Techative had a chance to chat with Charles Emembolu, the Founder and Director of Roar Nigeria Enugu, which was recently chosen as one of the partner Hubs of Facebook’s NG_Hub. Below is a transcript of that interview.
Hello Mr Charles Emembolu, tell us about yourself and your part in the story of Roar Nigeria?
I am an IT Professional, a serial and social entrepreneur and a lover of technology. I hold a Bachelor of Engineering degree from the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN). In December 2015, I and my partner had a chance meeting with the Vice Chancellor, Professor Benjamin Chukwuma Ozumba of UNN and it was clear he had only one desire, to build a SMART university.
As a strong believer of education as a means of empowerment I decided to be innovative with the opportunity. Instead of focusing on providing consulting to the University to improve their infrastructure and processes I proposed that we establish a technology hub. The first of its kind in West Africa, fully embedded with a University while being private sector led under a triple helix concept (Academia, Government and Private Sector). The name Roar Nigeria is derived from the University mascot of a Lion even though the brand Roar Nigeria plans to travel overtime.
We then set out to study the model of incubator we wanted to build by visiting similar ecosystems across 3 continents, Asia, United States and Europe in 2016. The Technology Hub, Roar Nigeria has been modeled with input from these engagements thus developing our local model university incubation. Of course, this was possible because the school administration keyed into our vision and has been the greatest champion of this journey under the leadership of the current Vice-Chancellor and the University Management.
Thank you Mr Emembolu the name choice is an interesting one, can you shed more light on it and the vision and mission behind the establishment of Roar Nigeria?
The University of Nigeria, Nsukka is regarded as the Den of Lions and Lionesses and that was how the name was derived. Our vision is to create home grown technology solutions with global impact and to do so, we aim at producing the next generation of entrepreneurs by creating an enabling environment, support systems and relevant skills for success with technology entrepreneurship.
What have been the Hub’s milestones and achievements so far?
We have incubated a total of 11 startup businesses and are currently engaging with the faculties of Engineering and Physical Sciences to explore the possibility of creating research enabled businesses from typical final year, masters and PhD research work. Though we are yet to see a business comprised of researchers and students, we have seen that collaboration improving steadily over the last 18 months of our existence.
In January 2018 we also gained a 6 months technical support arrangement with the Ideon Science Park of Sweden. This initiative saw Ideon providing technical support on innovation ecosystem development from their experience and the 1st and the largest innovation ecosystem in the Scandinavia with 35 years of experience. Coincidentally Ideon is also embedded with the world-renowned Lund University Sweden.
Within the first year of our establishment we have been invited to participate at innovation engagements by the Nigerian Army, a consortium of private sector organisations under TechFest where we displayed the technology solutions from Roar Nigeria to notable guests including the Vice President of Nigeria, Professor Osibanjo. We have also had the honour of hosting notable working visits from the Minister for Science and Technology, CEO of Access Bank, Professor Pat Utomi, the Swedish and American Ambassadors to Nigeria and many more too numerous to mention.
We have also experienced recognition by notable national and international organisations. Recently, Facebook partnered Roar Nigeria as one of the seven technology hubs in Nigeria for its pioneer innovation ecosystem program in Africa called NG Hub. NG Hub is focusing on fostering innovation on deep technologies such as virtual reality, blockchain, artificial intelligence, etc. This partnership is very indicative as support for the strides of our incubated teams who have built businesses leveraging drone technologies, Blockchain, artificial intelligence, machines and design, etc.
What are the factors working against the mainstreaming of Tech Entrepreneurship in Nigeria and how can Roar Nigeria and similar initiatives solve this?
The main factor I would say would be the mindset of the individuals and yes there are other things such as mentorship availability, a prevalent consumerism mindset, lack of robust STEM education, absence of angel investor networks especially for those outside Lagos and a major disconnect between the Academia, Private Sector and Government. There is also a shelf focused mindset for research work from many local universities, where research rarely has a focus on industry or government/social problem solving. This has to change, and one major solution provider is Roar Nigeria.
We have witnessed success in the areas of improving access to mentors for our largely student led incubated businesses through our monthly WorkAfDo programs where we invite notable role models for a relaxed physical interaction with our community. Roar Nigeria is also represented by my trustee membership at the South-South South-East Angel Network (SSEAN) recently formed under the guidance of the African Business Angel Network. This gives our community access to an angel investor network.
Over the last one-year Roar Nigeria has been engaging professors and research supervisors on the need to align approved research topics with relevant industry needs and global trends. This is by far one major area of high impact that we are focusing on since it has the ability to revolutionise university education as we know it. Finally, we will definitely like to see more government engagement and patronage for home grown technology solutions as that will create a much needed demand for technology entrepreneurship in Nigeria.
Roar Nigeria seems to seek a synergy between the tech ecosystem and the educational sector. What are the long-term implications of this synergy on tech entrepreneurship and the tech ecosystem in Nigeria?
Every year thousands of projects and ideas die without being actualized nor commercialised. A large chunk of these ideas are in the form of final year thesis, post graduate diplomas and actual work by renowned university researchers who are disconnected from the demand side (government, private sector and their immediate environment).
One core mission of Roar Nigeria is to support the transformation of these projects into businesses rather than let them lay to waste. There is also the issue of unemployment due to our import focused economy. This can be greatly reduced when we get more of our students, researchers and professors building technology enabled solutions to global problems. We shall begin to have graduates ready to create jobs by virtue of the societal and business problems that they solve using technology.
One other thing worthy to mention is the entrepreneurship culture that we embed in our incubation program. For instance, we never take a loner for incubation. There is an inspirational African Proverb about the value of Team Work: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This virtue that we now try to instill in our community cannot be overemphasised. Of course, there are others that are soft concepts, but I will leave this as a key example.
This synergy between the tech ecosystem and educational sector goes beyond just collaboration it is aimed at boosting the economy, reducing unemployment, and raising the standard of our educational system and also aligning it to focus on societal change too. At Roar Nigeria we believe that technology is the new oil and concepts such as data, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and others will change the world we live in and Nigeria must be a prepared contributor rather than a bystander.
Tell us about the partnership with Facebook’s NG-Hub and how it came about?
Everyone loves to identify with something positive, Facebook saw the great potentials Roar Nigeria has to offer in the tech ecosystem in West Africa and they decided to key into it. We see this as a sign of better partnerships as we remain on course to create exposure to UNN’s 40,000 student community
What has been the impact of this partnership so far on Roar Nigeria?
We have gained a level of publicity and attraction from around the world, and it has boosted our level of confidence and strengthened our belief that we are on the right course. The most valuable part of this partnership is that Facebook has opened up its mentorship assets to our community who are interested in deep technologies. We are taking this partnership very serious.
What are the implications of this partnership for the Tech ecosystem in Nigeria.
The level of awareness for technologyenabled businesses and even young ones taking up STEM education more seriously is perhaps one key implication. What would make Facebook partner with a community in Nsukka? The answer to this question is a unique selling point for us in attracting the right talent from the sub region. This also rubs off on UNN and its right of place as an institution of higher learning with a motto, “to restore the dignity of man”.
What are the long them socio-economic implications of a vibrant tech ecosystem in Nigeria?
More employment opportunities for our teeming youth population, improved national security, better balance of trade, more income for the respective arms of government through improved economic activities, response by the academia to higher demands from the workplace, etc.
What’s your final word on the current state of tech entrepreneurship in Africa and its future potential?
The potentials for technology entrepreneurship has never been more positive. I will say that many of us playing in this space are greatly excited about the possibilities with the future that we see.