|Attah Igoche at his Office|
As my taxi rolled to a stop in front of the building that housed Aiivon Innovation hub, I was a bit nervous. I was supposed to be meeting – for the first time – someone I had been chatting with on Facebook. I wondered what first impression I would be giving and more than that, what impression I would be getting. I was also nervous because I hadn’t done an interview in a long time and I hoped I still had my wits about me.
As I entered the building, I was awed by the sheer beauty of the place. My inhibitions began to ebb away as excitement swept over me. I suddenly became my old, fun and bubbly self. I was twirling around, taking selfies and being generally being goofy. I forgot that I was supposed to be professional and well put together. In my excitement, I didn’t know he had come up behind me. My only clue was the look his front desk officer sent past me. I turned and there he was.
Attah Samson Igoche.
Dressed in dark jeans, a black shirt emblazoned with ‘Aiivon’and a navy blue blazer, he was the picture of calm sophistication. I smiled, my nervousness returning. He propelled me to follow him and we went into his office. Again, I was blown away. The floor-to-ceiling wallpaper that graced the reception and other areas of the office was replicated in his office.
I had to ask.
‘Did you get these wallpapers like this?’
He smiled. Satisfied.
‘We designed it.’
I was tempted to think he was showing off but his matter-of-fact tone showed he wasn’t; just stating the fact.
I asked that he give me a tour and he obliged. I was ‘oohh’ing and ‘aahh’ing as we went from offices spaces for prospective clients to conference rooms for hackathons/tech brainstorming sessions to private spaces for quieter work. Everything seemed so well put together! Even the game corner and selfie wall had me feeling like home. It was the perfect nerd pad! I could imagine getting major ideas just because of the ambience, playing World of Warcraft when I was tired – though I am more of a word game person – and generally being around creatives like myself. To cover it in one sentence, I was impressed!
I turned my attention to the man behind the idea; or in front. I wanted to know what he was like beneath the veneer of sophistication, the choices that led him to being the man he is today and what plans he had for the future of his business.
We returned to his office and I switched personalities. It was time to be professional and serious. He offered me a nice cupcake and a drink. I smiled. I knew I was going to like this interview.
The answer I got when I asked about his family threw me off. I totally didn’t expect to have tears in my eyes as he relayed his childhood. And it all started with his mother discovering that her pregnancy was high risk and could cost her life.
‘My mum kinda knew that she may not make it. She had complications three months into the pregnancy and had the choice of aborting me. Thing is, she was told the abortion may result in her never having another child. The pregnancy on the other hand presented a 50-50 chance of survival. She died on the day she gave birth to me. She chose to keep me, knowing that she was not assured of life if she carried me to term. So she wrote me a letter that I got to read a couple of years later and it showed me, even though I never got to meet her, the kind of person she was and everything that she stood for. The day I read the letter was one of the most emotional days for me. She is one reason I respect ladies a lot. I don’t know which man would do that.’
He should have had the teary eyes but he was calm about it. I on the other was about to disgrace my family. I breathed deeply, blinked back a couple of times and got myself together. Then I asked about his father.
‘I was with my grandma until my father died. I was fifteen at the time and in Senior Secondary School (SSS) 1. I had truly become an orphan.’
And things went south for Igoche after that. He knew that he had to take the direction of his life into his own hands if he was survive. Getting school fees had become a problem and even though his aunties were willing to step in and take care of his fees, Igoche knew things could get harder eventually. So, he wrote his General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations.
‘I finished my secondary school in Special Science, Makurdi though I was there for just one year. For some reason, I wrote my GSCE in SS1 and the results were good so I had to bust the rest of secondary school. The results came out in SS2 first term and when I saw it was good, I knew I was done with school. I felt like, going to school was no longer necessary. Dad and Mum were dead and having to go about looking for school fees was not something I wanted to do. So when I saw that the result was good, I decided there was no point to it.’
For someone who was fifteen, it must have taken a lot of courage to make that decision. And a lot of pride too. The death of his parents quickly matured him. A bit too soon I would say. Turned out that plan was not properly thought out.
‘I didn’t write the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) then. So even though I was done with school, I didn’t have anything else to do. So I stayed at home. I quickly got bored. And worse than that, money wasn’t coming as before. I was in a bad place.’
He was presented with two options; become a church boy or the other big bad C. Anyone who has been to Benue or who follows the news from the town knows that cultism is a major outlet for many out-of-school and out-of-work young men. The trappings of cultism is at first like the high of narcotics but soon devolves into the frenzied scratch of an addict. Igoche knew this. So he presented himself with a third option; dance.
