Two brothers, Tony and Francis are the brains behind the biggest Creative Hub in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, South South – Nigeria. They call the creative hub, the RootHub. In an interview that lasted for a little over an hour with our Senior Content Editor, Endiong John, Tony explains why they prefer to be described as a Creative Hub instead of a Tech Hub that the majority perceive them to be. He also shares the success story of how the Roothub is inspiring the tech space in Africa.
I’m happy to meet you, Mr Onuk. Now is time to let our readers meet you.
Mr. Onuk: My name is Tony Onuk and I am the cofounder of RootHub.
Great! What’s RootHub about and what happens here?
Mr. Onuk: So what we basically do here is, we allow young people come in and when they come in, we guide them towards creating a career path in ICT. Now, as you know, the world is going digital so everything that you are doing must be digital.
The world is going digital so everything that you are doing must be digital – Tony Onuk, The Roothub
I see here is so well equipped. All these computers belong to RootHub?
Mr. Onuk: Yeah, some of it. Some belong to the students. But then it’s not everybody that has a laptop, so we usually provide them with laptop.
Who are the kind of people you provide with laptops?
Mr. Onuk: So, we provide for indigenes, people who don’t have funding to be able to buy laptops, so that, it will not to be a barrier for them to learn.
As I look around, I see how you play with colours around here. From the painting to the furniture, one can find attention to creative arts. Why so much attention to arts in a Tech Hub?
Mr. Onuk: We are not just a Tech Hub, we are a creative hub. We are a creative hub leveraging on technology.
So I can say practically that you’re not a tech hub?
Mr. Onuk: Yes, you can. We are a creative hub that leverages on technology. Our major focus is on design and as you know, God is a designer. Everything that has to do with technology starts from the aspect of designing.
God is a designer, everything that has to do with technology starts from the aspect of designing. – Tony Onuk
I see Arts, I see technology, I see the marriage between Arts and technology. And, it is apt to say that Roothub is a brain child of The Onuk Brothers; Tony and Francis. Does it mean that either of Tony and Francis is Art or Technology.
Mr.Onuk: Yeah, yeah!
So, who is Mr. Art and who is Mr. Technology?
Mr Onuk: My brother, Francis is a visual artist and I am more on the science side… in the middle of Art and Technology.
Okay, Okay, fantastic. So, how was this midwifed in the first place?
Mr. Onuk: Uhm, the year was 2014. We just woke up and said, ‘oh there’s gotta be a RootHub’ like God said, ‘Let there be light’ (Brief spell of laughter).
So, let there be RootHub and there was RootHub?
Mr. Onuk: Actually, the idea started from late 2012. That’s when the idea came up and the idea was basically for us to be able to find a place that we could have an office. So we had an agency that we were running. It was in Lagos and we were having clients from Lagos.
Okay, Francis was in Lagos?
Mr. Onuk: Yeah, yeah…. You know Uyo is relatively peaceful without all the stress and bubbles of Lagos, so I was working down here and it was easy because with internet, you could work and send to clients, and so we needed to formalize and have an office, and then the idea came up, and we said okay, instead of having an office just for us, why don’t we make it so that other creatives can be part of it.
Why did you think of others at this point?
Mr. Onuk: Because we realized that the same problems that we were facing, others could be facing same. So, the idea was how do we come together, solve these problems collectively and make bills less expensive. For example, if I wanted to get an office space, I’d have to pay for rent, I’ll have to do the furnishing I’ll have to do all of these things. But coming together, we can share the cost of doing those things. So the idea was, we’ve got a large space, got the furnishing, got everything that was needed to be done, then we invite creatives, make them pay a fraction of the cost and use the facilities. So we formalized it in 2014. It was from those who came to share the office space with us that we saw that most of them wanted to learn tech so as to help their businesses so we started the training part in 2015.
How did you discover computer as your pathway?
Mr. Onuk: I wouldn’t say it was an easy process, but it all came from our background. Our parents were well exposed and they also wanted us to key into a lot of things that they knew.
