If you are a fan of Nigerian Idol, then you will be familiar with the man of immense capacity – Obi Asika.
Asika, a prominent figure in laying the infrastructure for the growth and development of the media & entertainment industry in Nigeria, has again demonstrated his passion for nurturing young talents by launching a community for the transformation of Onitsha technology and creative ecosystem.
He is the founding partner of Dragon Africa – a Strategic Communications Firm based in London, Lagos and Accra, and is the Chairman of OutSource Media, a leading communications and content production company.
He is known for his involvement in the growth of Nigeria’s music industry, as the founder and CEO of Storm 360 – an indigenous music label which spawned entertainers including Naeto C, Ikechukwu, Sasha P, General Pype, L.O.S., Ms Jaie, Tosin Martins, and Yung 6ix. Now, you can understand the man we are talking about.
Asika comes from the town of Onitsha in Anambra State, Nigeria and has gone back to lead from home! He launched just built Iba Ajie Hub located in Onitsha, with a long term focus to help to nurture and develop talent, to be a place for story tellers and conflict resolution, as an art location.
In this interview with the Editor of TechEconomy.ng, Peter Oluka, the founder of Iba Ajie, Obi Asika speaks on this concept of fusing tech, arts, history, creativity, innovation, entertainment & education into one community:
Let’s start by understanding the name: Iba Ajie?
Asika: The title: Ajie Ukadiguwu is a señior red cap title and immortal (Ndichie) in the traditional hierarchy of Onitsha, a cabinet member of the Obi in Council led by The Obi of Onitsha. Our monarchy is over 500 years old and the royal lineages and clans and families are a key part of Onitsha tradition and culture. So, my late father, H.E Ajie (Dr) Ukpabi Asika, CFR, who held over 70 traditional titles across Nigeria from all over this land actually retired all of them when he took the title in 1985. Iba in our culture is the palace or stool of the Ndichie.
So Iba Ajie speaks to that; the hub is named in his honor and to my mother the full name is Iba Asika Ajie. It is also located at my grandmother’s house in the inland town of Onitsha; both of my parents are buried there. So, it is a sacred place for me and my family. It’s a salute to our culture, legacy and history but with its eyes firmly focused on the future. This is why our website says Iba Ajie is simultaneously ancient and modern, we honor the past but we are focused on the future.
What are the things you set out to achieve with this concept of fusing tech, arts, history, creativity, innovation, entertainment & education into one community?
Asika: This is the way I was raised and how I see the world. I believe that the creative industries retain the highest level of intellect and artistic expression and we celebrate that at Iba Ajie. What we hope to do is to stimulate positive actions and impact the community and the world by building bridges and making Onitsha more discoverable and accessible. In fusing these actions and communities we hope to deliver strong programming and a home for storytellers and innovators.
We are working assiduously to launch several platforms and actively looking for partners, sponsors, and programs that are looking for venues and partners in the Eastern Nigeria. We have a coding academy on site and in partnership with TechQuest Academy; we will be offering coding, stem academy and robotics classes to the community and launching an educational platform together which will be global facing. But, we have facilities on ground to support and partner with local schools and institutions such as Onitsha Business School.
We have co-working spaces and are the hosts for the Ado Business Incubator which is a program of the community and which is focused on building a startup community in Onitsha.
Do you have a special reason(s) for choosing Onitsha as the location?
Asika: I already touched on that, it’s my origin. I am from there, I am a titled man; a member of the Agbalanze since 1994 and in launching Iba Ajie I am honoring my parents, fulfilling my legacy and also seeking to inspire others to do the same. I know many Nigerians who have family properties around Nigeria and have the means to touch their communities. If we all do a little to touch our communities and take action I believe we can impact positively. Our long term focus is to help to nurture and develop talent, to be a place for story tellers and conflict resolution, as an art location.
We have dug deep into the deep culture and history of Onitsha and Igbo people to create this space and to detail it. All my life I have been fascinated by history and a custodian of the life work of my parents in terms of their files, records and art collection.
At Iba Ajie, the unofficial archives of East Central State, over 10,000 documents will be there, over 100,000 images, over 1000 pieces of antiquities and I inherited my parents long life obsession with education and technology which has impacted my journey and is reflected at the location. In this regard, we are hoping to have our site certified as a heritage location and we are seeking partnerships with major institutions in the world of art and working closely with Azu Nwagbogu of Africa Artists Contemporary on a joint project around the arts.
What problems should we expect the community to solve?
Asika: The first thing we have created it to serve as a community resource center where people can come together to eat, drink, talk, ideate, work and discuss in a location which is focused on problem solving.
