Iyalaya Anybody: Pencils, Nigerian Innovation, & Africa’s Path in the 21st Century
Being the keynote lecture delivered at the 5th Innovention Series of Verdant Zeal, Lagos, Nigeria on Tuesday, March 22, 2016
You must excuse the obscenity, “iyalaya anybody”, in my title. When you invite a well-known scholar of African popular cultures to address such a distinguished assembly of actors and professionals in Nigeria’s corporate and entrepreneurial world, you must be prepared to be illuminated by the philosophical nuggets often hidden in the lingos and cultures of the African street. You must be prepared for some discomfiture.
In its pristine cultural bacground in the Yoruba world, “iyalaya” is an obscenity hurled at your opponent in a brawl to display contempt for his or her maternal lineage. It is usually accompanied by the insulting palm and five-finger flash we call “waka” in the face of your opponent. The consequence, as you all know, is often a bloody nose and an unscheduled trip to the hospital. However, as cultures evolve across generations, new meanings emerge and old words or expressions and are sent on new errands by the human imagination.
Thus, in its contemporary usage in Nigerian popular culture, “iyalaya anybody” speaks directly to the spirit and theme of Verdant Zeal’s 5th Innovention Series: “The Next Big Thing: Identifying Africa’s Untapped Potential.” Within this broad thematic framing around the African continent, I was further mandated by the organizers of this event to try and think through the particular issue of a path for Nigerian innovation in the 21st century.
I was asked to ponder some questions: what promises does Nigerian innovation hold and in which directions could it lead our society? What are the challenges to Nigerian innovation? Indeed, during one of my many telephone conversations with Verdant Zeal’s Mr. Dipo Adesida on the subject matter of this lecture, he had even told me pointblank: “Prof, we want you to answer the question: what’s the next big thing for Nigeria?” I gave him a confounding answer: “iyalaya anybody”!
It was not immediately clear to Mr. Adesida – and I am sure it is not clear to you too as yet – how “iyalaya anybody”, a slang from the popular culture factory of a certain Nigerian youth demographic that loves to display its swagger on social media, can be said to be the next big thing in Nigerian, nay African innovation. Permit me to sustain your suspense a bit. The longer you are unable to figure out the connection between “iyalaya anybody” and the theme of this conference, the more time I have to make my case and explore matters in detail!
Suffice it to say, for now, that starting with your beautiful neologism, “innovention”, the theme of this event features at least three of the conceptual keywords which 21st-century modernity and civilization ritually use to capture the futuristic flights of the human imagination, as well as the feats that are shaping our collective human future in the provinces of invention, innovation, entrepreneurship, and potential.
Invention. Innovation. Entrepreneurship. Potential. Add globalizing economy, competitive knowledge economy, technology-driven development, and knowledge-based economy to these four keywords and you would have established a broad handle on how peoples, nations, states, and other actors and participants in the global marketplace of human advancement are remapping and reshaping notions such as growth, development, and prosperity. These keywords speak to something I propose we call a global scramble for the future of humanity. Peoples, nations, states, corporations, multilateral organizations – and just about everything and everybody in between – are in a scramble to envision the future of humanity in line with the conceptual benchmarks of the aforementioned keywords.
The UN, with her sustainable development goals, strikes me as the least ambitious in terms of how far into the future she wants to venture: the UN wants to fundamentally change the world in seventeen sustainable steps by 2030. In essence, the SDGs are a fifteen-year agenda. Europe is slightly more ambitious. She does not stop at 2030 in her own roadmap to the future. The European Commission’s vision document is entitled: “The Knowledge Future: Intelligent Policy Choices for Europe 2050”. Incidentally, China also has Vision 2050. For the United Arab Emirates, it is Vision 2021, mapped out in a document built around what she calls a “competitive knowledge economy”.
