Garrison Tech Cluster: “With the internet, you can do anything” – Wisdom Ofoni

 Walking into the Garrison Tech Cluster was a surreal experience the first time. I had heard so much about the place, seen it so many times as I rode or drove past, and read so many articles about it. So this time around, I decided it was time to visit the cluster and find out for myself if the stories were true, which of them were farfetched and what stories I could add to the mix. I alighted the taxi just below the Garrison bus-stop sign on Aba Road Expressway and stared across the busy road at the bustling marketplace before me. It was a jumble of stalls, large umbrellas of different colours and shade, garishly coloured signs in bright neon and the deafening cacophony of hundreds of power generators. The cluster seemed to buzz like a hive, from a distance I could feel the intensity of the place – a pulsating excitement characterised by the bustle as people darted about in varying degrees of excitement, hands bristling with various gadgets. I crossed the road with trepidation, anxious about what I would find and yet curious. The cluster seemed to yawn open before me, hundreds of shops with doors wide open, large industrial fans fighting to preserve the cool against the heat of the laptops and gadgets. A jean-clad young man walked up to me, mouth open in a gap-toothed grin. “Bros, you want to repair a phone?”

I was in the cluster.

The Garrison Tech cluster is a collection of inter-related tech businesses found at the Garrison axis of the Aba Road Expressway. These businesses range from Software to hardware repair, sale and maintenance stalls, for computers and mobiles, CCTV installation, Tech Security software protocols etc. These businesses are run by young men and women from different parts of the country, separated by tribe, social caste and education and united by a love for technology and a desire to use that technology to the utmost in the fulfilment of their dreams.

As part of the Garrison Tech cluster series, I met with Wisdom Ofoni who has been at the cluster for six years. Wisdom who hails from Bayelsa state, agreed to talk to me at his office which he shares with a colleague and friend who we have interviewed earlier in this series – Barisiere Godfrey. I talked to Wisdom and got a few insights into his life and the reason why he came to the cluster.

“I love creativity, I love challenges”

The young man who is in his early thirties kept a slight grin on all through his talk with me. On occasion his eyes would dart to one of the two computer screens in front of his while he checked the 22 downloads he had ongoing, but asides from that he paid me his full attention. “I love creativity, I love challenges. I took it as a challenge to go into the field and do what others cannot do. That is what brought me to Garrison,” he smiles. Wisdom Ofoni performs the usual Garrison tech cluster services – flashing and unlocking of mobile devices and upgrading them, and then he goes a step further with installing CCTV cameras as well as installing marine communications systems. He also works on Mac and Windows operating computers. “I mainly work on the software, but for CCTV and marine communications installation, I work with both the hardware and the software.”

“I did not go to computer school”

Wisdom’s father died shortly after he finished from secondary school. Back then in 2001, he had applied and secured admission into an art school in San Francisco, the death of his father however put a stop to those plans. Stalled in his attempt to study art, which had always been his passion, Wisdom turned to IT. “I had a friend who worked at a cybercafé and I would visit him there. Every day I went to the cybercafé and watched the engineers work, unscrewing the computers and making them work again. This was when I fell in love with IT”. He had access to the computers at the cybercafé and from watching the hardware engineers and videos on YouTube, Wisdom began to develop the foundation of the knowledge that would earn him a shop at the Garrison Tech cluster.

“My sister gave me a laptop that I loosened and played with. I discovered the location of the hard disk and the RAM and practically turned it upside down. Eventually, I got hired at the cybercafé,” he adds with a smile. “As an engineer. I did not go to computer school.” He eventually left that cybercafé for another where he was better trained to repair computer systems by seasoned engineers.

Working for free for five years

Wisdom first came to the cluster in 2007. Back then his iPod had a problem and he had come to the cluster to fix it. At the cluster he met Obinna who took the iPod and jailbreaked it. Jailbreaking is the process of removing the restrictions on a mobile device so it can accept third party applications. After watching Obinna work, Wisdom went home and tried to practice. It was not long afterward that he came back to Obinna and volunteered himself as an apprentice. “I worked for free for 5 years,” he says with a wide grin. In the first 2 years, he only worked part-time for Obinna, spending the rest of his time at the cybercafé where he also worked as an engineer.

