Ibifuro Asawo is the young Nigerian Chief Executive of Cinfores, an indigenous software company. His story as a tech entrepreneur and the establishment of Cinfores contain all the ingredients of a typical Nigerian technology startup- bootstrapping for survival, lack of basic entrepreneurial skills, no access to institutional capital, etc. He is also an example of what consistency and perseverance can do to a dream.
TECH FUTURE believes that Asawo’s story would inspire other young innovators and entrepreneurs. Indeed this week’s edition of TECH FUTURE has chosen to sacrifice the space for our weekly feature article on ICT Local Content for his story. In fact the interview is a good expose on local content, the struggle for its development and the role of government
We publish the full text of his interview with Inye Kemabonta, Editor TECH FUTURE.
Cinfores now ranks as one of the successful software companies in Nigeria. How and when was the company born?
Cinfores was born out of concern for a deteriorating education sector in the country. The April 2002 Academic Staff Union of Universities’ (ASUU) strike had hindered us from defending our final year project and as young men who seemingly had time, we sat to think and talk about what will become of us, immediately after our project defense; how to make the most of the strike, and the inadvertent extra months we would stay at home before our NYSC. While thinking of many things that could be done within the period, we strongly felt we could develop a solution that would help the falling standard of education in the country. As at then, we saw examination malpractice as a menace that could portend a grave danger for the education sector and the rest of the economy, if not checked. From the sitting room of two of my partners’ father’s houses, we got the concept of BrainFriend; the mother of our solutions (now the country’s foremost e-learning and examination preparatory software).
We were very excited about providing answers and explanations to past WAEC and JAMB questions, not as everybody was doing it then, (through booklet) but through the use of the computer. As we all know, the PC penetration as at 2002 was very low in all parts of the country but we felt it was a shift from the norm; a useful tool against examination malpractice which had huge potential in terms of business.
With so much excitement, we swung into action to implement it. I was leading the technical team then as the only computer engineering student. I had to design the database structure, interface and a few other things along with our current Director of Technical who, as at then, was studying electrical engineering but was quite versed in programming (in fact he thought me basic programming in our remedial days). While this was ongoing, my other partners used our social capital to gather friends who were the best in their courses to help us with the solving of as many past questions we could lay our hands on. We thought within two (2) weeks we would have accomplished the task but after two (2) months we weren’t where we wanted to be. The strike was called off and we all went back to our academic work. Immediately after our project defense in June/ July of the same year, we swung back into action. As at this time, we clearly knew four of us were already co-founders of the organization, as we continued sup through computer hardware reporting the vision with finances pairs, assembly and maintenance around schools, cybercafés and few homes in Port Harcourt. This is the genesis of the great vision.
What then would you say inspired the founding of the company?
As earlier stated, we were inspired by the sheer reality that jobs may not be lying in wait for us, so we needed to task ourselves to see a need that we could meet. Our concern for the education sector drove us towards the line of developing a software that would help curb examination malpractice and ‘emerging’ high rate failure. I used the word emerging because, the failure rate wasn’t as alarming as it is today but we saw it coming; most teenagers at the time, were looking for other means to score high grades rather than studying hard.
Consequently, we got inspired by obvious reality that we may not be employed after graduation, and the falling standard of education which we felt we could fix by using the solution – BrainFriend at the secondary school level (which was our area of focus, then).
You must have experienced challenges, teething and incidental. Can you talk about those challenges?
As for challenges, every stage of the journey had its own challenge. While developing the first software, we were excited about our novel concept. Although most of our friends, and our parents, never believed in what we were doing or saying but we kept at it. They all felt we were using it to keep busy and that after our NYSC, we would give it up to secure good jobs, especially with the oil and gas companies or the servicing companies that littered Port Harcourt.
The first challenge came way back in March, 2003. Coincidentally, we were all dropped from the NYSC batch ‘A’ list. All my partners including some new ones that joined us with the passage of time before March, 2003 didn’t go for service. We were saddened but took it in good fate believing “all things work out together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose” as stated in Romans 8:28. To digress a bit, we all met ourselves as friends from our remedial days but came to be partners when we started working together as EXCO members of the Nigeria Fellowship of Evangelical Students (NIFES) also known as Christian Union (CU) in some campuses. Our love for God and service to humanity as we were trained prepared us for most of the challenges and guided us every inch of the way. So, after the NYSC setback, we continued neck-deep in our pursuit and what we thought would be two weeks, turned to one year and still running.
We all went for NYSC when the time came. Though scattered, we still kept the dream alive and thereafter, came back to face the challenge of post NYSC life. At this time our parents felt it was time we picked up plum jobs with the oil and gas companies. Some of us actually gave in and accepted some job offers, to assist the larger family while others went for further studies. As a partnership, we faced the challenge of how to steer the ship of the company. This for me was one of the most difficult times as it dawned on us that some of us would have to leave the team. The fear then was if they would still be passionate about our dreams and aspirations with their jobs at the International Oil Companies.
We started the development of the enterprise version when we noticed that many homes did not have PCs but for a few schools and cybercafés. We had power supply challenges in those days and we had to move from one area of Port Harcourt to another, in search power in order to continue our work.
We faced the challenge of funding as all the banks we went to, rejected us. Our background as engineers without any formal managerial, administrative or even entrepreneurial training on basic book keeping skills, etc was also a major challenge.
It was difficult to get referrals because we realized that nobody wanted to be used as a guinea pig, even when you had a good solution. You can imagine how other people would require referrals to give them comfort that you can deliver on a project. So the question was: as startups, who will
set off the stage to be our Guinea Pig? Big thanks to all those who gave us a stage even when we weren’t known. They sacrificed their reputation to give us a place to touch many more lives with our products and services. They are our heroes to whom we will forever be grateful.