Africa is not left out of this scramble for the future. Indeed, in my comparative study of what I am calling the global texts of the scramble for the future, the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063 – a fifty-year envisioning of the future of the continent and her peoples launched in 2013 – is by far one of the most ambitious agenda-setting texts. Furthermore, while studying these agenda texts – I studied many more than the few I have listed here – the literary critic in me did not fail to observe that the omniscient narrator speaking about Africa’s future in Agenda 2063 speaks compellingly from a position of agency.
The confident perspective of the voice speaking in Agenda 2063 is an indication that the African continent is very much aware of a global scramble for a future powered by invention, innovation, genius, and entrepreneurial efflorescence; a future that will be determined and shaped by those who understand and position themselves as central players in a global growth and development scenario driven almost exclusively by competitive knowledge economies and economies of competitive knowledge. In this picture, Africa seems to be saying that she has a stake and an edge.
In essence, if you compare the narrative voices in, say, Europe 2050 and Africa’s Agenda 2063, the latter seems to be saying to the former: if you think that the nature and the order of things in the next fifty years are going to be the way you have programmed them in the last five hundred years, with you on the throne and me always groveling in poverty and backwardness at your feet, you’ve got another think coming! To the extent that the race to the second half of the 21st century and beyond is going to be powered by genius, innovation, invention, and knowledge, and not by slave ships, Gatling guns, natural resources, and colonial punitive expeditions, I, Africa, have all it takes to be an agent and a central stakeholder in the said race.
In other words, the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063 seems to be beating its chest and saying “iyalaya anybody” to all the other agenda-setting texts and literature from Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East. How does one account for the optimism, hope, and confidence which powers Agenda 2063 despite the persistent realities on the ground in Africa? To answer this question, we need to take a closer look at what unites these vision documents from various parts of the world. Let me lift a sample language from the chapter on “competitive knowledge economy” in the UAE’s Vision 2021 document:
“The global economy will witness significant economic changes in the coming years and the UAE Vision 2021 National Agenda aims for the UAE to be at its heart. As a result, it focuses on the UAE becoming the economic, touristic and commercial capital for more than two billion people by transitioning to a knowledge-based economy, promoting innovation and research and development, strengthening the regulatory framework for key sectors, and encouraging high value-adding sectors. These will improve the country’s business environment and increase its attractiveness to foreign investment.
The National Agenda also aims for the UAE to be among the best in the world in entrepreneurship as this plays a key role in unlocking the potential of nationals and enables them to be a driving force of the UAE’s economic development through small and medium enterprises in the private sector. Furthermore, the Agenda strives to instill an entrepreneurial culture in schools and universities to foster generations endowed with leadership, creativity, responsibility and ambition. This will allow the UAE to be among the best in the world in ease of doing business, innovation, entrepreneurship and R&D indicators.
Moreover, the government aims not only to achieve leading positions in global reports, but to also provide a good life for its citizens. Therefore the National Agenda seeks to place the UAE among the top countries in the world in income per capita and ensure high levels of national participation in the private sector workforce.”
This is how the UAE frames her path to 2021. Now, let’s hear from the European Commission. Here, we need not go beyond the Foreword to Europe’s Vision 2050 text, written by the European Commissioner, before we encounter language very similar to the language of the UAE document:
“Foresight is an important tool to help us face the future with confidence, understand opportunities and risks, and help us develop our medium to long term strategies for research, science and innovation policy. It takes many guises: trends, signals, scenarios, visions, road-maps and plans are all parts of the tool-box for looking to the future. In addition to these tools, using foresight requires an in-depth reflection on the policy implications and related scenarios. This report ‘The Knowledge Future: intelligent policy choices for Europe 2050’ is an excellent example of such a reflection.
Europe’s research, innovation and higher education systems are the foundation of our economic and social prospects, shaping our ability to tackle numerous challenges at both local and international level. Globalization, demographic changes and technological advances pose important challenges and opportunities for research and innovation in Europe. By reflecting on the trends and articulating scenarios, this report helps us think differently about European policies in the medium to long term.
In Europe we need to:
- Create the necessary conditions to capitalize on the results of research and innovation;
- Boost excellence in cutting-edge, fundamental research;
- Reinforce our international engagement through science diplomacy.
