endear him to his host country, Zuckerberg makes the four-block trip by foot, stepping around puddles, dodging traffic, and ignoring gawkers on Herbert Macaulay Road, undoubtedly the first American billionaire to make that stroll. Images snapped from windows above the street will soon go viral. (The next day, he will up the ante by going for a run on the Lekki-Ikoyi bridge.)
At Andela, Zuckerberg goes into private meetings while a room packed with engineers in the program nervously awaits his greetings. He is struck by the story of Blessing Ebowe. Even though Andela rejected her application, she showed up anyway, and was so persistent that the program took her and now she's acing it. "She wouldn't take no for an answer," Zuckerberg later marvels. His kind of person.
After the meetings he addresses the engineers and poses for the inevitable group shot. Then he's off to the last stop of the day: a tiny shop on a busy street corner where Rosemary Njoku has a small business taking sports bets. Lately, though, she has expanded to offer a new service: wifi connectivity. And that's what has led Mark Zuckerberg to her door.
Njoku is a pioneering retailer in a Facebook initiative called Express WiFi. The idea is to work with ISPs to allow small businesses to set up routers with wifi signals that, for a fee, will provide internet to locals who otherwise can't get online. The retailers get most of the money.
Right now there are only a few outlets, but Facebook hopes to have hundreds of thousands of people selling access, connecting tens of millions of customers — possibly even billions. The business is one of several aspects of Facebook's connectivity plan that is expected to benefit by the company's leasing of a new $200 million Israeli-built satellite called Amos-6. Once the bird is in orbit, Facebook plans to switch the wifi program from its current internet source to the new, more powerful satellite, which will hover over sub-Saharan Africa. At the very moment of Zuckerberg's arrival, Amos-6 is on a Cape Canaveral launch pad, on top of a SpaceX rocket (Elon Musk's company), slated to blast off that weekend.
Walking past curious bystanders, Zuckerberg enters Njoku's tiny business. The room has green walls and an unframed Express WiFi poster; it holds a table with a computer and router, and is barely wide enough for Zuckerberg to conduct a face-to-face conversation with Njoku and her friend, Joke Olayiwola, who runs the business next door and uses the wifi. It's hot in the room, and the sub-Saharan moisture makes everything clingy. Zuckerberg peppers Njoku with questions about how the business works. She explains how she beams wifi to the tiny front room, and the coverage goes a few meters outside the stand to the sidewalk, as well as the homes and businesses close enough to capture the signal. She now makes more from the wifi than the betting.
How many customers? he wants to know. Around three thousand. "That's a lot," says Zuckerberg, whose own corner shop is approaching two billion served. How do people know about it? She says that sometimes she blasts music out into the street and will have dancers outside the shop to draw attention.
"I'd like you to help me," says the world's sixth richest man to two women running tiny businesses in one of the world's poorest countries. "What advice can you give me to make this better for you?" "More meters," Njoku says. Zuckerberg looks at her quizzically. "More meters for the wifi, to reach a bigger space, more people," she added.
Expanding the coverage space of routers isn't exactly Facebook's business. "What else can we do?" he asks.
"Hashtags," she says. "Hashtag #itsup so people know the wifi is working."
Zuckerberg brightens. "That's something we can do."
Then it's time to pose for more pictures and head back to the SUV that will take him to his hotel on The Island.
Samson Abioye is among the 200 participants in the local tech scene invited to a small Facebook developers conference on August 31. Now it is the hottest ticket in town, with attendees assuming, correctly, that Zuckerberg will be around to take questions at the session ending the event.
Abioye's app, Pass.ng, tutors people for a test called Jamb, which is kind of a super-SAT. (If you get a low grade, no college for you.) A stripped-down version of the app is one of the first to be included among the limited services available through Free Basics. To Abioye, the news that Facebook's CEO is in town is a life-changing event. "When I saw the picture, I thought, it has been photoshopped!" he says. All discussion among the startup community from that moment centers on the visit. "You want to ship your product? Fuck that! Mark's in town!"
The developers see Zuckerberg as a rainmaker for future prosperity. "It's going to open the floodgates — Mark will lead other tech giants to come to the region," says Victor Mathias, a leading tech reporter whose only complaint is that he wasn't offered an interview.
In the town hall meeting, Zuckerberg is loose and jokey. He provides perhaps too much information when describing his diaper–changing technique (indulging in a nerd pun, he distinguishes between "P" and "non-P" approaches). The questions cover everything from virtual realty to whether he's sampled the local jollof rice (he has). When an audience member tries to turn a question into a pitch, Zuckerberg appreciates the chutzpah — 'That's the spirit I'm talking about," he says — and tells the guy to send an email. "But it only works for the first person who does it," he cautions.