So computer was something we had been exposed to at a very young age. We started at 6 years, so it was something that we took a natural affinity to and that sort of shaped what we were going to be.
We had always loved drawing. Doing comics and all that, so it was more of a ‘how can computer help us do the things that we love to do?’. And that was how we discovered ourselves. So we knew, from an early age, that we were going to work around computers, work around art because those were the things that we were exposed to from an early age. So I believe that our background and exposure, the things that we saw around us, kind of shaped this career path and that’s how we were able to discover ourselves.
Art and Science always looks like two opposite sides. How did you think that there could be a marriage between something of such opposite ends?
Mr. Onuk: So the truth is, Art and Science is not actually opposing. They are complimentary.
Is it your affinity to your brother, that made you see that affinity?
Mr. Onuk: So the truth is, if you check it out, some of the most famous scientists we’ve heard of were actually artists. Leonardo Da Vinci is known for his art but he was actually a very great inventor too.
So, you see that Art and Science go hand in hand. Like I said at the beginning that God is a designer. When you plan or you want to build something into existence, then you are designing.
The actual process of carrying it out is where the science and technology comes in. So, how I could see that affinity is that I’m also artistically inclined.
Although, I could not perfect it to the level that Francis is but I was able to look through and see the science part, and understand that we could create an affinity. That’s how we were able to marry that and see how it can co-exist together.
RootHub, from 2014 to 2023, nine years almost Ten. How has the journey been?
Mr. Onuk: Ah…so, the journey has been everything in life, ups and downs. At the beginning, in 2014, it was hard for us to get five trainees come at a time to train because at that time, the exposure to technology was quite low around this part. So telling someone to come learn ICT was akin to telling someone to go to a computer school. And computer schools were seen as that stop gap between secondary school and university, that you are just forced to do.
So we have been able to change that narrative by doing what we call outreaches. We used to in 2015 go out to schools, go out to different places, sensitize people, sensitize parents on the fact that, the future of the world is technology; is digital.
How did you see that through?
Mr. Onuk: it was easy because we already understood that a lot of things we were doing manually, was becoming easier digitally. For instance, a person who learnt how to do graphics on paper drawing and doing all of those stuff, can evolved into using technology to do those same things. So we saw that this is going to continue to the point where there will be a need for technology to prevail. Luckily, COVID-19 pandemic accelerated all of that, literally.
We all saw that future, although we felt that it was like a faraway future. But the lockdown brought it as fast as possible and that is why I feel that when we were sensitizing people, we were telling them about prospects, but until the pandemic, the pandemic was like the wake-up call. Everybody just woke up and realized that almost everything is anchored by technology.
In 2014, nobody could see that dream. Everybody kept thinking, let’s just finish school, get a job and every other thing will be added unto you, but today, without technological skills, you are not going anywhere.
Did you see that acceleration coming? I mean you saw the future but did you think that, the future was going to come very inevitably that fast, because technology is also inevitable like you rightly pointed out. Did you see the inevitability of technology that fast?
Mr. Onuk: I would be lying if I said I saw it coming that fast because, truth is that the Pandemic caught everybody unawares. We were planning for the future, but the future wasn’t like a set time. We had felt it was going to be in five years or ten years or whatever. So I wouldn’t say we saw it accelerate that fast. But now, in retrospect, it means that yes we were planning for that future. The Pandemic just helped bring it to proper perspective and everybody could now key into it and say okay, these things that these people were seeing, now we can see it.
Now, talking about COVID-19, COVID-19 had its many evils. I mean many companies shut down because of COVID-19, and at the same time, they were also companies that came to limelight because of COVID-19. You could count Zoom, most people didn’t know what it was before COVID-19, and now nearly everybody is on Zoom.
Is RootHub one of those companies you would say, leveraged on the winds of COVID-19? What did COVID-19 change about RootHub?
