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Iba Ajie will unlock a prosperous future for Nigeria, starting from Onitsha – Asika

Overtime, OBI ASIKA has successfully traversed the business, entertainment, media, content production and digital landscapes leaving behind enviable feats. The Anambra State-born creative innovator is now taking innovation to Onitsha, his hometown, with the Iba Ajie Asika Resource Centre, the first co-working space for creatives, the tech savvy and business solution innovators. In this interview, he unveils to OBINNA EMELIKE the rationale for the hub, how he plans to blend culture, technology and business in one place, opportunities at the centre, his heritage among other related issues. Excerpts:

What is the Iba Ajie hub all about and why the name instead of a ‘techy’ one?

The full name of the hub is Iba Ajie Asika Resource Centre, and it is named for my late father, H.E Ajie Dr Ukpabi Asika, CFR, in his and my late mother’s memory, Dibueze Chinyere Asika, OFR. The location is my late grandmother’s house where we stayed as kids in Onitsha and where today my parents are buried. So, the name of the hub is both a salute to him and to Onitsha and the principal inspiration was my late mother. It was important for me to make sure a traditional name is part of the conversation of technology and innovation, too often we think only in terms of foreign things when it comes to innovation but my world view which comes from my parents is centered on recognizing, promoting and showcasing African indigenous innovation, culture, and art. In this regard our pay off line for Iba Ajie is “simultaneously Ancient & Modern” that is what we hope to inspire and invoke; a reverence for the past but with our eyes focused on the future.

What are the key offerings at the hub?

We have co-working spaces, an audio visual training room that sits 70, the Dibueze Labs & Academy, which hosts 31 desktops and from where we will be launching our stem academy program called Project I.C.E, offering coding, digital skills and creative courses and offering those services to the direct community and schools. We will also be launching these courses online so we can impact beyond our location and affect the entire country. We also have the Ukpabi and Chinyere Asika Museum, which hosts over 1000 antiquities collected over 50 years from all over Nigeria and West Africa, from Benin and Ife bronzes, to Igbo masquerades, Igbo Ukwu and Nok terracotta, Ibeji and a lot of wood carvings and rare fabrics from across the country.

In the museum, we have a section that holds our archives, which are a collection of documents preserved by my late mother, which concern the work of the defunct East Central State from 1970-1975 to rebuild the East of Nigeria and secure Igbo properties and opportunities in Nigeria. We hold over 10 thousand documents, 100 thousand images and important pieces of Nigerian and Igbo history. As we open up, we are working with partners like Google Art on how to better present the collection and to enhance the preservation. In this regard, we are proud to be the first official Google Art location in the East of Nigeria and look forward to bringing our collection online.

We also have The Nathan Ejiogu Library named for my maternal grandfather Nathan Ejiogu, OON, a former chief inspector of education in the Eastern Region, head master and lifelong teacher and administrator. Our library offers private meeting space and over 2000 books in our research library. The hub is also host to Libe restaurant and outdoor bar, both will open in the summer and the hub will host live entertainment events, live music and of course, has already hosted the Onitsha Poets Society and the Onitsha twitter community. We hope to have the best food in town so that residents and guests can come and enjoy a premium and authentic experience at Iba Ajie. We have also recently been certified as a National tourist site by the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation and we hope to do some important projects with them in the East as well.

Why did you locate the hub in Onitsha, considering that Enugu used to be the capital of Eastern Nigeria, and is still the rallying point of the Igbos?

Onitsha is my hometown, my family lineage is over 500 years there and while Enugu is still perhaps the key city in the region. Onitsha also has a rich history. It has grown enormously and many may have forgotten or did not know that Onitsha is a major cultural center. Onitsha market literature is said by some to be the precursor of Nollywood and definitely Upper Iweka Road has been a key distribution point for Nollywood and our music for decades. The Ofala festival is ancient and the largest one in the East is in Onitsha and this has translated into the carnival we see in Jamaica and Trinidad alongside the new yam festival. Onitsha still receives 50 percent of all imports into Nigeria. It is the second largest metropolitan area in Nigeria. Apart from all of these, it is also one of the largest industrial and commercial cities in Nigeria and has a deep and unique cultural heritage.

I am fascinated by these connections and Iba Ajie will be exploring these cultural and commercial connections locally and globally. Iba Ajie is a personal intervention in my hometown to affect that community but I also lived in Enugu and carry it in my heart and we hope to partner with the various states in the region, including Lagos where I live and even federal in terms of our focus areas. We are already partnering with others across many spaces and our intention is to stimulate positive actions.

Why this focus on technology, innovation and creativity?

I was raised with these things as the primary things my parents taught me with education and values that can transform societies. My late mother is one of the first black women on the planet to do a masters in Computer Science in 1964 at UClA and her lifelong drive to empower and activate people is the rocket fuel that propels me forward. At the same time my father was a full believer in technology and you could see that with his work to rebuild Nsukka first, open IMT in Enugu and establish Proda to drive innovation in the east, in his private life he was fully focused on technology and innovation all his life and I guess we have stayed focused on these things as well as the creative and intellectual arts.

