Monday, 31 August 2020

TET PRESENTS: Emeka Nelson

Wearing a plain white top, sitting on his bed, with a vanilla wallpaper as a backdrop and smiling to the camera during our Zoom call, he appears as your stereotypical millennial. Delve a little deeper and you realise Emeka Nelson is one of Nigeria’s most promising engineers.

Back in 2018, several news outlets such as Channels TV, BBC and Adeola Fayehun host of ‘Keeping it Real’ published articles and segments, heralding a young boy from one of the remotest villages in Nigeria that had created the way millions of Nigerians could power electricity in their homes via his hydro electric generator.

As with all things, the masses only see the finished product. What they do not see is the painful, slow-burning, lonely process it takes one to achieve such results. In writing about him I hope I do him justice through my words by showing the world the reasons why Nelson has magic pulsating through his fingertips.

Nelson at work on his generator

Nelson’s beginnings sound like the start of a mythological story where the protagonist has a peculiar upbringing which singles them out for an equally peculiar life.  He was born in coal-rich Enugu state within the rural area of Imilike-Agu on the 12th January 1994 under a coconut tree along the village path. Maybe to the minds of the ancestors they would declare it as an onus on the baby that the world had bountiful expectations of him. 

As the saying goes, ‘with great responsibility comes great expectations’ and that could not be any truer for Nelson. At 26, he has a lot on his shoulders and even more on his hands. During our conversation, even when his responses were compact with hardships that many of us may never face, he always knew how to demonstrate - as the Igbo people say, ‘jisike’ that makes one admire his tenacity and cheerful disposition despite of adversity. ‘(My mother) always said I had an eighty-year old reasoning in me […] I felt that what I was going through was preparing me towards that.’

Being one of seven children, Nelson’s parents arranged for him to move in with a young couple in Awka, Anambra State and take the role of house help when he was five years old. This was and is still a common arrangement with large families from rural areas. His duties included taking care of the couple’s child and doing basic housework.

At this period in his life, his young, inquisitive mind was already being seduced by the tinkering sound of metal. “I’m easily attracted to technology [and] why things work, what makes them work and how to make [them] better.”

His curiosity was fuelled further by his incessant visits to his foster father’s workshop near their house who was an automobile tyre repairer. Despite several beatings, he was unable to stop the stubborn boy from visiting and a year later his foster father was forced to give Nelson a job role. This was the start of his apprenticeship for the young alchemist. Amongst the other mechanics in the area he was quickly known as, ‘Smallie’. He laughs proudly as he reveals how he came to have that name. ‘”I would go under the vehicle, under the engine […] It was so easy for me to move around to know what’s in the car.”

By the time he was seven years old he was managing the workshop with the competency of a senior technician. And even though he was thriving in his newfound career, the opposite was to be said in the classroom. Amongst his schoolmates he was known as ‘Nwa Nsukka’ (translation: son of Nsukka (a town in Enugu)) which is a term used by the students to insult those who they believed to be of a lower class.

Fortunately, like metal alloys, he was able to find an ally in a classmate named Chiemele Nduka. Together they would lay the foundation to the legacy that Nelson is till this day busy building.

The main difference between the two was that Chiemele could read and Emeka could not. The knowledge gap and social isolation in the classroom made Nelson determined to be literate. Unfortunately, the only source of light in the house was the kerosene lamp that had to stay in the living room at all times. This was a problem for Nelson who wanted to be in the privacy of his room to study his phonetics. “By then I had started working at the workshop, so I usually come back at night in the house that is the only time I had for my books.” 

When Nelson divulged this information to me my heart sunk. It's a sad reality for many of Nigeria’s brightest children. As one of the largest youngest populations in Africa, with a median age of 18, it makes the situation even more disastrous.

Despite the ‘Universal Basic Education Commission’ which the Nigerian government introduced over 20 years ago to encourage school attendance, there is little evidence to show its effectiveness. As it stands, 13 million children are not in formal education – the highest in the world. 

