Innovation

Innovation does not have to be disruptive. You do not need to create Google or Facebook to be considered innovative. Just look around your neighbourhood, identify a need and think of a business solution; and who knows, you might be the next innovator-in-chief in your community.


The youth of a country are its greatest asset. During my last visit to Nigeria, I saw these asset at work. Many of the youth are working hard to earn their living; others are sitting comfortably waiting for manna to fall free of charge. One example of such hardworking youth was the taxi driver who took me from the airport to the city of Abuja.

You could tell that life has not been easy for this young man. Despite the obvious hardship and difficulties he is going through, he remains optimistic. What made his story even more interesting was that there are thousands of youth like him who feel too big to do the kind of work he is engaged in to earn a living.

On our way to the city, I became curious about the story of this driver. I asked him to tell me more about his experience in life. It turned out that he is a graduate from the University of Port Harcourt. After searching for job endlessly, he decided to take his fate in his hands. He asked his uncle who works in the United States for help. The uncle decided to buy a taxi for him.

What impressed me the most was that he has big ambitions. He was using the taxi as a means of making connections, so that one day he could meet the right person who would help him find the right job, or engage him in a business. When he makes a break through, he intends to support his family, establish a business, and – as one can easily guess – achieve the dream of many Nigerians – to travel abroad. I don’t blame him; many of us grew up hoping to travel, study or live abroad.

Having ‘connections’ or ‘long legs’ are words/phrases you commonly hear among our youth. Our society has sacrificed merit so much that people believe that their efforts would never bring success. Hence, for one to make it, he has to know somebody, who knows someone somewhere, before he could be fixed in the right place. Largely, people have a point, but they are not completely right. As I told many of the youth I spoke with, favour has a limit. If you work hard, pray and remain consistent, one day your chance will come.

With Nigeria officially in recession, I believe the Nigerian youth have a great opportunity. The opportunity to create businesses that could provide income for them and jobs for others. Some of the best inventions and businesses in the world were created during recessions.

Presently, I would like to look at innovation as a mechanism for Nigerian youth to get themselves out of the economic recession that is biting hard. In doings so, I would like to share the story of one of the most interesting innovations of this century. The story of the hotel chain, Airbnb.

I have chosen the story of Airbnb because it is a simple innovation that has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, estimated to be worth $25 billion.

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Airbed and breakfast, the full name of the company, was an idea conceived by students in San Francisco who were struggling to pay rent and earn a decent living. Like the taxi driver who drove me from the airport, they decided to take their lives in their hands. However, what is even more impressive was that they didn’t think about ‘connections’ and ‘long leg’. They looked at the opportunities in the city, and decided to create a business out of these.

In 2007, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky came up with an idea of converting their apartment into a source of income. They were aware that a design conference would take place in the city of San Francisco, and hotel accommodation was going to be a big problem. So they decided to purchase three air mattresses; they created a website called airbedandbreakfast.com, and advertised to conference participants seeking budget accommodation. They used their cooking skills to prepare breakfast for their guests. The idea became successful, and they invited another schoolmate, Nathan Blecharczyk to join them.

A simple idea by unemployed university graduates has become a multi-billion dollar industry operating in every part of the world. So what is the lesson for the Nigerian youth, especially university graduates?

Well, I will simply say your university degree is simply a tool, and a license to be different, to think differently and create opportunities that can make differences to you. I am not naïve about the context and the challenges that the youth face in this period of economic recession in Nigeria. However, with technology at your disposal, particularly the explosion of the digital and mobile telephony industry, this recession might be your chance to create a job for yourself and others. Just like the Airbnb college graduates, look around you, think of an idea, be humble and pursue it with dedication, and keep striving to make things better. Innovation does not have to be disruptive. You do not need to create Google or Facebook to be considered innovative. Just look around your neighbourhood, identify a need and think of a business solution; and who knows, you might be the next innovator-in-chief in your community.

Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u is an ex-BBC journalist and public affairs commentator.