With Covid-19 highlighting Nigeria’s dependence on oil, could Lithuania’s tech scene offer an unlikely route to diversification?
After losing almost a quarter of its population in the decades following independence, largely due to emigration, there are tentative signs of an easing of the demographic crisis in Lithuania. Driven partially by returning ex-pats – attracted by plentiful job opportunities, rising wages, and the uncertainties of Brexit – the Baltic nation has chalked up positive migration month-on-month for more than a year now, with 2019 becoming the first year since 1991 that the population actually grew.
But it’s not just returnees that are helping Lithuania to shed the unwanted moniker of the world’s “fastest-shrinking country.”
The country’s booming construction, tech start-up, and IT sectors are bringing in people from across the EU, as well as third countries with cultural ties such as Ukraine and Georgia. Yet Lithuania’s ambitious, outward-looking economy – particularly in its world-leading fintech sector – is building unexpected connections; with the Baltic nation now linking up with Africa’s largest economy for tech-oriented exchanges.
Leading the way is a small non-profit start-up called Afriko, which is connecting the country’s burgeoning tech scene with talent in emerging economies in sub-Saharan Africa. Working to lay foundations for collaboration between Lithuania and Nigeria, it faced an uphill battle to convince ministers and civil servants to look to Africa’s largest economy for talent – no thought had ever been given to such a connection and Lithuanian society cannot yet be described as multicultural. But after overcoming many obstacles, including the establishment of a visa desk in Abuja while bringing together representatives of the start-up landscapes in these very different countries, the Digital Explorers programme was born.
The first 15 explorers are now in Lithuania, employed by a variety of companies that were only too happy to receive bright new talent. On top of the material, manpower gains, these companies also welcome a broader, more international corporate culture and other, less tangible benefits – one example being the exposure of Lithuanians to other cultures.
Diversification of the local workforce is seen as important for a country that wants to compete in international markets, yet has traditionally experienced very little immigration from non-European countries. With workers and companies from all over the world beginning to see Lithuania as a viable destination, the establishment of long-term economic relations with emerging powerhouses like Nigeria and the normalisation of legal migration has the potential to turn Lithuania into a growing, rather than a shrinking country.
But what of the explorers themselves? Having arrived in the depths of a freezing Lithuanian winter, these intrepid young professionals have experienced a culture shock in the truest sense. It’s fair to say that Lithuanians are generally more reserved and less open to conversing with strangers than Nigerians – things like a lack of eye contact, smiling and spontaneous interactions with strangers are aspects of social life that need to be rapidly adjusted to.
“That’s the biggest cultural change for me, says Kennedy, an explorer from Ibadan, in western Nigeria. “I’m something of an introvert myself, but compared to people here, I’m very extroverted! That’s great for me because here, I’m not the obvious weirdo.”
Upon learning about the programme back in Nigeria, Kennedy was initially excited. The opportunity to test his skills in a new and very different environment was attractive, but his enthusiasm was tinged with caution. “The more details I received, the more I thought, this is too good to be true,” he explained. “I didn’t know anything about Lithuania before learning about the programme, and I was sure that it was a scam.”
Kennedy’s cautious scepticism reflects Nigeria’s more transactional, competitive, and distrustful business ethic – Afriko is a non-profit organisation that is not benefiting financially from the programme, so what’s in it for them? The newness of it all is certainly throwing up some interesting angles and a few dilemmas, too. Aside from the cultural and practical benefits it offers to the Lithuanian workforce, the programme is expanding the horizons and career opportunities for the explorers themselves – many of them have expressed admiration for the collective trust and accountability in their Lithuanian workplaces, not to mention the regular hours and less stressful way of life. But what about the tech scene back in Nigeria? How does the programme, which encourages young Nigerians to leave the country, benefit the local economy there? With Lagos dubbed as Africa’s Silicon Valley, the largest tech hub ecosystem on the continent, the cost of losing their best and brightest new talent could be high indeed.
Kennedy, for example, has no plans to return to the bustling metropolis of over 20 million people. “When I do leave Lithuania, it will be for somewhere new,” he says. “One day I will return home to settle down but for now, settling down is not something I’ve got in mind.”
So while the Digital Explorers programme has avoided falling into the condescending and unhelpful “aid” trap typical of many well-meaning European projects, it risks instead becoming a “brain drain” on a developing economy that is seeking to grow on its own terms.
Mimshach Obioha, executive director at Afriko’s Nigerian partner in the programme, Ventures Platform Foundation, acknowledges the brain drain issue in the short term – there is little that they can do if the explorers choose to stay abroad. However, in the long term, he sees benefits to both the budding tech ecosystem in Nigeria as well as the economy as a whole.
“Having successfully positioned the program as an exchange of ideas and expertise, we have seen companies here in Nigeria already showing strong interest in connecting with the Explorers that do return,” he explains. “The experience that explorers gain while in Lithuania – being exposed to industry best practices and a rapidly growing tech hub – will be incorporated into the Nigerian tech community, setting off a cascade of learning into the larger ecosystem.”
“It’s a marquee programme that shows that Nigerian talent can thrive in the international arena. We want the world to see Nigeria as a thriving market full of talent that can be worked with.”
With the Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the global economy and oil prices in particular, Nigeria’s dependence on oil as it’s primary export driver has been starkly exposed. The need to modernise and diversify the economy has now become a priority for the government, with tech set to take centre stage.
“The government has come to see tech as a driver for development and a major source of revenue,” Obioha continues. “So while we may lose some talent in the short term, we hope to see the Digital Explorers programme catalyse activities for a much bigger storm to come, as Nigeria’s economy goes through a much-needed transformation.”
Helping to address Lithuania’s demographic crisis while diversifying Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy are incredibly ambitious goals for a tiny non-profit organisation run from a cubicle in a Vilnius tech park. Taking inspiration and assistance from the strong startup culture around them, Afriko is daring to dream, however, and has made a strong start alongside its Nigerian partners – with the promise of many more unexpected connections to come.
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