I’d rather be a Taiwo

We were sitting in the CC Hub in Yaba, the tech hub of Lagos, Nigeria. The electricity and lights had just come back on after a long blackout, and we were waiting for our computers and phones to recharge. The internet hadn’t kicked back in yet. To help pass the time, Dara told us one of the Yoruba legends. Long ago, twins were born: Taiwo (the eldest) and Kehinde (pronounced kay-en-day). Taiwo (meaning “tastes the world first”) was the brave and valiant one, who emerged first into the world to look around. Only after Taiwo had completed his exploration, the legend goes, would wise Kehinde (“he who lags behind”) sally forth. Kehinde wanted to make sure that Taiwo’s experience was good before he headed out.

The story was pretty popular. We’d heard it several times, in fact–from taxi drivers, business leaders, and bartenders. We were told that parents of Yoruba twins (both male and female) name their children Taiwo and Kehinde. As far as I know only twins get these names; you need the pair.  According to the LA Times, around 3% of Yoruba births in Western Nigeria are twins, double the worldwide average for twin incidence.

Yoruba tradition holds that twins bring “happiness, good luck, and riches” to their friends and family.  The birth order of the twins is important too.  People told us that Nigerian culture esteems prudent Kehinde over impetuous Taiwo. Wait and see, seemed to be the theme; make sure everything’s OK and then act. I find this fascinating, that the role of Kehinde would be preferred by Nigerians. The more we got to know Nigeria, the more I would have guessed that Taiwo would be the example held up.

According to a study my friend Dave co-authored for the McKinsey Global Institute, Nigerians are very entrepreneurial.  The MGI study cites figures from the 2013 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor:  41 percent of working-age Nigerians were involved in an early-stage business in the preceding three and a half years.  81% of Nigerians value entrepreneurship as a career choice.  For both measures, Nigeria ranks in the top ten countries worldwide.

The Nigerians I’ve met, those living both in the country and abroad, aren’t sitting around waiting for things to happen. As my friend Dona says, most of these people happen to things. They aren’t copying models already shown to work. The Nigerians I know are hustling it, giving it a go.  I think of Daniel Isijola, who’s started a business hand-drawing Nollywood films into comic books. I think of Paula Aliu, who responded to her friend’s suicide by founding a service that connects people with professional mental health counselling. I think of Damilola Samuel, trying to help rural girls stay in school by providing them with disposable sanitary pads made from local agricultural by-products like banana fronds.  I also think of my friend Muoyo Okome, who left Microsoft to develop 30+ apps earning six figures in profit—in less than a year after launching his startup.  My friend Bambo Sofola, a dynamic and thoughtful Director of Software Engineering for Windows.  Dara Oke herself is a tremendously talented full stack software developer, designer, and photographer.

The Nigerians we’ve met launching the #Insiders4Good Nigeria Fellowship have definitely been more like Taiwo.  Admittedly the people I’ve met is a biased sample.  The Fellows are 25 Nigerian entrepreneurs selected from 5,000+ other applicants because of their inspiring ideas for social businesses helping their communities.  And I met Muoyo at Wharton, and Bambo and Dara at Microsoft.

But they are an impressive group, passionate about improving their world.  Ikechukwu Chukwu is helping students find affordable housing. Muhammad Abdullahi  lets people recycle instead of paying for trash disposal. Ibrahim Mohammed Aboki uses solar panels instead of fossil fuels to irrigate farmers’ fields. Ubio Obu delivers hydroponic fresh fruits and vegetables to urbanites who might not otherwise get produce that fresh or high-quality.  Obinna Onyekwere is creating an online fashion platform.

Through the fellowship we’ve met Yeshua Russel, who’s operating neighborhood solar farms.  Mubarak Adeyemo, who’s helping Nigerians protect their valuables with GPS property tracking.  Ifeoma Degge, who’s providing Nigerian fashion designers better variety and prices for locally-designed fabrics.  Kelechi Odoemena, who’s making meal prep with cowpeas faster, easier, and healthier.  Idowu Bamido helps microbusinesses expand into new markets by creating them an online presence.

Olayinka Olanrewaju makes studying Nigerian law simpler and more fun.  Alexander Bamidele improves academic performance through a safe platform for feedback on teachers.  Opeyemi Paul Adekunle helps Nigerian students study for the Jamb CBT university entrance exam.  Ugochukwu Stephen Ugwudi reduces cost and increases the nutritional value of poultry and livestock by leveraging nutrient-rich cassava peels instead of corn. Moses Owoicho Enokela provides convenient, affordable, and accurate health testing to the rural poor with mobile diagnostic medical imaging services.

Ayodeji Adewusi validates job applicants’ qualifications better and faster, through a platform that checks graduation certificates in real time.  Omasirichukwu Udeinya makes electronic healthcare record-keeping better and cheaper.  Oluwaloni Olowookere reduces costs from food wastage.  Bem Asen connects retired people with jobs, internships, loans and grants.  Johnson Bewaji eliminates manual record keeping and makes business data cheaper to access real-time for Nigerian SMBs.  Kayode Adedayo introduces tourists to Nigeria’s amazing attractions and culture.  Miracle Samuel lets rural Nigerians recharge their devices with automated, reliable, round-the-clock service.

It’s absolutely true that I haven’t met every Nigerian.  The ones I have are very much a select and high-achieving group.  That said, the Nigerians I’ve had the pleasure to meet strike me much more as Taiwo than as Kehinde.  They don’t send someone else out first, to “see if the world is safe.”  They go forth and do that themselves.

Given the choice between cautiously waiting to hear that the coast is clear–and striking forth like Taiwo to check it out myself, I think I’d rather be Taiwo.

— Jeremiah Marble