Hanson Johnson is not a new name in the Information Technology Sector in Nigeria. While other youths struggle to get forms into paid employment, Mr. Johnson struggles to build a career as an entrepreneur in the ICT sector. Hanson is the Country Mentor, Google Developers in Nigeria and Founder of Start Innovation Hub, a technology incubation centre in Ibom e-library, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.
Mr. Johnson has been travelling globally liaising with other tech entrepreneurs and injecting new ideas into the sector in Akwa Ibom State and in the Niger Delta. He has been able to raise some youths who now acquire skills and in-turn serve his company as developers at various levels. During this interview in TechForest, Hanson Johnson expresses satisfaction that his team has been able to curtail the rural-urban (Uyo – Lagos) migration in search of greener pastures in the technology industry. Excerpts.
Who are you Sir?
My name is Hanson Johnson. I run Start Innovation Hub Nigeria, an Uyo based technology incubation centre. I am a graduate of Communications Engineering from Federal University of Technology in Owerri. Meanwhile I am from Ikot Ette in Ibiono Ibom Local Government Area, Akwa Ibom State.
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How long have you been into ICT Business?
I started professionally in 2011 and from 2011 till date I have stayed for about 6 years in business. Start Innovation Hub has been in existence since May, 2014 but started operations in October, 2014 here in Uyo. Our primary area of business is technology incubation. We incubate software ideas that solve our local challenges, not only software ideas but also hardware/robotic ideas. When we started operations here in Uyo, there were no skills and there were no ideas. So we had to skill people up, training them free so that they can develop Most Viable Products (MVP). Today we are happy that we have people we have trained who are in turn training other people and we also have some products in incubation. Before now, technology business had been a Lagos only affair. But today when we talk tech, Uyo comes after Lagos. This is because of passion and the community driven model we have adopted. What we are doing is at a community level, and has gained us references from the President of Nigeria, Minister of Communications, Facebook, Google, local and international tech entrepreneurs. Passion and the eager for self-reliance have kept us till today.
What were and are your motivations in the Industry?
ICT was the future by then and to some people IT is still the future. To me IT is not just a profession but also a driver to help you push more boundaries. So whether you are an agric specialist, a teacher, an engineer, doctor, etc. technology is the pivot. With technology you learn, gain and progress faster in your profession. You see, by then it was a virgin market and everything used to happen in Lagos. If you needed anything done, you will have to go to Lagos. I saw that as a problem and I made up my mind to solve that problem. I wanted to reduce the rural – urban migration from Uyo to Lagos in search of technology knowledge and greener pastures. If we believe that patronizing made in Nigeria goods and services will help in developing Nigeria then patronizing made in Akwa Ibom goods and services will help accelerate the development of the state and Nigeria at large. Today we have succeeded in reducing that traffic, that dream has been actualized because we have people who have gone global from Uyo and people coming from Lagos to learn certain technologies here in Uyo. Those who had wanted to go to Lagos to learn new technologies now do better in Uyo and get featured on world stages.
Do you have mentors?
Yes I have mentors here in Nigeria and internationally. I also have role models, people I look up to and want to be like them as far as USD in billions is concerned. Those are the people that motivate me. Anyone who wants to get into any career should have people to mentor them to avoid making unnecessary mistakes. I advise young people to have people to guide them, people who have already been in the industry and seen the ins and outs of that business.
Is there any hope for the Industry in Akwa Ibom State?
‘Iyammi’, there is hope big time! There is hope for the IT Industry in Akwa Ibom State. In fact that is one of our motivations.
Is there anything you feel the government can do to help this industry grow in Akwa Ibom State?
Traditionally government handles policies, human capital and infrastructure development etc. For instance, I may not be able to construct roads or bring broadband to Niger Delta or to Uyo so that I can get it in my office. It is government that can play the major role for me to be able to do that. So basic things like broadband, power, affordable housing and funds from annual budget to help accelerate our initiatives etc is what they can do to help the industry.
We are moving at snail’s speed because of lack of funds and our government can painlessly make this happen by working with hubs to achieve their goals and get all the glory that can last decades.
How many apps have you deployed?
As at the time of this interview, we have deployed five android applications and over 10 web applications and the number keep on increasing. This is excluding open-source projects we collaborate with other teams locally and internationally.
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What are your challenges in the Industry?
Our major challenge first I will say was acceptability. It was hard to get people to believe in us since technology sounds foreign and seems a Silicon Valley only thing to most people. To God be the glory, we have conquered that and people now believe in us and have seen what we have been able to do here in Uyo. They are now convinced it is not only in Lagos or India but it can happen here in Uyo.
Apart from that, the quality of Internet is another major setback because in this knowledge-based economy everything is online. You hold meetings online and video conferencing, so it is not just availability of Internet but the unreliability of it. Broadband is a huge challenge.
Next is power supply. We are still buying fuel and after all these expenses we find it hard for customers to pay for services. Next thing I will say is the state of the nation. It seems it has a psychological effect on people who would have done business with us. They keep saying recession. Then funding is another big challenge. As I speak to you, we are self-funded. Hubs all over the world are usually funded by impact funds and grants but we’ve been able to achieve all these without external funding. People keep asking me when I travel out, how do you manage to operate without funding? I will say, we have a sustainable business model that support what we do.
How did you get the initial funding to register your company?
I design website for people and used the proceeds to register the company because I wanted to be a legal entity to be able to do a business within Nigeria and internationally.
You’ve been travelling of recent, what are those things you seek outside Akwa Ibom State?
Most of our patronage comes from outside of Uyo, outside of Niger Delta and outside Nigeria. In business you need to expand your network as much as you can. In fact you are as rich as your network. Sometimes I travel to meet people with like minds. When I have the opportunity to travel, I do that not for the fun but I make it a business trip. Travelling gives me the opportunity to meet with people. For instance, my last trip was to California and I had the opportunity to attend global Google Developers Summit in San Jose, Intel I/O Day Zero Event and Google I/O 2017 in Google HQ Mountain View. Google I/O is event for developers where Google release the new technologies API – API is Application Programing Interface and what we expect from Google for the coming year as far as Google technology platform is concerned. I also paid a visit to other tech firms like Facebook, Apple, Udacity, Coursera and some other software development companies. I also attended Foreign Startups pitch event where I pitched one of our fintech startups. I made new contacts and also met with people who are interested in Africa. I hope to capitalize on most of those contacts to change the game in Africa.
From the US I got an invitation to attend Facebook and Telecom Infra Project (TIP) OpenCellular Workshop for Rural Access in Nairobi, Kenya and also a TechCrunch meet up ahead of Startup Battlefield Africa that is coming up by October 2017 and sponsored by Facebook.
What are your messages to Akwa Ibom Youths?
Value your time and be better everyday! The world is changing so we must move at that pace too. We must aspire to do more impactful things in a bigger way. We should stop following people up and down but if following people is your career you can continue but as youths I believe there’s more in the future than following people daily. Sometimes I wonder if I would be able to achieve this much if I was following people everywhere just to earn a living.
To Akwa Ibom youths, go and be world class, not alone but with a team. No limits!