‘When I was in school, I was a member of a dance crew called Soul Quest; the dance arm of Youth With A purpose (YWAP). We eventually formed a group called ‘I61’. We traveled a lot. There was always one event or competition that we needed to travel for; stand cities, Malta Guiness, dance fire and a couple of them that we would travel for. I wasn’t really that much of a school person so it wasn’t so much of an option for me.’
And so, Igoche had his hands full. He was running his businesses, attending classes when he needed to, and traveled a lot for his dance events. So how did the dancer cum businessman decide that media was something he wanted to do? It had a lot to do with wanting to share technology information.
‘When I was in school, I tried to publish a tech magazine with a friend. We named it ‘Informer’. It was basically a tech information magazine and I was thinking it was something I could publish around schools. While I thinking about that, another idea came to me. This one was a comprehensive directory of Benue state; which is something that nobody else has done till now. But I wanted to do it in school. I didn’t get around to doing it because I didn’t have a lot of money and the partnerships I was looking for were just not forthcoming. But most especially, I wasn’t ready.
‘After school, I spoke with my friend – Emmanuel Ameh, who was in the UK then – about my desire to create a pan-African magazine and he believe in the project. He went ahead to partner and registered the business as ‘Open Hearts Media’ to publish Nativeland Magazine. We did a few issues which sold in Nigeria, the UK and US, and France. Eventually, we started working on French issues.’
By this point, I think I drifted away a bit. I imagined why Igoche was so successful at every single thing he was doing. Yes I know people talk of the Midas touch but come on! Why did he seem to hit gold all the time? I imagined what it would be like to be able to have your work going global with your very first issue. The feeling was heady.
Noticing I had wandered into an alternate universe, Igoche reminded me that I had cake in front of me. I smiled again, breaking a piece of it to hide the fact that I was ashamed of myself at having wandered into dreamland in the middle of an interview. I chewed the cake piece slowly and using my eyes, prompted him to continue.
He decided to do so by busting my bubble. It wasn’t all scented gardenias.
‘Then we started having problems. We were bootstrapping. We didn’t have a strong budget. We were using proceeds from the previous issues to publish the next one. Then people stopped buying print. We didn’t see that coming. We didn’t have a backup so we started to struggle. Eventually, we had to take a break on Nativeland magazine.’
You could almost taste the sense of failure that followed that statement. As if to erase that memory from my brain and recorder, Igoche quickly continued.
‘We haven’t given up on the project though. It is something that we are looking to convert into a year book. So we are just going to have the major events in Africa – everything noteworthy in the past year – made into a magazine. It covers fashion, music, sports, and the likes. What we are looking at is creating a book that anyone can pick off the shelf and you can’t get bored. Because, whatever your interests are, there are pages that cater to you.’
We went on to discuss the many aspects of the projects, including something called ‘Talia’ that is coming soon. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about that yet because many aspects of that project are still being fine-tuned. What I can say though is that, Talia would blow your mind! The sheer beauty of the project is something I hope I can partner on.
Igoche went started a blog called ‘AwaNaija’; a blog that addressed issues concerning the Nigerian populace. From the names of platforms – Nativeland Magazine, Talia and AwaNaija – I could tell that Igoche was enamored of our African heritage. I asked…to be sure.
‘I felt like we were not saying so much about ourselves. Everything that I did was basically trying to tell the other story of Africa. Take AwaNaija for example. Yes people say Nigeria is bad. We have issues. We are struggling. But we wanted to tell other stories of Nigeria that were good. The same goes for every project I have worked on. There are certain things that are unique and special about us. We need to also talk about these things. So it came from a desire to want to say more. We are not mad. We are not apes in trees. We have sense! So my foray into media came from a desire to want to showcase Africa in a different light and I feel that the only way I can do that is through media.’
We had been talking for over thirty minutes and I had not even asked the questions that necessitated the interview. I knew it time to delve in because no one had to tell me that Igoche is a busy man.
So I asked…about Aiivon.
‘Aiivon is my curse, my passion and my glory.’
I was shocked! First, my brain went to the what-sort-of-answer-is-this-mode and then it lit up. Of course! This was the first time I was meeting an entrepreneur who was putting it out there that running a business was more hard work, blood, grime, sweat and pain than it was glory.
Must say. I. Was. Impressed.
