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

by Edwin 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.

There is something ancestral about Kaduna. Perhaps it is a consequence of the city’s heritage or the unwillingness of its people to embrace a future different from the one it has always known, but while the roads are dualized and fancy malls and hotels spring up as though conjured, the people remain the same, never unhurried. As patriarchs return to their family homes from their high-powered jobs in Abuja, Katsina and Kano, the roads begin to fill with cars and the beggars multiply, thrusting their faces at wound up windows, begging for alms, causing traffic. The traffic that persists is one of the few things that has defied Kaduna’s unwillingness to change. That and the city’s new generation of programmers.

When I get the pitch to find and interview Aminu Bakori, it is at night and in the form of a email with a tweet embedded, a link to an article by Techpoint. I’m only in Kaduna for a few days, and I only have one left before I have to return to Lagos. The lack of a directive seems like a challenge, one I decide to rise up to. The next day I travel through the city, to Barnawa where Kaduna’s first independent co-working space just opened. Co-Lab Kd is the brain child of Sanusi Ismaila, a media and tech entrepreneur who until then has worked as a quiet partner and facilitator on a loosely networked web of sites including Stories.ng and KitchenButterfly.com. Co-Lab Kd is the first project is he is the directly and wholly running, and bringing it to Kaduna, where he grew up feels like a statement.

SuperSanusi (as he is known on Twitter) have worked in the past, so when I arrive, I name drop, using his clout to rout Bakori away from his work and into an impromptu interview for which he is totally unprepared. We sit in one of the working labs, and spend the first few minutes bonding about our shared history, he is also an alumnus of Ahmadu Bello University, his department a literal shout away from the one I graduated from. At ease, I see my moment and take it to ask him a few questions.

Bakori answers questions about his background with ease. He is from the Bakori village in Katsina, an immigrant to Kaduna a child and a tech enthusiast since he could walk. He jokes about being self taught and has a quiet obstinacy that affirms this, even as he steeples his fingers and holds my gaze. I am tempted but decide against bringing up his age as a way to engage him. Instead I start with his biggest project thus far; Cloudiora.

“Working off a website is the least tasking thing you can do on the internet,” he says, “So we built Cloudiora on to work on web based code, so it stays small and cheap and can be run in the poorest of countries.” It is obvious he has given it a lot of thought, spurred by his time in the Ahmadu Bello University department of statistics that shares space with its department of computer science. He recalls seeing many students graduate with degrees in computer science without ever actually owning a computer. Cloudiora is his solution to that nightmare, a virtual operating system independent of any physical (and expensive consoles) optimized to operate high-end software on low-end devices.

It is ambitious and on the surface altruistic but not really. Bakori doesn’t enjoy being the only ‘visible’ programmer from Northern Nigeria and Cloudiora is his way of changing that. But being from the North isn’t the only thing that differentiates him from the other stars of the Nigerian tech scene. For one he is Hausa, and Muslim. He is also based in the North and prefers to keep his projects close to his chest, where his contemporaries are known for their constant flurries of updates on social media and occasionally in the press. I ask him about this, about being a Unicorn of sorts. He laughs and points to his laptop.

“I’ve always been around computers. I have always been interested in them, first as a consumer then as a creator. I have been building things since the days of the tiny, wap sites for java phones. Whatever firsts I have achieved just happened along the way,’ he says, then turns his tablet over to me so I can see the beta version of Cloudiora. It is a thing of beauty, the user interface is subtle but functional, and all the important functional and recreational tools are there. I am especially pleased by the ebook reader. I point this out to him and he nods.

Having access to reading material is important to him, he points out again that he is entirely self taught. It is a little heartbreaking to hear him lament about the shoals of unemployable graduates that universities churn out each year, people he says stay that way because one of the things the system breeds out of Nigerians is curiosity.
“The illiteracy level in the North needs to be corrected. Because there are fields that will remain closed to us if the educational system continues to fail Northerners.”

In the silence of the CoLab Kaduna workspace, his words are both a question and answer. The North needs more places like neutral spaces like this where people co-mingle, even if it is only for social reasons. For him personally, CoLab has become a sort of reprieve. Respect for his work is something he has had to earn, especially as much of his work is done at home behind a laptop.

“People need to see you physically doing something before they respect you. Even when what you’re doing is giving you money, they still want to see you leave the house in the morning, they need the illusion of activity to respect your work.” He says.

CoLab provides that, a secondary workspace, a place to relax and mingle with other coders and people in adjacent fields. Some days, it gives him an excuse to take his formal clothes for a spin.

Cloudiora is still in its Beta form, though it has taken six months of almost exclusive coding to get it into the shape that it is. And the first demographic Bakori intends to convert to his message are the women of Northern Nigeria. He is well aware of the unique cultural and religious circumstances which limits the possibilities for them in fields like tech and sees Cloudiora as a way to empower them. He is already thinking ahead, and is working on a way to incorporate the O.S into Raspberry Pi’s a small device that allows you turn most visual screens into a computer. He also sees the Pi as a way to financially empower women through freelance work. There is much potential in that regard, VOIP and video calling options to facilitate process, publishing via the Cloudiora Reader apps and fin tech options to ensure that payment is effected with minimal fuss. Though Bakori might not realize this, he has already solved most of these problems with Buzz, a IM platform that works via private VPN LAN networks and allows VOIP and video calling and an integrated payment application which he has asked that I not elaborate on until it is officially launched.

It is especially telling though, that when we are down to the last two questions, the conversation turns towards nepotism and a general disregard for youth in Nigeria’s industries. While Bakori is optimistic, he is also very aware of how illiteracy and an unwillingness to learn contributes to crippling innovators. But he has seen that in this age, tech is pervasive, and that every business willing to grow embraces tech in the end, either directly or by osmosis. He references Alba Bello trading stores in Zaria, and asks that I look them up. I do, and pull up a Facebook Business page. He leans forwards, almost conspiratorially, “Alba Bello is most likely not computer literate but he has people around him who are. That is how the world works.” At that moment, a man from a film crew interrupts our interview and ask how long before we’re done. Bakori pleads for 10 more minutes and I joke about how the media attention will only get worse as the months progress. To which he jokes about hiring a C.E.O to handle all of that so he can work. Payant, Cloudiora, EMS and Buzz aren’t going to build themselves.

My final question throws him off, as it does many tech oriented people. I ask him what he does fun, that isn’t computer based. He hesitates, and mulls the question before replying with a cop out.
“I love films. All the good ones, especially the tech and science fiction ones.”

It is at this point that Bakori finally belies his age. He likes DC shows, he watches them religious when he can find time away from work. He has his corny guilty pleasures. Bakori is many fascinating things, but he certainly isn’t a unicorn, or a talking point for when people need to disparage the North. He is just a 20 year old man, solving the problems everyone else is too busy postulating about.

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

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