Tech needs more education and less survivors

There is a quote by the great American founding father and second President, John Adams, which summaries why education has continued to evolve in developed countries like America. It also explains why education has been America’s most significant catalyst for prosperity.

President Adams said: “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

Generations who came after him not only studied creative arts. People like Steve Jobs built technology products inspired by calligraphy. The entire tech industry in America has been powered by creativity.

I have always believed that in all prosperous nations, investment in education is seen not just as a fundamental social contract but a strategic one as well. Some of our Nigerian founding leaders like Late Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Late Governor Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, had the foresight to build institutions and structures which not only endure until this day, but have been the foundation for everything we have today that still works.

We cannot sugarcoat it, education in Nigeria is in dire straits. Some would argue that the state of public education is now terminal as far less than 10% of the national budget is devoted to it. Not much planning has occurred after the foundation stage and quality has taken a nosedive. My old primary school where we were less than thirty pupils in class now has about six hundred pupils registered as students of that same class. Yes, six hundred.

Those who make it to university do not necessarily end up being better off, very few come out with skills that are relevant to this era. School curricula are mostly outdated and not dynamic. Nigerian education requires a state of emergency. The current dysfunctional state affects every industry, especially technology.

The former country general manager for Microsoft Nigeria and currently General Partner at the technology investment company “Grand Central,” explains it without mincing words – “The system broke almost 35yrs ago when we started Alternative to Practical and Sandwich Programme for teachers.” He says most people currently in the industry are too young to understand why things got so bad. He is right. I remember in my final year in university how a lab donated by the Benin Owena River Basin Authority was what made the difference (for me) between actual research in the field with proper equipment, and fabricated results. Nigerian Education started dying from neglect over thirty years ago.

Survival Bias
A lot of us in the tech industry are probably still in denial about our education crisis because we are enjoying a new rebirth. We have gone through this same cycle in the 1990s, and we lost most of our talent to the Diaspora. People will naturally migrate to where their skills are valued more. The net beneficiaries of technology talent wars are more developed economies offering a better quality of living. Brain drain is real. I am an example.

A relatively decent number of people still manage to pass through our dysfunctional educational system and do very well. I believe that those people are “Survivors.” They survived in spite of the system and not because of it. There are also those who come from non-tech backgrounds who are self-taught. They usually also have a good educational base from where they started.

Survivors typically underestimate what made them pull through and believe that others can easily do the same. Creativity is not encouraged in most of our schools; you are meant to read, pass your exams and leave. To have a thriving and sustainable technology industry, we need more than survivors and rebels.

While John Adams may have laid down the grand vision for the evolution of American education, the best educational institutions in America, at this time, were established and are still run by the private sector. Private universities in Nigeria have been quite forward thinking when it comes to technology. They may even end up becoming the engine for local talent that our former ICT Minister Mrs Omobola Johnson has challenged us to find. Government owned universities like the University of Nigeria Nsukka, have started waking up as well. They recently set up a one-of-a-kind technology hub within the school.

The most critical interventions need to be at the earlier stage of education. OANDO Foundation seems to be leading everyone else in this direction with their “Adopt a school” initiative. I was pleasantly surprised when they reached out to me after I complained on Twitter about the education crisis in my state. I was even more amazed to see all of the meticulous and extensive work they had done so far. If OANDO alone can adopt 80 primary schools and turn them around, I challenge all of us in the private sector to either emulate them or assist them.

I don’t think we can keep waiting for the government to act anymore. The technology industry needs to declare an education state of emergency. The future of Nigerian technology is at stake.