Mr. Onuk: What it did, was it helped us get more people who were interested in how to leverage technology, especially those who realized that they were caught lacking. Let me use this scenario; the cashless policy that happened in Nigeria, forced a lot of people to learn how to make transfers. So, without that kind of policy, it wouldn’t have really happened, right? So it’s the same thing with COVID-19. Without it coming through, it wouldn’t have.
So it changed how we deliver trainings; trainings used to be in-person. During the Pandemic and the lockdown, we started doing more online trainings. So, more people are now adapting towards using Zoom and the other tools.
So you have virtual students?
Mr. Onuk: Yes, we do. So, that helped us get that aspect. Now, two; we had more people who wanted digital solutions to their problems. That means there was a rise of people in the right market
Mmm… for instance people want to set up Zoom..?
Mr. Onuk: Yes, or set up websites, set up a storefront or set up all those digital solutions they required. It was now like a proliferation of these kind of people. That helped towards us rooting, now saying; okay those we train, you can work on these, you can work on that alright?
Now it also changed and reduced the need for interpersonal communication, so people could work from home. And that also affected us negatively because we didn’t have need for people to come to have our cool working space any longer. If they just had to work from their house, it’ll be less expensive and basically, there was not much of movement, so everybody was forced to do that.
That’s how it changed. It was for more good than bad. The good side was; Yes, there was more awareness, we had more of the market share. The bad side was it also gave some other verticals of our business less transactions.
So, someone told me that to be ahead of business you had to be either the first or the best. Which is RootHub? I mean RootHub, can we say was the first technology company in Akwa Ibom State, Uyo specifically?
Mr. Onuk: When we use the word tech company –
Oh! You already said you are a creative hub, I really wish you could expand more on that.
Mr. Onuk: On the creativity?
Yes. Why you’re not a tech hub, because you’re misunderstood to be a big tech hub. I myself all these years thought –
Mr. Onuk: You thought it was a tech hub?
Mr Onuk: So the truth is, why we say we are a creative hub is that we are sector admissible. What that means is that we’re not focusing on any particular sector. So if you’re a farmer, you could be part of the RootHub. We’ll teach you how to use digital skills, to enhance your farming.
Mr. Onuk: If you are a visual artist, we do the same thing. Show you how to translate your visual art digitally, to be able to expand yourself. So, we are not focused on one particular industry. That’s why you see we don’t want to be bottled up into a tech hub. A tech hub means that you’re only doing anything that has to do with technology. But we work with fashion, we work with food, we work with farmers, we work with all sectors basically. And that’s our key strength because we realized that everybody needs digital tools and solutions. And our job now is to be the middle plug so that you do what you want to do to have digital skills and become better that’s all.
You said you are not paying attention to just technology, is it not possible that it can affect the technological acceleration that RootHub would have made? I mean, technology itself is evolving; we didn’t hear of blockchain technology for instance, 3,4,5 years ago. But blockchain is a thing now. We didn’t hear of artificial intelligence some 5 years ago and all of that; It has evolved now. So how does RootHub, without making technology its main priority, able to catch up with the fast pace of technology?
Mr. Onuk: So, what I mean by us being creative is that we leverage on technology. So technology is like the life blood of what we do, because we are not only focused on those things you think and you’re talking about. We are a bridge between real life systems and technology systems coming together and marrying to be able to become a stronger institution. That’s the idea.
So what we do is, we leverage on technology. So at any given time that technology is growing we are also growing along with it.
So what we are basically doing is to ensure that those who would have been left behind are also being carried along. Because technology is advancing at a very dizzying speed. So what we need to do is just help people who may have not had the opportunity to understand what technology is, to be able to join that bandwagon, take a piece of it, add it to what they want to do and become a bigger, better version of themselves.
You said technology itself has been evolving and all of that. Could you take us through the journey of technology in at least the last 10 years?
Mr. Onuk: Okay, so uh… as at the time we started in 2014 what was technology? Technology was; you need to have a computer in front of you when you are working around. Now it has evolved to beyond just computers. For instance, Like this device, we can draw directly on .
Mmm… What is that?
