I work out of the Co-Creation Hub. I’ve done so since October last year, and by this time I know to come in early. Because if I came in anytime past noon, my favourite spot would probably be taken already. And it might be a bit hard to find a place to plug my laptop into. I’ve found it best to do major internet dependent work before the “boys” get in. Because when they do, I can imagine that I can feel the broadband pipe straining under the weight of all the users jacked into it.
Lagos is currently experiencing a cambrian explosion of innovative intent, and the few technology hubs and accelerators that have sprung up a few years ago are hard pressed to keep up. It’s become painfully obvious that of late, the Co-Creation Hub has become crowded.
200 square metres, 2k registered members, x startups
It’s hard to say how many startups call the Co-Creation hub home — there’s all kinds of people here working on all kinds of still classified stuff — but I’m guessing it’s hovering somewhere around the 50s. Of those, there’s anything from 10 – 20 under the Hub’s direct supervision, in its pre-incubation programme.
Bosun Tijani is the co-founder and CEO of the CcHub, and I remember asking him how it is that they manage the flow of registered members into the 200 square metre space. That was sometime last year, and they had achieved an equilibrium of sorts. Not everyone, especially the ones with day jobs, show up to work from the hub at the same time, or on the same days.
At the last count there are about 2,000 registered members. These days, it is quite normal for people to spill over onto the roof terrace when things get really busy.
Where do they all come from, and why?
There’s a reason why the CcHub gets lots of people. The hub’s appeal and utility isn’t limited to hardcore techies. It welcomes innovative people from every walk of life.
A few weeks ago, I found out that the guy who works from across from my usual perch is an upcoming music artiste. Then there is Bankole Williams (not me), an HR consultant by day. He comes in on weekends to work on his books. At times, he has discussions with Jide, an illustrator and 2d animator. They both sit not too far from Femi — he makes feature films. On the other side of the room, Bakare Lawal, a dentist, is quietly orchestrating a massive “brush-off” with the Lagos state government and other partners — they aim to improve oral health literacy in Nigeria, while setting a new world record for the number of people brushing their teeth simultaneously, at multiple locations. Part of that exercise will require plastic bottles, so he is talking to a startup called WeCyclers, who happen to collect lots of those…
I could go on, but you get the picture.
There’s accountants and bankers, and realtors and lawyers, creative writers, artists, marketing guys…and don’t be forgetting the techies who ‘own’ the space, in the first place. The CcHub has become a perfect storm of latent talent. It could do with a bit more ice-breakers, but add a dash of serendipity to the mix, and things really start to get interesting.
As a success metric, the CcHub’s being cramped might appear counter-intuitive, but I think it’s great. To my mind, it validates one of the core premises for their existence — that creative, innovative people abound here, and that it is possible to aggregate, concentrate, organise and deploy that latent resource to great effect.
Growing pains and the Mathew effect
A few blocks away from Sabo bus stop in Yaba is a fairly massive structure that you can’t miss, as you walk/drive down Herbert Macaulay way in the direction of the Third Mainland Bridge. The Co-creation Hub, now in its second year, lives at the top of that building, on the sixth floor.
Securing the top floor proved fortuitous, because it allowed the adjoining rooftop be easily converted into a beautiful terrace that never fails to impress first time visitors. Not so much with its beauty as much as with the view though. You can see a lot of Yaba, and quite a bit of the Lagoon going towards Lagos Island from that roof.
The good news is that more people are flocking towards what has become an ever congealing mass of creative energy. The bad news is that the hub is full, and can no longer accept registrations. At least not until they can rustle up some more space to fit them all in.
But for all the teeming life on the sixth floor, the rest of the building feels deserted.
“The CcHub would have simply let all the floors, were they unused”, Bosun told me.
Except that they are in use. People come and go on some of the other floors…just without the fervency of regular activity that you’d expect from actively domiciled business concerns. The next two floors are occupied by accountants. The next, a law firm. Then a store selling lights, on the second floor.
A few weeks ago, I watched a truck carting stuff away from the first floor. I realised that its now former occupant, Debonair’s Bookstore, were packing up, moving. To another street nearby, I was told, but not why. Whatever the reason, it is a happy co-incidence. The CcHub’s workmen are there right now, measuring, hammering and chipping away at the new space that will allow them breathe for another few months.
To him who has, more should be given. There is talk of acquiring the whole building eventually, but this will have to do for now.
Pro-creation hubs versus innovation clusters – and what’s the big iDEA?
Under the guidance of CommTech minister, Omobola Johnson, government has committed to providing gobs and gobs of money to the Nigerian ICT and software sector. The over-arching objective, she is quoted to have said, is to create 25 successful information communication technology (ICT) firms by 2015, and drive local content and skills development to create employment and sustain the industry.
To achieve that, they are going to create tech hubs. Lots of hubs. Twenty of them, across the country.
Quite a few people are scratching their heads in doubt at the prospect of this government actually pulling that off. But that’s not even the real issue here, in Bosun’s opinion. While he doesn’t doubt the minister’s intentions, he isn’t entirely sure the government has the right idea, spawning hubs all over the country.
“Building hubs everywhere is a great idea in theory”, he says, “but if these hubs did proliferate, is there really a critical mass of talent available on the ground who can avail themselves of the facilities?”.
It is a valid concern. There are techies all over Nigeria, but it is a big country, and one wonders if there are enough hard core techies in each locale — Ibadan, Kaduna, Rivers, and all the states of Nigeria to warrant setting up separate innovation hubs in each one. Bosun fears they might end up building glorified internet cafes.
Instead, he thinks it is better to create an innovation cluster — a super-charged concentration of innovation resources in one place where the hard core techies and innovators from all over the country can come to work. In fact, that very idea has already been set in motion. With the help of the Lagos state government, the federal ministry of communications and technology and Main One Cable, the CcHub plans to turn the Herbert Macaulay area into a tech cluster of innovation resources. Silicon Lagoon, if you will, “where all key stakeholders (academics, industry and government), find adequate infrastructure, resources and an enabling environment to thrive while collaborating”.
“Really?” I asked him. “This is Lagos, you know. All these people, where would they live? Tech hostels?”
“Why not?” He replied.
Personally, the concept of startup hostels or hacker hostels is one which I find fascinating — I wanted to be in the thick of Nigeria’s startup action, and I spent more than six months looking for a decent place to live in the area. Hacker hostels are popular phenomenon in Silicon Valley for techies who need to be in the Valley, but also need to live sustainably. Even as a commercial venture, the idea of serviced, shared living space for startups and technology entrepreneurs in Lagos is one that Bosun considers bankable in the long term.
He also thinks that if you insist on “pro-creating” hubs, you should at least do it in universities, where there’s always a higher concentration of willing and able tech minds. You could then make these accessible to techies and professionals from the outside too.
“Setting up a technology hub in a township in Osun state is a waste of time”, he said. “It makes a lot more sense to do it inside OAU”.
At any rate, the first of the government’s pro-creation hubs, as I’ve chosen to dub them, launched on the 19th of April — in a three storey building right next the Hub. Lots of people have been wondering why the public/private partnered iDEA hub chose to set up shop there. As it turns out, they are there largely at the suggestion of the CcHub. It looks like Bosun is going to get his innovation cluster anyway.
Looking back, I can see that my sense that Yaba’s potential to evolve into Silicon Valley type ecosystem was prescient. Of course, all that innovative energy will not fit into the CChub’s yet-to-be-acquired six-storey building. We’re going to need many more co-working spaces and hubs to open up before long.