Jennifer Chizua: Inconsistency, poor policy implementation bane of businesses
.. Not stopping there, she also collaborates with BoI to identify credible SMEs and expansion phase businesses that require low interest loans whilst helping refine their business models, package their documentation, and ensuring that they meet the acceptable requirements to access the single digit loan. But there is a caveat, these businesses must be able to create jobs, be scalable, and bankable.
Jennifer runs the BoI services simultaneously with StartPreneurs, an innovative system with a strategic partnership with 500 startups, which is a Silicon Valley based Accelerator programme. This gives the portfolio startups access to investors, international markets, and opportunities to connect with potential customers, experienced mentors, networking opportunities with experts, free co-working space, and daily interactions with the management team to review progress and provide business advice. This is targeted at inspiring, incubating, building and promoting entrepreneurship in Nigeria.
StartPreneurs creates a culture in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, which inspires entrepreneurs and investors who are curious, always open to new ideas, love ambiguity, work with integrity, problem solvers, able to visualise and most importantly are great innovative thinkers.
Amidst of all these, Jennifer told ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, about her concerns on how poor funding, lack of required skills, policy inconsistency and bad management affect business development in Nigeria. Excerpts:
Can you explain what StartPreneurs is all about?
StartPreneurs is a seed-fund and accelerator for innovative technology entrepreneurs in Abuja, Nigeria. We not only invest in startups but we provide day-to-day guidance in refining their business model, revenue model, customer segments, and most importantly value proposition to their users. Our core focus in StartPreneurs is the Startups, who the core foundation of their products and services is in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Augmented Reality Technology. We currently own 6350 Square Feet Innovation office complex in the heart of Abuja by Jabi Lake. We call our Hub Silicon-Jabi, as Jabi is a commercial business district just like Yaba in Lagos, with great local Startups running interesting businesses around us.
What gap is StartPreneurs bridging with this initiative?
My vision simply for StartPreneurs is that we are an Innovative Digital Centre. We have four arms to the value and gap we bridge in Nigeria. The four arms are our Innovation Hub, Digital Job Creation Centre, StartPreneurs Virtual Reality, and Capacity Development.
The first, being our Innovation Hub, which bridges the gap of access to funding for innovative Nigerian Startups and business development supports. The second being our amazing Digital Job Creation Centre, which is an open co-working space that provides Advanced Digital Imagery, 3D printing, CAD Software Training and Equipment. Here young entrepreneurs learn technical skills to empower themselves and be able to use the in-house equipment for freelance work. The third which is one of my favorite is our use of virtual reality technology centre to build various VR experiences, which bridges the gap of VR in tourism, education, health, among others in Nigeria. The fourth and final is the capacity development, here we train over 5,000 Nigerian youths quarterly on soft skills, entrepreneurial mindset, entrepreneurial skill set, and how to get started as a young professional in Nigeria. With this, I am kicking off a YouTube series and on Social Media called, ‘Finding ChiJen’. These are daily one minute fun and engaging entrepreneurial video content aimed at educating the youths and upward mobile workers to become innovative in their career path or new and existing business ideas.
I never see anything as a challenge as this is an avenue to impact, teach, create and add value. However, Nigeria being a developing economy, the ease of doing business, education and the factors around policies influence the extent to which I maximise my output and business. The few I have recently faced is around entrepreneur-investor relationship. Being that I am an investor, I expect the level of my financial commitment to a Startup to equal their level of commitment to their products. Startups sometimes in Nigeria have to be pushed and encouraged to stay consistent in their journey, which I do think is a global issue, however in Nigeria, it is more challenging as it is very new to most entrepreneurs here. One other challenge I feel strongly about is around the level of education and graduates being exited into the Job market in Nigeria. The famous Silicon Valley is what it is today because of the cluster of great Institutes like MIT, Stanford and Harvard graduates, who migrated to that region to build disruptive businesses.
The number of graduates is constantly increasing in Nigeria; the same cannot be said for the skill set possessed by these graduates. For innovation and new frontier disruptive startups to emerge from Nigeria, the education system needs to breed and exit young graduates who do not just have the technical skills but high level soft skills. I face this challenge daily with hiring, building teams for startups and in projects I execute.
StartPreneurs has a very robust team, how are they providing support?
