In conversation with Tomi Davies, Nigeria's tech mastermind

  • Tomi Davies (TD) is a Nigerian British investor, speaker, author, entrepreneur and advisor to technology companies. He is co-founder of Lagos Angel Network (LAN), a group of active local angel investors and President of the African Business Angels Network (ABAN). TD (as he is called) comes from a family of lawyers, making him well placed to share his thoughts on the tech ecosystem more generally...

    My late father, Chief Hezekiah Oladipo Davies (HOD), was a Queen’s Counsel (QC) and on the defence team for Jomo Kenyatta during the Mau Mau Uprising trials in 1952-53. Two of my brothers (Sola & Bosun) and two of my sisters (Funmi & Bimbo) are also lawyers. Growing up we would hold moot courts with me usually being the offender. The prosecuting attorney would be my immediate younger sister, and her younger sister the defence attorney. We did occasionally have witnesses with my dad being the judge and, on occasion, the executioner too. This made me conversant with the law relatively early, and with an eternal admiration for my late father a subject area I remain very fond of till today.

    Nigeria’s tech ecosystem…

    In Nigeria, we have come to realise that there is only one technology architecture that works consistently in the country, the mobile2cloud architecture, which has become the default “weapon of choice” for mass consumer interactions. This is undoubtedly different from the rest of the world, where societies use both desktop and mobiles combined often with the former being proffered. Here, we have come to terms with the fact that, whilst we do have some desktops, their use pales into insignificance when compared to the mobile offerings available. The actual challenge we face in deployment is - do we cater only for Android or do we add iOS. The cloud ecosystem is also thriving, with even Amazon now offering its Amazon Web Service (AWS) prompted by the success of cable providers like MainOne and MTN West African Cable System (WACS) who continue to ensure our connectivity is getting better. With these improvements, the systems architecture where it is mobile user interface through the internet to cloud based applications and storage has become the infrastructure of choice for a lot of the tech start-ups that are currently solving commercial grade problems in Nigeria.

    There is an interesting dynamic in tech in Nigeria, where the centre of our tech universe is in the mainland area of Lagos called Yaba, where I am currently sat for this interview. To my right you have the CcHUB, to the left, you have Facebook’s NG_HUB and just down the road is the University of Lagos. This is where the Nigerian tech ecosystem is thriving having given birth to the likes of Andela, Paga, Flutterwave and just to name a few and it feels really exciting to be part of it all. That’s not to say we don’t have our challenges. Yaba for example has power problems, although everyone tells me these are insignificant compared to the rest of the country. Admittedly, with 12-16 hours a day of grid electricity, we are definitely better off than 80 – 90% of the country.

    What about the legal tech ecosystem in particular…

    There are entrepreneurs doing some really exciting things in legal technology currently in Nigeria. One of the most well-known is DIY Law, a leading legal tech company that is using technology to provide startups with access to simple and convenient legal services.  We are also seeing other positive trends, such as an increasing number of traditional law firms introducing start up and early stage advisory units, including some of our oldest firms such as Aluko & Oyebode, Aelexand Banwo & Ighodalo. This particular trend isn’t unique to Nigeria, I know that in Egypt for example the Cairo angels have a standardised legal offering too.

    In terms of what in tech needs addressing, Intellectual Property is an important topic. Nigeria has had immense challenges with intellectual property rights and we have all now recognised that there has been an inordinate amount of capital lost to not protecting IP sufficiently so there is a huge amount of work being done to address this deficiency in particular.

    Advice for entrepreneurs wishing to setup legal technology….

    Entrepreneurs will need to understand that legal is “grey hair” territory, law and the legal profession aside from religion is one of the most conservative in Nigeria, even more so than banking; therefore, you’ve got to be fully cognisant about what you are taking on as a service provider. What I mean is that you have to have an uncanny understanding of your target market, arguably more so than any other sector. This is because, as a service, law and justice has been provided in the same way for hundreds of years evolving only at snail speed.

    In addition, due to the fact that it is a very knowledge dependent sector, there is also, unsurprisingly, a lot happening with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning. As with English law, in Nigeria we have both solicitors and barristers. It is widely understood that it is the solicitor’s work (typically more expensive) that is the area coming under siege because we can teach machines to replace many elements of it. Machines can now recognise patterns and do so over a broader range than humans can. For instance, I can ask a machine to tell me the difference in commercial licensing between Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Namibia and the machine will come back much faster than any human being could. And from where I sit, when it comes to commercial enterprise, this is where the opportunity is.

    What of the criminal justice system…?

    Things are not moving so fast in the criminal justice system. Look how long it has taken the courts to get digital recordings and to accept digital records. It is all to do with how it is structured – innovation is going to come but it will come painfully, and it will come slowly, simply because the courts are the centres for application of the law.

    Will COVID-19 speed things up…?

    Hope springs eternal… But I am afraid I am not as optimistic as Afriwise and others come across. Our courts have accepted to do arguments on video conferencing for now, yet even that has had a time stamp put on it, effectively indicating that this won’t be a permanent way going forward.

    In terms of our judiciary and legislature, and even the presidency adopting technology as it should be doing, I don’t see it happening as fast as we would want it to. The resources are not there in the public service from a human capital standpoint to make the necessary changes. I’ve worked closely with agencies like the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR), and you can tell, unfortunately, that our civil servants while very astute in their theatres of operations, do not have the capacity to exploit technology to take us where it needs to be. It is still treated as an “exotic” possession to be consumed at a premium.

    How does Nigeria fare more broadly compared to other countries in the region..?

    I think our tech ecosystem is ahead simply because there is a volume market in terms of mobile technology penetration. The number of people with internet capable mobile phones is our litmus test, they are the ones with the capacity to do commercial exchanges. From that standpoint, Nigeria is still ahead of other countries in the region.

    Afriwise interviewed Tomi Davies as part of an industry legal-tech report launched in October 2020.  You can download the full report for free here.