On this basis, I have set my priorities to be Open Innovation, Open Science, and Open to the
Same keywords. Same phraseology. Similar texts from North America and Asia do not disappoint in featuring the same keywords. Agenda 2063 agrees with all these texts from the rest of the world: the future belongs to innovation, invention, knowledge, research and development. But commonality of language, diction, and vision is not enough to account for why Africa’s Agenda 2063 places her in an “iyalaya anybody” position with the rest of the world in terms of the scramble for the future. This leaves us with the last thing that all these vision statements from Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas have in common.
All the texts agree that with the global shift from resources to human capital development, the youth demographic is the next big thing – the single most strategic key in creating prosperous societies of the future. Take the overwhelming emphasis on the youth demographic out of any of these documents and the lofty dreams, hope, vision, promise, and aspiration contained therein will collapse completely.
Basically, these documents are saying that invention, innovation, genius, entrepreneurship, and potential all devolve mainly from the dynamism of the youth demographic. In the last decade or so, the future of humanity has placed a bet on youth. The societies of the future are saying that the youth demographic is the next big thing. For good reason. If you look at the conjugation of genius, innovation, invention, energy, and work ethic which led to the emergence of the Asian Tigers and placed them at the forefront of global economic and infrastructural postmodernity, you will find the unmistakable footprint of the youth demographic all over that scenario.
This explains why from South Korea to China, from Singapore to Malaysia, from Japan to India, the explosion of the youth demographic, which social scientists once labelled a problem, is now often discoursed as “demographic dividend” by Asia watchers. If you study Europe 2050 very carefully, you’ll notice a certain discomfort when it comes to population. The document recognizes the centrality of the youth demographic to a future of humanity midwifed by innovation, invention, and genius but Europe is worried and you should know why.
Unlike Asia and Africa, her population is aging and she does not have the youth demographic that could sustain her competitiveness in the sort of innovation-dependent future that I am describing here but hush…hush… these are things we whisper behind Europe’s back. As Fela would put it, don’t tell anybody that I told you that Europe is aging and is at a strategic demographic disadvantage in a future that is going to be determined by the restless and borderless scope of youth innovation, creativity, genius, and invention.
What the Asian Tigers call “demographic dividend” is what watchers of Africa have been calling “youth advantage” or “youth opportunity” since the beginning of the 21st century. It wasn’t always rosy. Just as the youth demographic in Asia was initially seen as a problem, the usual suspects who have told Africa’s story for five hundred years said that Africans were having way too many children. They said that there was a youth bomb waiting to explode and unleash continental scenarios of hunger, poverty, want, unemployment, social unrest, crisis, conflict, and all the usual things they say about Africa. When their master of ceremony, The Economist magazine, saw all these things, she promptly declared Africa a hopeless continent at the end of the 20th century.
Ten years later, The Economist had a road to Damascus experience and declared Africa a hopeful continent. Our friends in Bretton Woods began to scream Africa Rising. The entire frame of discoursing Africa changed. Suddenly, everybody began to see hope, opportunity, and potential. China rushed in.
The connecting strand in all these developments is Africa’s youth and her innovation. For when experts speak, for instance, of the rise of a new African middle class and how they are changing the topography and the skylines of Lagos, Abuja, Accra, Nairobi, Kampala, Addis Ababa, what they really mean is the rise of a mall-cultured, IT-savvy, and tech-savvy generation that has altered the destiny of the African continent by finding a way to bypass the insurmountable dysfunction of the state in Africa and connect to global and transnational circuitries of opportunity – the way that the youth of Africa found around the collapse of the African state is called innovation.
I will return to this question of African youth and innovation shortly but perhaps it is now time to end your extended suspense over what “iyalaya anybody” has got to do with this matter. The mere mention of “iyalaya anybody” brings to mind the Nigerian musician, Olamide, and his famous spat with music industry icon, Don Jazzy. No Nigerian needs to be reminded the details of this spat which shook the African entertainment industry to its roots and set Twitter and Facebook on fire for weeks. With the whole world watching, Olamide had shot out at the audience, iyalaya anybody, while dissing Don Jazzy.
