Lose your fear, follow your passion

Helen Anatogu is a Lawyer turned Technology and Business Incubator. She is the CEO of IDEA, a Software Incubaton programme in Nigeria. She shared with Africa Enterprise the idea behind IDEA

In the Beginning…

I have always been interested in technology. I am from a family that is deeply embedded in technology in Nigeria. My siblings used to either run or work for Technology companies. I have a background in oil and gas having worked for an oil and gas company for many years. I just woke up one day and I just thought to myself– there has to be more to life, there has to be something more meaningful and impactful, especially on the Nigerian economy, and I thought technology was it.

That led me to working for Nokia. I am a lawyer, by the way. I was Nokia’s Government Affairs Lead for West Africa and Head of Legal. I started getting more interested in technology, and especially business and technology incubation, working with the Nokia team in supporting Co-creation Hub, then also working with the Ministry of Communications Technology in thinking of how do we stimulate the technology ecosystem, especially how do we start off software incubation in Nigeria.

So, post-Nokia, I moved to Microsoft as the Head of Legal for West Africa, also looking after Angola as well, but also very much involved in working with, and looking at how we interact with the developer and digital ecosystem in Nigeria. Shortly after, I got the opportunity to work for IDEA which I jumped at because really t hat was something I grew to love, working with developers trying to figure out – how do we make things better, how do we grow the ecosystem, how do we move from developing just pockets of software to actually getting a cohesive industry ecosystem going, getting people to move from just developing software for fun or on an ad-hoc basis to actually growing the software business.

The idea of IDEA

IDEA is a not – for – profit organisation. We partnered with the Federal Government’ s NITDA about two years ago, they gave us our first grant to start our first two incubation centres in Lagos and Calabar. We have, an hybrid incubation and acceleration model where we t ake companies int o t he incubator, we give them support, in terms of coaching, mentoring, and t raining. We provide infrastructure. There is a place to work. There is broadband for them to work with, and we have tools from Microsoft and other companies to help with the training.

We’ve seen IDEA grow in the last 2 years. I have been full-time with IDEA for about 7 months. Before that, I supported them in ad-hoc capacity. But we are seeing more of an interest from the developers’ community in what we do, not so much as in building a code or a website, but actually saying that they can build a business based on it.

The interest in DEMO Africa, this year, is a sign of the progress that has been made. In comparison with last year, the interest this year has multiplied, which is a sign that people are beginning to take digital technology in Nigeria seriously. We are going from a culture where you had mostly services servicing foreign software and training on foreign software to actually now having our local and indigenous software, not just B2B but an increase in B2C applications. What we are doing is to try to foster and connect those companies with capital and resources.

Selecting the START-UPS to support

First, you must be a Nigerian company, because this is about creating jobs, revenue and opportunities for Nigerians. We don’t take non-Nigerians in IDEA. At the least, the founders must be Nigerians. We don’t mind if you are employing non- Nigerians, though. The business must be headquartered in Nigeria. Then, it must be software or software-related, so it is either software-related business in itself or business that utilises software as a driver. Secondly, the business must have market potential and ability to scale. There must be a place for it in the market and it should be a competitive business. So, you must be looking at the competition and asking – where do you sit in this market? So, ability to scale is important, market potential is important. Identity of the founder is important. Innovation is key. How innovative is your product? Either it is innovative in the sense it has not been done before, or it is innovative in the sense that you are taking something which was done elsewhere, and you are planning to apply it in a different way to Nigeria.

Success Stories to share?

We are only just on our second graduation. The first one was more like a pilot. We have just graduated our second set of start-ups. We are just trying to help them get traction. But I will say, we have had some success stories. I will say that all of them who have come through – Are they making revenue? Yes. Are they making customers? Yes. You might have people who are doing revenue of hundreds of thousands and you have people who are doing revenue of millions a month. So for us – Are the business up and running? Yes. Are they scaling? Yes. Some faster than others.

Even in terms of access to capital to scale, it’s a very different market from last year. So you will say that the start-ups that graduated last year had a more difficult time than those who recent ly graduat ed, because the number of investors coming to Africa and Nigeria has increased in multiples from last year and again, next year, you will see more opportunities and more capital being injected into the Nigerian ecosystem. So I think it can only get better.

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