I firmly believe that these elements you mentioned in your question have an enormous role to play in driving Nigeria forward, in this regard we are working with key partners to develop curriculum under the brand name I.C.E which speaks to innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship and we hope to use that to offer opportunities to Nigerians of all ages to skill up to join the new gig economy and to be key players. The expert opinion suggests that if we focus on skilling our people up we can deliver over 10 million people who can work the jobs of the future through these skills by 2030 and we can only imagine the new businesses and enterprises that can begin from that training and exposure. Nigeria must reform its education and have solutions for the millions who will not be able to go to university.

What do you hope to achieve with the coding academy and who are your targets?

The coding academy serves a couple of functions, in the first instance it is called the Dibueze Coding Academy as a tribute to my mother and the concept of the entire hub really comes from her. We are also developing a curriculum inspired by her with our educational partner Techquest called Project Ice that I mentioned above. They are a stem provider and have trained thousands of young Nigerians in stem, coding and digital skills. We are confident that we will be able to train thousands per annum and also provide services to schools in the community while also delivering online courses for all. We are already talking with the Onitsha Business School and others about how to support their work and collaborate. The second core function of the stem academy is to operate as an e-sports and gaming center, we have partners at Unanimous Games and hope to launch our first event in the summer with a global FIFA tournament. We hope that Dibueze Academy will grow to build strong programs, partner with local schools and attain its targets of bringing skills to the community and beyond.

You are also involved in the Ado Business Incubator project, is the initiative living up to its core objective of building strong startup culture?

The Ado Business Incubation project is an offshoot from the Onitsha Advance Foundation, which is driven from the community and Ime Obi. Onitsha is blessed to have visionary and globally exposed leadership at the heart of our traditional institutions. Agbogidi, the Obi of Onitsha, has been innovating for a long time and since the pandemic last year he has held over 10 virtual global townhalls with the community and driven a massive community response to Covid19, the offshoot of this has led to several programs designed to assist and provide opportunities in Onitsha. In this regard there is a stream focused from the women and gender view, there is the entrepreneur scheme, there is the business incubation and there is a values driven program.

Iba Ajie is the host for the incubator and the first cohort of over 100 is about to commence. As you know entrepreneurship comes naturally to many Nigerians but I am hopeful that enabling our people with technology and new skills will improve their opportunities. Ado Business has already been running Google skills training programs and more for women and young people at Iba Ajie and also run a number of interventions including the first Project Ice open day for schools.

The people of the old Eastern Region are known for their industrious and entrepreneurial spirit, do you think they still do and if not, will the startups you are promoting at Iba Ajie rekindle the spirit of enterprise once again?

I think the whole world knows about Igbos and their resilience, their innate talent when it comes to enterprise and commerce, and for being natural entrepreneurs. I think it is clear that that spirit is alive and well and it can be seen in the over 1000 factories in Nnewi, in the fact that the Onitsha metropolitan area is now second only to Lagos and that the annual Lagos to Onitsha trade has crossed USD$5billion per annum. We can see that energy and enterprise in every inch of Nigeria and Nigeria is definitely better for it.

I think what we must do better is to make the East more discoverable, be more deliberate about our story telling and to enable people to find transparent partners in the region. We need to make the East open to investors local and foreign and build bridges. In this regard I am part of a group called the Society of Igbo Professionals, which is leading those conversations. I believe in collaboration and that Aba, Nnewi and Onitsha are enormous drivers today of this Nigerian economy but if they adjust their story telling and become more visible they will do even more business with Lagos, Kano, Ibadan and all of West Africa.

The opportunity that AfCFTA presents for the manufacturers all over Nigeria who can meet standards is clear, if our manufacturers and markets build trust and standards they can partner with the creative designers and influencers to create hot products for Nigerian, African and global brands and icons which will monetize everywhere. Iba Ajie in its own small way hopes to contribute to more positive conversations around these opportunities. Onitsha is already one of the most important commercial cities in West Africa, but there is much more to the city and Iba Ajie will, beyond business, dig into the culture, the music, the dance, the heritage and the stories and seek to bring those elements together.

It is also interesting to hear that Iba Ajie holds the unofficial archives of the East Central State, why?

My late father was the administrator of East Central State, he was a copious writer, reformer, intellectual, public servant and had the onerous duty of rebuilding a war ravaged east, that story has not been told but we have the content and I am the custodian of the records of the work he did and thankfully my mother kept everything.

My late mother was one of the first black women to study Computer Science at graduate level and a lifetime archivist and collector. In this regard, she kept files and copies of everything that he ever did and also of her own work. Therefore, we are blessed to hold the policy documents, the speeches, the planning, the vision and evidence of the results. My father and his team were focused on rebuilding the East and helping all Igbo people to get back on their feet and reintegrate into Nigeria. My mother was side by side to support and work with him, they were more interested in rebuilding the East than in claiming credit and he managed to double pre-war infrastructure but never named anything for himself. At Iba Ajie, we have a memorial wall to celebrate the many people who made up that cabinet and who led the work to rebuild, reclaim and engage the East back into Nigeria.

