Interacting online in Nigeria: There’s an app for that

Agogo Network
Ogechi Chidebell: graduate student, business

When Ogechi Chidebell arrived in Milwaukee in 2011, she relied heavily on her smart phone to get to know the city.

“Even though I didn’t know my way around, I could walk downtown and wouldn’t feel lost,” says Chidebell, a Lubar Executive MBA (EMBA) student from Nigeria. “I didn’t have to feel like an outsider in Wisconsin.”

She navigated with Google maps, and chose restaurants, coffee shops and other small businesses based on online review sites like Yelp.

“And I realized that this information is something that Nigerians don’t have,” Chidebell says. In fact, she says, many small businesses in Nigeria never appear in Google searches.

That realization inspired her winning entry in the Student Startup Challenge (SSC), an app called Agogo Network. Named for the agogo, a gong-like instrument used in ancient Nigeria to announce important events, Chidebell’s platform would provide listings and reviews for restaurants, tailors and beauty salons, as well as events and entertainment. “It’s creating a Yelp for Nigeria,” Chidebell says.

While taking a UWM course called IT Infrastructure, she learned that Google search results are based on back-links to existing web pages. Few Nigerian small business owners can afford websites, Chidebell says. Yet Nigeria currently has one of the biggest telecommunications industries in the world.

“We do not have access to the Internet, but most people have mobile phones,” Chidebell says. “Of 117 million Nigerians, at least 100 million have one sort of smart phone or another.”

Once Nigerians start using their phones to weigh in on Agogo about where they like to eat, shop, and have their clothes tailored, Chidebell sees an opportunity to gather previously uncollected consumer data.

Small business owners could benefit from the connection with customers who are looking for them.

Chidebell hopes this gold mine of previously untapped information could help the Nigerian economy in larger ways too.

“Marketing data will spur innovation and attract foreign investment,” she explains. “It will give the Nigerian consumer a face so that local and foreign business can better meet their needs.”

Chidebell says she is drawn to the startup process, particularly innovative ideas that can help her home continent.

“My heart has always been strong for Africa,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to be a bridge between the Western world and emerging nations, Africa in particular. I just didn’t know to what extent. One thing the Student Startup Challenge did was open my eyes that I really could do something that would change the lives of people.”

Chidebell says a highlight of the SSC process has been working with the team at UWM’s Mobile Innovation Lab, nicknamed the App Brewery. The student workers there are currently working with her to build a prototype. Once she has a working framework, Chidebell and her collaborators plan to approach potential investors, including telecommunications firms in Nigeria.

Chidebell remembers the day when she pitched Agogo Network to the SSC judges. She says that as she made her presentation, she suddenly realized that others could visualize what she was proposing.

“In the end it didn’t matter whether I won it or not,” she says. “What mattered was the fact that people were able to see something that I saw, to see a reality and a possibility.”

Update: Once the app is completed, Chidebell will be taking a job in Nigeria with a television production company. In December she got her first chance to network: Through an introduction from Chukuka Enwemeka, dean of UWM’s College of Health Sciences, Chidebell meet former Nigerian president Chief Olusegun Obasanjo who was visiting the campus. She hopes to make more connections in her native country for investors and others interested in her product, while planning to keep the technical operation and hosting in the U.S.