This week, for our major feature, we are celebrating ideas and innovation, and are therefore spotlight the amazing work happening at Lagos’s Co-Creation Hub. Incidentally, Y! Magazine had a full feature on the hub in its latest edition and the piece is reproduced below!
by Stanley Azuakola
Something exciting is happening in the centre of Lagos, and it just might change Nigeria for good.
Techies, developers, hackers, and designers share a common physical working space — a geek heaven of sorts. “Nigeria’s next big thing will almost certainly have a Co-creation hub mark on it.”
“WHY CO-CREATION Hub?” Nothing fancy. That’s the first question I asked Femi Longe, cofounder of perhaps Africa’s latest innovation hub – Co-creation Hub in Lagos.
Not that there was anything wrong with the name. In fact, its audacity is endearing. It speaks of something beyond mere tweaking, or correction; improvement even. It speaks of bringing something fresh into existence, of creation; much more than that — of Co-creation.
But there is another hub somewhere in the heart of London also called the Co-creation hub, and clarity would be helpful. “Co-creation is an English word which nobody owns,” Longe says to me, a trace of defiance in his voice. “It is at the heart of what we do. We believe that service is better when a range of people are involved in creating it, together.”
That is the philosophy behind the work being, well, co-created by the duo of ‘Bosun Tijani (Team leader) and Femi Longe (Director of Programmes). At its most basic, the hub seeks to bring together and foster a community of designers, entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, tech companies, investors, professionals, students, academics and perhaps hackers to collaboratively create solutions to Nigeria’s myriad social challenges.
In that sense, it is similar to organisations like The Young Foundation, B-lab and Ashoka Innovators for the Public – which apply a business approach to innovation in an attempt to solve social issues.
Bill Drayton pioneered this field — social entrepreneurship — in 1981 when he founded the Ashoka Innovators for the Public. Since then, social entrepreneurship, as an organised, deliberate affair has grown remarkably, evidenced by the almost daily springing up of such ventures, the amount of research being carried out, the huge body of knowledge already amassed, and increased attention in the mainstream media.
Co-creation Hub maintains a distinction however. Unlike most traditional social innovation centres, the Co-creation Hub also serves as a co-working space. Techies, developers, hackers, and designers share a common physical working space — a geek heaven of sorts.
Diverse groups, diverse skill sets, diverse experiences, all coming together, and working side by side. One person’s mistake or breakthrough becomes an instant experience for every single member of the community. It all goes down right there: mentoring, networking, advisory services, ideas incubation, and exposure to information, funding, and partnership. In this sense, it resembles Kenya’s widely popular iHub.
Still, it maintains a uniquesness: for one, the Kenyan iHub is not a social enterprise and it is strictly a tech hub. Co-creation Hub on the other hand, apart from being wholly social, sees technology “as a tool, but not the only tool.”
It is this combination of social enterprise and co-working space that makes the Co-creation Hub special. Longe used the oft-repeated tale of the six blind men of Hindustan — who approached different parts of an elephant and came up with disparate descriptions of the beast — to explain the futility in attempting to “box” the Co-creation Hub into any already established model.
“We are a unique Nigerian model,” he quips, with certainty. And the product of a unique Nigerian friendship, he very well could have added.
Co-creation Hub co-founders, Tijani and Longe share a fourteen year long friendship built on the foundation of a common passion for social issues. They first met while serving as presidents of AIESEC, the world’s largest exchange organisation, in their separate universities — University of Jos for Tijani and Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife for Longe.
It was as members of the national executive (Longe served as national president for a year and as Director for Africa) that their bond was cemented.
Post-university working life took them separately to over a dozen different nations of the world as development consultants and advisers, but their friendship was unwavering. Those days were an eager experience-amassing spree under well renowned organisations like Hewlett Packard, The Young Foundation, Africa++, the British Council, and the International Trade Centre.
In 2007, they were reunited in London. There, that same year, the idea of the Co-creation Hub really began to take form. For three years, they built on the idea; working up how best to transfer the knowledge they’d gained in Europe to the emerging Nigerian market.
They studied best practices in Africa and the world. They mapped the contours of the virtually non-existent Nigeria social innovation landscape. They designed a unique methodology which they considered to be workable. There was just one thing left — their methodology needed a test. It was at that point the “co-journers” decided to return home. The friends had become partners.
How do you recognise a start-up whose first public initiative was less than a year ago? Or one which only fully kick-started operations in August 2011? Let’s see… widespread industry acceptance? Three fully launched social ideas and nine others at various stages of delivery? Backers and collaborators that include sterling brands like Omidyar Network, World Bank, Indigo Trust and Kenya’s iHub?
Make that three yes-es for the Co-creation Hub, Lagos. And there you have it — the reason for all the hype. The hub is not just talking the talk — in fact, they talk very little, as I realise very quickly while working hard to draw responses for this piece, but the impressive results more than make up for the reticence.
Take Oluseun Onigbinde, the Team Lead of BudgIT, for instance. He talks about his start-up with a lover’s passion. BudgIT aims to make Nigerian government budgets at all levels easily accessible and understandable to all – and Onigbinde is certain he is on to something that will work. Just three months after its launch, BudgIT’s user friendly online platform had well over a quarter of a million hits. Just as he hoped, the platform is spurring discussions around the Nigerian federal government budget and its resources have been quoted both by bloggers and the traditional news media.
With Version 2.0 soon to be launched, BudgIT is well on its way to becoming the dream envisioned by Onigbinde. But you see, chances are that, without the Co-creation hub, the BudgIT dream would have remained just that — a dream.
When in March 2011, the Co-creation hub called for tech ideas that could get Nigerians involved in governance issues, Onigbinde sent in his entry, along with forty five others. BudgIT was one of six selected by a panel of judges and admitted into the Tech-in-governance camp at the Pan African University, Lagos. All six finalists were taken through a rigorous but thrilling process by industry experts. They prepared actual working prototypes of their ideas, their business development and marketing communications strategies, among other tasks. The top three ideas were awarded a million naira in funding by Indigo Trust (including an additional five thousand dollars).
Onigbinde’s BudgIT came in second place. Six months later, in September, it was officially launched. The first and third placed ideas, Resident Report (which allows citizens report local problems to the relevant authorities responsible for fixing them) and Vote Guard (a mobile application which helps record and aggregate the final vote counts in polling booths during elections) – “all but ready”, Longe says they are – have not yet been launched.
There’s the platform called Ideas 2020, which allows citizens play their part towards realising Nigeria’s dream of being one of the world’s top twenty economies by the year 2020 by getting their small community projects funded. It came in fourth place, and it has also been launched, albeit with a few nuts and bolts left to tighten.
Interestingly, it isn’t only products incubated on the hub’s platform that are supported by it. Zubair Abubakar, developer of the Constitution App – a mobile application which seeks to make the Nigerian constitution accessible to all Nigerians with internet-connected mobile phones – approached the hub for business advice. The constitution app by then was already a big hit on the Blackberry platform with over thirty thousand downloads. But Abubakar needed funding to be able to develop the application on other mobile platforms. Thanks to the Co-creation Hub, Abubakar got about seven thousand pounds to fund the launch of his application.
It’s the reason Gbenga Sesan, who has been called ‘Oracle’ in the ICT industry tells me pointedly, “Nigeria’s next big thing will almost certainly have a Co-creation hub mark on it.”
Femi Longe put it this way, “Traditional venture capitalists would not touch some of these ideas with a ten foot pole. But we see the sense in the ideas that others won’t.”
It’s a good thing that they do. The American National Business Incubation Association (NBIA) released a report which says the survival rate for American start-ups that did not use incubators is a measly 44%. This figure excludes social enterprises which should presumably be much lower. There are no figures yet for Nigeria. But if we import the low American figures and further factor in our notoriously harsh business climate, there would be only one conclusion. Without incubators like the Co-creation Hub, social entrepreneurship in Nigeria will surely wither.
Over the long haul
Foundations like Omidyar Network and Indigo Trust, which recently awarded grants to the hub for two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000) and forty-five thousand dollars ($45,000), are among its strongest backers. They and a few other corporate donors understand the critical role the Co-creation Hub could play in Nigeria’s emerging technology and social innovation climate.
“Our long term plan however is not to rely on donors or else we are no better than NGOs,” Longe explains quickly. “How would the hub ensure financial sustainability?” I asked. “By continuing to create value and earning from the value we create,” he responded without missing a beat.
For now, apart from donors, funding also comes in through membership fees for users of the hub’s communal space, rents from individuals/organisations who host their events in the welcoming ambience of the hub, and commissions from funding received by entrepreneurs under their wings.
Going forward, four major challenges would have to be confronted: how exactly to measure impact, how to attract qualified knowledge workers, how and when to move into platforms other than web and mobile, and how best to navigate the limitations of physical space.
The challenge of continuous supply of knowledge workers is critical. Perhaps, the hub has an advantage due to its strategic location in Yaba, Lagos, in the vicinity of academic institutions like the University of Lagos and the Yaba College of Technology. Location is hardly enough though. Pro-activity is required. Getting the community excited and stimulated would make smart minds keener to venture into the field of social entrepreneurship and continuously replenish the creativity pool.
Take a roll call: BudgIT, Resident Report, Ideas 2020, Project Watch, WAEC Practice App, and many more. One common thread you’ll find is that they are all web or mobile based products. Longe sees IT, web and mobile as starting points; existing tools on which the hub could leverage. The fear is not to get too comfortable on one platform to settle there.
British entrepreneur, James Dyson recently wrote in The UK Guardian: “Hi-tech should not be confined to the digital world — our biggest problems require a response grounded not in the cloud but in tangible form.” He might have underrated the power of web and mobile technology a tiny bit, but he makes a salient point. Developing strategies on how and when to begin the incorporation of other kinds of tangible solutions has to be high on the hub’s agenda, soon.
Yes, it’s still baby steps for the Co-creation Hub. And yes, it’s probably too early to make a definite call. Yet, it seems a new breed of national heroes is perfectly poised to rise.
And, “Who knows?” asks Sesan rhetorically. “We could be discussing CcHub Kano, CcHub Maiduguri, CcHub Warri and CcHub Akure in a few years.”
Bill Drayton, the father of social entrepreneurship, said “the life purpose of the true social entrepreneur is to change the world.” I asked Longe if he agreed with that or if he believed in just “doing your bit where you are.”
For the first time in over an hour of conversation, there was a short pause. Then he spoke and I understood why. The man who believes intensely in the power of sharing and succeeding collectively needed to “share” his response between the two contending schools of thought. “I believe in changing the world,” he said. “Starting from where you are.” Y!