‘People look at entrepreneurs, especially when it starts to go well, and think it is easy. Just follow certain rules and you are good. But it is NEVER easy. Before I started Aiivon, I had worked in three different places. My last job was at Industrial Training Fund (ITF) where I was a tech admin to the Director General. I had an official car and apartment fully paid for and I was literally living the life! It was a Federal Government agency and I was young. There was space to grow and even become a director. And I left all of that.’
I frowned. Everyone knew that The ITF is a GOOD place to work! There were people who would touch their toes to get a position with the agency. I was mad. Not just for myself but for everyone who needed that kind of opportunity that Igoche took for granted. I began to wonder if Igoche wasn’t a tad bit ungrateful! I guess his boss thought so too.
‘When I told my boss I was leaving, she was shocked. She told me she would keep it for two weeks until I returned to my senses. It just didn’t make sense to her. In fact, it didn’t make sense to me! But I did it anyway. I had to leave the house and return the car.’
And like every success story, it went downhill from there.
Igoche moved to a less developed neighborhood in Abuja; and that was not the worst thing about it. The area was too far from town so if he wanted to still be able to catch meetings and what not, he needed a new car.
‘Eventually, I had to buy a much lower car that I eventually had to even sell to make up rent money. I went back to boarding buses.’
At this point I laughed. He laughed in returned.
‘It wasn’t funny. Things got really bad that one day, I went out and bought Garri, sachet water and sugar and told myself that if the worst happened, I would at least have food. Before things got that bad though, Timothy Uzua – he is the co-founder of Aiivon – had just finished the National Youth Services Corps (NYSC) in Kano and had come to live with me. We were dreaming Aiivon together. And drinking Garri. I must also say the first person I hired at that time – it was a one year contract– was Evangeline Udenyi; Eva.
‘It was just the three of us at that time and we didn’t have much. The office we had was a space in a friend’s bookstore. The lady I worked with at ITF also owned a school so she gave me small space to use as my office.’
Looking at Igoche in his well-tailored suit and the ambience of his office, I couldn’t picture him as he just described. I wondered if he was just saying that because many Nigerians preferred a grass-to-grace kind of narrative. Or in his case, grace to grass. He wasn’t poor in the living-below-a-dollar statistic but for someone who had been living in opulence, you could almost see how that was hard for him. So it was no wonder that Igoche did everything he could lay his hands on to get himself out of that.
‘We came up with a couple of projects; AwaNaija, we built school management software, we came up with Church Life which was supposed to be a social networking site for Christians where people could access gospel media and the rest of that. We came up with NaijaUnis….in fact, we came up with a lot of ideas but we had to deal with idea killers. All this was in 2015….’
I interrupted him; shocked! He was struggling in 2015?! How was that even possible?! I looked around his office again and mentally walked through the entire complex. How?!
‘You think 2015 was close? (*laughs) I was still struggling with rent in 2016! It is just the way that it works sometimes. You don’t see it.’
And though he had a great team, it was harder being practical as the business hadn’t even crawled yet. Timothy’s father was layering the pressure on him to get a job in a bank and Eva was…. an angel.
‘Eva worked with us for a year after her service (NYSC) and we couldn’t pay her. So we owed her for a year and she never complained. She kept coming, doing her job, giving her best. She only asked for money when she herself was in the worst straits. When I could help, I did. When I couldn’t… (*scoffs).’
The question I was begging to ask was when the ‘big break’ came.
‘So there was Aso Villa Demo Day. What it did for us was that it showed a lot of people that we had been talking to over and over again that we actually have stuff that are relevant. That is when they started seeing us. That demo day boosted our confidence and we started talking to international sponsors and eventually, we were able to find people who believed in our business. We got the investment that we needed and the boost we needed.’
This is usually the point most entrepreneurs wait for; when the money starts rolling in. Universally, people like a success story. But Igoche knew that success was more responsibility than the fab life. So he decided to choose a team that would understand that.
‘Six months ago, it was just four of us in the company. Anthony Onche joined us after his service year and you won’t believe he turned down a job with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for a start-up that couldn’t pay him. I guess you can say he saw the big picture but that a huge gamble he took; just like the rest of us.’
Why were these people so willing to lay it all to chance on the dreams of two men, especially two men who couldn’t pay for their services? I don’t want to say they saw the ‘big picture’ because that would be folly. I think they saw the potential in his idea. Potential has been what has drawn men and women from across the globe to dare to dream.
And, it paid off! Or is paying off!
