Aisha Tofa, the founder of a technology incubation hub and co-working space, Startup Kano Limited, speaks to OGHENOVO EGODO-MICHAEL about her career and other issues
Can you tell us about your journey as a development consultant in the technology industry?
It has been an amazing eight years so far. It started with the passion to see change in my community, in terms of education, technology, entrepreneurship and gender inclusion. Working with so many women, startups and businesses has been an eye-opening experience for me. The development journey has also been amazing, as I have been able to make an impact through various clients.
What motivated you to establish Startup Kano?
Establishing the organisation was a result of my passion for the community. Upon graduating from the university, I had no job, and it got me reflecting through life. I felt it was a responsibility to change the narrative. I have always been motivated by passion, which led me to my purpose.
How has your experience in brand and business development contributed to the success of the startups you have mentored?
My experience in this field has helped the startups and businesses I have mentored in so many ways. These startups were able to brand strategically in terms of building a memorable brand identity. It has also helped in understanding target audience identity, market positioning and research, refining business model, go-to-market strategy, building partnerships and collaborations, pitching, customer experience, and adaption/flexibility.
What are some of the challenges you have faced while working in the startup ecosystem in Nigeria?
In the northern part of the country, it has been the issue of adoption and trust. Getting people to understand the concept of technology has been hard.
How do you approach designing and delivering projects for international and local partners, such as the British Council, UK NIG Tech Hub, Google, and Facebook?
The approach is based on the partner’s goals and objectives, then the gap that needs to be bridged. As community builders, we already understood the challenges of the ecosystem, and we made sure that all the projects we designed were aligned toward solving these challenges.
Tell us more about the Women Founders Conference, and its significance in fostering learning, inspiration, and conversation among women leaders in tech and entrepreneurship.
The Women Founders Conference was initiated by the Women Founders Group, which is the not-for-profit women’s group under Startup Kano to promote economic resilience and build the confidence of women through mentorship and training. We realised that building confidence is the key to achieving economic and social prosperity, especially in northern Nigeria, so we do this in the easiest and most realistic way, by inviting women leaders across Africa to share their stories, experiences and lessons. This is to show these women that it is possible to achieve greatness, and that is where the inspiration, learning and conversations come in. We have amazing impact stories in the conference, which have pushed many women to build businesses, gain the confidence to start up business, meet relevant people, build partnership, and so many other amazing opportunities.
Which notable speakers or leaders have participated in the Women Founders Conference, and what insights did they share?
We have had women such as the a Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina Muhammed; founder of Outsource Global, Amal Hassan; Director of Dangote Industries Limietd, Halima Dangote; founder of Lumination Global, Adaora Lumina; and MD of Sterling Bank, Abubakar Suleiman, among others.
One thing they all emphasised on was the need for women to take charge, and be innovative and creative, so as to compete locally and globally. They also shared how they all started (their careers), and gave practical advice to women on achieving economic resilience and prosperity.
How has your background in communications, and your training with Voice of America, Broadcasting Board of Governors, British Council, and Google influenced your work in the startup ecosystem?
My communications background and training helped shape my thoughts and work, in terms of communicating my work. It has also helped me with building a digital footprint for my work. In terms of impact, I have been able to work with startups and clients in the areas of communication goals and projects.
Priority is not given to female education in northern Nigeria. How is your tech hub fairing amidst such a challenge?
We have been working towards changing that since our inception. That is why we have the Women Founders Group, and Women in Tech, which are platforms that upskill women in tech and entrepreneurship at no cost. Our programmes are mostly targeted at women. The workspace is also available for women at a subsidised rate for women. We have a higher number of women on the team, and we consider them more for jobs and internships.
What are the educational improvements you would like to see among northern girls and women?
I would love to see them improve mostly in the area of tech skills, and encourage them to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses.
What role do you see technology playing in empowering women and the youth in northern Nigeria?
It plays a vital role, as it provides the tools, resources and opportunities to learn, connect and participate in various spheres of life, such as access to education, skill development, empowerment, financial inclusion, mentorship and advocacy.
How do you balance your roles and responsibilities as a startup mentor, development consultant, and social entrepreneur?
All the three are aligned. If one is working on development, one must work with startups and young people. And, if young people and startups are concerned, entrepreneurship must be involved. My career path is aligned from different angles, so I have so much passion for it.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs, particularly women, who are looking to enter the tech industry?
My advice to them is that they should go for it, and explore as much as possible. They should also be open to adapting to it, because tech makes life easier in terms of building skills, solutions and impact.
Have you encountered any specific gender-related challenges or biases while working in the technology industry, and how do you overcome them?
Yes, I have always faced such challenges. Society is always underestimating the strength and capacity of women, especially in the northern part of the country. I overcome this by focusing on my work. If society won’t support one, then one cannot afford to let it break one. I believe that time is a good storyteller.
How do you stay in tune with the latest trends and advancements in the technology space?
I stay up to date through mentors, digital platforms, events and continuous learning.
What are your thoughts on the current state of digital inclusion in Nigeria, and what can be done to bridge the digital divide?
I think that at this point, it should be mandatory for stakeholders to work with the government to push digital inclusion. It should also be mandatory for people to embrace the digital ecosystem. The world is moving at a fast pace, and technology is at the forefront. We all have to work together to bridge the gap. It is not a one-way thing. Everybody must contribute and adapt.
How do you measure the success of your mentorship programmes, and the impact they have on startup growth?
I measure the success of the programmes by the mentees’ growth and achievements, and the solutions they are building.
What role do you believe the government should play in supporting the startup ecosystem in Nigeria?
I think they have already taken a bold step with the Startup Act. If implemented properly, a lot of things will change for good. There will be inclusion, investment, support, and skills gap will also be closed.
How do you unwind?
I unwind by reading books and watching movies. I also love good food and coffee. As long as I have those things, I am very happy.