Tech start-up businesses and incubators in Lagos and Abuja are putting Nigeria in the spotlight

In recent years it’s Kenya that has been seen to be running things in terms of building a tech ecosystem on the continent. With robust models for mobile money, incubators and crowdsourcing apps, this region is the benchmark of tech start-up culture. However, what’s good for Africa’s east side is fuel for its west, and now Nigeria has gained a healthy level of traction thanks to the growth of its own tech landscape, which revolves around Lagos.

Yaba on the mainland is the magnet for much tech activity, and since 2013, when the government laid 16 miles of fibre optic cable delivering slick internet access to Lagos, the suburb has earned the nicknames Silicon Lagoon and Yabacon Valley. It’s here that you’ll find the Co-Creation Hub (CcHub), which made waves when it opened in 2010 as the country’s first workspace, pre-incubation and open living lab. A 2016 visit from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has further shone much-deserved national and global attention on the venue. CcHub has groomed over 50 start-ups that focus on solving social problems in education, advertising, health, fashion and transport, and has partnered with Microsoft to support even more.

Yaba’s problem-solving community ethos means that ideas are shared and developed. Nearby is, the online travel agency that emerged by way of a simple desire to make Nigerian hotels available for online booking and allow users to leave reviews and ratings. Not revolutionary on paper but in 2012, when was founded, they were plugging a serious gap in Nigeria’s leisure market. “We were solving a problem that existed for years,” says founder Mark Essien. “Currently our recorded bookings are from Nigeria, and that’s evenly divided between business and leisure travellers. The goal is to dominate hotel bookings in Africa, and maybe step out of the continent if our growth curve suggests we can,” he adds.

Nigeria’s tech scene is breaking barriers but still evolving and one challenge is defining a new company’s public image when high expectations often clash with a lack of solid home grown investment. Despite lush figures such as the estimated $49.4 million in funding that Nigerian start-ups received in 2015 (according to the Disrupt Africa Funding Report) and the £1 billion valuing of Africa Internet Group, who are behind Nigeria’s first online retail store Jumia, most start-ups spend huge amounts of time punting around for investment. “There’s not much money floating around the system,” explains Jessica Hope whose PR agency Wimbart works with West African tech start-ups. Nigeria doesn’t have that many incubators and accelerators yet, so the desire is often to develop a narrative that gets the attention of mainstream outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times or TechCrunch. “For kudos and investment all the guys want to be in TechCrunch as it’s so highly revered in terms of global funding announcements,” says Hope.

It was Jason Njoku, the founder of the iRokotv web platform, who instigated this trend. Having been featured quite early on in the magazine, he was funded to the tune of $3million by a major venture capitalist. Now the poster child for tech investment, iRoko is seen as part of a unicorn story in which its founder never had to pitch for money. It was Hope’s previous work with iRoko that launched her into the tech scene, so managing the expectations of her clients, and finding new ways to encourage them to think beyond their product, is her way of building that much needed international interest. “I’m always honest when I tell clients that their story isn’t strong enough for TechCrunch. I’d say about 80 per cent of those articles are US-based and they report on all the tech giants. Until about six months ago they didn’t even have an African correspondent. However this year, there were eight stories on African start-ups. I think I placed about four of them.”

Within this climate, and with the majority of funds flowing into Lagos, it’s interesting to consider how the fortunes of tech start-ups in other parts of Nigeria will fair. Abuja, as the centre of government, is becoming the next strategic move. Ventures Platform is an early stage start-up accelerator that launched in the federal capital less than a year ago. “We believe that the best founders, with just a little support, can change the world, and so we find them early and fund them,” explains CEO, Kola Aina. His members so far include Wesabi, who are connecting skilled artisans to customers and businesses across Africa; Jalo, an on-demand last-minute, Africa-wide delivery service; the micro-lending Payconnect service for Nigerians and Proteach that links technology students with home tutors. These, and others that have joined the Ventures platform reflect the growing interest in fintech, edtech, infrastructure and logistics that Aina has noticed. “Tech innovation now has the attention of everyone from government and civil society, to popular culture and even financiers,” Aina adds.

“We believe that the best founders, with just a little support, can change the world”

What sets Ventures Platform apart from the Yabacon Valley hubs though is not so much its location as its firm mission to create a space that marries visual art and design with tech enterprise. Its mix of sustainability, art and architecture, fused with its people-led production, adds to its status as the first fully serviced tech hub in Abuja. “It took us about four weeks, from design to finish, to complete our first campus. The timing was insane and I’ll never attempt this again. But we had a great team that made it possible. Everyone brought their A-game to the project.” The result is a standout venue with dedicated incubation, work and residence spaces, housed within large, locally sourced shipping containers, encompassing a strong aesthetic. Aina thanks his strong creative team including architect Wole Olabanji who handled all the engineering and design, award-winning visual artist Victor Ehikhamenor whose beautifully abstract murals adorn the venue’s exteriors, and Venture’s creative director Ernest Danjuma, who was wholly tuned into the “sonic comfort” of the venue.

“My role at Ventures Platform is to form a space that awakens all the senses of our users, because I believe that’s where creativity stems from,” says Danjuma. The visual design and indigenous art, which also includes Ehikhamenor’s impressive charcoal on canvas work, Waiting Along the Hallway of Pleasure, are in sync with the wider Abuja environment, which is essentially one of serenity. The creative direction at Ventures Platform seems to break through much of the corporate emphasis that can swamp ambitious incubators. That’s not to say that lucrative and change-making business isn’t at the forefront of the organisation’s vision. Still, image is key, and with Danjuma coming from a background in designing experiences for brands – the WASH Gala clean water benefit and the ethical, African-manufactured UNIFORM apparel being just two that he collaborated with – his wish list for Ventures Platforms is equally ambitious. “Ideally we’d love to continue to update our designs, and incorporate different elements of art and furniture, to keep the place fresh and alive. And of course there’s always the tantalising possibility of expanding into Lagos and beyond the borders of Nigeria.”   

So far, Ventures Platform has made direct, and significant financial investment to its start-up members, and with a goal to “create the future” and to build billion dollar companies, this accelerator is best placed to fulfil that much sought after unicorn trail.

Words Nana Ocran