Our team is everything to us, without the team we are unable to grow, innovate and stay consistent. Each member of my team is either responsible for the day to day running of the different division of the business, or is a Programme Manager for the daily guidance of the Startups, to being a Mentor to the Startups and team, to being a Board Advisor. I am responsible for the daily operations of the company whilst managing the strategic vision of StartPreneurs.
How much have you provided as seed fund, and has there been any returns on investment in the process of grooming?
Since starting StartPreneurs January 2016, we have invested over $500, 000 (Half a million dollars) not just in seed-fund, but in technology that enables our Startups to build their innovative technology applications. Four of our Startups now have a Pre-money evaluation of $2 million, we are not in this for the quick returns but for the long term, being three to 10 years, so too early to measure financial returns. What we measure is growth in users of the platforms we have invested into, pre and post money evaluation for our strong startups, and their team being able to pivot and sustain the growth of the business. My long term dream and vision is to see one of my startups have a great exit (get acquired) or have a great merger.
Has the current economic situation impacted in any way on your operations?
As mentioned earlier, every challenge is an opportunity for me and the team to innovate and find great solutions. With the economic situation, we will actually say it has allowed us to take a step back and find true problems around use, and find ways to leverage technology to solve them.
Has there been any support or recognition from government, especially now that it is targeting the creation of jobs through ICT?
We currently just set up Coders Academy here in our Hub for high level Software Development Training with a core focus on Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence. With this, we got the first ever endorsement given to any private firm in Nigeria from the Office of the Honourable Minister Of Communications (Ministry of Communications). I myself have been in Chairing Committee of our partner, being the Office of the ICT, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OIIE), which is a subsidiary of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). My role is to support them in their vision to drive Innovation and ICT development in Nigeria, ranging from entrepreneurial conferences in Dubai, to investor-startups relationship, to training the startups on pitching, to being a Judge for them at their regional Pitching competitions.
NITDA has also been a great support system in our digital job creation mission in Nigeria. We also have recognition and an endorsement from the Honourable Minister of FCT as an organisation that drives capacity development and job creation in Nigeria. We are currently a Business Service Provider to the Bank of Industry. None has come from the private sector.
The number of graduates is constantly increasing in Nigeria; the same cannot be said for the skill set possessed by these graduates. For innovation and new frontier disruptive startups to emerge from Nigeria, the education system needs to breed and exit young graduates who do not just have the technical skills but high level soft skills.
How can government turn the sub-sector around for good?
I would say ICT and Entrepreneurship sector in Nigeria can indeed be improved and not completely turned around because it is all a journey and not a drastic change. As aforementioned, first Education is key for this to begin. Earlier I mentioned how Silicon Valley began from the earlier years to become what it is today because of the cluster of great Universities like MIT, Stanford Harvard etc graduating high level technical and top quality graduates who ended up building unicorn businesses like HP, Amazon, Yahoo, Facebook, Cisco etc. For innovation and new frontier disruptive startups to emerge from Nigeria the education system curriculum needs a serious upgrade so as to breed and exit young graduates who have the technical skills and high level soft skills to build and work in great companies. The next being our access to technology, the Nigerian government needs to leverage a lot on Foreign Direct Investments around improving Nigeria’s access to technology, Research and development (R&D), and Geo-Spatial technology. For hardware and production startups, the government should look into building a great rail network, and most importantly, manufacturing clusters for young entrepreneurs and startups. These clusters should have the various value chain networks - from access to technology, to R&D Centre, to locally sourced materials to electricity etc and a great funding mechanism for startups to be able to access government grants and schemes fairly.
Policy inconsistency is a major issue in Nigeria, have you been affected in any way?
It is not just policy inconsistency but also poor implementation of economic policies. The government should continue to improve on its strides to improve on their policy implementation strategies and monitoring processes.
With this, we can look at the Power Sector and the SME sector I operate directly in. We all know the inconsistency of our power supply; this builds an enormous amount to diesel operating cost on StartPreneurs to power our facility 24 hrs. If the policy in distribution of electricity in Nigeria is at its best then every home, business, school, centre, among others in Nigeria should have a minimum of 18 hours supply daily.
Coming to the final being the policies around economic policies, which have a direct impact on startups being able to thrive/grow. Funding policy is one which needs to be carefully looked at by the Nigerian government. Access to low interest loans for SMEs, micro-credit facility and micro-loans are also needed, government institutional funding support for hubs should also be considered to support platforms like StartPreneurs to continue to do what we do and impact the Nigerian economy.