Tunde Onakoya, the 28-year founder of Chess in Slums Africa is not a newcomer to social impact programmes. His chess to slum communities in Lagos program remains one of the most impactful and life-transforming events in recent times, garnering international recognition.
However, his latest social experiment of changing the lives of some of the smartest teenagers in Ikorodu, a suburb in Lagos, living in extreme poverty between the ages of 14-18, “then find some more teenagers already involved in internet scam and bring them together in the Smartan house for 8 weeks”, is causing disquiet in the tech ecosystem.
The project which received major public support and undisclosed funding from Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, founder of Future Africa, a venture capital firm that funds early-stage startups, has already concluded its first cohort which Onakoya declared as “very successful.”
According to him, it was realised that the best to steer the hearts of young people away from internet scams was to “create an enabling environment where they could be influenced by their own peers just like HK (Hustle Kingdom), but this time grounded in a quest for building real skill.”
Onakoya believes the primary reason for the proliferation of Yahoo boys is more than being poor or plain greediness, rather it is the lack of deliberate mentorship and guidance.
“These young people have fire in their hearts and a strong will to succeed against all odds. The zeal can be channelled differently,” Onakoya says.
However, many tech professionals and experts question the rationale for using tech and Yahoo in the same sentence. For most of these experts, the Smartan appears to be attempting to rehabilitate Yahoo Boys based on the premise that they were victims of a failed system, that under normal circumstances and if offered better choices, they would have chosen a different path. In doing so, the program fails to recognise the devastating impact of Yahoo Boys’ activities on their victims.
“Yahoo Boy rehabilitation reminds me of pardoning terrorists. It won’t work if it is not from true remorse. The damage they have caused also needs to be addressed. That the damage is being glossed over in favour of their “misfortune” is what irks me,” said Osaretin Victor Asemota.
Other experts say it attempts to reward a craft that has done more harm to the image that founders in the tech ecosystem have struggled to build over the years.
“There is good intent here, but an intentional pipeline that pushes fraudsters into tech?” said @mrmxg, an X user. “What about the millions of other kids who chose “not” to do fraud? What message are we sending those ones? What about the reputation of Nigerian tech workers as a whole?”
Adewale Adetugbo, president, Growth at Sentient Networks also tries to make the distinction that Yahoo skills are not tech skills.
“A lot of confusion regarding this just because they use computers. The actual “tech” in confidence trickery is built by Eastern Europeans and Russians (Graduates for the most part with deep skills). Most have no idea how Yahoo works and it shows.
Until the tech ecosystem in Nigeria grew in popularity, a tech bro was usually someone who worked in the digital technology industry, especially in the United States and is sometimes thought to not have good social skills and to be too confident about their own ability. That definition has since widened to include the growing tech ecosystems from around the world.
A blog post from Piggyvest, a fintech company in Nigeria defines it as a “gender-neutral” designation for anyone who works in the tech industry. The term tech industry is used for companies that design, manufacture, or distribute electronic devices such as computers, computer-related equipment, computer services and software, scientific instruments, and electronic components and products.
Startup founders in Nigeria have through their innovations pushed the brand visibility of the country’s tech ecosystem to continental dominance and global consciousness. They however face threats of an enemy from within; the notorious activities of Yahoo boys.
Read also: Chess4Change: Raising young geniuses
Their activities are such a monumental threat that Nigeria is present in most definitions of the phrase Yahoo Yahoo. For example, the Urban Dictionary defines Yahoo boy as the “official name of the asshats from foreign countries (typically Nigeria) who send you false emails to exploit your wallet.”
The paranoia over links with Yahoo boys comes from history. In the course of the ecosystem’s growth, there have been occasions in which founders who were thought to be building legitimate startups turned out to be fraudsters. For example, Obinwanne Okeke popularly known as Invictus Obi, founder of Invictus Group was found guilty of causing approximately $11 million in known losses to his victims between 201 and 2019. He bagged a 10-year jail term for computer and wire fraud by an American court.
A few other founders have also been accused of engaging in fraudulent activities and further eroding the image of the ecosystem. The image crisis of the tech ecosystem made them the easy targets of security officials in the past culminating in the October 2020 protest where many tech workers demanded an end to police brutality. While the protest led to fatalities and many injured participants, it also forced the authorities to disband the officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) who claimed many victims due to their high-handedness.
While the SARS team have been decommissioned, tech workers remain targets of the fraud stereotypes.
“I went to a bank to open a USD account and a guy I met at the Business Development department told me “Abeg, refer your guys to me, I go run am well for them.” It was when I changed my face and asked him “which guys?” That he felt he had messed up and he said sorry. For once, I felt very bad and sad that I could be stereotyped as a fraudster. For once, I felt I should have worn a suit to that bank that day, maybe it would have sold me differently, maybe because I wore casuals. I started blaming myself. Now, this is a bank staff openly looking for Yahoo boys to do business with. How many of his types are in the banking sector? How many are senior executives?” said Joseph Brendan, a tech worker.
But Onakoya’s reputation for helping young is unquestionable and his resume in helping young boys living under the bridge find new purposes for their lives, maybe behind his latest passion to try a different approach to the Yahoo boys problem.
“The problem with this conversation is that the different takes are right – it’s perspective. @Tunde_OD can’t fix everybody and everything. There are people who are bad and deserve jail, and there are some who have been pushed due to their reality of lack of exposure,” said Adaora Nwodo, founder of Nexascale, a social enterprise connecting people to opportunities that help them start and scale their careers. “We keep forgetting that your environment has a huge impact on how you turn out, and I don’t mean poverty, I mean constantly seeing everyone around you doing something and thinking it’s normal also because your family members also tell you it is. Go to Edo State and you’ll understand.”
Teju Adeyinka, product manager at Ox Project, a platform that connects developers to Web3 markets, agrees that it is better to offer the Yahoo boys a choice for a change.
“It’s an experiment – it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t succeed. But if it does. Then that’s something powerful. I personally have a lot of respect and empathy for people who try to do the often gruelling job of social change in this place,” Adeyinka said.