Children need stability to maximise their potential. The sparse electricity that is afforded to the population, an average 9 hours a day, means that for most they have to rely on self-powered generators. NEPA na’ be enemy of progress.

Nelson in his lab

For those of us Nigerians who have grown up in Western nations, we probably cannot imagine the thought of not being able to charge our phones or laptops when the batteries died, heating up our leftover food in the microwave, or simply turning on the light in our homes at our convenience. These are all things we do without a second’s thought.




But can you imagine using a torchlight to do your assignment?

Obviously, no child at seven years old can afford to purchase petrol. This frustration led to the Dynamic Duos having their lightbulb moment (pun intended) which was to create a cheaper alternative to illuminate his room for reading.

His passion for learning accelerated his reading level and within months he was using his pocket money to buy any book that came along his way. “I had two big textbooks. One was geography, one was physics. I was seeing geography as physics and I was seeing physics as geography. And that’s how I first saw a sample of a hydro generator and how they generate power.”

The first stage in the young boys’ enterprise was to obtain materials to build the generator. Because Nelson already had access to the workshop, he could get the materials from there but then they realised they needed a dynamo. As someone who is on the total opposite spectrum of STEM subjects, I had Nelson briefly ‘ABC’ me in what a dynamo was and how it helps generate electricity. Acquiring a dynamo was a comical story of its own; it involved them stealing the component from Chiemele’s grandfather’s bicycle.

It would be during this exciting time of any young enterprise, that Nelson’s dear friend, Chiemele would meet his tragic end at the tender age of eight. Ironically, his demise would be caused by inhaling generator fumes which was in his room whilst he was sleeping.

Despite being in deep grief over the loss of his best friend this was a pivotal point in the trajectory of what one may see as his accidental vocation. “If [Chiemele’s] brother can go to the market and buy something small like this to burn their house and end up killing somebody it means maybe I can create some stuff small like this that won’t use gasoline again. We can replace it with water and still use it in the house […] So I just wanted to correct that, that thing that actually took him […] I just wanted to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

For more than 15 years now he has been on the unwavering mission to find and create alternative energy solutions so that no one will have to go through the pain of losing their loved one through what could have been an unavoidable death.

Though steadfast in his purpose he has been susceptible to the many challenges any entrepreneur goes through in their efforts to make significant impact within their industry. This is no easy feat especially when working with - and let’s be honest here - incompetent infrastructure such as that of Nigeria’s energy sector.

His first real breakthrough was in December 2007, when his concept design of his generator was able to reach the power capacity of 100W. Prior to his eureka moment, he had taken a 6-month break after an experiment-gone-wrong caused an explosion. Talking of that time in his life he says, “I was almost at the point of giving up.”

Nelson's hydro electric generator prototype

So far, his patented technology is going through industry standard tests in the hopes it will end up with a minimum viable product which can be mass produced for the market. Currently the 1kw producing generator can hold up to 2L of water and power homes for six hours at a time.

And it’s just as well, because our near three-hour conversation was frequently interrupted with network failure and me not sure he could hear me I would say the typical line people say in these situations: “Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?”

It was clear minute by minute that as he kept filling me in on his colourful life his ambitions lie beyond him creating domestic energy products. Under his umbrella company, ‘Orange Genelectric’ established in 2016 he wants to infiltrate every avenue within the under tapped goldmine that is the green energy market which is a reported £700bn.

In other words, Nelson wants to zanku on the burgeoning energy sector just as South Africa’s treasured son, Elon Musk, has done over in the United States. He makes clear on his deep passion for the environment and has also gained momentum in using plastic waste to make gasoline.

Due to Nigeria’s favourable hot climate, solar energy is fast becoming a preferred alternative energy which Nelson also focuses on. Orange Genelectric’s main offering at the moment is providing solar installations and maintenance services for industrial companies.

Typical of any innovator, a large portion of our conversation was concentrated on the future. Specifically, the future of education.

A university degree has always been put on the highest pedestal and parents place the highest bets on their children to break poverty cycles in the family. As honorary custodians of culture and tradition the majority of us Nigerians will have heard our parents say one or more of the following phrases to us: ‘’face your books’’, “you must go university”. If you haven’t, your status as a Nigerian is to be questioned. I do not make the rules.

