In recent times, several Western media have repeatedly focused on Africa, analyzing the prospects of the ‘dark continent’ whilst raising caution about the ability of the next generation to manage resources effectively and implement the required changes. In this exhaustive interview with BN’s Gbenga Awomodu, an exceptional young African from Nigeria speaks on a wide range of issues bothering on social entrepreneurship, development, sustainable health care, and Africa. Idris Ayodeji Bello, a 2012 Weidenfeld Scholar in Global Health Science, trained as a Computer Engineer at the Obafemi Awolowo University, and has had varied global experiences with leading multinationals, including Procter & Gamble and the Chevron Corporation, with social and business networks spanning five continents. He was profiled in 2011 as Huffington Post’s ‘Greatest Person of the Day’ and listed among CNN’s Top Ten African Technology Voices to follow on Twitter in 2012. Dedicated to the enhancement of lives by developing and deploying attractive platforms for innovation-driven, technology-enabled investments across the African continent, he shares from his wealth of experience and sheds more light on the just concluded 2012 Oxford University Pan-Africa Conference. Get ready and enjoy this encounter!
Could you tell about yourself – growing up and schooling?
I was born in Jericho, Ibadan, about thirty-two years ago, but my childhood was mostly spent in Ilaro, Ogun State. We lived and schooled on the campus of the Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro, and and life was very simple. There were very few distractions and the rule with our disciplinarian librarian father was “Never get caught without a book!” I read Chinua Achebe’s “The trouble with Nigeria” before I was ten, and Kole Omotosho’s “Just Before Dawn” about the same time. Growing up was fun. My parents were not rich, but we also were not poor. In addition to my four other siblings, we had several cousins living with us who had come to pursue polytechnic education. At no point in time did the dinner table have less that thirteen people during my childhood days. In May 2002, I graduated with a First Class in Computer Engineering from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. I had learnt to juggle several things and still maintain a stellar academic record. This was helpful as I went straight into employment.
What was your experience like working with two reputable multinationals?
Even before finishing at OAU, I was recruited by Procter and Gamble to become the Planning Manager of the Ibadan Plant with responsibilities for production planning, materials management, and warehouse inventory across the West African region. Coming straight out of school armed with just a degree and a little internship experience I had undergone in my fourth year, P&G was like being thrown into deep waters, but with the knowledge that just as you were about to drown, someone would probably step in to rescue you. I remember asking Adeolu Akinyemi, the Recruiting Manager at the time, what it meant to work at P&G. He said, “You will learn a new definition of Challenge!” There were long days and nights (including weekends) spent at the plant, long hours spent on the phone negotiating for raw materials from foreign suppliers, and explaining to Nigerian port officials why our clearing agents were not allowed to give ‘tips’ to get our raw materials released from the port. My time at P&G was like a mini-MBA without a curriculum, and it really built my foundation in entrepreneurship following my technical education at Ife.
In what ways have your previous employments/jobs contributed to the progress of your recent social entrepreneurship projects?
I have been very blessed in terms of the kind of jobs I have had, and how they have moved me closer to my goals. When I choose to accept a position, money has never been at the top of my criteria. The bigger question for me has always been: “what value is this employment going to add to me as an individual?” “What experience is this job going to provide me that would help to move me nearer my goal?” In much the same way as the potential employer spends time interviewing me, I spend more time researching them, and interviewing them too. With a first class degree in computer engineering, I could have gotten a job in any Telco, or oil company in Nigeria at the time, but what was more important to me then was gaining a global exposure through my job, learning skills which were very different from what I had learned in school, and being giving responsibility from Day 1. When I left P&G to go abroad for my Masters, several of my friends questioned my move. I had gotten very comfortable at P&G and was doing quite well. And here was I abandoning such a position to seek out an uncertain future. However, I never saw it in that light. I had achieved my objectives, and it was time to take on the next challenge. When it came to time to choose a research area during my Masters, I opted for Data Analysis in Particle Physics. I knew nothing about particle physics, but that was exactly the point. I ended up writing my thesis on different non-parametric density approximation techniques applied to signal detection in particle physics. It really stretched me, but laid the foundation for my next job after graduation. At Chevron, I got the opportunity to do several things ranging from upstream technology to digital fields monitoring, from strategy and planning to information management. I also had the opportunity to travel widely overseeing projects across the US, Latin America, Angola, and Asia. Those experiences I believe further helped refine my thinking and decision-making process, and my management and people skills. It also exposed me to what it meant to do business at a global level. Hence, after six years, when I felt it was time to move on from Chevron and pursue a degree in Global Health at the University of Oxford, it was also a conscious choice. I felt I had proven myself and gained very valuable skills, and it was time to move on from individual success to making significant impact.