Mr. Onuk: Should I call it uh, Augmented Reality. You could say it’s Assistive Technology. it assists you to do the thing you could have done normally, but on a digital aspect. So what does it do? It makes your work faster, cleaner and easier.
Before now, we had printers that will print paper, right? but now we have what we call 3D printers that prints objects not just papers.
Mr. Onuk: Yes, it prints objects. So that’s the admiration of technology. Technology is moving at a pace in which people want to use technology to create things. The things that you would have done normally. So, there’s a house that was created with 3D. So all they did was design the house, and then the machine was now setting up the house.
Mr. Onuk: So in those kind of situations, in the past I would have had to hire labourers and do the other manual stuff but now technology is doing those stuff. Which means that you can have a house in under one week, as against having a house in months.
That’s one of the ideas about the illusion of technology. Like now, for example in 1999 the size of your phone’s hard disk would have fit into this room, but today it is a small microchip.
There are some smartphones that are more powerful than some of the computers that we had fifteen years ago. So it shows you a vision of how technology is growing. Now, there’re things that you did not think I can do with a smartphone. You could design on your phone, you could code on your phone, you could do presentations on your phone. You don’t have to go around with a laptop. With your phone, you could sit down, have a meeting with somebody in America, take notes with your phone, create a proposal, send to person, have a presentation all with your phone. That’s how it has been done.
You’ve been in this industry for nine years, you are a trainer and you’ve been travelling…
Mr. Onuk: I’ve been in Tech for more than fifteen years.
Good. So I want to know where is Akwa Ibom in block chain technology, Artificial Intelligence, etc.,?
Mr. Onuk: So, the key thing I want to bring to your notice is, the Akwa Ibom community is unique. Let me not even use community; Akwa Ibom state itself is unique.
We are predominantly a youthful population, and from the work that we have done over the years, we’ve come to realize that the typical Akwa Ibom youth is creative, disciplined, and ready to work especially if you show them something which they love and are able to adapt to.
What do I mean by that? In the technology space in Nigeria, after Lagos, if you count a few other states, Akwa Ibom is arguably number three on the map when it has to do with technology.
How can you validate this? What’s the indices?
Mr. Onuk: A former Facebook lead for Africa, showed us some statistics at the back end , as to where they get more people who use Facebook a whole lot from; After Lagos, I think it was Abuja. Uyo was number three as regards Facebook activity. Now, we know that Akwa Ibom is predominantly a Facebook environment. You might think that we are on Facebook just for the wrong reasons, but people are marketing their products and services on Facebook, and you know Facebook is now part of what they call – the trilogy (WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram). So, that also means that Akwa Ibomites are harnessing their digital skills, that’s one. Two; we have trained over 15,000 people across the Niger Delta, and about 3000 plus are Akwa Ibomites.
Some of these people are working in some of the top tech companies in Lagos. So that goes to show that our human capacity contribution to technology cannot be taken from us. In-fact, it got to a point where there was a tech leader who tweeted on Twitter and said, there seems to be something going on in Akwa Ibom. Everybody who comes into Lagos, who seems to be good at coding, good at designs, seems to be coming from Uyo. What’s going on there?
So it shows that there are key stakeholders in Akwa Ibom who have been able to train young people. Apart from the Root Hub, there are other stakeholders who have trained young people and positioned them to be part of this technology evolution that is going on, and we have been able to put Akwa Ibom on the map.
I will like you to tell us about the threat AI poses to the tech world, like Chatgpt, I mean, people who are coding are scared that AI could come and take their jobs and all of that. What’s your opinion on this?
Mr. Onuk: Let’s look at when computers came out. Computers we’re supposed to help us, assist us to become better but a lot of people were scared that it was going to take away their jobs. Now, in as much as technology reduces the number of manpower, and we value that, technology also requires manpower to be able to drive it. So AI needs human beings to drive it.
