Ventures Africa released an article recently titled “42 African Innovators To Watch“* and while I was blown away by the sheer talent and skill to come out of my beloved continent, I couldn’t help but notice the sheer number of talented people to come out of Nigeria.
Nigerians made up for an astounding 40% of the list – 17 out of the 42 brilliant individuals mentioned were Nigerians and we simply could not overlook this!
So here you are – 17 Nigerian innovators the world needs to watch out for!
Roye Okupe, Youneek Studios
‘Innovation is the next frontier for Africa’
Thanks to Roye’s childhood dream, fans of comic books, graphic novels, and animations no longer have to look beyond the shores of the continent for superhero characters that they can idolise. Rather they can look to ‘E.X.O. – The Legend of Wale Williams’.
As a child, Roye watched all the classics: Superman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman, and more. While he loved these characters and could relate to them as a boy, he also wanted to see a superhero that was Nigerian or African.
Based on his interest in comic books, movies, and entertainment, Roye decided to study graphic design, motion graphics and animation. Soon after,YouNeek Studios was born and Roye’s Nigerian superhero has been making headlines all over the world ever since.
‘…We’ve seen a lot of support, not just from the African community, but the world as a whole. [E.X.O.] is making an impact I could have never imagined could happen outside Nigeria and outside Africa.’
Roye is humbled by the support that he receives from individuals all over the world seeking permission to translate the comic book into their local languages. “The next phase of what we’re doing now is making animated movies based on the books.”
Nkem Uwaje-Begho, Futuresoft
‘You always have to figure out what works in the environment that you’re in.’
Nkem Uwaje founded FutureSoftSoftware Resources Limited (Futuresoft) in 2008, driven by a desire to change Nigeria’s technology space. FutureSoft, an IT solutions provider focused on online solutions, e-learning and IT security, has garnered Nkem respect and recognition as a leader in her industry, where she remains one of the few women occupying the space.
Nkem is also an expert speaker on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Africa. She received the Jim Ovia Prize for Software Excellence and the Etisalat Prize for Innovation, for her efforts in improving access to technology in Nigeria and Africa-at large.
Presently, Nkem is focused on expanding Futuresoft into other markets in Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya within the next five years.
Kelvin Okafor, Kelvin Okafor Art
“We become what we think about”
As a student in St. Ignatius College in Enfield, London, United Kingdom, then 15-year-old Kelvin Okafor steadily honed his talent for drawing. Kelvin took on drawing while his peers were having fun socialising and this is something he is grateful for as it made him the artist that he is today.
Kelvin is known for his pencil and charcoal drawings of lifelike portraits which feature both ordinary people and celebrities which have caught the eye of a global audience. Early pieces of his work include portraits of Amy Winehouse, Tinie Tempah, Mother Teresa, Lauryn Hill Jamal, Nelson Mandela, Rihanna and Beyoncé, amongst others.
According to Kelvin, as a teenager he would “draw tirelessly” until he was satisfied. With the help of his parents, the British-Nigerian artist did a foundation Art & Design course at City and Guilds Art School (2005–06), then studied at Middlesex University (2006–09), where he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. His awards include the Catherine Petitgas Visitors Choice Prize, of the National Open Art Competition.
Vivian Maduekeh, Food Health Systems
‘Our problem in Nigeria and Africa is not the quantity of food. Our problem is the quality.’
In light of the importance of healthy and safe food, Food Scientist Vivian Maduekeh started to pay closer attention to what she felt was being ignored in Nigeria– food safety. Vivian is the Founder and Managing Principal of Food Health Systems Advisory Africa (FHS Africa), dedicated to advising food companies on food safety management systems to promote safe standards for food to the general public.
FHS Africa bridges the gap between farming and agricultural firms in the agricultural sector of most countries, in order to maximise the economic rewards of agriculture by producing high quality food products. Vivian was spurred to establish FHS Africa after Nigeria was banned from exporting beans to Europe in 2015 because they possessed high levels of toxic chemicals. Through an online resource called the SafeFoodNigeria Initiative, which was launched in 2012, the journey began.
