Education Technologies and Business

50,000 Businesses: Don’t Get Carried Away With Facebook’s New Plans

Facebook has more users in Nigeria than anywhere else on the African continent. Being the multi-billion dollar business it is, it is normal to expect it to pay serious attention to the country.

It is from this business incentive perspective that the company’s newly unveiled initiative for Nigeria must first be viewed. While reports that Facebook’s plan is “to further drive innovation, skills development and economic impact across Nigeria”, it should first be pretty clear that this is another step in the vision of Mark Zuckerberg to provide a more connected world, with the resultant accidents of revenue jump that accrues to him, Sheryl Sandberg and the rest of the shareholders at Menlo Park.

This is not some conspiracy theory or ‘hating’ on Mark. This article will probably be most read through links shared on Facebook. The meteoric rise and everyday impacts of the company since its launch just about a decade ago is a modern marvel and the original purpose of reconnecting with and meeting new friends still happens.

But as events in the US over the past year have shown, Facebook – and social media generally – has substantially added more to the uncertainty (at least fragility) of our time. The company is caught in the dilemma. On one hand, it has to allow anyone to post their content, not being a police of its users, protecting free speech and collecting ad dollars. On the other hand, it has become a watchman and censor against persons whose messages could be deemed unacceptable to certain groups, hence becoming a government of sorts and, contrary to its protestations, a media company.

And still collecting ad dollars.

With the initiative to train 50,000 small and medium scale business owners, this government-like outlook becomes a bit more pronounced, though the initiative can rightly be classed as a corporate social responsibility undertaken by most big firms. However Facebook is not just any company. On the financial side, its revenue has increased—often between 40% and 60%—every single quarter since it went public in 2012 according to Quartz. It shares, with Google, more than half of all the revenue from online advertising, and with two other tech giants – Amazon and Apple – is in a league which hold the future of the internet (and all other things by extension) in its hands, probably to determine the fate of mankind!

This was the subject of a spectacular rant of a TED talk by a New York University professor, Scott Galloway. Professor Galloway expressed the view which has been espoused by many others about the consequences of the dependence on the Silicon Valley quartet that have redefined lifestyle patterns and aspirations. Whisking practical economics with psychology, the overarching effect of the smartphone age is not one of irreversible doom but an apparent dissolution of purpose and weakening of personal will in users, all to the unstoppable geometric benefit in dollar-terms for the major nerds of code. More details are in Galloway’s The Four, released in October.

Facebook claims its goodwill to help SMEs build better businesses with digital skills is based on its research findings about the dependence of start-up entrepreneurs and employee seekers on its platform. While excusing the thin sample size on which it arrives at its unconvincing statistics, it is easy to understand how big the platform has become for businesses, especially since it ‘annexed’ Instagram and made advertising on both platforms possible from one Facebook account. In other words, we can expect the skill training programmes to leverage more on this “dependability” to drive sales for the SMEs, with some ripple effect to Facebook. Of course.

This does not exactly reflect Zuckerberg’s two big speeches this year in which he expressed so much desire for the building of communities, mourning the disappearance of churches and other groups that usually benefited from offline meets. The report for the launch of this new initiative features the Mamalette story, as if to enforce Zuckerberg’s new apostolate, but there is evidence that Facebook and social media lead to more stay-at-home tendencies than the contrary.

Digital skills training and a Lagos digital hub are fine but maybe Facebook should help us (in Nigerian tone) with some of the more rudimentary facilities that will facilitate the creation of tech enterprises to disrupt major sectors of the political economy of Nigeria. Someone in Lagos appears to have beat them to a “Facebook school” already but it wouldn’t preclude the need to build a real one.

Wonder if they do some coding here?

A good foundation of Education is inevitable to building a truly thriving tech ecosystem in Nigeria so to hurray over Facebook’s new packages is to be carried away. Zuckerberg has expressed great admiration for platforms like Tuteria and gave validation to the bustles in the Yaba area with his visit last year. Still, those in the know continue to affirm the need to get the basics right. Former Anambra state Governor Peter Obi once said Zuckerberg would not have founded his company if he were in Nigeria, citing the institutional frustrations that impede innovation in the country. There may be diverse opinions on that but what are the chances of any of the existing tech things in the country today performing better in five years time than the newest start-up sprouting from CalTech?

When it opens in 2018, Facebook’s NG_HUB, a partnership with Co-Creation Hub, should serve a good purpose overall, but it’s not the big break. If anything, it will just be another way for the company to consolidate its hold on Africa’s largest consumer market. Unless it will be Ebele Okobi‘s route to drive the public policy dialogues towards achieve far reaching disruptions in the foundational issues of STEM education, at primary and post-primary levels across the country.


By Alexander O. Onukwue | Feature image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic (via Quartz)
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