What inspired you to enroll in a Masters programme in Global Health Science?
I had always had issues with the healthcare system in Nigeria, especially after losing two of my siblings to the system’s inefficiencies, and another close friend to a strike action at UCH a few years back. However, it was at Rice University, during my MBA that I strayed into the field of global health. I got acquainted with Professor Marc Epstein, an expert in microfinance and the use of commerce models to improve health and promote development in poor regions. He had partnered with Rice 360° Institute for Global Health Technologies to teach “Commercializing Technologies in Developing Countries” in which teams of MBA and undergraduate engineering students develop business plans for global health technologies, and then travel to Rwanda where they undertake field research for their business plans. This interaction exposed me to the problems of access, the lack of relevant statistics, and several other challenges faced in the area of global health. However, my greatest motivation for applying for a place in the Global Health program at Oxford stemmed from belief that solving the daunting challenges currently faced in the field of global health requires a multidisciplinary array of people who are able to bring to bear their diverse backgrounds and innovative approaches.
You like to refer to yourself as an Afropreneur, a Bandstormer and a Wennovator. (How) did you originally coin those?
I woke up one morning and thought it sounded cool to join entrepreneurship and Africa to form “Afropreneurship” (afrocentric entrepreneurship). Bandstorming is the collective pooling of philosophically linked ideas focused on solving social and economic problems. It was actually coined by Michael Oluwagbemi, another enterprise-focused Nigerian that I met in Houston, and the Founder of LoftyInc Allied Partners Ltd, an organization dedicated to the enhancement of African lives by developing and deploying attractive platforms for innovation-driven investments in education, technology, and healthcare in the ECOWAS sub-region. We were jointly teaching a class on “Emerging Markets’ at the Frontier Markets Scout Program of the Monterrey Institute of International Studies in California early last year when a problem came up, and we decided to brainstorm. As we went through the brainstorming process, each person continually built upon the other person’s ideas, and Michael exclaimed, “This is not brainstorming, this is bandstorming!” I coined the term “Wennovation” when I visited Nigeria a while back to attend the Nigerian Leadership Initiative’s Future Leaders Class, and to pursue my vision of business incubation, which I had successfully been involved with in the US, and explore how I could translate that to Nigeria. It is based on the belief that when like minds develop new ideas or solutions through purely collaborative work, such a result is not just innovation—which recognizes the primacy of the individual—but rather wennovation, replacing “i” with “we” to emphasize the collaborative feature of afrocentric entrepreneurship. Our value proposition to the entrepreneurs is that you cannot go it alone. You need to team up to refine your idea and attract funding. I also intended the ‘We-‘in ‘Wennovation to refer to West Africa, our focus region. Today, we promote wennovation through the Wennovation Hub, a business incubation program and facility currently located in Lagos, Nigeria, but soon to be replicated across West Africa through an alliance with the Africa Leadership Forum and the African Innovation Prize.
Could you briefly discuss the conception of Libraries Across Africa (LAA) Project, progress made and how you hope to sustain it?
