How Bosun Tijani built Co-Creation Hub, Lagos’ tech innovation center
frica’s leading technology-innovation ecosystem builder, Co-Creation Hub (CcHUB) is dedicated to accelerating the application of science, technology and social capital for economic prosperity. With hubs in Lagos, Nairobi and Kigali, it has supported hundreds of early-stage ventures across a variety of industries.
Cofounder Bosun Tijani is a self-described ecosystem builder who moved back to Nigeria and cofounded CcHUB in 2010 after years of consulting in Europe. He shares his experience of building startup ecosystems and some insights into doing business in Nigeria.
What inspired you initially to create CcHUB?
The need for a more inclusive society and, more particularly, the need for a more progressive Africa. I knew technology was becoming a major part of how we live our lives, and the innovation systems in most African countries were, and still are, quite weak.
I decided to quit my job in Europe, return to Nigeria with my cofounder and start a technology-innovation platform called CcHUB to help further the development of technology, but also to shape the trajectory of technology evolution taking place on the continent.
For the continent to be prosperous and inclusive, we had to find a way to put technology at the heart of what we do. Science and technology needed to be respected and applied to social problems. That was what drove us to start CcHUB, and it’s been an extremely exciting journey.
The startup ecosystem in Nigeria today can be traced back to the founding of CcHUB ten years ago. Before CcHUB, the startup ecosystem was nonexistent. But with the emergence of CcHUB, it became the nexus point for anyone who wanted to build a technology startup. We went as far as working with the government to lay fiber optic cables in the Yaba neighborhood of Lagos, which became probably the most organic technology cluster in Africa.
How did you initially bring revenue in, and has that changed over the last decade?
In the beginning, it was really around programming. We built a lot of programming to build the ecosystem and to support entrepreneurship. It was about encouraging companies, foundations and senior society organizations to use technology to deliver better public goods and services. Eventually, we evolved into also providing consulting services to both large corporates and foundations.
What was one challenge you had when starting up, and how did you overcome it?
I think the biggest one was nonconsumption. We were coming into a market where the services we wanted to provide weren't popular. We needed to build our own ecosystem and value chain. There was a lot of work we had to do to enlighten people and get them to appreciate and understand why technology was important. That took a lot of energy. We literally had to build the market.
How did you do that in the first few years?
We did it through partnerships and relationships, investing in solutions and programs that were free. It was really about building a proof of concept. We couldn’t make any money locally, so the bulk of our revenue came from partners outside of Africa. A huge percentage of that is still coming from outside the continent.
We’re also working in a space where if you only focus on supporting startups, it doesn’t generate returns quickly. We had to broaden our scope beyond supporting startups and work with medium and large organizations, but also with foundations and NGOs to help them understand how to use technology.
Most of this programming led to the awareness you see today. The ecosystem is big, and almost every young person wants to be part of it. We use common tools like hackathons to build communities and bring people together to solve important problems for society. Bringing people together changed the perspective. It started to inspire both individuals and organizations that were looking for ways to apply technology and innovation.
How has CcHUB evolved from your original vision?
We’re now a Pan-African organization and the largest technology innovation center in Africa. We have a design lab in Kigali, and we acquired the first innovation hub in Africa: iHub, in Nairobi. This has expanded our capacity to run programs across the continent.
We have three strong practices in education, public health and governance, including a startup support team. In the future, I think we’re going to see more academic-based work coming out of all these units.
As we saw technology becoming a crucial part of society and how we live and govern, we identified a need for empirical information to guide how we build and apply technology, making sure the technology we’re building is responsible and really solving people’s problems.
Our collaborations extend to other research institutes, mostly in Europe and the UK. We’ve evolved into a proper innovation-technology platform as opposed to just a startup hub. Nonetheless, we still work with startups and support startups, but our work is much more than this.
Find a problem that’s close to your heart and try to solve it.
How did you initially decide to hire your team, and what do you do differently now because of that?
I don’t think we can say we have perfected how we hire; we’re still constantly tweaking it. Something that worked well in the beginning was believing in people. As a young organization trying to bootstrap, we couldn’t pay the best people on paper. We had to rely heavily on commitment and passion. We look for people on the continent who are interested in seeing a better society, rather than people with the best CV.
It has meant the CcHUB culture is young and flexible. Even those who are slightly older feel young at heart. That makes it a fantastic place to work.
As the business becomes a multinational organization, I see some units where experience is now required. We’re trying to strike a balance between making sure we find people who are passionate about the work we do and those who can help us build the structure we need.
Looking ahead, what’s your biggest concern and your biggest challenge?
At the moment, there is this rush towards digitalization by both governments and medium to large corporates in Africa. Because of COVID-19, everyone feels the need to innovate. We’re seeing that a lot of this rush is not informed by best practices, which means there will be a significant waste in society. Resources that could go into building businesses that can add value to the economy will start to be pushed towards digital innovation.
As an innovation company, part of our responsibility is to support our partners, and we’re trying to build some new thinking around corporate innovation more generally to encourage a better application of technology for value creation. It takes us back to how we started our business.
We’re building a new market; we see a lot of nonconsumption in that space because people don’t have a clear understanding of how to go about using their resources at a time like this. That’s what we like to do – we like to help businesses.
How do you manage yourself as a CEO and founder? Do you have any habits or routines you follow?
One is deepening my understanding of innovation's place within society and how to build an inclusive innovation ecosystem. I continue to ensure I’m not just carried away by technology, but also looking at how societies apply technology.
I’m currently doing my PhD in innovation systems and I spend a lot of time making sure it is rooted in application – that’s the key part. The times are always changing. As an organization, you have to change or understand where you fit in the new normal.
Secondly, my mental health is very important. Focusing on myself, staying grounded and making sure I can work out regularly are the things I need to continuously do as a leader to stay useful and relevant.
Why did you decide to come back to Lagos to start your business?
It was important for me as someone born and raised in Lagos, but someone who also feels deeply about being African, that I take this knowledge and excitement back home to try and build something.
It’s also about building an inclusive world. We want to ensure every part of the world has the opportunity to fulfill its potential and develop. It was important for me to contribute from that perspective.
What do you love about Lagos?
Lagos is dynamic, it's full of energy and it has a lot of challenges. The challenges inspire creativity. The dynamism provides an opportunity for you to look at problem solving in multiple ways. And the energy inspires you to act because you have to have the energy to survive in Lagos. Those things for me are what makes Lagos unique, be it on the continent or in the world. It’s not for everybody, but it’s an exciting city.
The world always has space for those who are creative thinkers.
What professional advice would you give?
Find a problem that’s close to your heart and try to solve it. Whether in academics or business or within an organization. Focus on a part of your organization or business you think has the opportunity to improve.
For example in HR, inclusion is a problem the world still is dealing with. And you might want to be a human resources professional, but one who devotes their time to better understand how to drive inclusion in society, or someone who is passionate about driving the agenda more for women in society and business.
The world always has space for those who are creative thinkers. You don’t need to be Superman to solve a problem, you just need to be passionate about it and apply yourself.
A version of this interview is included in Startup Guide Lagos. For more exclusive interviews and expert insights, order your copy now!
Written by Alexandra Connerty.
Repackaged by Hazel Boydell.