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.