Libraries Across Africa (LAA) is a spinoff of graduate research done in the Rice University School of Architecture and was founded in 2010 with initial seed funding from the World Bank Institute. The idea was simple: “empower individuals through access to information.” By establishing low-cost infrastructure for libraries and connecting people directly with relevant information, even the poorest communities can become more self-sustaining. The widespread lack of access to information in Africa severely hinders the development of individuals and communities across the continent. Populations with sound healthcare knowledge, and basic education, are visibly better off than populations without in almost all areas of measurement. There is a large opportunity to achieve significant social impact in Africa by creating effective, sustainable solutions to this massive problem. However, the founder had no connection with Africa, no business experience, and so he came over to the business school to look for people who might know how to do business in Africa. I felt a connection to the idea in several ways; I had grown up in the library all my life with a librarian as a father, but I also knew what it was like to lack access to educational resources, as in my first year at Ife, there were only few copies of the Physics Text (Halliday & Resnick) in the reserve section of the library, and you had to join a long queue to get access to the book. More importantly, I had experience doing business in Africa, and understood some of the unique challenges we were going to face. Hence I joined the LAA team to help grow the idea, and at this point we were lucky to also have another ‘honorary’ Nigerian, Kevin Simmons, join the team. While Kevin was originally from Barbados, he had spent over four years living in Nigeria, and had run several successful businesses across the continent. We spent time developing and refining the concept, and thereafter began to pitch to funders, donors, and technology companies, and at every business plan competition we could enter into. There was a 6-month period where I spent every weekend at a different university across the US, from Harvard, to MIT Sloan, to Wharton Business Schools. However, our biggest break came when we won the 2011 Dell Social Innovation Technology Award in May 2011. While the cash award was only $10,000 (and some other technology prizes to go along with it), it gave us the credibility and helped attract the kind of partners we needed to actualize our concept. LAA plans to deploy a network of low-cost digital libraries in highly underserved African communities. By leveraging the power of the rapidly expanding Internet, a cadre of trained professional Librarians, and the successful Carnegie Library model of community development and empowerment, LAA aims to give individuals and communities in Africa the ability to solve their educational, informational, and economic challenges. The 3-part model consists of: the ANCHOR, which houses the community-generated physical material; the E-HUB, houses digital resources and on demand book printing tailored to local interests; and an AGORA, a covered social gathering space to catalyze community building. At the moment, the team is in Accra, Ghana, on a pre-pilot site study and market research in preparation to the first library in Ghana next year, after which we hope to scale up across the continent. Due to other pressing commitments, I currently play more of an advisory role at the moment though.
What drives each of your projects?
In these efforts, I am spurred by a strong belief in the superiority of market-based solutions to Africa’s problems. I also recognise that the problems of lack of access to education, health and support for enterprise are intertwined, and hence require the development of locally grown, holistic solutions. The Prophet Muhammad says, “He whose two days are equal is a sure loser.” As a Muslim, I am inspired by that. My greatest challenge is to be constantly better than, to out-think, out-do, out-smart, impress, and surprise yesterday’s me!
What are your core values/principles of life and how do they come to play in your (business) ventures?
I view the ingredients of success as vision, courage, flexibility and faith. Success to me is using your finest gifts and deepest desires to make a profound difference in the world while also retaining a balance in your responsibilities to your family, and building a strong relationship with your Creator. When it comes to business, integrity is very important to me, and I do not believe in cutting corners. If you cannot be trusted in small things, you will probably fail in big things.
What, in your opinion, are the key ingredients needed by the young Nigerian to succeed on the global scene today?
