A couple of years ago, a Nigerian bread seller - Olajumoke - was walking by a photoshoot, and a photo was taken of her. It was a beautiful photograph, and Nigerian twitter fell in love with her. She became a famous model in Nigeria, made famous by the internet.
The same story has played over and over again in different countries - a perfectly normal person somehow being extra-ordinary and then becoming famous - like when Susan Boyle sang at Britians Got Talent:
In Susan’s case, what happened was that people judged her by her looks, and her ‘looks’ somehow told them that she was not going to be able to sing as she sang. There was some kind of bias, some stereotype, and she broke that stereotype, and became famous.
In Olajumoke’s case, the same thing happened, but the stereotype was a bit different - Nigerians did not expect a bread-seller to look like a model.
But why? We are all human beings, and some humans will look good, and some will look bad - so why would it be so unusual for a bread seller to look like a model?
The answer is that it is quite unusual - in Nigeria. And understanding why is the key to understanding the internet market in Africa.
In many parts of the west, social classes are split according to wealth - those that have money and those that do not. Those that have money will isolate themselves in special schools, special colleges, special neighbourhoods and even though the society seems equal on the surface, below, it really isn’t.
In Nigeria, the primary social split is not according to wealth - it is according to education. Education and wealth are usually strongly correlated, but it would not be unusual in any way to see two people who have very different wealth family backgrounds being close friends - if they had similar education.
But it is unusual to see people of strongly different educational backgrounds being close friends. Olajumoke, our bread seller, comes from a lowly educational background, she is what they call ‘local’, and our models are usually not ‘local’. They are from the educated classes. So what we are amazed at is that a ‘local’, ‘uneducated’ person did something that belongs to the educated class.
A Nigerian who grows up in the village receives very poor education his entire life. He does not speak English by default, but the language of where he comes from. His customs and way of doing things will differ strongly from the University educated urban Nigerian. Once he crosses a certain age, his ability to move into the educated class pretty much vanishes.
That educational barrier is the biggest social border line in Nigeria.
Coming from outside the country to visit Nigeria, the Nigeria you see is the Nigeria of the educated class. Everyone you interact with belongs to the educated class. So this looks like Nigeria.
But look outside the window - all those people walking up the road, all the people selling things, all the people driving the buses, all the random people sitting idly by the side of the road - they all do not belong to this educated class you are interacting with.
And that is the vast, vast majority of the country.
We, the educated, are the spokespeople of the country, but we are a small minority. Olajumoke, and other people who were not privileged enough to receive a proper education when young, comprise most of the country.
And that is how our market looks like - 20% of the population are educated and understand what websites are. The other 80% have a very basic primary education, and do not understand how to use websites - and probably never will.
(By the way, you know there are lots and lots of WhatsApp groups where nobody writes, they only record voice messages and send them? Because nobody in the group can read or write too well).
The internet companies cater for the educated class. And all starts off well, because there are quite a number initially. But soon the ceiling comes - where they run out of well educated, urban people, and have to move on to the less educated, small town people. This market is significantly harder to address, and has far less disposable income.
The struggle becomes harder the bigger one wants to expand. One needs to reach more and more of those people - and that’s difficult.
But it gets even worse - the tech companies are founded in the most expensive economy of Nigeria - Lagos. The cost of everything is really high in Lagos compared to other places - but as soon as one runs out of population in Lagos, one has to sell in other parts. And earnings shrink - but the cost of fulfilment stays stuck in the Lagos economy, which makes costs very high.
But the thing is this - it is all changing. More people are getting better educated. Less people are born in villages. More people can read and write. More people are growing up with smart phones and are very conversant with them.
But they are not coming on fast enough - and investors are seeing great returns ‘right now’ in India and in China, and they are not used to building companies for 40 years. So they stop funding, and this makes companies either have to rapidly change to a lower cost structure, or die.
Changing to lower base costs is an extremely hard thing for many companies to do. It’s like being fat and then having to lose all the weight in 3 weeks. Even if it works, it can come with a lot of terrible health consequences.
We think we live in a classless society in Nigeria. After all, everyone has his ‘street buddy’, the guy he speaks pidgin English with, and he feels is his good friend. But we do not. We are split between old Africa and this new Africa that is pushing hard to integrate itself into the rest of the world.
And every startup operating here will quickly race up to that border line - it will need to become something Olajumoke was using before she became famous, or it too will die.