The Ado Business Incubator is focused on building a strong startup culture and promoting positive role models and possibilities to our youth. This is core for Iba Ajie. We want to help with new ideas, tell new stories, new engagement and to bring the east online. We feel that the East is underreported and misunderstood and we will hope to share a varied perspective that celebrates the enterprise and the possibilities of the people and the region. Onitsha is the gateway city to the East of Nigeria and as such it is a perfect strategic location for my hub and you already know the personal reasons.
The immense economic power of Onitsha needs to be better understood and perhaps also better connected to all of Nigeria. We hope to be part of a new energy and movement out of Onitsha to expand and grow the opportunities and enable the creative, innovation and entrepreneurship community in Onitsha. Onitsha is the second largest urban metropolitan area after Lagos and I hope we can be a big part of the Onitsha story going forward.
Let’s look at the tech space: The coding academy is specifically targeted at which audience? And do you have reasons for the choice of audience?
Asika: The coding academy is first of all about education and our focus is everyone from small kids and boys to after-school graduates and mature adults. We are offering digital skills training, coding and robotics, software development and also courses in creativity, innovation, music, dance, movies and more. Our ambit is wide and we will be engaging the schools and communities in Onitsha to build partnerships and then also the State and Federal authorities when we are ready with our educational platform as well.
The audience we have in mind is local in Onitsha but also all over the rest of the region, Nigeria and the world as we are designing courses that work for a wide demographic. We are partnering with TechQuest Academy and global leaders from Kenya, the U.S., UK and locally on the education side of things.
In terms of technology, our labs will also serve for gaming and for external exams. The Dibueze Academy and Labs are named for my late mother: H.E Dibueze Chief Mrs Chinyere Asika, OFR. She is the prime inspiration and was the driving force behind this hub and what it has become. The Nathan Ejiogu Library is named after her father; my maternal grandfather and holds about 2000 research books.
My late grandfather was an early educationist. The Institute of Education at Nsukka is named for him and I honoured him here, he was a school teacher, headmaster, then he was part of those who wrote the Nigerian education curriculum. He set up several schools and retired as Chief Inspector of Education of Eastern Region in 1960 to become a Ford Foundation consultant on education.
His legacy is immense and I happen to be his oldest grandchild so it’s always been a blessing to be associated and with my late mother being an academic scholar and anthropologist and one of first black women in the world to do a Masters in Computer Science at UCLA in 1964 innovation is in my DNA. My late father was using IBM mainframe computers to administer the East Central State in 1972 as one of the first govts on the continent to apply computer processing. He also created PRODA and IMT in Enugu and did all he could in his private life as well to promote innovation, even becoming an HP partner and Sinclair Computers partner in Nigeria in 1982.
Therefore, I come from a long legacy of education, technology and innovation and I am a firm believer in their ability to uplift our people and we hope Iba Ajie will be able to contribute positively to that.
It appears the innate desire for setting up Iba-Ajie is to promote indigenous innovation, tech, media culture, etc., so, what different components of indigenous innovation are you targeting?
Asika: The core desire is to promote positive action and to unlock innovation, to do that one has to first recognize it. So, from the iron ore at Lejia near Nsukka and the Awka blacksmiths who have controlled metals for millennia, I know we are close to the heart of innovation.
In Nnewi where they have built a thousand industries from nothing, we are close to innovation. Onitsha that hosts 55 markets and serves West African commerce is built on innovation. So, we as storytellers must uncover these truths and bring them to the world. When Africans say indigenous it sounds as if it’s out of date whereas I believe black and African people continue to innovate every single day.
Iba Ajie is about recognizing that, promoting that and engaging that, we want to also be in the forefront of conversations about how we can use technology to support and underpin the famous Igbo enterprises from the markets to the apprenticeship scheme. Our hope is to be hyperlocal as we are on ground but with our eye always open for collaborations locally, nationally and globally. We don’t have all the answers but we believe that there are no issues that cannot be solved when we engage them together. So the core focus is to see what we can do to drive convenience, to make the east more discoverable and to enable more collaboration.
South East (Nigeria) seems lagging behind in terms of capacity, structure, funding, etc., to support innovation, tech and even arts; in your view, how can this be addressed?
Asika: All we can do is do what we are doing; go to work and hope that from the power of example the State will join us and partner. I am a firm believer that a focused hub strategy can and will deliver training for the jobs of the future, upskill the people, provide inspiration and enable a more positive outlook. I have spoken about this constantly at the national level and even in my State. I must commend Anambra as it does have a Ministry for the Creative Economy but it has not been resourced and the key steps to unlock and invest in innovation have not been done anywhere in the east.
There are key hubs that we already partner with however namely; Roar Hub at Nsukka and together we are developing some plans. Iba Ajie is a founding member of ISN Hubs with over 100 hubs across Nigeria and working with all of those people and other partners and associates we hope to engage govt authorities.
