#InnovationSeries: Cafe Neo, stimulating a tech-centric revolution

by Edwin Okolo

This feature is a part of the YNaija Innovation Special – a set of insightful stories that dig deep into the spirit of innovation, enterprise, and creativity oft-talked about but seldom told as stories in Nigerian media.

The series which kicked off with the release of The New Establishment list, our annual 50-strong list of the new school of leaders, innovators, creative and entrepreneurs, will run throughout January.

There is an Instagram post on the Cafe Neo profile, told in the style of the popular Humans of New York, about a thirteen-year-old student on holidays interning as a barista. This scenario is so antithetical to the lived experiences of many Nigerian millennials and the generations before them that it would be easy to dismiss as an isolated bourgeois moment. But it isn’t. The world is vastly changing for the new generation of young Nigerians, a world where interning on holidays as a barista is a viable option, where coffee fosters community and Cafe Neo is the spearhead of that revolution.

In the west, Coffee has always served a social marker. Connected symbolically with productivity because of its properties as a stimulant, coffee greases formal social interactions in offices and meetings. Before it became associated with deadlines and rush hour traffic, coffee played an integral role in the cultures in East Africa and the Middle East, serving as a specialty offered as sign of friendship and respect.  However having sufficient time to able to brew your own coffee is a luxury very few can afford and much of the artifice around the preparation and presentation of coffee has been replaced with branded styrofoam cups and impersonal service. When Ngozi and Chijioke Dozie, scions of the revered Dozie family decided to start a coffee franchise in the country, artifice was one of the things they wanted to bring back to coffee, artifice, and community.

Initially starting as a coffee roasting business specializing in Nigerian and African coffee, the brothers were inspired by the ‘Repatriate’ crowd; thousands of young Nigerians who had either lived or studied in Europe and America and had begun to return to Nigeria following the global recession of 2008. Most had developed a western palate, especially for artisanal coffee and would often order bags of their favorite brews to be shipped home. The Dozie brothers began to roast Rwandan Arabica for their repatriate crowd and discovered it was much easier to sell their brand out of a space they owned, which led to the opening of the first Cafe Neo coffee shop.

The objectives were simple and they already had a model to follow, one Starbucks had successfully spread across Europe and the Americas. Get them in the door and keep them in the store. The way they did this was with the internet. As at 2012 when Cafe Neo first launched, Nigeria was just entering its mobile revolution, with more and more people migrating to smart phones. Internet data to utilize the many functions of these high powered gadgets became a priority and Cafe Neo’s free internet policy meant thousands of young people flocked to its flagship store, mobile phones and laptops in hand, seeking to benefit from its data services.

Young people were also leaning into the lifestyle. After years of watching their idols in Sex and the City and a legion other shows denote status with a quick wrist flick and a flash of a branded styrofoam cup of a cafe latte, they had a Nigerian equivalent. It was importantly especially now status meant a great deal in social currency. On the heels of the influencers who were the first to embrace Cafe Neo and Instagram their lattes came everyone else. By late 2014, Cafe Neo had become a watering hole for many young freelancers looking for a neutral place to meet with potential clients and start-ups looking for a conducive co-working space.

This change was one the team behind Cafe Neo leaned into.

The Tech Hub culture had become a thing in Nigeria around this time with CcHub and iDea hub. Because these spaces were tech-centric and restaurants were too stuffy, Cafe Neo’s stores, three by mid 2015 had become the de-facto place to meet. It was also cheaper too, a bottle of water was all you needed to buy to be allowed to stay in the cafe for as long as you wanted. People would lag behind after meetings to get some extra work done with the Cafe’s WiFi and before long many became regulars. Cafe Neo became a reprieve for independent programmers, UX designers and other tech-centric professionals desperate to escape the drudgery of a conventional office setting and unwilling to work from home.

It made sense that when Cafe Neo eventually decided to expand into the Lagos mainland after opening and closing half a dozen stores in Ikoyi and Victoria Island, they’d start with Yaba. The town has the dubious honour of being referred to Nigeria’s Silicon Valley, as more tech start-ups either begin or move to the area seeking to benefit from the ecosystem of technology hubs, established start ups and adjacent industries that have grown there to serve the needs of the tech scene. With the launch of the Yaba franchise came delivery services, the very first time the coffee was going out to the drinker, instead of the drinker to the store.

The most tangential yet interesting creative fields the Cafe Neo brand has ventured into is nerd culture. Being a nerd in Nigeria is difficult and exhausting. The specificity of the culture alienates many identify as nerds from their wider communities and Cafe Neo is opening its doors to them through a series of partnerships with Vortex comics that include offline events, sales of comics at the cafe branches and digital campaigns. Cafe Neo has also gained popularity in literary circles through its readings and poetry slams and deadline friendly cafe policy. There are also the secret cinema events held in the Cafe Neo compound in Ikoyi that encourages an appreciation for classic and contemporary film.

Cafe Neo has grown from a business created to serve a bunch of ‘repats’ to part of the cultural and entrepreneurial fabric of Lagos, a melting pot for niche communities, varying interests and creatives from all backgrounds. It’s become part of the conversation, an emblem of Lagos, like National Theatre or the Muson Centre. But it isn’t a relic, it’s a living, adapting ecosystem, one that gives young Nigerians permission to be.

See other stories from the #InnovationSeries below:

– New Establishment: Mr. Eazi, Ire Aderinokun, Arese Ugwu, and more… Meet the class of 2017

– #InnovationSeries: Nigeria and the year of the Buzzfeed clones

– #InnovationSeries: Social media can be a tool for self-censored advocacy

– #InnovationSeries: A snapshot into the life of a tech unicorn

– #InnovationSeries: Technology and my radical year of freelancing

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