Every individual is different, but there are a couple of key skills you need to compete globally, especially as a Nigerian. You need to be good in a particular area, and be passionate about that area. Even if you are not the most eloquent person, most people can recognize passion and talent when they see it in you. You also need to be able to think on your feet. You need to be ready to show leadership and also possess the courage to go with your ideas and turn problems into opportunities. It is also important to be able to think globally while acting locally. Always aim to measure your goals by global standards, and not local standards, if you want to compete globally. It is also important to realize that the world does not owe you anything; you have to go out and prove you deserve whatever it is! I also believe you should get yourself a coach, and the best coaches are the ones that are hardest on you. Reading widely is also something you cannot do without if you want to compete globally. You need to be comfortable learning about the world even before stepping out of your house. You should be comfortable reading fiction, politics, biographies, etc. One also needs to be able to tolerate divergent opinions, and learn to disagree without being disagreeable. Especially in positions of leadership when you have to represent people, this is very important. For instance in my role as the current President of the Oxford University African Society, I can no longer just represent the views of Nigerians, I have to represent the views of all African students on campus. And when it comes to representing Oxford medical science students in my role as the Medical Sciences Postgraduate representative in the Students Union, it is important to be able to understand and accommodate varied viewpoints on any issue under discussion.
Have you ever failed in any project endeavours? If yes, could you talk about some ideas that did not fly and what have you learnt from your mistakes?
Yes, I have failed in several initiatives. But I am not frightened by failure. I think my attitude to failure is best summarized in a statement made by Gov. Fashola when he visited Oxford University recently to give a talk. He said and I quote “Failure is only a momentary setback from which many lessons can be learnt”. The perfume business I ran as an undergraduate folded up because I could not secure a reliable supply chain. I also gave up on the laptop business at a point when the market was flooded with laptops by some people who were apparently using it as a means of laundering money back to Nigeria, and did not really care to make profit. A few years back, I invested a huge amount of money in an agricultural business in Nigeria, which went downhill, as the guy in charge apparently diverted the money into something else. There have also been instances, in which I misjudged the size of the market for my product/service. But all in all, these have been value-adding experiences that have made me into who I am currently. Some of the lessons I have learnt include people selection. I now pay the utmost attention when forming a team around a business idea. If I do not have oversight over a business, or cannot put someone on the management, I do not invest in it. If my stake in the business does not afford me the opportunity of having a say, I would prefer to join up with a few other folks to collectively put someone on the board to ensure we have a say.
From your research and actual experience, could you state some of the reasons why social entrepreneurs fail?
I think it’s very important for social entrepreneurs to know that you cannot help the poor by becoming poor yourself. So it’s not enough to be possessed of a good social idea, you also have to think of sustainability. One major cause of failure that is usually overlooked is a lack of adequate management capacity. Strong management teams are vital, especially in emerging markets. That you are the originator of the idea does not mean you have to be the CEO. Following up on this is the dire scarcity of good teams. It is easier to find a good idea than to find a good team. I recently had the opportunity to attend a talk by John Doerr, widely regarded as the greatest venture capitalist of his generation, and an early investor in Amazon, Google, Compaq and Netscape, and this is what he said about teams: “In today’s world, there is plenty of money, plenty of venture capital, plenty of technology. What’s in short supply are great teams. Not just great people, but great teams. You guys are going to see huge opportunities, but to be able to take advantage of them; your greatest challenge will be building teams”…”Most startup teams think we evaluate them based on the technology or product. But in reality, we are always thinking about the team members. Who are they? How will they work together? So I usually ask them questions like; what will you do when something or someone is not working out? With their answers, you can quickly get feelers about the values, health and instincts of the team.”
The Economist, Financial Times, Forbes Africa, and McKinsey & Company have all said a whole lot about Africa’s socio-economic development issues in recent times. Against that backdrop, what is your assessment of the African situation – is there hope for Africa?
I would say there is more than hope for Africa. In general, you only have to look at the macroeconomic growth figures of African countries over the past 5-10 years, even through the recession and you see African countries listed in strong numbers in terms of fastest growing economies. All of that said, the economies must continue to expand and diversify because far too many of them are overly dependent on one or two dominant industries for growth, and it is only when that is achieved that the true performance of these economies will be realized. The hope that exists however is really in ‘the missing middle’. I believe it is the McKinsey “Lions on the Move” report that echoes this strongly and they spend a great deal of effort to show the recent strides across many African economies, but highlight the large ‘missing middle’ class of socio economic participants who must come to the table and play a part in the next leg of growth. It is also important that we are able to translate the ‘numbers’ into real jobs and meaningful improvements in the life of ordinary people. GDP numbers do not mean anything if they do not impact positively on the lives of the people.