Obinna is still in the cluster and both of them have remained friends and Wisdom has not regretted the decision that he made.

Nigerians can excel at IT

When asked why he came to Garrison, his eyes flash as he answers with conviction. “I came to create a job for myself instead of waiting for the government to provide me with one. I have created in this place, a white collar job not just for myself, but for others too.” He shows me his brother who works for him and gets paid for it and another young man who he has also employed. Wisdom not only employed them, but he has also housed the young men in his house till they can stand on their own feet. “I want to carry them along and show them that they can achieve what I have achieved. The world needs to know that Nigerians can excel at IT”.

A passion for security

Wisdom has a passion for security and wants to develop an IT firm in a few years so he can combat the insecurity situation in countries like Nigeria. “If you go to the hospital, you can easily gain access to anyone’s medical record. Hospitals in developed countries store their patient’s files in databases that can only be accessed under specific authorization. In Nigeria, it is too easy to gain access to privileged medical records. If the person suffers from a contagious disease like HIV, it can lead to stigmatization which can hurt the person”. To work as a security expert, Wisdom admits that he needs a license. Even though he has been working on his own in Garrison Tech Cluster for over a year now, he still has not registered a company. He has however sent in names to the Corporate Affairs Commission of Nigeria to start the process.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

“In 5 years time I see myself bigger than this. My firm would be registered and I would be the CEO employing younger ones. I want to give the younger people an opportunity to make something out of their lives. In Nigeria, very few 18 year olds know how to create a CV when applying for jobs. This is not the case in the Western world, over there young people between the ages of 15 and 18 have CVs and can apply for jobs. I want Nigerian adolescents to know that there is nothing wrong with having a CV now. Gain experience and learn how to work for yourself. This way life would be easier for them as young adults”

What challenges do you face here?

“The major challenge is the internet connection. With good internet, you keep yourself up to date, and be informed on the new things that are coming out. If a customer comes for software work, you have to run that job on the internet to make it easier. If you don’t have access to the internet it is a great challenge. We have security challenges too. My neighbour was robbed at night after we had closed for the day. Other than that, I can think of no other challenges. Yes, there is a lot of competition, if you do not have internet connection and are not upgrading yourself frequently, you will not last long in the business. Studying and leaning to update myself, in order to know the new things, is how I stay ahead of the competition. Studying online, reading tech blogs and joining GSM forums to know challenges they are having is a great way to stay ahead.”

Personal life

Wisdom is married with two children, Princess, a girl who is older at 10 years and Justice, a boy, who is 3 years. His wife’s name is Timi. They live in a 3 bedroom apartment at Akpajo on the outskirts of Rivers state from where Wisdom journeys every morning to the Garrison Tech Cluster. Asides from his little family, Wisdom also houses some other relations and one of his staff of two, making a total of seven people in his house. Timi sells diesel fuel at retail from a shop close to the house when she is not taking care of the children. Both his children attend school – Justice is just about to resume as a Primary 1 pupil with the new session while Princess starts at Junior Secondary School 1.

I asked him one last question before I left his shop.

If your father was still alive, or you had been able to secure admission to art school would you be here?

“I cannot say for certain where I would be, only God knows that, but I am happier here”

This post was originally posted here as part of a series I assisted in curating on the Garrison Tech Cluster in Port Harcourt.

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One, One, One and all I learned from #DevFestSE16

First of all, I am not a coder, not a core one by any definition. Once upon a time I learned MySQL, worked about two weeks as a database admin, did a short Java and Android course and never typed another line of code again. Anyway, I am a proud member of GDG (Google Developer Group) Port Harcourt and on Friday, 18th November, 2016, we had the privilege to host the Google Developer Festival (DevFest) for Southern and Eastern Nigeria.