Nigeria’s out-dated education system fails to accommodate the people who don’t fit into the academic way of learning. With increasing university fees and a deepening recession which has seen the Naira progressively decline, common sense would dictate that things need to change.

And part of this change includes changing the way we view what quality education is. On this topic he further comments on how young people are not being encouraged to be creative in their answers. “Most of the young people that score low points in school, I don’t think it’s because they don’t know. It’s just because they find it difficult to buy one single idea [that the teacher] gives them that this is how it is […] if you programme [young people] minds that if not this then nothing else this is just how it is […] then I’m cramming not understanding.’

Clearly the ones that are losing out are as Anti-Fragile author, Nassim Taleb, calls them, practitioners who are paramount in adding to the prosperity of the nation. These include the hairdressers, the chefs, the artists, the engineers, just like Nelson, who though not academic, are nevertheless significant in contributing to the economy.

It defeats the purpose of university when young engineering graduates who have never had any practical experience throughout their degree are thrust into the job market but are unable to find work which allows them to apply their theory into practise. Nelson knows this from personal experience. ‘Some of my friends that went to university […] most of the things I ended up being the one to teach them things. They can mention names, call the name of things, compounds, chemicals but they don’t know even how these things work. Even if they see, they can’t even recognise it.’

Nelson receiving his award from University of Port Harcourt




 
 
 In Nelson’s efforts to affront this issue he started his own tribe of young, talented individuals within Nigeria and beyond which he named CMT² (Creative Minds Tech Team). Along with his team members, they have formed an art and engineering think tank and as it’s grown the group’s activity resides mainly online.

Despite not having yet earned a degree (which he hopes to do in the near future), amongst academic circles he is respected and acknowledged having contributed to some research papers. Last year, he was the award recipient to Technological Innovation and Excellence from the University of Port Harcourt.  

When he is not busy within the cocoon of his makeshift laboratory at home he is working as an instrument control engineer graduate trainee and taking his driving lessons. Speaking of his inspirations, he names home-grown figures such as Peter Obi commending his leadership style and entrepreneur Ezekiel Izuogu who was behind Izuogu Z-600, Nigeria’s first domestic car.

The Nelson archetypes are ones that as a nation we hear and read about all too often; humble beginnings, immense talent, great work ethic but the big but always is lack of infrastructure and opportunities within the country. Nevertheless, there’s too much riding on Emeka Nelson’s story which gives me the full conviction that his achievements to date are just a warm-up to his pending success. 

 You can find Emeka Nelson on Twitter.


Monday, 22 June 2020

TET PRESENTS: Dr. Jonah Asiegbu







At the time of me writing this article, lockdown laws enforced by governments all over the world to curb the spread of the the global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 flu are starting to ease down.  In its place is the growing anxiety of the unforeseen consequences it will have on modern society. By and large it has already left its skid marks on the global economy, intensified mental illnesses and challenged personal and professional relationships due to extended periods of quarantining. 

Furthermore, in a world that is increasingly adopting social distancing measures as its new way of life, healthcare professionals now find themselves looking for alternative ways to effectively offer consultation and provide treatments to their patients. 
 

After I spoke to Dr. Jonah Asiegbu, I felt the weighed responsibility to impress upon the world the astronomical lengths that he is taking within the Nigerian health sector in making it more efficient and affordable for patients to receive primary healthcare through his telemedicine start-up, ‘First MedTrade Africa’. 


Focused. Visionary. Perfectionist. Those are the words that bounced around in my head in the hour and a half I had to dissect the brain (and heart) of Asiegbu. With more and more partnerships solidifying the growth of First MedTrade Africa, including German health provider ATOS Group, it was just as well that before he got his hands full propelling his rocket into the stratosphere, he could fit me in for an interview. 


According to Asiegbu, it takes a special type of person – a patriot - to say that they want to practise medicine in Nigeria: “When all of us leave Nigeria who stays back? Somebody has to change the narrative.” 