When we are done here, I want you all to go to YouTube and watch the clip of that episode again. Watch Olamide’s poise and posture; pay attention to the tenor and cadence of his voice; do not miss the streak of confidence with which he shot out “iyalaya anybody” at the audience. Iyalaya anybody and what it entails in popular culture is the summation and the biography of the 21st century postmodern African youth. Iyalaya anybody is swagger. It is a thematic of the self as borderless and unleashed. Iyalaya anybody involves a projection of the self into horizons of derring do, of exploration, of adventure. It is the unmooring of the human spirit and imagination. Iyalaya anybody says I am young and I can self-project into spaces and places never before imagined. It is human potential untethered.
This is the cultural base and profile of the kind of youth demographic that has been at the heart of Africa’s resurgence and promise since the beginning of the new millennium. It is the abundance of this youth potential all over the continent that makes Agenda 2063 so confident, so sure of herself, so certain that Africa will not be marginal in the scramble for a future underwritten by invention and innovation. If Agenda 2063 is betting so much on the ability of the continent’s youth demographic to rise up to the challenges of the global knowledge economy, it is because examples abound across the continent of momentous shifts in culture and economics midwifed by youth innovation and invention. Nigeria has been the pacesetter and trendsetter in this respect.
Consider the fact that as recently as the 1990s, Africa’s consumption of culture was largely dependent on Hollywood and the American music industry. Then came the reinvention of musical genres across the continent and American musicians were driven out of the dance floors and party halls of the entire continent. The Francophones started this continental cultural rebirth. I am sure you all remember how an entire continent and her diaspora swayed to the magical rhythms of “Premier Gaou” in a transcontinental and transnational burst of musical jouissance. I am sure you still remember how Awilo Longomba entranced an entire continent from Johannesburg to Nairobi via Lagos and Accra in the 1990s.
I mentioned earlier on that “iyalaya anybody” is no respecter of borders and boundaries. From behind the language Iron Curtain in Africa, Awilo Longomba and Magic System burst across Anglophone Africa in the 1990s. The recalibration of the African musical landscape that they inaugurated was what prepared the ground for Innocent TuFace Idibia of the African Queen fame and Soni Nneji of the Oruka fame to conquer Africa and the world. Think of how far Africa’s musical innovation has come since then. There is even a generation of Nigerians on Facebook and Twitter for whom TuFace, African China, Mad Melon, and Soni Nneji are old school because this latter generation came of age on Azonto, Dorobucci, Eminado and Shakiti Bobo.
But also think of what has come with the rebirth of music: economics, entrepreneurship, industry, employment. Everything I have said about Africa’s music industry could be said for Nollywood. Indeed, much more could be said for Nollywood in terms of how the derring-do and innovative spirit of Nigerian youth created an industry that eventually said “iyalaya anybody” to Bollywood and is now giving Hollywood a good run for its money.
One asset that Nigeria’s and Africa’s youth demographic has in terms of channeling innovation and the knowledge economy in confronting Africa’s contemporary challenges and mapping her way to the future is the dysfunction of the African state and the near total absence of imagination and critical intelligence in running the state. This is especially true of Nigeria. If you look at the United Arab Emirates, which around here is reducible to Dubai, you will see that she solved two major problems within a generation. First was the question of how she was going to transition to a post-oil economy through an aggressive diversification of her economy. Second was her irrepressible urge to become the touristic capital of the world.
If you want the wealthiest people in the world to replace you with Paris and other chic Western destinations as the world’s headquarters of tourism, there must be a visionary leadership able to channel the imagination and potential of the youth to finding innovative ways to have ice rinks and ski resorts in the desert. The leaders of the United Arab Emirates have been providing this strategic vision that has enhanced the creative and innovative juices of their youth.
