The resurgence of tech startups in Nigeria is a welcome development and it comes with a lot of good side effects. One of the side effects is that we get to have more founders — which means more innovation in the local market. To stand out, the founders and startups have had to cleverly manage their image, and to carve out a brand. When done right, some of these founders have found fame and fortune.
On the other hand, I’ve always wondered about startup ‘fame’, and its effect on Nigerian founders — especially when things don’t quite go as expected. So when I got the chance to talk to Anibe Agamah of ex-Encipher, it seemed like a great opportunity to go beyond the usual autobiographical, first person account of ‘what went wrong’. Also, I knew Anibe from BTNG events held here in London as an easy-going guy, happily working as a software developer for ASOS, and I felt the timing was right.
We met at Nando’s in Kings Cross area and talked for hours. This is an edited version of our conversation. Enjoy.
Papa: Who is Anibe and how would you describe yourself?
Anibe: I was born in Sokoto in 1982 and lived in Kaduna for most of my life until I went off to the University of Abuja where I studied Computer Science. To describe myself, I would say I’ve always been interested in technology and learning. My particular expertise and interest revolve around web development.
Papa: How did this fusion of technology and learning play out in who you are today?
Anibe: My first exposure to a computer was around the age of 12. My dad, an architect, brought home an Olivetti x386 computer for his CAD work. I was allowed to use it with the expectation that I’d do something useful, like learning how to type, which many might be surprised to know was a highly sought after skill at the time. The stubborn in me however meant I spent most of my time playing games on it and doing ‘fun’ stuff.
I gradually became fascinated with graphics and programs — e.g. creating stuff with Microsoft paint and fiddling with bits of animation. Also stumbled on Basic and got the fundamentals of computer logic. And when it was time to go to University, I thought all that time I enjoyed messing around with computers naturally made me a perfect fit to study Computer Science (CS) at Uni.
Papa: Interesting. You went on to study CS as a result of your upbringing. Is it right to assume your education played a great impact on your development as a developer?
Anibe: No, certainly not the university education. As it turns out, the five years I spent at the University of Abuja didn’t equip me with any of the needed technical skills I use in my job today. Our curriculum was heavy on maths/statistics/physics content and light on actual programming.
A University department with given name ‘MACOSSA’ (stands for Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science) should have been the first warning sign, to be fair. The first programming language taught was Pascal in my 2nd year. And throughout the course, all the code I wrote was on paper. It was purely theoretical. The syllabus and method of delivering it, at that time, weren’t particularly helpful.
Studying CS also didn’t give me career direction. It seemed to me at the time that the only paths to follow would lead me to become a network engineer or database administrator, and to likely end up working for some multinational company or bank’s back office.
The education which I would credit my early development to was actually before I started uni. I was part of a free ‘code club’ run by Tunde Fakoya in conjunction with various secondary schools. He had a shop not far from where I lived and spent some weeks doing C programming lessons with my good friend and future co-founder, Saheed.
Papa: Let’s talk a bit more about Mr Fakoya to understand the impact he made on you. Sounds like what he was doing is similar albeit on a smaller scale, to the work of CCHub with students?
Anibe: That’s correct. My first interaction with him was when I was in secondary school – Zamani College, Kaduna. Mr Fakoya was involved with running a computer lab at the school and our paths crossed. Saheed, who was also a same-year student at Zamani college, was actually the one who interacted a lot with Fakoya and by friendly association I got dragged in. He ended up being a mentor to me.
Papa: Okay, so yourself and Saheed seem to have a lot in common. This reminds me of myself and my co-founders Humphrey & Mofe. I’m assuming Inye was not the first project you both collaborated on?
Anibe: No, it wasn’t. Before the Inye Encipher existed as a registered company. Inye was just one of our products. Actually, before Encipher, there was even Decipher which was the start of Saheed and I’s wannabe startup dream in Nigeria. Both young and maybe naive, we knew we wanted to run a tech company together but didn’t know what it would be focused on at first. So, it started as most do with some of ad hoc software/web jobs for different clients and built on from there.
After University and NYSC, Saheed and I got reunited again at a software development firm Quanteq where we worked together for a year. We both left to study different courses in the UK but soon decided to register Decipher again in the UK. There was however already a company named Decipher and we settled close to the original name, by choosing Encipher.
Encipher continued along the lines of Decipher — doing web development and even had at one time a cloud computing (hosting) offering.
And then came Inye. The idea came about from Saheed and I bouncing ideas over an IM chat. We were inspired by the iPad and the emergence of Android. We thought to ourselves ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a tablet built on Android which would allow us bundle locally relevant apps?’. From that conversation, it all happened very fast from idea to annoucement.
Papa: You guys seemed to have a good thing going — you got people somewhat excited — quite huge media coverage from the likes of BBC,Forbes, CNN, Techloy etc. What went wrong?
