With high levels of poverty, and violence fuelled by Boko Haram, northern Nigeria seems an unlikely place for a tech hub. But Nigerian entrepreneur Sanusi Ismaila and the team at CoLab – a co-working and innovation space for tech start-ups and engineers – are building just that.
CoLab set up shop in north-west city of Kaduna about two months ago. The hub offers work space, training, mentorship and networking opportunities. It also organises talks, training sessions and one-on-one meetings with tech professionals from the US and UK, something Ismaila says is quite hard to come by in northern Nigeria, where opportunities are mainly in the form of online courses, for example.
The hub has also hosted a number of hackathons (software development events), in the hope of discovering and funding scalable technologies. The most recent one was held in partnership with BudgIT, a government accountability start-up that came about as the result of a previous hackathon.
Ismaila explained that the biggest challenges CoLab has to deal with aren’t the ones you might expect. He says that the tertiary training and infrastructure required to support a tech ecosystem are both already in place. Universities in and around Kaduna produce high-calibre IT graduates, explains Ismaila, and the city doesn’t have the same issue of unstable electricity that most of Nigeria does. He believes the two biggest challenges are actually the culture northern Nigeria has towards entrepreneurship, and the lack of inclusion of women in tech.
“Entrepreneurship isn’t really a thing for educated northerners, in a sense. So there is pressure for them get regular day jobs. You find situations where there is a great software developer who has learned so many things by himself as a hobby, and has built so many things, but doesn’t see the potential of his skill or what he has built – and instead gets pushed to get a nine to five, say, working for the government pushing paper or working at a bank.”
To change this, CoLab plans to start an incubation programme which, aside from being heavily focused on training, will also look at the business side of the sector – and the benefits it offers.
Ismaila said that because Kaduna is a relatively affordable place to live, there is a lack of drive among residents when it comes to taking advantage of profitable opportunities.
Another issue is that, “Even the individuals that have technical skills or have programming skills don’t know anything about the business side of things. They are totally clueless as to cash flow, how to raise funds, what to do with funds, how to market whatever product, and how to even get feedback from users as to the viability of whatever they are building. Because most of them right now are hobbyists and not the people that are looking to monetise the stuff they are doing.”
CoLab also works to link users (even just subscribers to their newsletter) with jobs in the industry, free of charge.
Ismaila believes being able to show people that you can earn money from entrepreneurship is integral in changing the overruling mindset. For him, it’s personal: “I used to be at MTN and at some point I quit to take my own path – I know what the pressure is like. Now that has obviously changed. Five years down the line nobody is calling me to ask whether I am eating or whether I’ll be able to pay bills this month or the next. There is that pressure that stops people from doing stuff that they really should do, especially at a young age, where I think you should experiment and break things and find [yourself].”
To address the second major challenge – the lack of women in the Nigerian tech space – CoLab is working with TechHer, a community of women passionate about tech.
“Whether we think it or not, there is an inclusion problem – and because of culture it is even more evident in the north. So we are working with them. They are women, and they know better what their problems are and the difficulty to solve them – or what is needed to solve them.”
Turning problems into opportunities
Ismaila believes that the greatest opportunity to make a difference – and a profit – lies in Nigeria’s problems. There are two things, he hopes, that young business people will avoid doing in the future, as CoLab and the tech sector grow in the northern parts of the country.
The first pitfall is closely linked to the emergence of a new tech ecosystem and the hype that comes with it.
“We have an emerging sector that is very much about appearance and marketing, as opposed to actual products and value. So everyone wants to be Tony Stark [from Marvel Comics’ Iron Man] pretty much and just have amazing hockey-stick [growth] curves and everything. We need start-ups that actually solve problems and are as profitable as they can be on their own, instead of raising money to meet whatever metrics they are promising and not really adding any value to the world, basically.”
The second bit of advice he offered was to avoid the misconception that failing is in fact failure.
“It is totally okay to fail. If we fail we [should] write notes about what we did and people [can] pick it up from there – see what we did, see what they could do better. Because that is really what life and tech should be about. It is about continuity and finding better ways to live [rather than] being a superstar start-up founder.