The American example is also instructive. Today, people look at Mark Zuckerberg and his generation as the very apex and epitome of 21st century youth innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship. But the foundation for this spirit was laid by generations of American visionary leaders. Long before Mark Zuckerberg was born, an American leader had taught his people that there is no limit to human will and desire. He gave them a deadline to extend themselves beyond us all and conquer the moon. This no-limit philosophy to human daring, imagination, and innovation is the philosophical matrix into which the generation of Mark Zuckerberg was born. Do not make the mistake of thinking that these kids just happened along ex-nihilo.
And today, the leaders of Dubai are inspiring their youth demographic that whatever futuristic unimaginables they can imagine can be done. Every time you think that Dubai has taken us to the very limits of futuristic architecture and construction, some youth somewhere innovates an engineering marvel that allows Dubai to add more floors to those skyscrapers. In America, the leadership is telling a restless youth demographic that the moon is not enough – they must conquer Mars. All over Asia, youth are imagining and shaping our future in huge innovation leaps because their leaders are telling them that they must beat American kids. That is why Chinese kids go to Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia and make American kids look like dunces in those places.
The opposite is the case is much of Africa. Take Nigeria for example. While visionary leadership and the state are making it possible for the youth in America and Asia to dream of conquering Mars and opening up the next frontiers of science and innovation, the Nigerian Federal government recently assured her own youth that with patience, dedication, and prayers, we may be able to manufacture pencils in two or three years. Yes, you heard me right. Manufacturing pencils by 2018 or 2019 is how a Federal Minister framed the aspirations of the Nigerian government. With any luck, the Nigerian government may inspire our youth to try and see how we might be able to manufacture toothpicks in 2020.
The mental constipation of the state in Africa is magnified by Nigeria in ways that are intensely painful and personal. If you think that aiming to manufacture pencils at about the time that some people elsewhere are thinking that they may land a man on Mars and start Mars tourism is the worst case of aspirational poverty we have encountered from the Nigerian state in recent times, it means you are not current.
All over Nigeria, Fulani herdsmen have been having bloody clashes with their host communities, culminating in the recent Agatu massacres resulting in about five hundred deaths in some estimates. The Nigerian state’s predictable response to a problem which calls for the facilitation and mobilization of the innovative genius of the people is to retort that she would import grass from Brazil to feed the cattle and solve the problem! This got me thinking about the boy who recently resolved a problem for the Masai of Kenya. Lions kill their cattle. The boy invented a flashing light device which scares away the lions. The boy’s invention is trending in Kenya. Bring that problem to Nigeria and the Nigerian state’s reaction would not be how to inspire genius and innovation. Some Minister would have suggested we import lions that are allergic to the cattle of the Masai.
But I insist that the lack of enabling or inspiring official environments for the unleashing of the creative intelligence of the continent’s youth demographic is an ironic advantage. When you understand that all over the world, the youth demographic is being called upon to harness the resources of the global knowledge economy to solve the critical problems of their societies in the present and to innovate pathways to the future; when you understand that leadership and the state have a significant role to play that is largely absent in Africa, then you understand that the cards are stacked against you and you must double your effort.
Your innovative spirit must be much more intense than what obtains in the United Arab Emirates, Europe, or North America. Making monumental progress through innovation and an irrepressible spirit of the sort that I have theorized as iyalaya anybody is how Africa’s cultural consumption in music and film has been redefined by the continent’s youth with Nigeria as hub. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Tumblr, and YouTube are products of genius, innovation, invention, and entrepreneurial wizardry but they were all midwifed in an enabling environment. Ushahidi, Budgit, Nairaland, Konga, and Nollywood were all midwifed in chronically disabling and disabled environments. The case of Nollywood is particularly telling. By the time the Nigerian state eventually decided to throw money at her in 2015, she had already overtaken Bollywood without help.
