How can we go from 419 to Web 3.0?

Here’s a quote from an amazing TechCrunch article about former and current Nigerian 419 scammers by Sarah Lacy:

Boakye’s sheer hacker genius was the most astounding. It’s not just technical ability– he tries to figure out how the person who set up the security system he’s trying to break thinks, and outsmart him at his own game. If he can’t crack the software, he studies the hardware and learns its vulnerabilities. The way he described the chess match with this unknown nemesis reminded me of another entrepreneur in the Valley: Dennis Fong. Fong spent his teens as a professional gamer, better known by the name “Thresh.” He rarely lost thanks to an uncanny ability to anticipate opponents’ moves. Opponents called it “Thresh ESP,” and it earned him six-figure computing endorsement deals. The way Boakye explained how he breaks into multi-national banks was identical to Thresh’s approach. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s hacked into at least one of my accounts by now just out of curiosity. I asked him not to do anything malicious, and he promised he wouldn’t. But we were both pretty convinced he could. As a person, I found these meeting more terrifying than my run in with Bones and his machete men in Alaba. As a business reporter, I couldn’t stop the broad smile from spreading across my face as we spoke, even breaking out in laughter once or twice. It’s the same Cheshire cat grin I get when I meet any amazing entrepreneur, anywhere in the world. You know them after five minutes of conversation. And several of these guys just had it. Born into a different circumstance, they could be on the cover of any magazine, ringing the opening bell at the Nasdaq.

The article also points out that Nigeria’s small but fierce tech entrepreneur community is furious at the 419 scammers (or “Yahoo boys” as they’re called in Nigeria) for providing the ugly global face of Nigerian technology.

I have long been an advocate for an African technology community and industry. As Lacy points out in the quote above, the problem isn’t lack of ambition or knowledge; the problem is hooking into the outside global economy. (And probably things like endemic government corruption, one of the nasty legacies of Western colonialism everywhere.) The 419 scams always struck me as a fascinating example of the interface between the First World and the Third World; the criminals were the ones who caught on first and hardest on how to get the white man to part with his money.

One of the biggest hurdles for an African tech economy is that there’s no built-in local market for most tech revenue streams, aside from connectivity (re: cell phones, Internet cafés, etc.).There’s no b2b market and very little consumer market, because most people don’t have a whole lot of money. The real money for African tech companies, as far as I can tell, is exporting tech goods and services to the West…which means, as I said, that African entrepreneurs have to figure out how to hook into Western markets. It’s not just an economic problem; it’s also cultural, especially given the unfortunate reputation that Nigeria and other African countries have in the West, technology-wise.

(This is mostly conjecture on my part; I can’t claim to have any firsthand knowledge of Africa’s tech industry, other than things I’ve read and heard from people who’ve lived and worked over there.)

It would be wonderful to see a self-contained tech industry appear in Nigeria and Ghana and other West African nations. Most of the success stories I’ve heard seem as though they’re related to hardware and infrastructure-building (such as mobile phone-based projects). I can imagine why: mobile phones are usually subsidized by carriers whose main revenue stream is based on service contracts, and in a country like Nigeria where the average income is $330 per year, that means that mobile devices are probably often the primary technology that people are working with. It would be interesting to see how something like Google’s new strategy of renting netbooks monthly would go over there.

Personally, I wish there was more focus in the West on investment in African entrepreneurship rather than in relief aid. Don’t get me wrong; I fully understand that, for most Africans, technology advancement comes a distant second to having enough food and not getting murdered by some random lunatic asshole. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a solid place for us to focus on helping Africans help themselves, whether it be by helping to provide educational resources or straight-up venture capitalism.

I’d love to get involved in these sorts of initiatives, but a) I don’t have any money to invest, and b) I’m not a hardcore enough techie that my skillset would be appealing to nonprofits or anybody else trying to help start initiatives in Africa. I don’t have a BS (much less a master’s degree, which is often a requirement) and I’m a talented generalist, not a specialist. (I still think I would be extremely useful to any such organization, but the few times I’ve reached out and offered my services I’ve mostly been ignored.)

The day will come, though, when Africa becomes a force to be reckoned with in technology. Twenty years ago, who would’ve believed that India and Bangladesh would be hubs of technology labor? The wheel always turns; eventually, it’s going to turn south.

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