So what it is going to do is that it is going to create new line of jobs for people. And these lines of jobs are going to be AI trainers, AI specialists, people that can actually build those things that are required. So, that’s the way I see it. So I don’t think anybody should be afraid, just that you are supposed to think about how to create new industry opportunity that anybody can tap into.
AI is going to create new line of jobs for people. And these lines of jobs are going to be AI trainers, AI specialists, etc – Tony Onuk, The Roothub
For example, when people were building apps, it used to take a developer to build an app, do the design, and do everything. But now, it has been broken down; we have the UI/UX, we have the developer itself, The developer is further broken down into front end and back end. You understand? Then you now have people that will sell. So it’s no longer a one person job. They are broken down into other similar cells. So, that’s how I see technology. Technology doesn’t take out jobs. It creates new jobs.
Technology doesn’t take out jobs. It creates new jobs – Tony Onuk, The Root Hub
Alright, maybe just show me what’s happening here.
Mr. Onuk: This is the 3D printer I told you about. This place is called ‘Build a Tech’ workspace. Build a Tech is an organization that is inspired by an Akwa Ibomite who is in the United States. He’s a systems engineer. So he wanted to give back to the people back home and said; ‘Oh, let’s create a place where people can learn how this technologies work’.
This place is fitted with conference tools, so he could stay in the United States and deliver classes with other Akwa Ibomites, so that people can learn. That’s just one of the things I told you about technology. So he doesn’t have to come all the way to teach. Through this, we sit, and have a class
How many students have passed through here?
Mr. Onuk: The pivot was about 20 students. But now, we have a general program. The idea is to open it up to more people, at least develop more people and expand the ecosystem.
So from here, what’s the future we’re looking at? What’s the result we’re looking at? What kind of scientists, what kind of engineers is this place going to produce?
Mr Onuk : We’re going to have what we call prototype designers. Who can prototype a device, alright? Plug it with those who are doing software downstairs and it works, then you can now take it out for mass production. For example, your phone is a mass production. At some point, it was MVP. Different components had to be put in place.
Here, we’re going to have more of those type of people who are going to do prototyping. Now, if I have an idea and you want to test if that idea can work, this is where you use a small space without having to spend so much money, validate it and then you can replicate it. That’s the idea. So we’re going to have more systems engineers from here, we are going to have prototype engineers, 3D printers.
The other day, Mark Zukerberg posted an update of him and his kids, 3D printing dresses for his kids. So those are the things that we will be having around here. So fashion is going to be a very key thing.
What’s the interest of Akwa Ibom, what’s the responses like?
Mr. Onuk : Yeah, so a lot of people get to see a 3D printer sometime for the first time, and they are marveled by it. We usually have demonstrations to show them how to operate it. The interest is there, our people are always ready and willing to learn new developments.
What’s your impression of 3D technology?
Mr. Onuk : 3D technology in itself is fascinating. I told you my background. I was exposed to something that I feel more parents should try with their kids, which is experimentation. My late Dad used to allow us experiment a whole lot, so there was that room to try out for this and fail. And that is one of the best ways of learning.
I was exposed to something that I feel more parents should try with their kids, which is experimentation – Tony Onuk, The Roothub
We just want to keep doing things the way our fore fathers did. So what 3D does is, it allows you to experiment. You can design something now and print and it can be stupid. But ten weeks after, you are printing things that can solve problems.
Where’s 3D technology going to? Are we going to the future where 3D technology will be printing houses?
Mr. Onuk : Yes, we’re already there.
Okay, I’m impressed. I didn’t know RootHub is this big. (walking around)
Mr. Onuk: So what we have here are offices, You know when I was talking about co-working space. So someone can come in here, get an office and work from here.
One of the ratings of a successful hub or academy, is the position, the capacity, the proficiency of it’s alumni. What are your former students like?
Mr. Onuk: We have students who are all over the world working for —
What are they doing? How are they?
Mr. Onuk: We have students who are working for some of the top companies you can think of, we have students who are with Facebook.
Someone from here is working with Facebook?