Like a politician, Zuckerberg weaves the encounters of the day before into his answers, citing people like Blessing Ebowe, Rosemary Njoku, and Temi Gewa-Tubosun as examples of what he now sees as a national effort that can make credible gains in the global market. "If she can actually pull it off," he says of the latter, "that will impact not just Lagos and not just Nigeria, but countries all around the world."
That's why, he explains, it is so important to extend the internet to the entire world. He goes over Facebook's plans to do so, highlighting the Amos-6 satellite scheduled to launch in three days.
A telling moment comes from a questioner citing Facebook's opening its first African office in Johannesburg. "When you chose to launch in South Africa, we were really disappointed," says a woman asking a question. "People think South Africa is the core of Africa, but it's not — it's not even Third World!" She asks what he will do about this missed opportunity.
"I think you're right," replies Zuckerberg, and then explains.
"I try not to think of things as missed opportunities as much as things that we just haven't done yet. Here in Nigeria, 18 million people use Facebook. There's a lot more to go. . . . Part of the reason I'm here is that this is where a lot of the future is going to get built. You have to have patience with us — we're not going to build it — you guys are. If I'm back in five years and we haven't made a lot more progress, then be pretty disappointed... But connectivity, the economy, it isn't going to be built by companies like Facebook. We have a service that we can provide and we can empower people here — but the reason why I wanted to be with you guys here today is that you're building this."
His 70 minutes on stage end with a big verbal hug to these Nigerian techies, referencing that the session is being broadcast worldwide on Facebook Live. "People around the world need to see this," he says. "They need to see how much energy there is here and how strong the community here is. You guys are all doing awesome."
Between Zuckerberg and the Nigerian developers, it's hard to tell who is a bigger fan of whom.
After the town hall, the Facebook team goes across town to Afrinolly, an entertainment complex where Facebook has invited a group of video directors, deejays, actors, musicians, and a comedian called Basketmouth, presumably to learn more about its tools and services. Mark Zuckerberg will be a surprise guest.
Afrinolly's CEO is Chike Maduegbuna, a hefty gentleman wearing a dashiki. He created Afrinolly in 2011. Located near the studios of "Nollywood" — Nigeria's $3 billion movie industry— it has strong connections with the nation's biggest celebrities, some of whom are in attendance. All are eager to meet Mr. Zuckerberg.
Maduegbuna gives Zuckerberg and his team a tour of the building, which has studios to produce in every imaginable medium, including VR. At one point, the group snakes down a steel spiral staircase to a recording studio. Behind a large white screen, a hip-hop artist and producer named IllBliss is behind a mix table, rapping. (Note: this story originally misidentified him.) Zuckerberg quizzes him about his social media strategy. He is particularly interested in why IllBliss uses Instagram as opposed to Facebook, a subject to which he apparently has been giving some thought. As they are discussing the relative virtues of each platform for celebrities, the power goes out. There is an embarrassed silence, as the sudden plunge into darkness exposes the otherwise state-of-the-art production house as a hostage to a national infrastructure that's not yet ready for primetime. "That's Nigeria," one of the locals says. But Zuckerberg is unruffled — in one motion he pulls out his phone and flicks on the flashlight app. Before he has a chance to use it, the power quickly returns.
After the tour, Zuckerberg and all the celebrities pose for a group shot among giant balloons. It will blow up on Instagram.
From the studio, Zuckerberg and his team go to the airport for a quick trip to Kenya. (I don't accompany him on this leg of the trip.) It begins the next morning with a quickie animal safari at Lake Naivasha, 60 miles north of Nairobi. It is the most touristy thing Zuckerberg does on the continent. By lunch time, he is back in Nairobi, eating with the telecommunications minister. Then more talks with developers, including a startup that uses mobile payments to save money on cooking gas charges. Because Facebook is thinking hard about payments via its Messenger and WhatsApp mobile apps, Zuckerberg wants to learn what it is like to build a system from scratch. "That was looking into the future a little bit," he later says.
Not long after those meetings, that future looks a little bleaker from Zuckerberg's point of view. Headed back from Nairobi to Nigeria's capital, Abuja, Zuckerberg receives the news that the Amos-6 satellite has blown up on the launchpad during a fueling test. Facebook's major push to connect sub-Saharan Africa has literally gone up in flames. He immediately begins to draft Facebook post that leaves no doubt who's at fault:
As I'm here in Africa, I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.
