The Chief Executive Officer of Innovation Support Network (ISN Hubs), Mrs. Nneka Ukay, in this interview with Oluchi Chibuzor, said Nigeria must deliberately position itself as a hub environment that provides entrepreneurs support services to startups. Excerpts.
How has Nigeria fared with the numbers of hubs it has across the geopolitical zones?
We have a youthful population. More than 50 percent of our population is under the age of 25 and there can never be enough jobs for these jobs; neither can the government produce these jobs. The jobs that the next generation would do would be created either by them or through the internet, so even now with COVID-19 we still have those experiences that people believe when you are at home you are not working or you are jobless what can he be doing always on his laptops and yet people can be running multiple jobs. People that are blockchain developers are in a space that is a few years old and everybody that is in space is almost a pioneer right now. So, we have people that are doing multiple jobs but because they are in such high demand and they have two employers, sometimes they have three employers because their skills are in high demand and are really under-available right now. We were recently called to talk about opportunities for the information, communication, telecommunication and innovation by Anambra State on how it can be used to grow the youth for employability and entrepreneurship, because there are gaps in the global economy space. For example we should be looking at several areas in the gig sector that we can now focus on for Nigeria to be the hub of Africa for this expertise on the continent. We see Israel, Sweden and Estonia, they are silently over the past 10 years becoming the next silicon valley of the world. So there has to be a national strategy towards adopting technology and for you to adopt something you have to be open to, have an enabling environment. You cannot adopt technology and at the same time be against it; recently China incorporated or started introducing Artificial Intelligence (AI) at kindergarten from age five. There is a game for Chinese children, where they are bouncing a ball in a circle and then you have to move for the next person to take that ball, this us a cognitive exercise while teaching them about teamwork, coordination, human relations, and unity which is where I am going to now. Our curriculum do not reflect the reality of where we are and where we are going, for example numbers of girls dropping out of Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is much because they lose interest around age 11 to 13 and one of the main reasons given globally is that they do not have enough mentors or look like them in those roles as there is nothing to aspire to. I tell you specifically that in Nigeria a huge part of this is the curriculum because what is being taught in computer science is the history of computer science, so they talk about when the Pentium one launched; that is not what we are talking about, how are you doing your coding, programme from scratch. The things that need to be taught now, for example there is a fascinating PS4 game called dreams which is like a platform for content design and creations. You can make music, games-which was originally made for people to make their own games. Where the conversation is now for dreams is that they need to open the platform up for designers and creators to be able to extract their work because that platform is like nothing we have seen before and because they are usually open source they improve as they go along. You have people that are creating a credible content and some of them are teenagers that are creating games and cannot pulled it out but they are learning this skills which is where it is going to go because each platform you developer a certain set of skills and a lot of them are done by children and they develop this skills and all of a sudden you now have people that want to become games creators. Where does that exist here, but is a highly sought after skill globally and they are developing the skills from playing games. My point is there are a lot of pathways to grow interest in technology, innovation, telecommunication, and by extension it leads us to employability and entrepreneurship to grow the economy. So you have these skills and you can now either create a business which will employ people and improve themselves. But we have to understand that we are not doing it the right way, again as I mentioned it is a global market if you do not make your market environment conducive, sustainable, people will take their technology and go because there is nothing as mobile as technology. This is why fintechs will always score more than legacy banks; legacy banks are asset heavy while fintechs can carry their codes and go anywhere or literally operate from anywhere. All they need is their internet and they are very asset light, you need to understand that if I train somebody in Onitsha in a skill that is globally relevant and sort at in as much that person can sit in Onitsha and do that work, you should also understand that there as people that are willing to pay him or her to go anywhere in the world. So one of the challenges we see in our hubs or space is that there are a lot of skills that drain, that we train people, they have the skills, and then they leave the country and you cannot hold somebody back. We have a hub member who has a business around migration and he is pushing it via technology, so people are creating completely new skill sets to be able to leave the country and there are people that have these skill sets already.
What is your advice to them, will you tell them not to go?
So, the government needs to have this concept of where we are being deliberate to mould the technology, innovation, and support research and development in this country, so that we are not just using other people’s technology but we are creating our own. We are being deliberate to be the XYZ in Africa, so if it is something specific that the government needs to say or itemize and say these are things we are going to do for the innovation, technology, startup space in Nigeria and thus how we are going to do it. This will then form the framework of our strategy, so that when somebody wants to invest in a Nigerian startup ,that is not only the startup they are looking at, they are looking at startups all over the world. It is now a matter of other things or macro-conversations and no longer just a startup founder. In the startup space they tell you founders do not fund ideas, they fund founders, but it has gotten to a stage where it is no longer just the person. We need to identify what our comparative advantages are and work towards it. Let there be a national strategy so that it can actually yield and we will not be too far from making tangible progress.
So what role is ISN playing to help change this narrative?