FHS changes the conversation on food security. Countries and NGOs are concerned about food security in terms of increasing food production, but we need to talk about the standards and safety measures. In Nigeria, such a thing as what FHS is doing is rare because we rely only on NAFDAC.
Vivian is a Project Director at Young Bright Minds Africa (YBM Africa). FHS is currently working on launching an application called ‘Food Incident Reporting Portal’, a sort of eyewitness reporting platform that encourages customers at restaurants, cafeterias, supermarket to report their harmful food discoveries at these places so they can be properly addressed.
Chief Obi, Comedian
‘It’s not about the money… Anyone can stand in front of the camera, but it takes true passion to be different.’
As a sophomore in college in 2012, Henry Obiefule – Chief Obi – incidentally started a comedic career in the United States by making and posting videos on social media media platforms, Keek and YouTube. With a fair amount of nudging from his friends who liked his videos and encouraged him to do more, he kept on, while extending his content to Vine, and finally Instagram. Today, he has 172,000 followers on his Instagram page and his full-time career includes stand-up comedy with hosting and MC-ing duties.
Chief Obi’s videos were inspired by growing up around his Igbo relatives, the “die hard ones that you see in Nollywood movies”, and the experiences of the popular character from his skits – Obinna is actually loosely based on his own experiences living with those relatives.
“I stay relevant by being motivated to do my videos, because I love doing what I do.”
Damola Taiwo, Tola Ogunsola, Dolapo Taiwo – MyMusic.Com.Ng
“We had an idea for people to download music in one click…we didn’t know how it was going to pan out.”
In 2014, three friends teamed up to start a company using their extensive backgrounds in web development, digital design and their love of music. In June 2015, MyMusic was launched in Lagos offering Nigerians the opportunity to download music in a cheap and easy manner.
According to Dolapo Taiwo, one of the co-founders, “we had an idea for people to download music in one click…we didn’t know how it was going to pan out.” Damola and Dolapo returned to Nigeria in 2008 to start Unitech Media (which is still in operation) and later joined forces with Tola in 2014 to start the company. Today, MyMusic is integrated with all the telecommunication companies in Nigeria and about 60 million Nigerians with a phone and internet connection can download music.
“Our lives are action packed and unpredictable. Sometimes you work till 2am and other times it’s for 24 hours,” says Damola who is also the CEO of the company, and Dolapo echoes this sentiment. “As an innovator you’re on a quest to solve a particular problem, and until you solve it you never really sleep. You have to never take no for an answer.”
Damola, Tola and Dolapo have plans to make MyMusic Pan-African with a short-term plan to expand into five other African countries through an aggressive marketing plan. In time, the company hopes to go global, as they note “African music is very dynamic and big all over the world.”
MyMusic currently partners with Facebook on the social network’s ‘Facebook Music Stories’, as Facebook’s first African partner in this capacity.
Ify Aniebo, African Health Magazine
‘The passion of trying to save lives, imparting knowledge and creating change is what drives me.’
Nigerian-British Geneticist and Scientist, Ify Aniebo, is on a mission to find out why malaria drugs are failing by exploring drug resistance. According to her, Africa is living on its ‘last life’ for malaria drugs and the medical community is not working quickly enough to develop new solutions. Ify’s dedication to these issues was born from her experience with malaria as a child and a desire to educate people about science and health.
Ify founded African Health Magazine to provide better information around health and science, particular to health concerns facing people around the continent. Her work is centred around trying to stop the spread of malaria drug resistance in Africa with detailed research which serves as a surveillance tool for clinical scientists.
In order to do this, the molecular geneticist spends most of her days and nights in the laboratory. “Sometimes I’m not aware of the time. It’s tough and it also gets lonely for scientists. You’re in your own world a lot. If things don’t work out you try to find why. But when you do get a little bit of progress it gives you the energy to carry on.”