In this regard we are the legacy of our parents and even as I have spent my life promoting the arts, culture and soft power of Nigerians it happened because I was impacted by watching my father and mother do that all their lives. That was how he enabled and funded all of those interventions from Enugu Rangers, Proda, IMT, the rebuilding of Nsukka, the East Central State Writers Workshop, which was led by Obi Egbuna, the poet and activist, gave birth to the sounds of Harcourt Whyte, the talents of Eddie Iroh and a young James Iroha, who ideated new masquerade from that commune. The East Central State was open to the arts, promoted its own arts festival and hosted everyone from Ola Balogun, to Ali Mazrui, Fela Kuti and more. The connection to the global black diaspora was intentional and the promotion of arts, culture, music and sports was also intentional. I was too young but I do recall some of those moments and seeing Prince Nico Mbarga and Fela live as a kid are unforgettable memories. Iba Ajie is motivated by the possibilities of African soft power and the global connections that can unlock a more prosperous future.

Apart from technology, what projects do you have for the creative economy at the hub?

We are first of all, a venue and location. So, you can expect live performances, comedy, music, variety, we will host regular training sessions, webinars and courses on the creative economy and are about to launch a series called Freelance Fridays, which was a program run by my sister Nkiru Asika in Lagos since 2012 at her hub The Hothouse. That program trained thousands here and we hope to replicate it to similar impact, as mentioned earlier our Ice platform will be launching this year with a mix of free and paid courses in innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. Beyond that, in our second phase we hope to open a recording studio for music and a talking head / green screen studio for TV/film production over the next 12-18 months.

Iba Ajie is also in partnership talks with MultiChoice Talent Factory to bring their courses and programs to Onitsha, so between being a space that creatives can use and also work from, we also will be offering specialized courses for creatives as well.

Apart from this, Iba Ajie has its own in-house projects, which involve historical documentaries we have co-produced with Ed Keazor, our co-founder. He is a renowned lawyer, historian, musician and also the curator of Iba Ajie Museum. His personal archives and collection will be permanently hosted at Iba Ajie. We have a series of important historical figures that we hope to produce documentaries about and we have already done a few and hope to continue to do more. We also have to publish the completed but unpublished works that we have. As with everything, funding remains a challenge but we continue to push forward.

You have won many fans through your activities, passion and investments in the entertainment industry, are we going to see a reflection of that passion at Iba Ajie?

Iba Ajie is a reflection of my life’s journey, all my work is really about value and seeing that value in ourselves, some see it in our music, some in Nollywood, some in our football, fashion and food. I believe the real value lies in our people, when we empower and enable them they are world class and innovative. In the course of life we all encounter challenges and getting the hub to this stage has been a 17-year journey since my father passed but accelerated and elevated when my mother passed in 2015. I have always felt that we tend to diminish ourselves and don’t recognize our own value. I am hopeful that this small effort will inspire others who have much more capacity to invest in their communities to engage and bring opportunities to them. Iba Ajie is hoping to have a long-term beneficial impact and is seeking long-term partners, we are on ground in the community and we hope to host as many events and initiatives as possible. We are still seeking funding partners as we would love to have solar power and broadband fibre to support all of this work and we will be engaging people in that regard.

Onitsha is getting set to become an art and culture hub with the Chimedie Museum and Iba Ajie Museum. How will these museums impact the status of the commercial town?

I am hopeful that these projects as well as the Zik Mausoleum project will all come alive and add to the social and cultural landscape in Onitsha. Such that, when you come to Onitsha, beyond the market, beyond the commerce, maybe someone says have you seen the Square of Statues to the Kings of Onitsha at Ime Obi, have you been to Zik Mausoleum, have you eaten at Iba Ajie and enjoyed the live bands, or even are you a gamer, a poet, a creative, if you are any of these things Iba Ajie is for you.

Iba Ajie is really for everybody, the community, the creatives, the startup community, the traditional community, and of course, all global partners we can find who share our ideals and mission. Onitsha has deep cultural heritage and history and it is seen in our traditional institutions, our festivals, our music and even our dances, Iba Ajie represents all of that but also has the duality to face the age of ideas, to embrace the technology that will drive the future. Iba Ajie hopes to serve as a bridge bringing people together to co-create, to celebrate connected cultures and to ideate for solutions for real world problems that we all struggle with. I know that Igbo culture has been global for 500 years just like all of our West African culture, which was exported through global commerce and the Atlantic slave trade. At Iba Ajie we are simultaneously ancient and modern and we have our eyes on the future, on how Onitsha comes online and how we globalize from all our communities. We hope to create partnerships to build bridges to the future and re-imagine Onitsha together.

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