We would be excited to partner and engage with State Govts at all levels and the Federal institutions as well. The truth is that targeted investment into the ecosystem that we are creating will have an enormous multiplier effect on the city and the region, all of us must push for more govt support and collaboration in the region. I believe that there is incredible talent in the East and it needs stimulation, access and opportunity and hopefully Iba Ajie can help to push these conversations.
Who should lead the support for tech ecosystem in the region – government or private entities?
Asika: What Nigeria needs is smart regulation from the govt so as not to stifle innovation and creativity. It is clear to me that we have the talent and ability to solve all of our issues but when an analogue scarcity mentality gets in the way of innovation we all have a problem. Govt at all levels should be a partner to the process and can’t drive innovation. What they can do is provide hard infrastructure, soft loans, smart regulation and then get out of the way for the innovators to create the future. No govt anywhere can lead innovation that in itself is a contradictory statement. Innovation is about disruption and we should not be afraid of it but rather step into the future with confidence. We should unlock our thinking and open up the space just as we should have been more diligent about being digitally recolonized.
The best way to proceed for Nigeria is to identify our strategic goals as a nation and in the technology sector and then to agree a national roadmap and I would love to see a Chief Technology Officer for Nigeria and I would close maybe 30 embassies and allow technology to handle that process but open a funded Nigeria office in Silicon Valley, India, China and London, with a clear mandate to stimulate partnerships, investment and market knowledge so that we can launch and build innovation here.
Is this an individual project or co-founded? What are the other actors (if co-founded)
Asika: The project is founded by me and I am the main driver. My sisters; Nkiru Asika and Uju Asika are both directors of the project and this is a shared heritage and they have also both invested into the project. Nkiru led an organization called Enterprise Creative over a decade ago and worked extensively with the British Council and others on the first Creative Careers Fair as well as key programming such as Freelance Friday and was operating the Hot House as one of the first co-working spaces in Lagos then. We are leaning on her experience and work into the hub as well. Uju is a core supporter and is an author, screenwriter, blogger who like me was formed by our parents so we already are all on the same page. My good friend and brother the historian, lawyer, musician and curator Ed Keazor is a co-founder and is the curator of the museum and the archives, his own extensive archives will also find their permanent home in our museum and he continues to be one of Nigeria’s leading historians and a gift to the nation.
His energy, enthusiasm and his work alongside me on this project since 2011 means he is part of us. My wife, Yetunde is also a director of Iba Ajie; has been there by my side on this since the day I began shooting the documentary on my father ten years ago and it’s herself working in the same space so I am also leaning on her network.
We are also launching a number of platforms which all have partners. I have mentioned the education work with TechQuest Academy and the arts and culture project with AAf. As we move forward and these platforms come alive we hope to find new partners and develop new relationships, everyone can engage us through our social media handles. We are also thankful for the partnership we have with the community and proud to host the inaugural Ado Business Incubation which is one of the four streams of activity being driven by the community. A tale that is not widely known is how Agbogidi, The Obi of Onitsha galvanized the Onitsha community at the beginning of the COVID times a year ago, using technology. He must have held over 10 zoom townhalls with the community in the last year and a global base of professionals, academics, civil servants and business people, we collectively raised funds and ran an impeccable Covid-19 intervention. I was proud of that and they continue to inspire; it feels good to know that my community is entering the future. I feel privileged to host the Ado Business Incubation program @IbaAjie which really signifies the beginning of the next phase of this journey.
Finally, I cannot finish without the members of the Society of Igbo Professionals who all share this vision and who are part of the move to retell our stories and drive innovation and creativity in the region.
Iba Ajie is a place for people to come together and build and share together and we are excited about what the future holds as we reimagine Onitsha and the east together, we want to stimulate the region and also better connect it and open it up to the rest of the country and the world.
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How much have been invested in this project so far? And when is it opening to the public for patronage?
Asika: I could not tell you a figure and its not been fully done, we are still looking for funds for the internet, for solar, for more, but my late father passed in 2004 and I would say I began really ten years ago. I am eternally grateful to my late mother and countless collaborators and friends who either bugged me or encouraged me. I hope to honuor my parents, to celebrate their legacy, to offer my vision of how we can push development and innovation and Iba Ajie can serve as a community center to drive all of these actions from Onitsha to the world.
Iba Ajie is a place where we hope people come for many reasons, for art, for culture, for education, for inspiration, for conversations and to learn and debate. Anybody who knows me knows that I am all about connected culture and Onitsha is a River Port city with connections to Igala, Ife, Edo and even Mali for millennia, as well as of course the Igbos. So my view is global always but I am from there and Iba Ajie is also to inspire my friends and even those I don’t know that they can impact their home communities and invest in them. Iba Ajie hopes to bridge communities, conversations and collaborations for mutual benefit and to positively uplift our people.
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