Build the Future.

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A year ago today, I handed a microphone over to Mark Zuckerberg for the first time in my life. I joined little known Facebook in 2004 when it was still universities only, as an alternative to our own Baylor Information Network (BIN) — I just learned the then Student Body President Brad Pierce launched it to improve students’ voting experience. Obviously once Baylor joined Facebook, which allowed students to connect across universities, we dumped BIN in the bin.

Microphone. Yes. Massive hall, 1,000+ guests. I was the compere. The Vice President of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, a man I highly respect, was also seated. But completely smitten by Mark’s presence, and the fact that I got to introduce him, I blurted, “I’m just happy to be in the same room with such a wonderful man!”

Woeful. Meaningless.

Seriously, professional compere or not, if someone trusts you to MC an event, the least you can do is stay present and maintain composure. Hopefully no one remembers.

But my compere skills is not the point. If I’d seen the future Mark was building when I first signed onto Facebook, maybe I’d have quit school to join his engineering team.

A Keen Eye on the Future

Fortunately, I did hear of Aso Villa Demo Day (AVDD), a future-building project by the President of Nigeria’s office and I jumped on it quickly. In June last year, I saw an internet page with a single line, “If you could pitch one idea to the President, what would it be?” I knew immediately this was something that could be special. I just needed to know who was behind it and volunteer support.

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Turns out Sope, the enigmatic dreamer who works in the Presidency already knew me and we collaborated with countless others, including my beast of a sister Ibilola Essien, to put this beautiful thing together. Sope’s singular vision: bring the Nigerian tech ecosystem front and centre in the government’s mind. Here’s what he told me, “You know Mark Zuckerberg invested $24 million in tech startup Andela and the government knows nothing about it?! If they don’t know how can they even participate in scaling up excellent solutions?”

That’s how I became a core part of AVDD, narrowing down from 3,000 entrepreneurs across the country to 200, many of whose pitches I personally screened. In Lagos, the sheer number of entrepreneurs was overwhelming. We had to do two rounds of pitches. We flew from Lagos to Port Harcourt and then to Abuja to seek out the biggest dreamers who dared to imagine a different future for our nation.

Our simple goal was to provide a platform for these visionaries to build profile, brand identity and gain potential investment. That would be our contribution to the future they imagine.

What Future Do They Imagine?

Aso Villa Demo Day 2016 Entrepreneurs and Judges

Through AVDD, I met these 30 brilliant entrepreneurs, now friends. Ifedayosees smarter energy consumption because GRIT Systems will make the data exist through its locally manufactured monitoring devices.

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Angel is bringing farms to every backyard in urban Nigeria through patentable containers you can use to grow high value crops such as kale and cabbage. With Food Security at the top of the world’s agenda, this could be a game changer.

Godwin’s Tuteria is deceptively simple. Someone needs to learn a new skill (e.g. native Igbo language). She goes on Tuteria, connects (Airbnb-style) with a tutor who Tuteria’s verified can teach it well, everyone goes home happy.

Both Recycle Points and Tracology in my mind re-envision African urban spaces — devoid of waste, with efficient public or assisted private services leading the way. With patented technology designed IN Africa, Tracology can ensure transparency and assurance in revenue collection for public services — a very real mire in Africa.

And then there’s MamaMoni. I’m personally very glad about the tiny role I played in getting the relentless Nkem into AVDD. I listened to her 30-second pitch and decided she’s a bankable future, championing a financial inclusion cause many still consider untenable. Meet her first.

How might these ideas transform the way we live, interact, learn, communicate? As I’m sure they have, I’ve heard SEVERAL reasons why their ideas are not practical. Except I’m seeing concrete results.

Personally, I made early investments in one or two of these entrepreneurs. Mark Zuckerberg did too. Maybe he sees what they can be in 2028.

Reflections on AVDD

As a first attempt, Nigeria’s tech ecosystem, a leader in West Africa, did a great job with AVDD (loads of pictures here). And I hope we’ll do it even bigger this year. Ecosystems in other African countries as well as national governments could take a page from Nigeria’s book on AVDD.

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AVDD was far from perfect, but it provided PROFILE for people already doing amazing things. People who had already decided a different life is possible and had laid the first stones.

It provided CAPITAL. About 81 entrepreneurs from the AVDD process received roughly $40,000 EACH in technical grants through the Ministry of Trade & Investment, another government collaboration with the World Bank.

Finally, it achieved its core purpose — the technology and startup ecosystem needs to be factored into government decisions. Iyinoluwa’s speech helped drive that message home in a particularly interesting way — which may have contributed to his nomination onto the Presidential Industrial Policy and Competitiveness Advisory CouncilVery, very proud of Iyin co-founder Andelaand Flutterwave.

Interestingly Mark has written about his future, telling his new-born daughter that he’ll be “advancing human potential and promoting equality.” These words resonate deeply with me and I will be building a more prosperous and equitable future for Africa and Africans through my companies, my angel investments, and advocacy platforms. Watch this space.

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