Despite his opinion, many of his doctor friends have left the country to escape working in a system that is teetering on its edges. Of the 75,000 registered medical practitioners in the country, 40,000 of them are currently practising overseas in places such as Saudi Arabia, Canada and the UK. And can anyone blame them? 


Average salaries for junior doctors in Nigeria currently stand at 200k naira a month (£500) with top medical consultants not even touching the £2000 (less than one million naira) mark at the end of each month. When one compares this with junior doctors in Canada earning on average £30k (₦14,375,475.00) yearly in salary it makes the decision to leave ones country much more easier.


The World Health Organisation suggests nations should have a doctor to every 600 people but in Nigeria there’s one in 4000. The deficit in medical personnel is frankly embarrassing if we are still claiming to be Africa’s Giant. 


Dr. Asiegbu’s journey to assuage the healthcare sector in Nigeria started from an early age. Born in 1985 in the southern state of Cross Rivers, after the death of his father when he was three years old, his widowed mother single-handedly took care of him and his four siblings. Having a mother who so emphatically and practically made sure that Asiegbu was the best he could be, he recognises her as the breeding ground for his success story both as a physician and entrepreneur. Even before he could hang a stethoscope around his neck, she was constantly telling him he was a doctor.


When discussing his academic background he cites his university’s chancellor as one of his earliest inspirations who whilst attending Igbinedion University, would invite the country’s influential figures such as former Head of State Ibrahim Babangida to give speeches to the student body. Seeing the fleet of cars and other symbols of wealth that frequented his campus sparked Asiegbu’s desire to want more for himself and his future. And those boyish ambitions have carved out the man he is today.


After finishing his first degree in 2013 he went on to do his internship at University of Calabar Teaching Hospital. It was during this period of his clinical rotations (including time in the neurosurgery unit) in 2014 that the seeds of First MedTrade Africa started being planted in his head, where he was able to experience first-hand the failings of the health system in Nigeria. Since gaining his full medical licence in 2016, he has worked in hospital wards which has helped him understand further the pain points of patients whilst attempting to receive treatment.                 
      

“It’s really pathetic down here […] We should have a system of schedule. The patient should know the time of his/her appointment. If I have an appointment for ten I should know I have an appointment for ten. […] The patient should not waste the whole day in the hospital. […] The primary health care centres […] is not functional as it’s supposed to be.”


Part of the main problem he believes, “the system that was the teaching hospitals or the tertiary sector that was planned in the sixties shouldn’t be the same manuscript we are using now.”


The WHO advises a health budget allocation between 14%-25% but Nigeria’s own is less than 10%. In a way it sabi that the government no get shame.
 

Rewind back to less than forty years ago and the state of healthcare in Nigeria looked promising. Before Nigeria gained independence in 1960 there had been a ten-year developmental plan drawn up a few years prior detailing objectives the nation intended to achieve in the subsequent years. At first, everything seemed fine. For every Nigerian citizen, medical treatment was free, and the government made it a point to invest in the health sector by awarding students with scholarships to travel abroad and study medicine. Once these students were finished with their studies they would come back to Nigeria and a job would be waiting for them. But the country’s over-dependence on oil precipitated the deterioration of the health sector starting in the 1980s. 




When someone decides to be an entrepreneur it is because they want to solve a problem and see a gap in the market. With Asiegbu he saw it was the bastardization of the health infrastructure, but what he could not foresee is the biggest biological warfare in contemporary times that will redefine doctor-patient relationships and will prove to be a blessing in disguise. “I never envisaged that there will be a pandemic like this. So now I think this is the birth of telemedicine in Nigeria.”


Even though Africa is the least affected continent with COVID-19 it is far from comforting given the still rising numbers and the lower standards of hygiene that is found in our part of the world. In Nigeria alone over 18,000 people have had the coronavirus with over 400 of them succumbing to the flu, including Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari in April. 


Simply put, the primary healthcare needs help. But it takes another type of person to say they want run a business in Nigeria. 


