Participants in Smartan House programme
Exposure to expertise: Smartan House in Ikorodu provides young teens access to training and experience in business and tech

“We are the future. We are the dream. We are the nation. We are part of this.” That is what Temitope Ejide, then 16 and still at school, told the audience at the Nigerian Economic Summit, in the capital Abuja, in 2014.

He was quoting an anthem for Nigerian youth — “The Future” by singer TY Bello — and, in doing so, caught the attention of Johnson Abbaly, an employment consultant turned education mentor. Abbaly then invited him to become a founding member of his Successor Generation Community, a youth development programme in Ikorodu, roughly 25 miles from Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city.

Abbaly, who has helped nurture young Nigerians’ talents over the past ten years through various programmes, believes education is the best route out of poverty in a country where two-thirds of the 213mn population live on less than $2 a day.

Ejide, who now works as a fixed-income analyst at Bloomberg, describes SGC as “the kind of environment where you get exposed to global thinking and really successful people early on . . . inspiring us to figure out our lives in a more strategic, clearer way”.

Temitope Ejide
Temitope Ejide went from Johnson Abbaly’s Successor Generation Community to a job at Bloomberg

He is now an inspiration to participants in Abbaly’s latest project, Smartan House. Launched in March 2023, this initiative works with businesses and colleges to help high-performing school leavers from poorer communities develop the knowledge and skills to attain professional careers, which Abbaly hopes will have a positive social impact. Participants in the free, year-long programme are aged 14 to 19 and chosen via an eight-week residential course.

Smartan House exposes the teenagers to such technologies as AI, data analytics and cyber security, and arranges work experience for them with organisations including national lender Sterling Bank, online gaming group Bet9ja, and venture fund Future Africa.

Students model how industries, such as banking, are projected to change, and write proposals on how companies could be optimised for greater productivity.

Abbaly assesses the participants in terms of how well they work with their peers, their critical thinking and pattern recognition. He says: “[The young people] have to learn and consciously try to apply everything that they’re learning to their lives because that’s what [we are] measuring: intellectual growth potential.”

Solomon Taiwo — 18 and an inaugural member of Smartan House — was working long hours washing cars on Ikorodu’s streets to support his mother and three siblings, with little opportunity to pursue his dream of working in technology.

But, through Abbaly, he was connected with a US cyber security expert, to help him build industry experience. Taiwo impressed Abbaly so much that, in August, he was appointed the programme’s chief operating officer: “I’m just 18 years old, and experiencing all of this, it’s just mind-blowing!”

Solomon Taiwo
Leading role: Solomon Taiwo, an inaugural member of Smartan House, is its chief operating officer

He hopes to study cyber security at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, work for a Big Tech group, then return to Nigeria and found a data science company with global ambitions. He does not plan to contribute to the “japa syndrome” — as the brain drain of young Nigerians emigrating for jobs is known.

“Africans are smart, Nigerians are smart,” Taiwo says, “[but], because they do not have the resources they need to get to where they need to be, they get into scams.”

Stephanie Bassey, 19, joined Smartan House in September, studying tech and business. She aspires to be a film actor, with her sights set on working for Disney. “I love how Disney is able to bring dreams and put them into movies,” she says. “I want to be a part of that.”

Abbaly’s aim is to equip all participants with the skills to “allow them not only to make smarter choices in terms of their career path but also to make smarter life choices”. But he is disappointed that young men outnumber women on the programme by seven to three. Despite efforts to increase female participation, it is still the case that fewer young women apply — often stymied by cultural barriers.

Stephanie Bassey
Hollywood ambition: Stephanie Bassey, another member of Smartan House, aspires to be an actor in Disney films

Abiose Haruna, global adviser for adolescent girls and youth programmes at aid group Mercy Corps, lays the blame on Nigeria’s “male preference syndrome”.

“Where [a family] has money [and] it’s a choice between the male child and the female child, it’s always the male child that is preferred to go to school,” she explains.

Nevertheless, Bassey is optimistic: “The way the country is going, and the way I picture Africa, I think it’s going to get better. There will be more opportunities for women.”

Being so close to Lagos, a city emerging as a technology and enterprise hub, Smartan House is not short of experts willing to offer support. A small community of professionals known as “the Consortium” sponsors the participants’ living costs, training, and food — and, sometimes, also facilitates teaching. Abbaly hopes to secure funding from international bodies soon, too.

However, across Nigeria, children struggle to access education. Many schools lack resources, which is a problem that President Bola Tinubu has pledged to address.

Lois Ifeanyichukwu, project manager at Slum2School Africa, an organisation that promotes education for children in the poorest communities, believes the root cause of the lack of resourcing is short-termism: “The government is not interested in education compared to other economical aspects of the country because you don’t see immediate results,” she argues.

Nigerian children have a right to nine years of continuous education but many are priced out because families struggle to afford textbooks or uniforms.

Bigger families only compound these challenges, says Hauwa Yahaya, programme manager at Slum2School. “The dilemma is: do I send my child to school and let my other children starve, or do I provide food for my children and forgo school?”

Smartan House hopes to show — through its successes — that there is now a second chance for at least some young Nigerians. “If we are able to scale this sufficiently,” says Abbaly, “we will be able to put a message out on pretty strong cultural levels that there is an alternative path to growth and success — and it works.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article