Arts + Culture

Nigerian Tech Entrepreneur Mosope Olaosebikan is Bringing Nigerian Stories into the Digital Era

Nigerian Tech Entrepreneur Mosope Olaosebikan is Bringing Nigerian Stories into the Digital Era
Photo: Tobi Adebeyi

The creative director and designer behind West Africa’s first Discovery Museum uses technology to reclaim Nigeria's history and bring communities together.

Earlier this year, Mosope Olaosebikan launched the Art Tech District, and within it, the first digital museum in West Africa, dubbed the Discovery Museum, dedicated to spotlighting Nigeria’s past, present and future stories through arts and technology. Aside from digitizing history, the Art Tech District is an educational institution that was first launched in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. It’s designed to help digital artists in Nigeria and West Africa find a platform to compete in the international digital art market, and help shape the way Africa is seen in the global tech space.

Over the past year, as part of Olaosebikan's various projects within the Art Tech District, exhibitions for digital artists like Anthony Azekwoh and Renike Olusanya have been held, as well as Nigeria’s first Metaverse party at Kapadoccia, the Turkish-inspired restaurant in Abuja, which took place in May this year, and highlighted the evolving nature of technology in the country and its ecosystem.

But Olaosebikan isn’t only a tech entrepreneur. He is also a philanthropist who has fueled and kept struggling businesses steady. And he cares deeply about the country’s architectural aesthetics because he’s big on tourism. As a matter of fact, it's something that's bothered him immensely – why Nigeria doesn’t possess a huge tourist attraction. But he’s hoping to build the change he wants to see.

OkayAfrica spoke to him about the path he's traveled to get to where he is today.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you begin your journey into tech?

I've always been interested in the question, "what's next?" I enjoy living in the moment, but I'm always looking to explore what's possible for the future and how I can be a part of making that happen. This curiosity informed my foray into tech as far back as 2009 in my final year at the prestigious Redeemer's University in Nigeria.

I noticed a gap in the university's admission process that technology could solve. The university used a physical application process requiring prospective students to visit a particular location for their entrance examination and documentation. Looking at how tedious this process was, I created an app that allowed for electronic documentation and an entry exam that could be taken anywhere in the world.

As an active church member, I also worked with a team to create an application for the popular Open Heavens daily devotional guide. This app made devotional study time seamless for many Christians like me, navigating life in a fast-paced mobile world.

So for me, tech has always been about feeling a gap, moving people into the future and solving communal problems.

How did the vision of the Art Tech District (ATD) come to you?

Art Tech District and its entities have been part of my personal journey. Traveling around the world and absorbing the sights and sounds, I'd always thought, "What if most of the tourist destinations we sought out as Nigerians were within our reach?" This question kept circling through my mind, and by the time the world completely shut down in 2020 due to the global COVID-19 outbreak, I knew then, more than ever, that I needed to bring this idea to fruition.

During the lockdown, I started exploring the creation of experiential spaces, and when the world opened up, I immediately got to work. I wanted Disneyland, Universal Studios and the Smithsonian all in one place. I also chose to leverage technology to make these things possible because I was passionate about introducing technology to Nigerians in a fun, immersive and interactive way.

Why did you feel the need to create a visionary hub like ATD?

I created ATD for education, entertainment and connection. I feel like every other thing revolves around those three things. The education part plays out through our Discovery Museum and Discovery Kids. For the Discovery Museum, I realized as we stepped into the digital age, museums began to be associated with the word "archaic." Technology was seen as different from art, history and museums as a whole — but museums are important.

At that point, my team and I figured out the best way to create a renaissance for museums in Nigeria would be to bring [them] into the future using technology, and that's what we've done. Why show you a picture of the Nigerian Civil War when you can be transported to that period using VR? Discovery Kids, on the other hand, was an excellent tool to introduce young Nigerian children to technology from a young age.

Other entities like PlayBox bring VR games to Nigerians who view these concepts as distant from them. At the same time, our Escape Room is [as] mentally challenging as it is entertaining. All of this was important for education and entertainment. On the connection front, ATD has worked as a location for young Nigerian creatives to meet each other or get introduced to the work of their peers. As a creative, I understand the importance of community, and I wanted to create one here in Abuja, since other creatives were more focused on the commercial hub of Lagos.