At every phase of our growth and expansion, we have had challenges; we are not done, yet. One thing is certain, that is what we are wired to overcome as entrepreneurs and solution providers.
How successful is Cinfores? What is your staff strength and turn over?
Success is relative and that isn’t our goal. For us, meeting the needs of our clients is what we see as success. The more we make them happy and meet their expectations, the more successful we feel. However, when success is tied to numbers such as staff strength and turn over we feel it is relative. What A may see as success will be below par for B. In our eleven years of existence, bootstrapping with a social capital in our first three years as friends literally volunteered and worked for free until we started paying stipends that evolved to salary, we would say we have tried a bit, edging towards a successful company. Our staff strength is over 110 as at today, and we have been able to make an annual turnover of over N500m in the last two business years, respectively.
Cinfores BrainFriend is certified by NITDA. Has the company benefited from the certification? How well is the software doing?
Cinfores BrainFriend is Nigeria’s best-selling and foremost e-learning and exam preparatory software. It has reached over 1 million users within and outside Nigeria. Every year unfolds a new dimension of the software. It has evolved from being senior secondary school software for exam preparation to a complete e-learning solution with e-notes for students, lesson notes and national curriculum for teachers and parents. It now covers over 60 subjects from primary 1 to Senior Secondary School 3 with other preps such as logical, verbal and quantitative reasoning, A’levels etc. It has also evolved from a PC to mobile and cloud based solution. It is the only software in the country that has covered the 3 major Nigerian languages (Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba) and vocational subjects with approval (certifications) from NERDC, FMoE and NITDA.
The NITDA certification has helped us a great deal in exploring quite a lot of opportunities. While the target group of the product recognizes NITDA as the number one IT development agency in the country, the certification has helped to boost the confidence of users or the market in the product. Today, all the teachers in Cross Rivers State are using it; Anambra State governments, USPF, all 104 unity colleges, over 100 private schools and cafes and many thousands of homes across the country have adopted it.
The NITDA certification has indeed helped, to a large extent.
Do you have any expansion plans beyond the shores of Nigeria, and do you need any help from government?
Sure, but for the Ebola Virus Disease, we would have been in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana
and Gambia. They are part of the countries we had considered. In fact, we even had to develop an Ebola guide as a way of gaining access but the ban of travels to and fro Nigeria and some of those countries made us to slow down. But we have as part of our plan in 2015 to launch out to other West African countries – mind you some of them are part of the countries that make up the WAEC countries. We also have other MIS solutions for schools and tertiary institutions that they will find useful.
Government is to create the enabling environment for us to thrive as businesses. Improving the university content of computer science and engineering undergraduates and post graduate students will help reduce the cost of retraining these people and reduce the turnaround time in building the teams.
Supporting the deployment of local solutions to meet local needs is one sure way of developing local companies to play in the global market. Rather than importing solutions or outsourcing things that can be developed locally, government should engage local organizations that have distinguished themselves in various sectors to address most of the nagging issues.
What is your advice to young entrepreneurs in technology?
Whenever I meet young entrepreneurs in technology, I tell them to believe in their dreams and stand against all odds. Life is in phases, business itself is in phases, you cannot get to the top overnight; it takes focus and consistency to get there. Today, when you mention ICT for development in education, we are the first name that comes to mind, not because we are the oldest in the sector, but that we also, have been consistent. Since inception, we have gone from e-learning, and have developed a campus management information system – eCampus; a Nursery, Primary and Secondary school management information system – eSkool; scholarship MIS, electronic testing platform also known as the examiner, etc; it is all around education. There will be many distractions but you need to stay focused. Money and ‘’success’’ could also be distraction, so watch out and remain on course – meeting the needs of clients and customers.
What do you see as the role of government in developing the indigenous software industry?
Government is meant to create enabling environment. Let there be power, ensure that our university system is working so that we can have well trained developers. Engage local organizations to meet the needs of the country through constant engagement. We should work towards being self-reliance. The industry is an evolving one. Continuous practice and engagement from government will help local companies effectively meet local needs and export such homegrown technologies outside the country, just as the Western countries bring in solutions that most often require further customization.
Having in mind that our country is complex, any solution which is home grown and effective here, can easily be adapted in any part of the globe with little or no effort. This will make us an outsourcing destination like India and China. With our huge population, labor can be competitive as it is, in some of the outsourcing destinations. If government draws up policies that will make all hospitals and schools to use MIS we will witness a tremendous difference in the sectors. NITDA should develop frameworks to guide all sectors of the economy in ways to adopt technology for effective and efficient service delivery. Also, the regulation of ICT products and services imported in to the country would help a great deal to ensure that products and services that are sub-standard don’t come into the country. Today, people depend on ICT products and solutions to carry out their primary responsibilities. Architects, engineers, doctors, etc. all rely on ICT to do their work. Imagine if they use counterfeit products or solutions to provide their services.
We have seen the effect of cyber security in recent times. Wars are gradually shifting from physical weapons and armory to the cyber space. How prepared are we? Do we have home grown protocols that we can rely on when the war becomes fierce and the international protocols are invaded by intruders and hackers?
Government through NITDA, Galaxybackbone and NCC has a lot to do in ensuring that we emerge as strong before the end of this decade as ICT giants. This will not only solve the unemployment issue for us as a nation, but also make us a major outsourcing nation that the rest of the world will respect and always seek to do business with.