‘Today! We have sixteen employees. And two of my brothers are interning here. I don’t want to say how much we are worth now (*he laughs and makes a joke about whistleblowers) but…it has been GOD. It has not been our brilliance or our smartness but the G-factor. I can tell you that when we got the investment, I wondered what the people were saying. Were they serious about giving us all that money?! But so far, I think we are doing well.’
I didn’t need to think they were doing well. I could see it! But Igoche’s view wasn’t cocky. It was right. He didn’t think he was a success yet because he still had so much to do. He sees where they are now as the fire in the kitchen; the meal isn’t nowhere cooked yet.
To what Aiivon Innovation Hub provides, he lit up to discuss.
‘I must emphasize that Aiivon isn’t primarily a service delivery company. But like every tech startup in a developing country, you don’t have all the fund that you need and the way to get that is to offer services. So we have developers in house, and I can say, I have a really smart team. If there are tech services people want, I have people who can provide them. And we collect the money. So we do web development, build mobile applications, we build enterprise solutions, we do cyber security, digital marketing and we run tech trainings. We also have a paid internship programme. So yeah…the list goes on and on.’
What makes Aiivon Innovation Hub different from other hubs in Nigeria? One would easily argue that Aiivon Innovation Hub was just another tech startup riding on the milky way of technology’s continually growing influence on the world but Igoche would beg to differ. His projects are strictly reflections of the Nigerian (and African) society.
‘We have some major projects on ground now. I am especially proud of Project Tembe which is a made-in-Nigeria market place. We are trying to get really nice made-in-Nigeria products and display them there. We have Tyndym,which is a user based delivery system. It is not a project I want to talk about now because it is in conception phase and I haven’t seen anything like that anywhere in the world.’
Notice the names of his projects? They are all African. Igoche believes that representing Africa is at the core of all his businesses. ‘We want stay African as much as possible. I want people to hear about us and know that we are African.’
I was sold on that point. Anything that was portraying Africa in great light was good enough for me.
I noticed he didn’t mention anything about media in the services Aiivon Innovation Hub delivers. Did that part of his dream take a back burner?
‘Open Hearts Media would continue to do work in that sphere. Aiivon Innovation Hub wouldn’t. Though, we are going to open a media hub soon. Aiivon Innovation Hub right now is a tech hub but we are soon going to expand to media. We are going to have everything young freelance media people would need to put their products out there; their podcasts, articles, documentaries, films etc. It would also be a place where they can come together and bounce ideas off each other and really grow.’
Igoche is going places quickly and he had surrounded himself with the people who equally understand his plans and priorities. He knows he isn’t where he wants to be so he keeps pouring himself into his work. That can take a toll on maintaining life balance but he finds time to relax with a bowl of Eba and Egusi soup once in a while.
‘I can eat Eba and Egusi soup morning, afternoon and night. That is my best food. There is nothing like it in the world. One day when I was stressed out, my team bought me Eba and Egusi soup and I must say, that was one of the happiest moments for me in this office. I took a lot of selfies but didn’t upload them because I didn’t want everyone knowing my secrets. (*laughs). But beyond that, I am appreciative of the women in my life. From my Grandma, to Aunt Medina who never made me miss my mum as a child, to my aunties Alice and Regina who made sure I was properly educated and exposed, to my Aunt Amina who held the cane (*laughs), I must say, I am a pretty lucky guy. These women helped me keep the balance in my life.’
And it keeps getting better. Igoche got a license from TEDx to host the talk events in Abuja and he is very excited about it. TEDx is a great platform to bring similarly inspired young people together to talk on any given idea. To be a host for this in Abuja, Nigeria, is something Igoche feels is necessary. So get ready for some TEDx Talks if you live in Abuja.
From the moment Igoche looked at himself and said he didn’t want to be called Emmanuel (his given name) but Samson, he took the reins of his own life and decided to chart the course of his destiny. Not one to easily be cowered by life’s expectations, he chose his own path and ran with it. It has brought him knowledge and wisdom and some successes but it has also brought him pain and sorrow. Igoche doesn’t see himself as a success story. He sees himself as a living story and that is all that matters.
I wish I had been half as sensible as Igoche was whilst growing up. There was nothing he did that was rocket science. Anyone could have done so and made even more money. But I spent time thinking building castles in the air. Igoche inspired me to start over, work at my ideas, put myself out there, talk about it, and surround myself with people who had the capacity to share the dream; even at a cost. It may not always work but it is necessary. I learned so much from the hour I spent with Igoche and for that, I am proud to say he is my #ManCrush.
Walk through Aiivon, would you?