22 February 2018

Nigeria: Innovation Driven Startups

In order to meet the demand for competent and professional software engineers, Aboluwarin David and Mofesola Banjo co-founded DevCrib. In this report, Ugo Aliogo, examines the technology startups

"We have great talents in Nigeria and companies like ours are grooming these talents to global standard. We work closely with global and local corporations (Microsoft, Code.org, SeedDev, and ODSG) that support us with tools and resources needed to get our Devcribbers effectively trained. An important factor that has helped us is that our engineers live and work together, thus, learning is faster and good human relationship qualities are acquired."

The above statement captures one of the goals of DevCrib, a technology startup hub. The startup was founded by David Aboluwarin and Mofesola Banjo. Aboluwarin is also the Co-founder of Planet Nest, a technology startup hub based in Akure, Ondo State. He is a graduate of Computer Engineering from the Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA). The story of Aboluwarin is not only amazing, but one imbued with moral courage and hope. Aboluwarin is one of those few privileged individuals who could be described as having a happy childhood, one where children had access to some of the best things of life. He was detached from the rumble and tumble of daily grind.

Growing up, the father emphasised two things; every child in the family must learn how to play a musical instrument and operate a computer system to the full knowledge of it. This helped Aboluwarin to develop a strong liking for technology at an early age. His father's personal passion and commitment to the values of good parenting helped to build the touchstone which shaped the future for every child in the family. His father ensured that the children were enrolled in schools that had a computer laboratory.

At the age of five, Aboluwarin was already exposed to operating a computer system, an experience which has helped him find his feet in the scheme of things. Like every child at infancy, he had an inquisitive mind, therefore questioned everything around him especially computer gadgets in order to understand how they were built and if there was a need to improve on them.

"I began my journey into technology by playing with computers and learning to know how a game was created. When I play a game, I want to know how the game was created. Then I went online to learn coding," he noted.

When he finished secondary school in 2007, he stayed back for three years, honing his skills in computing. While staying back at home, his father introduced him to a Professor friend who gave him unrestricted access to the computer system in his office. During his sojourn with the Professor, he often spent long hours at night browsing and learning about various software issues. To further his dream in computing, he went to Lagos to undergo a year professional training in Java, a programming language. After the training he decided to focus on being a java programmer.

In 2010, he secured admission to FUTA to study Computer Engineering. In the first one month in the university, Aboluwarin met a friend who later became his partner. They both had a similar story. He also has been involved in coding since 2007 and building chat applications.

This partnership became something rewarding for the two friends as they decided to put their heads together to work on the particular project. They also realised that in the technology space, new languages and technology were developed daily; therefore there was a need for them to keep up with trends and improving knowledge base as developers.

They embarked on training their friends, working on projects and representing the school at competitions. From their first to fifth year in the university, they won 15 national competitions in software challenges for the university.

They also did works for the school "especially in the virtual reality laboratory, where an individual can navigate through the school from a room. We were the technical team that built it for the school. We also took part in building software solutions for the other projects which the school was working on."

In 2015, after graduation from FUTA, Aboluwarin and his partner decided to setup DevCRIB, an arm of Planet NEST which is a social enterprise focused largely on building a skilled Africa.

Their focus is to groom talents across Africa in a residential programme on their campus in Akure (a vibrant and fast growing technology ecosystem). These talents will have the opportunity of learning from world class engineers and growing steadily to be able to work remotely or onsite with global technology corporations in solving problems. It is important to know that it is a paid programme.

With the increasing demand for competent and professional software engineers in the world, DevCrib has realised that there is need to fill this skill gap by building a skilled Africa, through talent development and training of young professions.

Despite the potential and opportunities present in the continent of Africa, the perception often times from the Western media is not favourable. There is always the picture of an impoverished Africa. The narrative is narrow gauged. However, Aboluwarin is of the view that the pocket of successes recorded from the technology ecosystem in the continent can used positively to change this ugly narrative.

According to him, "We have great talents in Nigeria and companies such as ours are grooming these talents to global standard. We work closely with global and local corporations (Microsoft, Code.org, SeedDev, ODSG) that support us with tools and resources needed to get our Devcribbers effectively trained. An important factor that has helped us is that our engineers live and work together, thus, learning is faster and good human relationship qualities are acquired.

"I think Africa needs to come up with more globally relevant solutions; this creates the awareness that we are doing stuff in Africa. When we have these globally relevant solutions, we will have more experts and global companies will respect us for the value we can offer.

"For us to be a force to be reckoned with we need massive collaborations, more technology ecosystems where people are forward thinking and building globally relevant solutions. Also, technology startups require flexible policies that would help them bootstrap before gaining enough financial strength.

"All our engineers and developers participate in creating solutions for the local community; one of such is http://ballot.live an election monitoring platform that was piloted at the last Ondo State gubernatorial elections. Our engineers are our greatest products; we have artificial intelligence engineers that have experience working with European and American companies. A number of junior engineers already work remotely for local and international companies."

Accessing the growth of technology startups in Africa

Aboluwarin explained that in terms of technology hubs in Africa, the hubs have helped to get people what they want and accelerate ideas, and also bring people together such as the Co Creation (CC) hub in Lagos, PlanetNEST in Akure, ventures hub in Abuja, Nhub, Slatecube, Advancement hub, Impact Hub, Leadspace and others.

He argued that these hubs have really helped to access quality information in terms of building and developing some of the startups present in the country. He hinged his argument on the premise that these hubs provide access to some of the best forms of exposure and experiences that individuals won't get anywhere else.

He explained that these hubs help leverage on the experiences of people who know what the market wants and get to prepare them for the global market, "we have a lot of hubs all over Africa from Nairobi, Kampala, Kigali, Nigeria, Ghana and a whole lot of others trying to match up globally."

He added: "The sector we address is a very large one, we do the best we can to skill up Africans and present them to the world. We have a strong learning culture and we place our engineers to work alongside world class senior engineers across the globe, however, Africa needs more NEST and DevCRIB and across all technological sector and not just Software engineering as that's the skill we focus on.

"In the area of funding, we have bootstrapped this long as all funds have been put in by founders. We train, house and pay our engineers and it has been great so far, we have few local investors interested in what we do, we are open to investors and investment that is the direction, we are looking into. Our software application is global, we get request for remote software engineers from different part of the world and our engineers work with these amazing companies."

Government efforts in supporting technology startups

Aboluwarin is hopeful that if government supports startups in the country, especially by putting in place policies to favour the growth of startups, it would help the technology ecosystem to grow at a phenomenal rate.

He noted that the country has enough entrepreneurial zeal, but lacks funding opportunities, "the government should act as a facilitator for the upcoming startups by giving an access to seed funding and also develop incubation centres."

Aboluwarin added: "I believe another major setback is the lack of infrastructure. Government should look into setting up world class accommodation space for startups and Small Medium Scale Entreprises (SME).

"Fund raising is an important aspect which is one drawback for most startups to go global; Government should create an easy relationship for VCs to enter into the tech ecosystem. Government should spend on improving the quality of skilled personnel in the country by investing in hubs around to train citizens.

"Often times the talents groomed by the technology hubs get drafted into the private sector. For effective flow, the private sector should partner with the technology hubs to source for the right talents. Because for every technology solution they want to drive the private sector needs they need the right talent from the forward thinking technology hubs to push ahead. The technology hubs will also help train, and this will give the private sectors the right pool of people to choose from."


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