Coronavirus fans flames of love in Nigeria's online dating scene

By Nneka Chile and Angela Ukomadu

LAGOS (Reuters) - Oreoluwa Akinnawo is in his element. Lagos's bars and restaurants are shut and Nigerians are struggling to socialise. The pandemic is his perfect time to find a soul mate online.

"The dating thing during this restriction works perfectly for me because I'm really an indoors person," said Akinnawo, a 25-year-old digital marketer.

Sparked by coronavirus, Akinnawo and others like him are part of a boom in internet dating tailored for Nigerian professionals. In Lagos, pre-outbreak courtship often revolved around social functions, as well as couples meeting through church or their mosque's social networks.

Vybe, an app which went live in April 2019, has seen user numbers grow by almost a third to roughly 8,000 as movement restrictions push people to seek intimacy online, the company said.

"Coronavirus has been weirdly good for us," said co-founder Adetolani Eko. "People are becoming more aware of the need to connect through other means," he said.

Vybe and LagosMatchMaker, the moniker of dating coach Didi Edet, have moved activities online to keep offering premium services that other apps do not.

"People cannot meet for first dates, unless they meet at people's homes and locations which people did not feel was really safe," said Edet, whose "Dating in Quarantine" programme has more than 500 people.

At Vybe, game nights and speed dating sessions are all online now.

That was how Akinnawo met a woman he describes as cool, witty and smart. They speak four or five nights a week, chatting about swimming, singing and getting rid of traditional gender roles.

"You are no longer really focused on what the person looks like, but you're focusing on the answers to the questions that you are hearing from the person," Akinnawo said. "It feels more personal than before."

(Reporting by Nneka Chile and Angela Ukomadu; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Giles Elgood)