While the award-winning scientist admits that her PhD candidacy at Oxford University (which is almost over) doesn’t afford her the energy to invest in her magazine as much she would like, she plans to move back to Nigeria in September and make the magazine and initiative more programmatic with outreach strategies in addition to the use of mobile and internet technologies.
“Education is empowerment. People need to know the signs to look out for. However, not everyone can access the internet. I plan to go into the rural areas to provide information to those who need it the most.”
Adebunmi Adediran, NAILANGS
‘Language is a beautiful thing.’
Adebunmi Adeniran created NAILANGS, the keyboard that allows you to type in Nigerian languages, three years ago after a conversation with friends in the UK about the importance in embracing their languages.
NAILANGS is a multilingual keyboard which supports and enables writing in at least 12 Nigerian languages and aims to ensure that local Nigerian languages do not become extinct by making them easy to learn.
Ms. Adeniran studied Russian Language at the University of Lagos, along with minors in the Italian, Yoruba and English Languages.
However, she was always passionate about teaching her language (Yoruba) to others while also learning to speak theirs. She is fluent in English, Yoruba and Russian, can speak some Italian and is currently learning to speak Portuguese.
The linguist believes that passion begets innovation; she plans to visit Nigeria soon to market NAILANGS and make the keyboard something that any Nigerian can use. “I want the future generations to be aware of how beautiful our languages are. This is just the beginning.”
In the future NAILANGS hopes to incorporate language translation as one of its features.
Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, WeCyclers
“Waste management is one of the main problems for poor populations in Nigeria.”
In 2012, Bilikiss Adebiyi left a five-year-long job as a Software Programmer at IBM in the United States to return home to Nigeria and execute an idea that came to her while she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): A recycling company now called WeCyclers.
WeCyclers collects waste from low-income communities and rewards the participants with points that can later be exchanged for prizes.
The generated waste materials – which are also collected with help from the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) – are then sold to recycling companies, making WeCyclers both a social and economic enterprise.
Zina Saro-Wiwa, Visual Art
‘…See the bigger picture. The work has to be the reward. Anything else is just a bonus.’
Zina Saro-Wiwa first carved a niche for herself in arts and film-making in 2008 with her documentary This Is My Africa which transformed discussions about the continent in international media. A former BBC presenter, Zina’s experimental video installations, documentaries, photography and films take an interesting stance in the scope of young contemporary African artists.
In 2013, Zina moved back to the Niger Delta in Nigeria to make a body of work that aimed to tell new stories about the region through contemporary art, food projects, and her own contemporary art gallery called Boys’ Quarters Project Space which is based in the city of Port Harcourt. Zina’s work has been shown in museums all over the world including Seattle Art Museum, The Fowler Museum, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Stevenson Gallery, Goodman Gallery, Guggenheim Bilbao, Nikolaj Kunsthal, Tate Britain and many others.
Shuttling between Brooklyn and the Niger Delta, Zina is currently set to show her work based on her Niger Delta residency at Brooklyn Museum in April, the Serpentine Gallery programming in May, and also at Arles Photo festival this summer. Her Port Harcourt Gallery, Boys’ Quarters Project Space, moves to London for the summer where they take over the Tiwani Gallery for one month.
“An innovator’s life – especially that of a woman’s – is often a lot more tedious and thankless than the outcomes may suggest. You have to be prepared to sacrifice comfort, stability and relationships to see an idea through to the end. You have to love what you do and see the bigger picture.”
Oluseun Onigbinde, Budgit
A Co-Creation Hub Hackathon set the stage for public finance analyst, Oluseun Onigbinde, to launch one of the best ideas that Nigeria has seen in some time –BudgIT. Because of BudgIT, Nigerians now have access to federal budgets while they are being drawn up.
BudgIT uses SMS, infographics, interactive applications and games, amongst other tools, to bring transparency and accountability to civil society while aiming for a more socially and economically evolved Nigeria. According to Oluseun, BudgIT simply aims to provide budget access, which both he and his team believe is the key to civic engagement and institutional reform.
