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.”
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”