Otigba: The experiment that grew into a tech market

Image result for Otigba: The experiment that grew into a tech marketI did my NYSC year in Lagos between 1988 and 1989, and I lived on Ola Ayinde street at Ikeja and later at the NYSC secretariat at Opebi. I knew the area very well. I saw Otigba spring up seemingly from nowhere, and it grew to become a major market for technology products. The traders there called themselves the “Lagos Computer Village” but most people know the area as Otigba. It is located conveniently near Ikeja Bus Stop which is a major transportation hub in the metropolis. Sarah Lacy the founder San Francisco-based tech blog “Pando” dubbed it Nigeria’s “BestBuy” supermarket, after the famous US one-stop technology chain.

While compared typically to China’s Shenzhen’s SEG Electronics Market, Otigba is more than Nigeria’s own BestBuy. In some ways, Otigba has been our own Silicon Valley. Not all tech entrepreneurs are software developers; some can also be in the business of hardware and services. Otigba traders not only created the first marketplace for technology products, but they also built for the first time an affordable service industry around it. They grew quickly beyond pirated software and used hardware sales.

Otigba has been a powerfully disruptive phenomenon. The market forces in there helped to democratise the sales of technology products in Nigeria. They discovered the power of media advertising early and took the competition from the streets of Ikeja to the newspapers. Listing prices of computer products in the Nigerian dailies had a profound effect on the industry as a whole. The entrepreneurs at Otigba sensed the boom that was coming after cybercafes became ubiquitous in Nigeria and positioned themselves for it. They found cheaper sources for products and the technology industry benefited from it as a whole.

Like the other major markets in Lagos, Computer Village at Ikeja did not just serve Lagos. It was a hub for people looking for products from all over Nigeria. Advertising in the newspapers made that happen, and it is what accelerated the growth of the market.

Otigba is more than the competition. It is also about collaboration and apprenticeship. The purest form of the Igbo apprenticeship model I have witnessed was at the Lagos Computer Village.  My friend, the ex-banker, Charles Mezu – who is the founder of Palette computers, decided to remain in Victoria Island to serve the high-end market but his younger brothers gained “Freedom” from him to set up their shops in Ikeja and thrived. These were not ignorant or jobless young men but people with postgraduate degrees from the UK. They discovered the power of aggregation that Otigba created. They had seen that the future of Nigerian technology was not in Victoria Island, it was going to be determined by the market forces at Otigba, and they decided to play a role in it.

The greatest benefit of Otigba to Nigerian technology was in the area of mobile phones and mobile technology. The GSM companies once again lost the monopoly of mobile phone sales to the entrepreneurial traders at Otigba. They not only sold the devices, but they also built a repair industry around it.  Companies like SLOT standardised their product and service offering from there and began to scale. Otigba created and shaped them, and in turn, they defined the mobile phone market.

From outside, the chaotic streets of Otigba look like any other commodities market in Lagos, but they are much more. They are pioneers of Nigerian technology. The traders there are the closest to the pulse of the Nigerian technology product consumer, and that is why the Asian technology Majors do not joke with that market. Otigba is the gateway into the mind of the average Nigerian technology product consumer.

3 Ways Otigba can navigate the future
What are the factors limiting the presence of OEMs in Computer Village and what is the way around these limits?

Otigba is a response and an integral part of a cultural phenomenon rather than just being an economic solution. OEMs have to adapt to the people’s cultural nuances the way Otigba has done. Otigba grew from apprenticeship and the innovation it encourages. OEM distribution is different. The Igbo traders from Otigba already own product distribution. OEMs have to behave like FMCG companies and rely on this distribution. Otigba is both a marketplace and a distribution point. Marketplace innovations can occur from there and spread but not technological innovation in the absolute sense. They can adapt to changing demographics much faster than regular OEM channels.

Otigba has grown exponentially in spite of government participation. How should government get involved and what are the potentials of such alliance?

The government has to recognize that this form of entrepreneurship is here to stay and they need to provide infrastructure to encourage it before looking for ways to profit from it. Otigba creates more jobs beyond Ikeja. Otigba is at the top of the technology equipment and consumables supply chain because distribution channels have been built straight from there. It is hard for OEMs to replace ‘Imu Ahia’ and it is harder for government. You cannot legislate away an entrepreneurship culture but you can adapt to it and encourage it. Otigba is an integral part of Nigerian technology and not just the Lagos tech scene.

Are there any impending dangers to this exploding market? What are the challenges if Otigba is allowed to continue to grow unchecked?

Computer Village is the closest to a perfect market in Nigeria. Markets have their limitations and are in a way self regulating. The market has already grown beyond Otigba with lots of distribution channels created. In Victoria Island on Saka Tinubu, there is a market that has developed where most of the products are sourced from Otigba. The same thing happens in most other cities. Otigba has scaled and not just SLOT. If Otigba could survive well funded e-commerce companies, I doubt that anything else could kill it easily except for a hostile government. Hostile governments can kill any industry or market.