Anibe: To summarise, I would say three factors limited us. Firstly, we didn’t have the financial capacity to tackle such a huge market. It was originally intended as a consumer device which of course is capital intensive.
Why didn’t it work out? The model we employed at the time was flawed. We offered pre-orders before each Inye tablet was built. It was difficult to satisfy customer demand and interest this way especially when there was no certainty on when they would receive it. In summary, the hype and interest far outweighed our financial capacity to satisfy demand.
Secondly, we never had the space or luxury of time to create any strategic plan. A lot of time early on was spent reacting and responding to the media hype. Yes, there was a lot of hype and this would be a dream for most startups. However, being dubbed the ‘iPad of Africa’ and having to clarify we didn’t ‘invent’ a device as many people reported, we just couldn’t live up to it in the end.
I think there was a narrative which captured people’s interest and imagination — mainly from ‘African rising’ perspective. Before we knew what we were doing, there was the ‘2 Africans invented the Africa iPad’ story, but of course this wasn’t the case at all. It really took a life of its own.
I personally felt slightly hesitant with the coverage but it was impossible to shun. WIRED was the first significant publication we were in, then came Times of London, BBC, and CNN. The irony is, it got much more exposure from non-tech focused news organisations.
The final challenge was that we were described as a hardware company. However, our expertise was in software, and all we really wanted to do was to add more value from a software angle. The device was just a shell to help us reach our goal, but the focus on the hardware meant we were not playing from a position of strength.
Papa: I’m getting the impression that the media were somehow complicit in your rise. Of course, most startups will kill to have that sort of coverage. Are you in some way blaming the media?
Anibe: Not at all, it’s ultimately our fault. We came up with the idea and the media ran with it. However, we had no influence over the headlines or approach the various publications took when writing the stories. Headlines like ‘Africa’s answer to the iPad’ ultimately didn’t do us any favours.
Retrospectively, we didn’t succeed because we couldn’t execute on our business model — which was flawed anyway.
Papa: Let’s explore co-founder relationships — especially when things don’t go as planned. You were not the CEO, did you feel you could have led the firm in a different direction? Are you still on good terms with your co-founder?
Anibe: We’ve transcended friendship — we’re family. I say that because we’ve not started any project thinking what’s your share of profits or what percentage of shares. The things that could have been done differently to save Inye, were not down to any co-founder issues.
What is instead quite incredible is that you can casually come up with an idea with someone where you will be in sync. This is what led to our startup. The whole experience is actually encouraging for us looking to the future, as it shows that if with casual, playful ideas we could generate so much buzz, imagine what we can achieve with more seriousness and focus.
If I had a chance to change anything — it would have been to internally articulate the vision to ourselves. Then communicate accurately and clearly to the press externally. It all happened quickly, from Google Talk chats to mainstream media in a few months.
Papa: Okay, so you shut down Encipher and announced that you were going to stop the sales of Inye tablet in 2014. It appeared you tried a pivot to a new data intelligence startup but didn’t work out. What happened?
Anibe: Prossess was mainly Saheed’s baby. I was already working full time at the time. By default, I’m automatically engaged in Saheed’s projects so a lot of personal involvement. It was an IoT play to think of applying data to solve local problems like traffic. It was perhaps ahead of it’s time.
Papa: It’s fair to say, you’re a startup veteran. What drives you as an entrepreneur?
Anibe:Personally, I’ve never been under any pressure to be an entrepreneur or startup person. I usually approach them as projects or hobbies. If they become profitable or sustainable, that’s fine. But mainly to have fun while solving problems.
Papa: I agree on the ‘fun’ angle. At least, whenever I see you, like at the last BTNG event — you always seem to be having a good time and super content! Now the question is — have you got another startup in you?
Anibe: I’m firmly focused on my current role as a front end developer at ASOS. It’s interesting as I view it more as a digital creator not just limited to front end work. There’s no grand plan — it’s all about taking it as it goes. I’m getting more involved in teaching and mentoring side of things. Also involved with the ASOS charity arms which work in close collaboration with the Princes Trust. It involves me working with young people and equipping them with skills for the future. It’s very satisfying to me and I can easily see myself being a teacher somewhere — at some point.
I also like networking and meeting people, hence why you see me a lot in BTNG.
Papa: To wrap up, what will you say is of interest to you right now?
Anibe: I’m not seeking to be a celebrity founder. If my next startup can connect with people and inspire folks like Mr. Fakoya did, then I would be happy. Those acts started my career and are why we’re here having this conversation. Hence, it’s only right if I can do the same for others. That’s the ultimate goal — to inspire and enable others.
In his words, the series will feature “fascinating conversations with interesting people that you want to read. Some stories will be short. Some will be long. They would definitely not be ‘praise & worship’ sessions. Neither ‘gotcha’ nor clickbaity questions — yet I wouldn’t shy away from asking questions, you want answers for. What you really want to know.”