Let there be more incubators
With the right strategy, is it possible to create a network of technology hot zones across the country?
“We would like you to visit Ventures Platform”, Fola and Kola told me, via email. Ventures Platform is a recently established technology start-up incubator, based in Maitama, Abuja. They had been asking for months, but for the small matter of finding the time to leave Lagos, I was gung-ho about it. The recently concluded National Economic Summit, to which I had been invited as a discussion leader, was the perfect opportunity.
Ventures Platform’s modular interior has the typical, modular tech hub vibe. Pastel colours, start-up graffiti, plush couches and bar stools almost as numerous as the power outlets that can be found everywhere, but placed in a way that they don’t create a mess of wires. For a brief second, that piece of Maitama felt like Yaba, only with a lot more polished concrete. It certainly reminded me a lot about how my career in technology and media started from inside a similar, older technology incubator, the Co-Creation Hub in Yaba.
The year was 2012. I was fresh out of NYSC and had a bunch of quixotic ideas about online media. At that time, procuring my own office space was laughably out of the question. I had barely been able to piece enough money together to rent a hovel to sleep in and there was the landlord demanding two years rent upfront, for a one-bedroom apartment that had no running water and barely had electricity. The one thing my hell hole had going for it was that it was one Danfo bus away from the CcHub. I was almost always there before the doors opened at 9am, and one of the last to leave at 9pm, Monday through Saturday. I practically lived there and would have been happy to sleep there if they would have permitted it. Simply because the only thing that’s better than 12 hours of guaranteed power and internet access is 24 hours of guaranteed power and internet access.
But 12 hours was more than enough for me and dozens of wave-making start-ups whose origins can be traced directly to the CcHub. If the CcHub hadn’t been there and available to me for a mere N30,000 annual membership fee, it’s difficult to imagine how I would have been able to quit my then daily Yaba to Victoria Island commute to focus on writing about technology start-ups.
Today, Ventures Platform has taken things one step further by adding a hostel that accommodates the entrepreneurs in their incubation programme. Short of installing ice cream fountains in every room, it really doesn’t get much better than that.
If you think this sounds like the kind of thing that should be in more places in Nigeria, I couldn’t agree more. Not everyone can move to Lagos to live the start-up life. And even if they could, the CcHub and other incubators are almost always full to bursting. The thing, however, is technology incubators are not easy to setup and run. Most of them subsist on grants — the membership fees can hardly cover the costs that come with Nigeria’s peculiar infrastructure deficit.
There is talk of government intervention. The minister of communication and technology recently declared that his ministry plans on setting up six ICT hubs across the country. Given their questionable aptitude for this sort of thing, the tendency is to dismiss it as hot air. But if — and it’s a big “if” — they were to work with the people that have proven themselves competent at creating and operating incubators sustainably to execute a sensible strategy, there might be something there.
Such collaboration is in fact why the Nigerian government’s first attempt at a technology hub still exists. Created in 2013 by the Mobolaji Johnson-led commtech ministry, the Idea Hub in Yaba lives to this day because its engineering as a cooperation between the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) and large corporate interests ensured that it would survive the defeat of the Goodluck Jonathan administration. But a lot of that can also be attributed to the fact that it was fortuitously located in Yaba, which has become the undisputed hotbed of Nigerian start-up activity. Yaba is strategic because it is located conveniently between the Lagos mainland and the Island. Property prices are relatively affordable and it’s got a concentration of higher institutions all in the same place.
So, if I were the honourable minister of communications and technology, and I wanted to set up a bunch of ICT hubs, what would I do? To borrow from similar conversation I had with Bosun Tijani, one of the CcHub’s founders in 2013, I would set them up inside of schools. Specifically, universities. Bosun’s exact words were “setting up a technology hub in a township in Osun state is a waste of time…it makes a lot more sense to do it inside the Obafemi Awolowo University”.
If the plan is to create a network of technology hot zones across the country, I really cannot imagine a more efficient way than to leverage existing infrastructure- universities/polytechnics, that already aggregates the youngest, smartest and most willing people with lots of time and no responsibilities in one place- students.