It should be clear from the foregoing that identifying the next big thing and surmounting debilitating circumstances has never been a problem for Africa’s youth demographic. Ushahidi and Budgit are innovations of foresight by young people in Kenya and Nigeria who understand that the future of the continent cannot happen in the absence of a citizenry divorced from civics. Budgit is also a warning to the Africa state. The imagination of the youth is unleashed and cannot be stopped. The innovation or invention that will make you accountable to the people is always just around the corner. The innovation that will bring you closer to good governance is always just around the corner. In 2016, for instance, President Buhari failed in his oversight duties and his budget was padded by unscrupulous civil servants, creating one of the worst fiscal scandals in the postcolonial history of Nigeria. President Buhari failed in his duties because he was not aware of an innovation called Budgit. He has now been made painfully aware of it. Trust me, his 2017 budget will be fine.
What the 21st century global atmospherics of innovation, invention, and potential should say to Nigeria’s youth demographic, therefore, is that they are called upon to solve the big problems of the day in the absence of visionary governance. Let us return to the question of the Fulani herdsmen and government’s proposed solution of importing grass from Brazil to feed Fulani cattle. With daily advancements in biotechnology, all it will take is for some gifted youth one day to stumble on a patent for improved nutritious grass that can be grown all over the arid expanse of the north. After all, there are people already projecting into a future of rain forests in the aridity of the United Arab Emirates.
Just imagine the lives that will be saved, the enhanced economic activities and the entrepreneurial frontiers that will be opened up in Nigeria if we were to channel the innovative spirit of the youth into thinking up ways to come up with nutritious grass! Just imagine the opportunities that could open up for Verdant on the promotion, branding, and packaging front if biotechnological innovation were to be used in solving the grass issues of cattle rearing in Nigeria!
This brings me to my next point: mobilities. Mobilities is the future of humanity. Part of the reason why Africa and Nigeria still face enormous challenges is that we are yet to fully understand mobilities are indissociable from the knowledge economies and innovation ecosystems that are shaping the nature and future of human society.
Innovation has no home. Cutting edge knowledge and invention are no respecters of boundaries and borders. It is in response to the fluidity of innovation and invention that economies are globalizing and interconnecting in a frenetic pace. People will and must move and with them ideas. The next innovation or invention that will change the face of medicine, construction, or architecture forever may be crossing the Sahara Desert right now as we speak, on its way to Europe via the perilous boats of the Mediterranean Sea.
Brazil, the country from which Nigeria wants to import grass, understands the centrality of mobilities to the scramble for the future. Unknown to many people, Brazil is currently one of the biggest players on the African continent alongside China and South Africa. Brazil is buying up huge tracts of land in Southern Africa to feed its ethanol and agricultural industries. We are speaking of millions of acres already bought in Mozambique, a country twice the size of California. The imagination of Brazilian inventors and innovators is crossing boundaries to make the soil of Angola and Mozambique produce high-yield sugar cane for Brazil’s ethanol industry. That is the power of contemporary global mobilities. I understand that Verdant has blazed a trail here by organizing a staff retreat in one African capital a year. Now, here is a Nigerian brand that understands that the future belongs to mobilities. Keep it up!
Yet, in Nigeria and in Africa, we continue to place cultural, religious, and political impediments on the path of mobilities, forgetting that our youth have to be part of the global ecology of mobilities for their imagination to roam untrammeled. We continue to let primordial identities stand in the way of the freedom to innovate which, according to Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard, is the way to go for Africa. If I am Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Fulani, Tiv, Ijaw, Ogoni, etc, how am I supposed to give free rein to my imagination and potential when I have to watch my shoulders as a non-indigene every time I venture out of my state? What we lose in the 21st century by placing primordial obstacles on the path of the freedom to roam and innovate is not easy to quantify in empirical terms and that is why we are hardly aware of it.
Only Ghana seems to have understood what is at stake in terms of mobilities because she inaugurated visa-free entry to Ghana for all citizens of Africa. That is one small step for Ghana, and one giant step for Africa. It is important for Nigerian youth to rise up to the challenge of national and transnational mobilities.
One way in which Nigerian youth can overcome strictures and impediments to mobilities is by constantly striving to become full and active citizens of global economies of knowledge. Cast your mind back to the agenda-setting documents we examined at the beginning of this lecture. Whether it is the UAE document or the European text, you would have noticed the emphasis on world-class and first-rate Universities and research institutions as the power houses of 21st century cutting-edge research. They are not joking. The University idea is taken extremely seriously in those societies and billions is poured into research and knowledge production.
