From starting lean to raising “over $1M,” Aisha Tofa shares the humble beginnings of Startup Kano

Meet Aisha Tofa, founder of Startup Kano

Being female is a global challenge. While this should not be so, research has indicated that women and girls have struggled to reach the heights they are capable of because of different reasons that vary across gender bias, stereotypes, and traditional, and even religious beliefs.

The gender gap in the tech ecosystem is so wide that many young girls do not grow up thinking of dominating the space, instead preferring to pursue roles or lives that society or the environment dictates for them. Thankfully, the culture is now changing, albeit slowly. Many women in tech have reached heights that the ‘foremothers’ could barely dream of when the fight for the recognition of women’s rights began.

Aisha Tofa defies the stereotypes. When she began to express her unconventional thoughts via a blog named ‘Being female,’ all she wanted to do was express herself, her dreams, aspirations, and challenges, as a female living in Northern Nigeria. She has gone on to found one of the largest tech hubs in the region, helped budding startups raise millions of dollars, and earned recognition from the United Nations for her contribution to the Nigerian tech ecosystem.

The early inspirations

As the only child of her mother, Aisha Tofa found inspiration from the life of the woman who raised her. Her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit, strong will, confidence, and independence played a major role in the attributes that she possesses today

I’ve always admired her because, she just likes to get things done, you know, without waiting for our dad. And I just felt this is the kind of person I want to be like, I want to be independent, Aisha Tofa told Technext for this instalment of Women in Tech.

This mindset did not allow her to believe in the limitations that her immediate environment would have liked to put on her career trajectory. Therefore, she always sought to do more.

While studying for an undergraduate degree in Mass Communication at the prestigious Bayero University, Kano, she saw an opportunity to trade in fabrics, a venture that paved the way for other opportunities while generating income.

The shift to tech

Although there were not many women in the profession at the time, Aisha Tofa dreamt of becoming a pilot when she was a child. However, she found herself studying Mass Communication at the university and realized that the course would not give her the fulfilment she wanted for her life.

Ambitious students do not like to fail but the most ambitious of them see failure as an opportunity to learn. A carryover course prevented Aisha Tofa from graduating with her classmates, now she says it was an opportunity destined by fate to help her choose her path carefully in retrospect.

The classmates who graduated at the appointed time regaled her with tales of their struggle in the Nigerian labour market. So that extra year allowed her to think of an alternate career path that would yet ignite the flames of passion in her soul.

So, since I was passionate about technology, I thought, let me just channel the anger I felt for graduating with a carryover into building something else. I decided to keep my communication (degree) aside since I’ve already been there

Like many young Nigerians, Aisha Tofa saw the potential of technology, and its massive impact on the world at large, and her passion stems from its burgeoning market. Aisha wanted a share of this pie. She believed technology will give her the opportunity to be something and that was how Startup Kano started.

Like Rome, Startup Kano was not built in a day

Aisha Tofa won the 2023 UN Feature Award-DigitALL Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality

Initially, people did not buy the idea. Aisha Tofa had the vision to build a platform where people could showcase their talents. While the goal was one to jump on, many people were unfamiliar with the concept of tech and its impact on them. Therefore, raising funds was a chore. Most of the expenses from inception have been provided from the team’s personal savings.

We started very lean. People thought we were doing what we are doing because we don’t have jobs, finding something to do instead of staying idle. So, for us to even convince anybody for any funding was not even on our go-to or, you know, whatever. It has always been our personal savings, and we bootstrapped a lot.

The team’s first workstation was a stall inside a Kano mall. However, humble beginnings should not be despised. Strategy meetings and plans for expansion were formulated so fast that it became too much work for the team, and they required more suitable office space.

Her knight in shiny armour turned out to be her father, who had an empty building that could suffice. He agreed to let her use the property for a year, with the understanding that they would discuss legal matters such as rent payment and other related matters if he did not see the value in what they were doing.

Today, he has provided Startup Kano with an even larger space and is completely in support of the project even though Aisha believes the firm is not yet in the position that she envisages.

Startup Kano’s impact

According to Aisha Tofa, Startup Kano has raised over $1 million in funding for startups. For instance, BRYCOAL, a startup that produces cooking and heating fuel in form of charcoal briquettes for households from recyclable organic waste like rice hulk and sugarcane waste, has acquired over $600,000 in funding.

They (BRYCOAL) have acquired around $600,000 now from different funders in terms of grants and uh venture capital because even from USAID, they got around $250,000 and then from other, you know, venture capitalists, they got around $400,000…that’s just an example of one of them.

When Technext contacted BRYCOAL a spokesperson confirmed that the total amount of funds obtained—40% from non-governmental organizations and 60% from private investors—is in fact $300,000.

Startup Kano has direct and indirect impact on members of its immediate tech ecosystem.

We deal with young people, women, and young girls. So generally, from 2016 to date, our reach is very, very close, very close to 100K direct and indirect impact. So the indirect are the ones that we partner with both local and international organizations, and then the direct ones are the conferences that we do, the incubation programs, the acceleration, the master classes, and the mentorship sessions.

However, in terms of profit-making, it all depends on the type of services the startup in question wants. If it is for the portfolio startup services, the tech hub’s team will have equity in that startup. It currently owns equity in seven startups.

Aisha Tofa has also joined the BRYCOAL team as a team member based on that. Currently, she serves as its Head of Communications.

Increasing women participation in tech

At the initial stage of Startup Kano’s activities, the participation was 99% of men to 1% of women. This led the team to enquire about ways to increase the participation of women particularly to solve the issues of unemployment and even educational deprivation.

Online campaigns have somewhat helped with balancing the numbers, but the stroke of genius is the grassroots sensitization on the importance of women participating in the tech hub’s programs.

Some of them, I go to their houses and speak to their parents to make them understand that I’m responsible for your girls and this is what we want to teach them. We’ve done that a lot with many parents.

So that was how we got them to actually, you know, come out and participate. And then now it’s usually online because everybody is familiar with learning online.

This has helped the numbers up to a good start as Aisha Tofa further explained that for the current participation in both genders, she would say 70%-30% or maybe 60%-40%. The Women Founders Group, which Aisha also started, is another sister platform that aims to close this gap. It is an all-female platform and a haven that offers opportunities for African women in entrepreneurship and technology.

Read Also: UK-Nigeria Tech Hub collaborates with Google for Startups to award $3M cloud credit to women founders

Her challenges as a woman in tech

Meet Aisha Tofa, founder of Startup Kano

Aisha Tofa explained that she chose to manage people rather than businesses. Getting the right person for the position is all it takes. Her job is just to delegate, mentor and oversee their performances, this is how she balances her workflow. Apart from that, a good support system is key.

My parents and my husband are very supportive because they actually understand what I’m trying to do. So they are really, really supportive. If not for them, I would have just run away.

Usually, it’s always about; she’s a woman. Can she even deliver? Yeah, she’s married, and she has kids. Would that even allow her to do the job, you know, let’s just give it to a man. This has always been the issue. And then there is this issue of, you know, even women supporting women. I don’t know if it’s all over, but we have it here.

People, women would come out saying, you know, women supporting women and everything and they will just say it online, and then when you reach out to them, it will be totally different people like they have never, you know, talked about that.

It has been a long-standing problem for Aisha Tofa, and she often prefers her male co-founder to engage in conversation with teams that include women, even though she has largely female mentors when it comes to discussing business. To her, it gets the job easy and quick.

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