Mr. Onuk: Yes. We’ve have people who are working with different companies, some of them tech companies. In Lagos, we have people who are working in Patricia, PayStack and lots of companies.
So what we do is, we keep tabs with them, because the key things that we do is we signed partnership with most of these companies, to be providing them with the talent.
So once we finish a training circle, we open it up to them, then they hire. It is easier for them because they don’t have to go through the stress of training. So our Alumni have been well renowned, and they are doing well, and they are also contributing by giving the same opportunity to others.
Our focus isn’t just on being in urban areas. Our focus has been on going to places in rural areas, so we go for some training to places where they don’t have power, they don’t have internet, they don’t even have laptops.
So we go there to train. Let me give a case to make my point. We did a program called Tech 101, and that idea came up when I went to my village and discovered they were betting shops in my village. And I stood and was watching and was like, what’s going on? And they were lots of youth that were entering the betting shop.
So it meant that they could use their phones to do sport betting alright? Then an idea came to me. If they can use their phones to do betting, which they see as a way out of poverty, why can’t we use those same phones to teach them how to do Technology? That’s how we came up with the idea for Tech 101.
Mr. Onuk : So we started training people in the rural area. Free training. When we trained up to 3000, Google saw what we we’re doing
What kind of training can one do with a phone?
Mr. Onuk: You could do designs on your phone, you could understand how to write proposals, how to do presentations on your phone, you could code with your phone, there are a lot of things you could do with your phone because phones are really powerful.
When we had trained about 3000 people, Google saw what we were doing and decided to partner with us to scale up the program.
And then we scaled up to train in 11 communities across the Niger Delta area. And that helped us train 10,000 more than the 3000 we already had, so we ended up doing 13,000. We’ve gone to places where you can only access by boat. Just to go and have trainings. We’ve done trainings in churches, we’ve done trainings in town halls, we’ve done trainings in open grounds, we’ve done trainings everywhere. Google understand that getting the last people involved in technology is key because now when they know about technology, they become users of technology and that’s the goal.
We’ve been able to replicate it across Nigeria, not just Akwa Ibom alone. And that’s why I feel the power of looking out for those who are cut off, not just those who are out there. Because the truth is, many of them are used to life as they know it. There’s no other outlet for them to express themselves or creativity.
I mean, even when you said Roothub is not a technological hub, it’s still difficult to think of a name bigger than Roothub when we’re talking about technology. What’s the secret of Roothub?
Mr Onuk: Collaboration
Mr Onuk: Collaboration is the secret. What do I mean by that? Collaboration in the sense that since we welcomed all sorts of people, there’s that fusion of ideas, there’s that meeting of energies that allows for great things to happen.
So, our motto is; ‘Create, Engage and Deploy’. So in creating you’d engage with other people and then in deploying, we would be able to bring those ideas that we had into reality. So that’s one of the secrets. Then one thing about the RootHub that made us successful is the fact that we are not afraid of failing. We call this a heavy fail zone.
One thing about the RootHub that made us successful is the fact that we are not afraid of failing – Tony Onuk, The Roothub
We are allowed to fail. Nobody will laugh at you for failing. In fact, we always encourage our people to keep a track of where they started at something, so that when they get to the end, they can look back and say, this is where I started from.
First time you do something, it’s not so good right? But when you keep on doing it repeatedly , you will get to the point of perfection. So Collaboration , Experimentation, and the Removal of the fear of failure is the key to us being here, and then our registration allows us to always be able to adapt to people of all ages. We’ve had students who come in from as early as 5 years, the older person we’ve trained was 83 years.
Collaboration , Experimentation, and the Removal of the fear of failure is the key to us being here – Tony Onuk, The Roothub
Mr. Onuk: Yes. So, he wanted to be able to speak to his grandkids who are in another part of the world, so he needed to use his smartphone. We trained him on how to do it and he knew how to, and he was really happy that at his age, he could learn. And that goes to show that technology is for everyone and anyone can be part of technology.
Technology is for everyone and anyone can be part of technology. – Tony Onuk, The Roothub