As SMWLagos turns five, co-founder Ngozi Odita reveals her vision for the conference’s impact on job creation, education, investment and social change in Nigeria

“A lot of people were not convinced that this was something that would work in Lagos. I was hearing ‘nobody’s going to submit events’, ‘people aren’t going to get into the idea of crowdsourcing content’ and ‘you can’t have a conference for free’.” recalls co-founder of Social Media Week Lagos, Ngozi Odita. Initial reactions to her idea of bringing diasporic conversations about Africa and its digital creativity to Nigeria may have been skeptical but five years on, it’s now a central part of the Lagos calendar.

The Brooklyn-based creative director received green lighting from entrepreneur Obi Asika to launch SMWLagos in 2013 and the first two years saw hundreds of events take place in different locations around the city. By year three the conference settled into Landmark Centre and for the 2017 edition it will host multiple simultaneous sessions for the whole week (27 Feb-3Mar), allowing for a huge variety of programming. It’s a win for Lagos in ways that go beyond the access to free industry talks and opinions. By opening the platform up to the public, and with its open submissions policy, citizens are given as much of a voice as business owners and thought leaders with this year expected to attract over 13,000 people.

Now established, SMWLagos aims to grow as an inspirational engine for creating global jobs, giving access to digital skills education, creating gender balance and encouraging investment opportunities. This evolving mission becomes more complex with each edition of the event. “In the first year things were more basic. We’d have sessions like, how to use Twitter to talk about your brand, or blogging one-one-one. Now, we’re having talks on the future of podcasting in Africa, how to bring more girls into digital journalism and the analytics of ROI,” says Odita. “We’re also launching Skillshare. These are two-and-a-half hour intensive sessions that take you through digital photography, branding and design. Class structure is real on the continent. If you’re poor, or didn’t having a particular type of schooling, you don’t mix, but at SMWLagos, everyone is in the same room… You can be sat next to Dbanj and talk to him and he won’t be like, ‘Who are you?’”

No doubt, the democratic nature of digital platforms is shifting the way individuals socialise and create or take up opportunities but there are also wider implications in terms of the nature of engagement, activism and politics. “We have people from government here. Last year the Senate President was there and people were just going up to him with questions. Previously you’d never have that kind of access.”

The 2017 palette of speakers – all 260 of them – have a depth of experiences across a broad range of sectors ranging from IT, gaming and entertainment to beauty, tourism and finance. This adds to the organic thinking that’s threaded through the SMWLagos experience. The presence of Chris Cox, Facebook’s global head of management, design and marketing, will probably inspire something akin to the type of fervor that Mark Zuckerberg received during his 2016 tour of Lagos. Meanwhile Folu Storms (Ada Afoluwake Ogunkeye) will be bringing her perspective on African culture and travel. A writer, producer and host of Ndani TV’s The New Africa series, her trajectory from law to broadcasting puts a unique spin on her early ambitions to affect change in her society.

Chuey Chu is another well-known face. His Pulse TV Strivia show and viral videos of celebrity interactions have coined the now familiar ‘chop knuckle’ catchphrase. "Exploiting the use of social media for things other than gaining popularity or promotional purposes is still a relatively niche concept here. It's my hope that over time, having an annual SMWLagos will help turn the tide," Chu says. Looking to encourage non-conventional ways of business promotion, Chuey’s input this year will be to join a panel discussing how businesses can leverage Instagram Stories and Snapchat to generate leads. "We’ll essentially be looking at how people can stay killing the social media game."

Aside from the healthy level of open networking, the essence of Pan Africanism at the conference is also growing. While certain sessions are specific to Lagos, many discussions feature themes or issues that are applicable across the continent, with attendee coming in from other African regions. A wide span of ages attend too. The bulk of the audience is in the 25 and 36-year group – those at the natural end of the innovation and disruption scale – and are often attracted to sessions around civil society, political dissidence and using social media to challenge governments. While the C-level executives and companies are well represented by the 40 and 50-somethings, as are sessions on governance. It’s when the generations clash that things get interesting. “Sometimes when you get all the ages in the same room it’s really dynamic,” says Odita. “You’ll be in a session with people yelling, you know, because Nigerians are super passionate.”

With SMWLagos getting bigger every year, it’s become a mainstay for Odita who also runs the media and production company Africa21, does a podcast series, and partners with institutions in New York including the Brooklyn Museum and Dance Africa. “People will reach out to me if they’re looking to target an African audience, or to create programming around the diaspora. But a lot of what I do is SMWLagos focused, particularly as some of the brands we work with there, want to do additional things beyond the conference week.”

Dividing her time between two such megacities, she is thrilled to be part of a global conversation on the importance of connectivity. “You can use Uber in New York and then arrive in Lagos and you’re using the same app, and having the same experience while navigating the city. You’ll also have other local solutions like food delivery apps and tons of co-working spaces. People creating solutions are so young. To be an African child you’re still supposed to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer and that’s it, but now, people are saying ‘I’m an app developer, I’m launching my start-up’ and there are so many initiatives helping them like She Leads Africa and CCHub. SMWLagos believes that if an individual can access education, find investors to fund their dreams and be treated equitably, these things can be game changers.”

Social Media Week Lagos is from 27 February to 3 March at Landmark Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos

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