That explosion is the first thing I ask him about when I join Zuckerberg and his inner circle at his hotel room in Abuja that night, eating Nigerian food and drinking the local beer. "I think I've gone through the five stages of grief," he says. Pause. "Well, maybe not acceptance." Still, his demeanor is upbeat, and the discussion moves to what he's finding in Nigeria. "Did you feel the energy?" he asks.
"This has been pretty eye-opening," he says. "One of the things I'm happy about is on this trip I got to talk to real people. I went to Rome and got to talk to the Pope and the prime minister. I mean, they're people and awesome… but here I got to talk a lot of developers and engineers. That was the goal."
All the while, of course, Zuckerberg has his business in mind. As much as he now loves Nigeria, he is eager to boost its participation in Facebook. About 10 percent of Nigerians are on the service — that 18 million he mentioned earlier. It's only half what Zuckerberg guesses is the 20 percent of the population with access to internet. "I can't think of any country in the world, where we're not blocked, where fewer than half of the people on the internet use Facebook," he says. It goes without saying that he'd like that improved. It will be a little harder without Amos-6.
Zuckerberg's last stop in Africa is the Nigerian Presidential Palace compound in Abuja. Nigeria's capital feels different from the crammed, cheerful bustle of coastal Lagos: built 475 miles inland, it is a planned city with wide boulevards and fortified compounds. Zuckerberg is to meet the president and then accompany the vice president to Aso Villa Demo Day, a software fair ending in a ceremony to honor 30 winners of a national competition between civic-based startups who answered the question, "If you could pitch one idea to the president, what would it be?"
President Muhammadu Buhari has been under pressure since he retook office in 2015. He promised to reform the country's endemic corruption, a Herculean task that isn't coming easy. This week, newspapers are proclaiming that the country is entering its worst recession in 29 years. And then there's his failure to rescue the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped in the town of Chibok by the Boko Haram extremist opposition group. The Zuckerberg visit is a gift. Buhari expresses an eagerness to open discussions of collaboration on how the country could help with the Free Basics effort, and Facebook now expects something might happen in the next few months.
Buhari praises Zuckerberg for not ostentatiously displaying his wealth — as rich Nigerians commonly do. "In our culture, we are not used to seeing successful people appear like you," he says, despite the fact that Zuckerberg, for the second time in a week, is wearing a suit. (The previous sartorial upgrade was for the Pope.) Referencing Zuckerberg's jog across the bridge, he adds, "We are not used to seeing successful people jogging and sweating on the streets." Clearly this guy has not been to Silicon Valley.
After seeing the president, Zuckerberg accompanies the vice president — a former lawyer familiar with technology — to the Demo Day ceremony. It is a fairly formal event, with multiple renditions of the national anthem. Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, one of the Andela founders who left earlier in the summer to do a payment startup, delivers a provocative speech, criticizing Nigeria for its resistance to change. "Young people are not allowed in the room," he says. He argues that it will be up to engineers to rebuild their society, "because we can't rely on anyone else."
Finally, Zuckerberg takes the stage. With each of his appearances in Nigeria, his praise of the country's spirit has become more hyperbolic. "This trip has really blown me away," he says. "The talent of the entrepreneurs in this country is...not only going to shake Nigeria and Africa, but the whole world." Then he addresses the dozens of techies in the audience. "I believe in you," he says.
With those words, the trip is over. Zuckerberg is off to the plane that will return him to California.
Nigeria won't forget him soon. A few weeks after the trip I run into Ime Archibong at a San Francisco event where Zuckerberg and Chan announced a $3 billion investment to "stop disease in our children's lifespan." Archibong points me to a Facebook post from an entrepreneur who proclaimed that hereafter, the Nigerian tech scene will be bifurcated into two eras: Before Zuckerberg and anno Zuckerberg.
It isn't the Free Basics program or the Messenger platform or whether or not a Facebook satellite rains internet on Africa from outer space that matters to the engineers and entrepreneurs that Zuckerberg visited. It's the fact that he came. In Silicon Valley, founders learn to think big; to take risks; to use grit and coding skills and a sense of the marketplace so they can chase the unicorn's horn. They want to do that here in Nigeria, too. But first, they need validation.
Mark Zuckerberg said he believed in them. But he could have said anything. From the moment he strolled into Yaba unannounced, his trip was a success.
Photographs by Charles Ommanney, courtesy of Facebook