Smart Lagos (3): Status, Prospects & Opportunities

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

‘Lagos Innovates’
The smart city vision of the state government was discussed extensively at a conference it sponsored during its “Lagos at 50” celebrations in May 2017. Themed “Towards a Smart City: Preparing for the next 50 years of prosperity”, it had as keynote speaker a top thinker on African issues, Oxford professor, Paul Collier. He had a more engaging definition of what a smart city is. “Smart does not mean elite. Smart means a city that works for everybody in it. A city that works means that ordinary people can become productive and so earn a decent living.”

The envisioned smart city offers opportunities in transportation, ICT, tourism, hospitality, entertainment, and sports for excellence. The Lagos state government envisions the city to be the most attractive to live and do business in Africa. This is an exaggeration, of course. Even so, the government’s confidence is underpinned by what Mr Ambode dubbed an “urbanisation dividend” in a speech in February 2017. Despite its many deficiencies, and even before the authorities started making the needed effort to transform the city, which coincided with the birth of the country’s most recent democratic experiment in 1999, Lagos has always been attractive to Nigerians elsewhere. At 86 immigrants every hour, it has the highest inward migration rate of any city in the world.

The Lagos Development Plan (2012-2025) embodies what the authorities hope to achieve over the next decade. The “smartness” in Lagos Smart City or Lagos, the smart city, is in seeing technology as an enabler for development, whether it is in the provision of infrastructure, security or investment incentives, with the goal being to make Lagos attractive to investors who would then create much needed jobs. There have been some laudable initiatives by the government with regard to transport infrastructure, like the completion of one of the phases of a city railway (albeit not yet operational), reform of the bus mass transit system, expansion and tolling of a key highway in conjunction with the private sector (at first) and so on. But the pace and reach of the government’s infrastructure programme are grossly inadequate. Strained finances are one reason why. True, the state government earns more revenue than other states. But the revenue is inadequate for the huge spending bill of needed development programmes. And the private sector has not always had a good experience with public-private partnership (PPP) projects with the state government.

To fund its programmes, the government sometimes resorts to extreme means. Recently, the state government announced a land use charge that was considered hugely insensitive. Naturally, it was met with uproar from the general public. Consequently, the state government had little choice but to revise the charges downwards. Even so, some grumbling remains. This also typifies what tends to happen when what are ordinarily acceptable infrastructure financing and maintenance measures – road tolling, for instance – are attempted. But the authorities are getting it right in other areas. Its support programme for technology entrepreneurs in the state is exemplary.

In December 2017, the Lagos State government launched “Lagos Innovates” to support tech entrepreneurs. Through the programme, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) would be provided the infrastructural support, training, capital and networks they need to succeed. The initiative copies similar models in Chile, India and Singapore. Targeted at tech entrepreneurs residing and working in Lagos whose businesses are less than three years old, Lagos Innovates aims to facilitate access to “high quality workspaces and infrastructure”, “learning”, “early stage investment capital” and “investor and peer networks”. Bottomline, Lagos Innovates is “a set of programs aimed at making it easier to build a successful tech startup in Lagos”. It is perhaps the greatest demonstration yet of the government’s recognition of the tech opportunity in Lagos.

The initiative currently has three major programmes. The first, “workspace vouchers”, would enable budding tech entrepreneurs secure funding support to acquire a workspace at one of the numerous innovation hubs in the city. For access, the tech entrepreneur need only apply online. The second, “hub loans”, provides capital to hub operators looking to expand or for those looking to invest in hubs. And the third, “events sponsorship”, provides support to enable tech entrepreneurs organize events to seek talent, publicize products and so on. Other programmes to be offered in due course, include “co-investments”, “program vouchers”, and “accelerator”. In early May 2018, Lagos Innovates will be sponsoring the “Secure Lagos Hackathon” event. Other upcoming events include “The Coworking Conference” in late July 2018.

The author, Dr Rafiq Raji, is an adjunct researcher of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation. This article was specifically written for the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz.

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