Oluseun is presently working on international partnership to advance BudgIT’s vision. The Africa Transparency Initiative, a Pan-African initiative, USAID, Ford Foundation, and the Knight Foundation are some of the partners that the company has managed to make progress with over time. Additionally, BudgIT has developed tools such as ‘Tracka’ and ‘Fitila’ to monitor local community projects.
The idea is that rather than having reports just being entirely narrative, we want them to be backed by data. We don’t want 1000-word opinion pieces not backed with data guiding the thoughts.
BudgIT currently employs 22 people and has future plans to build “sustainable cities” that are data-driven. To do this, Oluseun is ready to “pull the old order down and rebuild a new experience for stakeholders” while strengthening access to citizens in digital and offline communities.
“We want to publicise finance data in the hands of citizens, raising their ability to ask questions and demand service delivery. But we don’t want to do this with heavy dependence on donor funding, so we want to ensure that we fully establish a thriving business segment that focuses on private clients and development agencies in areas of data science, visualization and civic technology.”
Priscilla Hazel, Cassandra Sarfo, Esther Olatunde; Tress – Beauty App
‘For us at Tress, after identifying the challenge that we faced we wanted to find an easier and convenient way to solve the challenge of finding details of amazing hairstyles we constantly see online.’
Ghana and Nigeria combined forces to provide a basic service to black women- hair styling. Priscilla Hazel, Cassandra Sarfo and Esther Olatunde created Tress– an application which provides Black women with information on how to style their natural hair, where they can find salons, and what products to use for various hair textures.
Hazel, Sarfo and Olatunde met at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology in Accra, Ghana and instantly connected based on their shared frustrations with their hair and options available to them. Last month at the Lagos Social Media Week, the three friends launched Tress amidst rave reviews.
Tress is available for download on the Google Play Store with more versions to come. The founders have disclosed plans to expand into e-commerce, as well as make Tress active on various media platforms by partnering with “likeminded organisations and individuals”.
“We envision that in the near future, Tress will be the go-to app for black women looking to find hair inspiration, hair-stylists and high quality hair products. We believe that Tress will continue to evolve and grow into a multi-faceted global brand.”
Ozoz Sokoh, Kitchen Butterfly- Innovation In Cuisine
Ozoz Sokoh’s passion for food in all of its ramifications can probably be rivalled by only a select handful of individuals on the continent. From her vivid descriptions of food and her love of it, to her artistic and mouth-watering – also beautifully photographed – expressions in the kitchen, her culinary brand, Kitchen Butterfly, is constantly evolving and exploring a variety of ways to amaze even the most accomplished foodie.
Sokoh is an Exploration Geologist ‘during the day’. Her affair with food and Nigerian cuisines began while she was living and working in The Netherlands, where she became more aware of Nigerian food and developed a deeper appreciation for Nigerian ingredients and techniques.
“Whether with geology or food, I use the same skills – curiosity, data gathering & observation of the facts, synthesis and concept selection, experimentation and documentation. I’m an explorer, through and through.”
Ozoz, who would rather “shop for veg than shoes,” never restricts herself to the provisions of a recipe and loves to create colourful and pretty dishes. Her successful gustatory experiments involve using ‘unusual’ foods, fruits, and vegetables such as sugarcane and agbalumo to create never-before-seen-nor-imagined cuisines and drinks.
The ‘Traveller by Plate’ sees the world through food, which for her is “for more than eating.” One of her dreams include going to a Nigerian restaurant in Paris and stunning and interesting people with Nigerian innovative culinary skills.
Yahaya Ahmed, Development Association For Renewable Energy (DARE)- Architecture/Eco Friendly Homes
Eco-friendliness takes an amazing architectural form in plastic bottle houses, constructed by the Developmental Association for Renewable Energies(DARE) in Nigeria. DARE constructed these homes from thousands of recycled plastic bottles which are filled with sand, cement, and mud. These components form a highly formidable wall which is 20 times stronger than brick walls, fireproof, bulletproof, and earthquake resistant.