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Godfrey Ayaosi taking a selfie with some GDG members at the end of the event

This post is not so much a review as a recant of my experiences and the lessons I learned being a part of the organizing team.

Becoming a GDG Port Harcourt member

Okay, to begin, how did I become a member of GDG Port Harcourt? It was sometime last year, in one of the very few instances when my former employer showed some mettle, he recommended me to a free UI/UX Masterclass being organized by the GDG Port Harcourt. It was during the two day program that I met Gino Osahon, Sharon Georgewill, Sokari Gillis-Harry, Joshua Joshua, Precious Chukundah, Daniel Ekpo, Godfrey Ayaosi, Ihunanyachi Thompson and a number of the really cool guys who make up the GDG PH. Naturally, my team performed excellently at the UX Masterclass event and I asked Gino if I could join in. It was that simple. I subscribed to the GDG International Facebook page, submitted my email address and phone number and got added to a Whatsapp group and then a mailing list.

Bam! I was a member.

See also: What I learned at the GDG UX Master class

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With Ihunanyachi Thompson of ShabTech Innovations. (Black and white photo so you understand time haf pass) 

Now let’s fast-forward a few months into the future, take out the afro hairdo and the boss with the lack of mettle, and we have #DevFest16.

DevFest

This is Google’s Developer Festival, one of the many free events Google organizes annually, to teach people more about technology, especially Google technology, as well as encourage them to utilize Google products. Festivals usually have codelabs, hackathons, pitch sessions and panel sessions as part of the program and this year was going to be no exception. Except for one thing, this time around I was going to be part of the team. Somehow during the first meeting of the chapter lead and his team members, someone had suggested I would be likely to volunteer.

They were right.

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Mr. Precious Chukundah for the boys and girls dem

LEADING THE RIGHT TEAM WILL ALWAYS GUARANTEE SUCCESS

One of the best things that can happen to you as a leader is to have the right people in your team. Whilst being a part of the sponsorship team, I was also tasked to handle the Online Media publicity team of the event. Considering the level of the event, it was probably going to be one of the toughest tasks I had ever carried out. I was excited to do it, already envisioning different campaign strategies to be used, content to be created and so much more, and this was before I even met the team I would be working with. Jerri Nnah and Dorothy Mepba of AdForumCo are two of the most talented media people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. At the risk of disappointing clients and my future employer, I have to admit, these guys and their team did so much work for this event, I was practically lazing about in the background. With minimal direction, they achieved so much, my supervisory role was illusory.

After trending online for 3 days straight, with hundreds of interactions coming off this event, it was no surprise when we exceeded our registration quota of (500 attendees) with over 532 people registered by the morning of the event, and then perhaps a thousand people who actually attended, some of them not even registering.

BE PREPARED, ALWAYS

This is one lesson, I should have noted from my days with the Boy’s Scout when my father would lug me into the backseat of his Volkswagen Beetle and drive me half-dressed to the parade ground on the grounds of the St. Paul’s church at Airport road in Benin City. Every single Saturday, whether I was dressed or not, once it was time, I was tossed into the car and he would drive off.

“Be prepared, Oare,” he would say.

A few months to the appointed date, we were prepped, and all teams assembled. We were going to take #DevFest16 like a monsoon wind (since saying storm is too mainstream), and then Google announced we should hold off on any kind of publicity et al., until they give approval. The wind went out our sails. Everything ground to a halt. Planning committee team members traveled from the state, some got married and pregnant (hehe, I kid), everyone went back to their usual duties, I put away my already printed “I set to KILL IT in the DevFest Planning Committee! YAAAY!” t-shirt. As expected, apathy set in and we all forgot about our duties.