What inspired the decision to use technology to bridge the gap between the past and the future?

I've always said The Discovery Museum and all my other projects have been essential parts of my journey as a Nigerian exploring different parts of the world and looking to grasp the concept of identity. We are a people rooted in a rich and expansive history that predates what the world knows today. While our past doesn't define us, it's a crucial part of our identity.

I realized, stepping into the digital age, that Nigerians were starting to lose our sense of self and identity. It also didn't help that young people's access to history and culture was eroded and replaced by Western content. Technology was evolving but leaving history and storytelling behind. It made me curious to find a creative way to merge the past, present and future. I wanted to create spaces with the ability to foster human connection and still provide immersive entertainment in line with modern times. Why tell you what happened in the 1980s when we can show you.

It has also started conversations. For example, our replica room which houses replicas of artifacts stolen from Nigeria and housed in museums around the world has initiated discussions among Nigerians who lacked education about ongoing efforts to bring Nigerian art back home.

What are your thoughts on the future of technology in telling authentic Nigerian stories and creating experiences?

The world is continuously evolving rapidly, and if we hope to have a seat at the table, we can't afford to play catch up. We need to sync and develop with the world in real-time, not after. Thankfully, a new crop of young Nigerians like myself also share the same sentiments. We're witnessing a myriad of disruptive ideas that will soon position Nigeria and Africa at the frontline of the global conversation around technology and creativity.

An important part of our technological journey is how modern tech translates into different sectors, with storytelling and experiential spaces being my passion. For a long time, the Nigerian story was told by non-Nigerians with limited knowledge, which allowed for a narrative that wasn't nuanced or rooted in truth. Just like we've been able to leverage technology to take back and rewrite this narrative, I think it'll only be a matter of time before someone else does something similar and more groundbreaking.

It takes one person to take the first step. I believe I did that by trying something new. Now other creative Nigerians passionate about storytelling will know it's possible, and the stories will only get bigger, richer and more diverse. Our storytelling and hospitality future will only improve as we have access to more technology.

What are some of the challenges you encounter regularly?

Finding talent in Nigeria can be tricky, but I've refused to let that be a major deterrent to executing my ideas. To mitigate this, I focus on developing the talent I can find to meet the standards I'm looking for. Another problem comes when you juxtapose Nigeria's currency with other currencies. With our naira currently struggling, profit is not what it's supposed to be. But I have a positive outlook on what we can achieve regardless of these hurdles.

In the face of all these challenges, what fuels your creativity?

I like to believe my idea of impact is rooted in the community. People doubted us when we started, but we have built a team of over 500 Nigerians who also share in my dream. Knowing I'm not the only one tied to this dream pushes me to dream bigger for myself and everyone involved. It also drives me to look for ways to expand the work and my community of creatives. There are a lot of talented Nigerians around, so we'll have to move past 500 at some point.

I'm also motivated by the stories we haven't told. I travel to other countries and see how technology and the hospitality industry have changed things. I want the same for Nigeria and more. If I feel like stopping, I remember that we've barely scratched the surface and keep going.

Are you interested in the metaverse?

The metaverse is a salient part of a global conversation surrounding technology, and it's changing how we work, play, interact with other people and live. Having seen firsthand how it can create interconnected worlds not held down by the weight of geographical boundaries, I felt it was necessary to get Nigeria into the conversation.

Many people think of the "metaverse" and immediately think of parties and games — these are important parts of our human culture, but from my perspective, it's bigger than those things. With the metaverse, we can buy, sell and trade products and services that affect our income. I can work seamlessly in a shared virtual space with my employees as an entrepreneur using the metaverse.

From chat rooms in the 1990s to Facebook in the mid-2000s, we've always had online communities. Nigeria tends to be left out of global technological revolutions because we're always hesitant. I needed to throw myself into the concept of the metaverse in a bid to ensure we're not left behind this time.