DARE CEO, Engr. Yahaya Ahmed, co-founded the Kaduna-based non-governmental organisation, which seeks to promote the understanding and use of renewable energy resources as well as promote clean indoor air through energy autonomous plastic bottle houses and other environmental projects. The houses are fitted with energy saving stoves with little or no emissions which mitigate desertification and climate change, urine filtration fertilization systems and purification tanks.
Yahaya Ahmed’s environmental projects seek to aid Nigeria’s issues with deforestation and pollution, in addition to other forms of environmental degradation. The energy efficient kitchen stoves were recently made available for purchase in Kaduna and plans are in the works for nationwide availability.
DARE currently trains young people in Kaduna to assemble the stoves in order for them to become future entrepreneurs. Additionally, the organisation is training local masons in the bottle building technique with the help of Andres Froesse, the founder of Eco-Tec Soluciones Ambientales.
Igoni Barett, Author
Igoni Barett is a Nigerian author who explores literature through a dynamic lens by writing stories about Nigeria and race with an intent to stimulate fresh conversations around how they are perceived and challenge the norms surrounding them.
In his most recent piece of work,Blackass, which is also his first novel, the author demonstrates his astuteness around unearthing critical and complex debates surrounding race in Nigeria, a topic largely suppressed in mainstream conversations.
Born and educated in Nigeria, Igoni’s widespread acclaim was cemented withLove is a Power, or Something Like That, a collection of short stories published in 2013, which explore contemporary life in Port Harcourt. Igoni is also lauded for how he uses local dialect, without translation, further emphasising that he is more focused on the craft of language, than explaining things for a western audience.Blackass was inspired by Igoni’s desire to spark a conversation on how Nigerians view race following the incident in Ferguson in the United States, and the conversation around African American perceptions and fantasies of life in contemporary Africa.
Zim Ugochukwu, Travel Noire – travel App
Travel Noire (TN) founder Zim Ugochukwu has been listed as one of the “10 Amazing Black Women Changing the Game” by Teen Vogue given her role in dismissing the age-long myth that black people don’t like to travel.
Born in the United States to Nigerian parents, Zim worked as a Biologist and community organiser (she was among the organisers of the Obama campaign in 2008) before her love for travel led her to establish Travel Noire in 2013. In less than three years, her establishment has become the go-to guide for young black people who want to travel around the world.
Travel Noire presently employs seven people who “live wherever they want, are productive and very happy.” The brand offers two major products at the moment; the Travel Noire Experiences, which curates a group travel experience, and the community based product.
According to Zim, the experience is about connecting with the local environment, more than mere sightseeing. The TN experience package is available in Italy for now but will include six to seven other locations by summer this year. Next year, Travel Noire plans launch another product to teach people how to work while on vacation, to encourage people to travel more. Zim believes that “you can be in Fiji or Darfur and still have your ‘nine to five’.”
Genevieve Nnaji, Actress, producer and businesswoman
For all the glamour and fame that presently surrounds her, Ihunanya Genevieve Nnaji, who turned 37 on May 3rd, comes from a relatively ordinary Nigerian, middle class existence. She is the fifth of eight children born to an engineer father from Mbaise, Imo State in the South Eastern Igbo region of Nigeria and a schoolteacher mother who sometimes engaged in petty trading. She grew up in the Surulere neighborhood of Lagos, which has always been a solidly middle class enclave in a city run by the wealthy and dominated by the extremely poor.
For Genevieve, making The Road to Yesterday was exactly the sort of unexpected, challenge filled experience that has helped to shape her career and her person. “I made this film because I realize people grow and move on. Things change in their life, but they don’t expect things to change in yours. People don’t expect that you are human because you are a superstar. In other words, you can’t grow, learn, and make mistakes. They don’t expect those normal things from you. You are expected to know it all because you are famous,” she told me.
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