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A tiny bit of Godfrey, a surprised Adebanjo Ajibade, Joshua Joshua pouting and the wonderful Mrs. Ifeoma Igweze

Then, with barely 20 days to go to 18th November, Google gave the go-ahead. The scramble was the stuff of history movies (the kind where stuff blow up). First of all, the entire thing was happening in grainy black-and-white, none of our anticipated (money-laden) sponsors would sponsor the event, publicity was slow in kicking off, the website for registration and co was suddenly littered with bugs, the hall we planned to use was suddenly in danger of being booked on that day, and all the while the hours kept ticking away. We ought to have kept up with our planning, we ought to have stayed prepared. This is one lesson I would not forget.

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Gino Osahon, the boss, Manager, GDG Port Harcourt and Host #DevFestSE16 with Dorothy Mpeba and Ushers from AdForumCo

MURPHY’S LAW WAS CAST IN STONE WITH THE BLOOD OF BINI WITCHES

Looking back now, the event was a definite success, all things considered. Participants and delegates from across Southern and Eastern Nigeria and beyond, all went back happy, and knowledge was imparted. However

murphys-law

Everything that could go wrong did. The speakers came slightly late, the cords that had been bought were miraculously too big to fix in the jacks, the walkie-talkies did not work, data connectivity was slow, program schedule was a binsh to handle, PHCN and the PHED (Port Harcourt Electricity Distributor) kept taking power, the backup generator was slow to come on, the ACs were overworked, one of the projectors refused to work, participants brought along more laptops and devices than we had sockets for, name-tags for organizers had the wrong names on them, sometime after maybe 800 people had been served refreshments, the food finished, there was a typo on a poster no one noticed until event day, as well as sponsors whose logos were not included in the backdrop. The list goes on, but each of these mentioned contributed to causing a bit of mayhem at the event.

When planning events, it is wise to consider every kind of eventuality because a tiny grain of sand out of the way can expand a crack into a crevasse.

EVEN CLOSE-KNIT FAMILIES FIGHT, WHAT MATTERS IS WHEN THEY COME BACK TOGETHER

As was to be expected, we fought. Bitterly. Blood everywhere. Tempers were raised, egos were crushed, insults were tossed from one end to another, legs and heads were threatened with dire harm, organizers threatened to boycott the event and so on and so forth. But in the end, the GDG Port Harcourt came through like a family, albeit a shaky extended one, with too many wives and offshoots, but still a family. When it mattered the most, members had volunteers came through and put their very best to work for the success of the event. And this, not the planning or logistic magicks employed by Banjo, Joshua and Daniel, was responsible for whatever successes we recorded that day.

ONE, ONE, ONE…AND STICK TO ONE THING

There were many takeaways from the event, but one stuck to me more than most. Aniedi Udo-Obong, the Google Developer Groups Coordinator for Sub-Saharan Africa and Chief Host of the event, when taking his keynote address said (amongst other things); “Read one book, watch [and finish] one tutorial and join one community”. He aimed to advise beginner/amateur and expert devs who were considering too many options at the same time to concentrate on one and be a master of it. Stick to one.

It was brilliant advice and another one I would always remember. Stick to one thing, join one community. I am happy I joined GDG Port Harcourt and was a part of #DevFestSE16.

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And the post-event selfie: with Godfrey, Gino, Sokari, Wisdom, Esther and Vivien

For more information on details of #DevFestSE16 and pictures, visit @sedevfest on Twitter, @devfestse on Instagram and most especially, http://www.facebook.com/devfestse. You can also follow GDG Port Harcourt on Twitter @GDGPHC and on http://www.facebook.com/gdgportharcourt

Website is http://www.devfestse.tech

DISCLAIMER

  • Murphy’s Law can be calculated to the furthest significant figure and you will still fall short. You have to also prepare for that. LOL. Inception-y.
  • It is not coincidence that I have the same sweatshirt on first day I joined GDG Port Harcourt and well, the last. I just don’t have clothes. Buy for me please.
  • That last disclaimer is not so much a disclaimer as a very thinly veiled cry for help. Epp mi, plis…

Peace. Follow me on Twitter @Stillweather