When Asiegbu decided to create his solution in 2016 thankfully he was in the fortunate position to be able to bootstrap the running-costs himself. Speaking of the start-up ecosystem in the country he says, “the bank interest rate is outrageous. There is no funding for start-ups. And that is where the brain drain is. Nigerians are one of the most intelligent people I’ve seen on Earth. When I hear what the young chaps, the ideas they have but there is no place to exhibit them. This is how countries grow […] The government does not provide any start-up funding. […] The major problem in this country is lack of insight and lack of funding.”


It would be a trip to Germany where he pitched his idea to a group of doctors, that would give him the greenlight to go full steam ahead with his project. Even though those close to him saw the potential in his vision as with anything great it always takes longer for the masses to catch up. 


From the price of a few agege breads, patients can receive online consultation with certified doctors from an extensive list of specialties such as dermatology, cosmetics, dentistry and cardiology.  To register, patients fill out a straight-forward registration form and book an appointment with their chosen doctor hassle-free. As well as being a B2C start-up, First MedTrade Africa also works as a B2B alongside hospitals by providing air transfer services for patients. In June, they launched an online medical market to provide hospitals with medical equipment to add on to their services.


Growing an online medical platform is all well and good but when half the population lives in rural areas and many of them do not have stable electricity talk less of a mobile phone with internet data, that can be a cause for concern. Nonetheless, this is a challenge that Asiegbu is ready to conquer too saying, “healthcare in Nigeria is an untapped goldmine.”


Another thing which Asiegbu wants to tackle with First MedTrade Africa is medical tourism. In a recent report Nigerians reportedly spend £970m yearly going overseas namely the UK, Middle East, United States and India to receive treatment.  When even the President has to fly abroad for treatment that is when we should think sometin de deh. “We need to reverse that history. There must be a reason for Nigerians working abroad have to come back home. We have to give them a comfortable environment to work and then we have to make sure they’re safe.”


He classes Donald Duke, Akinwumni Adesina, Sanusi Lamido as his inspirations also Dr Adeyemi Johnson who has been a pioneer in the cardiology field within the country.


It is important as Nigerians that we look up to people within our homes instead of looking at outsiders or we are just going to be forever stuck in this Stockholm syndrome perpetrated from colonialism. “Most of these patients travelling out of the country do not believe that there are physicians in this country that can take care of them. Because there are no data, there are no communities, there are no online platforms [to show this].” 


Even though First MedTrade Africa is an ‘indigenous company from Nigeria’ Asiegbu realises that there is more to be achieved when it is a collaborative effort. “First Med Trade is a bridge to the world meaning that we need those partnerships with international communities […] We have to learn from them, we need those partnerships to strengthen our back end, to be able to strengthen the African market.”   


Any entrepreneur that has ever had to grow a team knows that a company is only as good as the people who work in it. Asiegbu knowing this, he credits his core team Amina Ibrahim (COO), Princess Uzoukwu (CFO), Jude Joshua (ICT Manager) and Mfonobong Etokakpan (CMO) who have worked tirelessly to help breathe life into his vision. 


Now four years in and a soft launch earlier this year in February, he teases how much more is in store for First MedTrade Africa including a mobile application which is currently being developed. 

 

With only 24 hours in a day, Asiegbu makes every second count by starting at 2am in the morning and drinking strong black coffee (no milk, no sugar – just how I like it!).  Whilst he tries to work out how many cups of coffee he drinks in a day I hear Amina, telling him that he probably goes through more than five cups of coffee a day. Given his schedule, I am not surprised. 


And his hard work is paying off. With First MedTrade Africa on Nigeria-based venture capital firm VC4A portfolio, he has been able to gain the attention of investors who are looking to help raise his Series-A funding to support the expansion plans. Added to this, the start-up has also been accepted in Forbes 2020 Startup Digital Accelerator Program.


Whether First MedTrade Africa will stick around does not really matter. (Though I have a strong feeling it will). What matters is that it is becoming a part of an important discourse on how technology and digital platforms can positively contribute to health provision in Nigeria. 


You can find out more about FirstMedTrade Africa on their website.  Follow them on Twitter here.