We believe we are having a big challenge right now because Nigeria has not provided the enabling environment for the technology and entrepreneurship ecosystem to thrive. We wake up to different kinds of rule and policy and contradictions in positions of various fines and so on and so forth. The main issue is that, without this conducive existence of this technology ecosystem job creation and employability will suffer and we cannot keep going this way. ISN was created as an organisation to speak for innovation, technology and entrepreneurship hubs as not just hubs but also as incubators and accelerators for also as entrepreneurs support organisations. What these organisations do is that they create an environment for new ideas to thrive and we have seen from research that businesses are likely to thrive when they are part of a community and when they have access to mentorship and guidance. We have seen from our local apprenticeship systems and we have also seen from other incubations models and systems from other countries that having cared and mentors networks improved the likelihood of success for start-ups, because startups have access to knowledge, human capital that they will normally would not afford and have access to facilities, infrastructures; for some they have a lot of issues, imagine trying to create a tech or online based startup and you don’t have light or internet. These are the cases and in some cases also provide funding and access to the market. These are the things that could literally make or break a startup from the idea stage and this is why hubs are such an important part of the innovation ecosystem. But they are also an important part of the development ecosystem, because having these communities well knowledgeable venture builders who are trying to give back to society by building startups, creating businesses and creating jobs; there is also huge opportunities for us to identify and solve as part of the larger development space that the SDGs which are already been addressed by most of the startups. So most startups now are addressing one, two or up to three SDGs and we play not just in the space of the nation but also in development because most of our startups are solving social problems as well. Our Heritage with centers of technological advancement and development are being established across the globe, the emergence of innovation hubs has become quite an interesting trend. We have begun to position ourselves as critical players in this age of innovation and technological advancement. Young and dynamic entrepreneurs have emerged in the tech space seeking to provide solutions to the challenges we have in our economy today. Today there are several innovation hubs in every region of the country. Interestingly, the federal and state governments are exploring the development of innovation hubs as incubators and catalysts of technological advancement.In 2019, the Innovation Support Network (ISN) was born as the collective dream of several hubs across the country. There was a need for an organized community of hubs in Nigeria that embraces members with the goal of promoting innovation through collaboration amongst hubs and entrepreneurs across the country. ISN is a not-for-profit Business Member Organisation that started with 75 hubs but is now made up of over 100 entrepreneurship, impact, innovation, and technology Hubs across Nigeria. We support our member hubs in the following ways by championing policies, drive collaborations and promote structures that help grow the innovation hubs ecosystem in Nigeria, provide capacity development programs that enable hub operators to enhance their entrepreneurship support services. Also we facilitate the identification exchange, use of commercial best practices for workspaces, incubators, makerspaces, and accelerators and engage with local, national, and international policymakers on the role of hubs in supporting the creation of social and commercial value to the Nigerian economy, access to opportunities for collaboration between Corporate entities and Hubs across the country. We provide access to competencies in Product Development, UI/ UX, Digital Skills, Coding, Machine Learning, AI among others. We also lend our support to corporate institutions and pair them with Nigerian tech innovations that would improve productivity and effectiveness to create a demand for homegrown solutions and help to make these businesses sustainable.
How has government policy’s drive affected the industry and what is the way forward for both the stakeholders like you and the regulatory agencies to ensure national development is not jeopardized on the altar of governance?
The somersaults in policy have affected us in a few ways one; there is just the general feeling of not being sure of what is on the government’s mind and how the government wants to address or approach the whole concept of startups and innovation based businesses. So in addition to new policies, we are also seeing new documents that we cannot really speak to as an organisation because we do not know that it is a formal document. But when you look at some of the tenets of those documents and even some of the things that are being proposed by the government in terms of their policies and their directives and how they go about they are not always collaborative. So we try to preempt. Maybe the government is not really aware of what we are doing or they do not understand. ISN is part of the tech associations which is basically an advocacy and engagement group with the government to be able to give more information on things like fintechs, cryptocurrency and blockchain, so that when government is making policies is from an informed position and yet we are not really sure that our input is been incorporated. So we are trying to move from the position of victims to collaborators by saying this is what we want, this is what is happening and what can you give us? For us to even get to a place of compromise, we are not there yet and we will keep persisting. But one of the biggest things that we have seen recently is the Nigeria Startup Bill, which is an ecosystem led bill to drive the startup and innovation ecosystem in Nigeria. The bill is to create the structure and statutory framework to make it a more enabled environment not just for our startups but for all the stakeholders which includes all the public, academia, investors, as well as current and prospective entrepreneurs. If for instance somebody has the idea of creating a startup we want them to know that their policies in place and this is how to stay within the ambit of the law with this policy and what we have seen in the last 18 months is that foreign investors not really being convinced to invest in Nigeria stocks because they have been precedents of policy somersaults without any consultations or pre-warning. What happens is that a regulation or a directive is passed and then it halts activities immediately and then we now start working backwards to how we can change the business models to accommodate this new change from the government.
Now, with the global stage becoming more competitive for the country with the right business environment to attract investors in the tech space, can we really meet other countries like Rwanda, Ghana, U.A.E. etc.?
Government must know that the startup ecosystem is global and we are not the one. Some countries are deliberately positioning themselves to be the first in class. In Africa, you have Rwanda, Kenya and Ghana that are deliberately seeking African startups to come.Rwanda has positioned itself as a sandbox of Africa as an isolated environment where you can try anything without breaking anything. Rwanda is actively telling us to come to use them as our sandbox and you have other countries like the UAE, Dubai, UK, USA Canada positioning themselves with special visas for people in tech and software developers and startup founders. On the flip side we have seen that the government is not necessarily responding well to this new technology and it has a lot to do with our socio-political disposition being more autocratic and the young people being the citizens of the new age. A lot of this technology is strange to the government and will continue because the young ones are adopting as they go and so the government must not come down so heavily on us because they do not understand what we are doing. Instead engage us and let us explain and then allow us to bloom together and reap the benefits as a nation.