In fact, China and the United Arab Emirates are having it both ways. They are building their own 21st-century world-class Universities, attracting the best brains in the disciplines and the professions to those Universities while still sending their kids en masse to elite Institutions of the West in case there is anything they are missing. That is why Universities and research institutions in the West and in Asia always dominate all the rankings and are by far superior in research output and indicators.
Africa barely registers here and you know why. The closest we have to what might be generously called 21st-century Universities in Africa are in South Africa. I am thinking of Wits, UJ, UCT, Rhodes, and Stellenbosch to name a few. The emphasis here is on the word generosity otherwise South Africa wouldn’t even come close to having anything I consider to be a University. The picture indeed is very bad in Africa and there is no need sugar coating it. Nigeria, as usual, leads Africa in the bastardization of the University idea.
In fact, one of the most frustrating things for me is when Nigerian kids graduate and they send me emails seeking admission opportunities abroad. You hear that so and so graduated from the great University of Ibadan, the great University of Lagos, the great UNN, the great Ahmadu Bello University, the great Obafemi Awolowo University, etc. I would read such emails and shake my head and mutter, God soda your mouth, under my breath.
Who told you that there is a great University in Nigeria by 21st-century standards? Do you even have any idea what a University is, let alone a great one? State governments are the worst culprits here. Imagine Ondo state having almost four Universities when her entire annual budget is not up to the research endowment of Harvard! I am sure you have heard that the Governor of Osun state received only N6 million in Federal allocation this month. Given the fact that the Governor’s helicopter is more important than the State University, I think it is safe to say that the said University is OYO this year.
Given this picture, how do Nigerian, nay African youth become citizens of the global knowledge economy? How do they become fully functional in global economies of knowledge? The good news here is that the era of innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship is also an era that has ushered in a global democracy of knowledge. Cutting-edge knowledge in the STEMS is available everywhere. Knowledge communities and circuitries are ubiquitous and transnational. The Universities of the developed world are finding out that our present age does not respect the traditional borders and boundaries of yore between the town and the gown. Conferences, journals, classes are increasingly becoming open access. You can be in my hometown, Isanlu, in Kogi state, and access research in Harvard that could help you innovate in the domain of cutting-edge practices in agriculture.
The successes recorded by Africa’s youth in innovation, especially in IT-tech, the emergence and expansion of tech hubs all over the continent, the creativity of our youth, has created a new continental vibrancy and dynamism that is visible in Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Accra. But, alas, Africa still suffers from what Chinua Achebe calls an imbalance of stories and this is an area that our youth must pay serious attention to. MIT has an annual ranking of thirty-five innovators under thirty-five. That, in itself, is an affirmation of the thesis of this lecture that all over the world, the generation that is thirty-five-years-old and below is in the driver’s seat of innovation and invention.
However, if you look at MIT’s selection for two consecutive years, 2014 and 2015, not a single African innovator, inventor, or entrepreneur makes the cut. Yet, if you read the biographies of the Europeans, Americans, Indians, and Chinese who make the cut, what some of them are said to have invented does not even come close to the revolutionary credentials of Ushahidi and Budgit. What many of the young entrepreneurs are said to have done does not even come close to genius that Africa’s youth demographic is deploying to radically change the way in which we do e-commerce and make e-payments on the African continent. I cannot go into the list of the inventions in this area.
What I have learnt from MIT’s canonical efforts is that the scramble for the future is not limited to a scramble by societies to deploy invention and innovation and entrepreneurship in the creation of happiness and prosperity. There is also a story that is being quietly told about who matters in the race, who is creating and inventing, and Africa is quietly being written out of the picture. Luckily, Africa’s youth, Nigerian youth have all it takes to tell MIT and her ranking: iyalaya anybody!
I thank you for your time.
***Pius Adesanmi, is a Professor of English & Director, Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada