#InnovationSeries: Nigeria’s innovation has found fertile ground in its tech hubs

by Ewin Okolo

This feature is a part of the YNaija Innovation Special – a set of insightful stories that dig deep into the spirit of innovation, enterprise, and creativity oft-talked about but seldom told as stories in Nigerian media.

The series which kicked off with the release of The New Establishment list, our annual 50-strong list of the new school of leaders, innovators, creative and entrepreneurs, will run throughout January.

Several buzzwords have transcended their awkward origins and have become part of the slang canon in Lagos. Co-working space, tech, developer, programmer. You hear these words thrown around in the city’s notorious social scenes, a hall pass of sorts for the formerly ostracized. As tech has become increasingly commercially viable, the people whose lives are immersed in it have gained an in, a kind of cool if you will. Eko may not respect anyone, but it respects money. But It is often easy to forget that the world is bigger than Lagos and it’s many scenes.

The biggest problems tech startups face are the dual constraints of viable efficient internet and viable, efficient power, both social amenities that should be provided by the government. There is an inside joke that anyone who is able to solve them already has a successful business in his or her hands. And if the success of Co-creation Hub, established in 2010 by Bosun Tijani and Femi Longe is any indicator, there is some truth to it. A staggering number of new startups have either grown out of or passed through Cc-Hub and it has become the locus for Yabacon and the tech adjacent industries that have grown out of it. In 2015, Tijani announced Growth Capital, a seed fund in partnership with the Bank of Industry equipped to invest 1 billion naira in social enterprise start ups. A long way from Cc-Hub’s humble beginnings as a co-working space for startups looking for reliable internet and constant power.

It wasn’t long before the idea of technology incubators became attractive to the government. Information Technology Developers Entrepreneurship Accelerator (IDEA) was the government’s initiative to clone the success of Cc-Hub. They even went as far as establishing the IDEA hub literally, right next to Cc-Hub’s building, perhaps to glean some of the foot traffic that it was drawing. Three years later, IDEA has opened a incubator in Calabar and streamlined the process by which it chose its startups after an shaky first year. Another unintended consequence of the Yaba based startups were the media companies that found their way inside its walls. Digital media has always relied on the services it provided and with immediate revenue through ad money, the media companies that gained success became almost as big success stories as the tech startups that the incubator culture was spawning. Yabacon was born.

Yabacon (a name many despise) is informally used to describe the tech community that has mushroomed in the heart of Lagos, and truly came into its own in late 2016 when Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook arrived unannounced to engage with the country’s tech scene and check up on Andela, the alternative education platform founded by Iyin Aboyeji. It was the crowning moment in a year that has seen million of dollars in investment and seed money bypass the conventional channels and go directly to the young people innovating novel ways to tackle social problems through tech. A truly young generation, many unallied to any politically or socially influential family, the kind of organic revolution that circumvents the problems of older generations and makes its own way. And instrumental to this wave are the country’s technology hubs.

Following the success of the Lagos hubs, the Federal government decided to revamp its Technology Incubation Centres, which before the private sector entered the scene had failed to gain traction. It’s biggest success story is in Enugu where it’s T.I.C is engaging the South East’s prolific industrial complex and convincing them to embrace automation. There is also the Scientific Equipment Development Institute, gaining traction because of Enugu’s T.I.C. A trend that hopefully spreads across the 24 other T.I.C’s spread across the country. Add to that privately owned incubation centre StartUp Hub and you have a thriving ecosystem of tech-based startups, positioning Enugu as the South East’s digital innovator.

And finally, the culture is breaking into the North through the Cc-Huba Abuja relearn centre, Ventures Platforms in Abuja and Sanusi Ismaila’s Co-Lab Kd.

Ventures Platforms, the newest of the Abuja hubs is tackling the incubator scene with far more glamour than anyone else. Which is expected, it is Abuja after all, anything you build there has to be flashy as well as functional. With future thinking container architecture emblazoned with Victor Ehikhamenor’s distinctive art and a space geared as much towards events as innovation. Ventures might actually draw in the glamorous crowds as well as the heavy hitters.

On the surface it might seem as though Ismaila’s Co-Lab Kd is aping the models of Cc-Hub and the flurry of co-creation spaces that have followed it, but a closer look suggests otherwise. There are pervasive stereotypes about Northern Nigeria, stereotypes that discourage even the most dogged tech investors from taking a second look. But Ismaila has home advantage. He grew up in Kaduna and was first introduced to its possibilities there. He knows that just like anywhere else in Nigeria, it would be reductive to assume that the negative stories that gain media attention is all there is to the city. And already he has found his first ambassador, tech entrepreneur and Ahmadu Bello University alumnus, Aminu Bakori.  Bakori is only 20 and already a rising star with a web-based operating system and several fin-tech innovations. As Bakori’s star rises, the attention he will accrue will be influential to bringing more innovators out of their bedrooms and into Co-Lab’s working spaces.

Nigeria’s co-working spaces have as an ecosystem championed one of the most impressive technological leaps, one can only imagine the heights they can carry our tech scene to if they are allowed to continue to grow organically, adapting to meet the unique challenges of our government and socio-economy, spreading through the country on the backs of single-minded innovators ready to tap into the vast wells of potential that lie dormant in our cities. It really is something to look forward to.

See other stories from the #InnovationSeries below:

– New Establishment: Mr. Eazi, Ire Aderinokun, Arese Ugwu, and more… Meet the class of 2017

– #InnovationSeries: Nigeria and the year of the Buzzfeed clones

– #InnovationSeries: Social media can be a tool for self-censored advocacy

– #InnovationSeries: A snapshot into the life of a tech unicorn

– #InnovationSeries: Technology and my radical year of freelancing

– #InnovationSeries: Cafe Neo, stimulating a tech-centric revolution

– #InnovationSeries: No, Apps are not the answer to everything

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