When I left my job in the construction minefield of New York City a little over a year ago, I set out to build a company that worked with creative and innovative start-ups, small businesses and non-profits solving the most challenging problems on the African continent. This month we took a bold step towards making that dream a reality as we partnered with Nigeria based technology solutions company Emerging Platforms Group to launch the superbly designed innovation hub and co-working space Ventures Platform in Abuja Nigeria. For me, the journey to Ventures Platform took a long winding and slightly improbable road. The launch of Denda; the afore mentioned company I set out to build, meant spending a significant amount of time traveling through the cities of Africa, to meet, network, profile and ultimately work with the most brilliant and entrepreneurial minds on the continent. To be completely honest, that might’ve been a motivating factor for my decision; it had after all been an unspoken dream of mine to travel all 54 African countries.
As I started to travel initially through West African cities like Monrovia and Lagos and later on the east through Dar Es Salaam and Addis Ababa, one thing became abundantly clear — there wasn’t the multitude of work and meeting spaces I had grown accustomed to in New York City. Like my counterparts on the continent, I resorted to working and taking meetings at cafe’s and hotel lobbies, which certainly weren’t built to accommodate workers on the go. Most of the cafe’s didn’t have fast or free Wi-Fi and where they did it was restricted to hotel patrons, requiring casual visitors to purchase a 3-course meal, just to work from there. I exaggerate, but suffice to say it always created a tense dynamic between staff and patrons who just wanted to get some work done. Of course there were serviced offices and innovation labs where you could work but they were few and far between.
I reasoned I wasn’t alone in this dilemma and decided to try to fix the problem. I figured since my company was going to be working with early stage start-ups and entrepreneurs growing small businesses, I would create a space for them to work. A space where they would feel welcome, a space they could call their own, a space where they could connect with like-minded folks and ultimately a place where they could get their best work done. I began talking to several of my friends and counterparts who were in similar lines of business and experienced the same pain point, and we decided to start working on several iterations of a plan to bring this to life. Of course since we were from different countries, regions and industries, we had varying ideas about where to start, where to raise capital and who to cater to. But we all agreed on bringing it to life. The Liberians argued: Monrovia would be the perfect test ground to prove the concept before scaling to bigger cities, the Nigerians (mostly me) argued: Lagos was a no brainer. Huge market with a burgeoning entrepreneur class.
The Rwandese; if we had any, might’ve had a thing or 2 to say about Kigali being the easiest and perhaps most friendly place to start and do business. My good friend and high school classmate — Kola Aina insisted Abuja, Nigeria was the place to build it. I must admit this was one of my least likely choice. Mostly because of the pervading perception of The Federal Capital Territory and most purpose-built Administrative capitals, that everyone and their momma is either a government contractor or seeking to become one. I didn’t imagine there was an entrepreneurial community that such a venture would service. Kola, who had spent the previous 6 years building one the most undersold tech success stories on the continent — Emerging Platforms group, disagreed. He thought with some modifications we could make the concept work in Abuja. He insisted the tech ecosystem was there but needed to be connected and enhanced. If we could merge our concept with his idea of a tech incubator, he believed we’d have something special on our hands. I wasn’t particularly sold on the idea, but since I wasn’t planning on executing it in Abuja, I didn’t give it much thought.
After months of silence mostly due to the declining economy in Nigeria, one rainy morning in late April, while I was in Silver Spring, MD attending the Sierra Leonean Independence Green White and Blue Ball, Kola called from Abuja telling me he was ready to implement the idea we’d discussed several times prior. He had a floor plan, a proposed site and shovels ready to dig, all that was left was a creative director and project manager to design and implement the concept and programs for the space. There was one caveat however; this wouldn’t be purely the upscale co-working space as I’d envisioned, but instead a mixture of co-working and tech incubation, which he’d always favored. Oh and we’d need to complete the project in 4-weeks as the rains were fast approaching. I didn’t need much persuasion accepting the challenge, the following evening I was on an Abuja bound flight and the rest as they say is history.
Once I landed in Abuja, we got straight to work building Ventures Platform, alongside renowned starchitect (he hates the term renowned) — Wole Olabanji founder of crowdsourcing design build company — CoBuildiT, Kola Aina — Ventures Platform founder and CEO of Emerging Platforms Group and the amazing team of brilliant young minds he’d assembled to work with me on the project. VP was designed based on three components — design to foster creativity, programs and events that money can’t buy, and amazing people you want to work with and be around. From my construction background coupled with my love for impeccable design and appreciation of modern contemporary art — I envisioned creating a space that was vibrant yet minimalist in design with the comfort, service and amenities of a boutique hotel, and the functionality of a fully serviced office. Ventures Platform perfectly encapsulates these elements. From the Victor Ehikhamenor art installation that blankets the space to the full service residence for out of town incubates, the campus has everything to get you creating your best work. Airy well lit workspace, gym with weekend yoga classes, a cafe and restaurant in the works, ample lounge spaces, lush greens, high speed internet, meeting rooms and event space. Our innovative 16-week tech incubation — accelerator program which is designed to build the best and brightest tech minds on the continent is designed to start creating value from the moment one applies so that even unsuccessful applicants would still have learnt valuable lessons to propel them to success. Our curated events are designed to foster creativity and engender the spirit of collaboration. Our obsession with getting the right mix of people to work at and out of VP is evident from the moment you walk in and stays with you throughout your time on the campus.
Of all the remarkable feats we were able to pull off with this astounding project (and there we’re many) the most impressive was sourcing EVERYTHING locally; thanks to the condensed timeline, which ruled out the importation option. While this might seem like no big deal, it means that a majority of the capital that went into building this project went directly into the Nigerian economy, most of it to small and medium sized businesses. It also confirmed that if you assemble a team of people who are committed to getting the job done and understand and buy into your vision, anything is possible in Africa
Author: Ernest Danjuma Enebi Originally published on Medium Oct 25, 2016