Where do you see Nigeria, and Africa, in the next decade in terms of development?
It is always hard to project such complex things that far into the future, but given the importance of Nigeria as a major economy in Africa, and the amazing strides we have seen the country make over the last decade in such sectors as telecommunications services and associated products, banking reform, large infrastructural projects, revamped town centres, mass retail and perhaps most important an era of relative political stability and increasing public accountability, I definitely think the next ten years will be as good, if not better, than the previous ten. I say this because: firstly, the cat is out of the bag – people around the world are now aware of what is happening in Nigeria and want to be a part of it. Secondly, Nigeria, as a country, has matured. Yes, there are still civil tensions, as you are aware, and an unfortunate legacy of religious, land, or oil-related violence; BUT, if you compare Nigeria today with Nigeria ten years ago, just coming out of years of military rule, and disassembly of effective government, her educated citizens moving to foreign lands and so forth – the story today is one of promise. So goes Nigeria, so goes Africa.
There has been a surge in the number of start-ups targeted at Africa and Africans, especially by Africans in Diaspora. How do we harness the enormous wealth of knowledge and experience in order to achieve tangible results? How does the local farmer feel the actual impact of the unending technology-driven research and innovations?
This is an area I have been intimately involved with as an African in the Diaspora and as a local Nigerian. I presently manage a start up business incubator in Lagos called the Wennovation Hub which actually does what your question asks. We have partnered with international entrepreneurial entities, such as MIT, or Monterrey Institute and we target and support start ups focused on Africa and African business. Even on the personal side, I am part of startup teams focused on bringing digital technology libraries to Africa with Libraries Across Africa and On The Go Professor (OTGProf). I am also helping early blood pressure monitoring for chronic disease prevention with a UK based effort called AfyaZima, most of these are all African started and African led. I believe the best way to harness the enormous wealth of knowledge you mention, is to make a concerted collaborative effort to incentivize and encourage such efforts through the provision of grants, seed funding, and an enabling entrepreneurship ecosystem. With the right support, we can get to a critical point of inflection at which the effect starts getting felt by even ordinary people.
Last weekend, the Oxford African Society hosted the Oxford Pan-Africa Conference 2012. What was it all about and how do we move from there?
With the theme, “Building Capacity for a New Generation: The Case for Youth Leadership in Africa”, the 2012 Oxford University Pan-Africa Conference held on May 5, 2012 played host to 313 participants from 51 different countries, 500 viewers watching the online livestream, and hudreds more participating in the live GooglePlus Hangout with the speakers. It highlighted the importance of nurturing a new kind of African youth leadership in response to the rapidly evolving challenges of this century. Speakers included Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Governor, Central Bank of Nigeria and Forbes Africa Person of the Year 2011, and Vera Songwe, World Bank Country Director. We agreed that young people, and young women in particular, be encouraged to participate actively in politics as we could only reap the dividends if we possess the requisite skills and a democratic mandate. Youth leadership needs to be encouraged early on, and regional and continental integration is fundamental to this. Here are other key points raised: resource-led growth does not translate into broad-based and sustainable wealth creation, and this growth is vulnerable because it is not driven by deliberate policy – this is structural. We also need to diversify government revenue – farmers must be taxed (40% of GDP), but we must therefore invest in infrastructure, thus building a social compact between state and citizen. One more thing: Educating people – not the narrow or rote education, but one with emphasis on problem solving, broad perspectives and ethics – and preparing them for a rewarding life is the best thing we can do for our continent.
What’s next on your agenda?
I will be spending the next eight weeks in Swaziland as a Health Technology Research Fellow with the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), to participate in and evaluate the rollout of an SMS-based patient reminder system aimed at improving appointment attendance among pre-ART and ART patients. The intervention will first be piloted at four select facilities with electronic databases for six months to determine impact and feasibility.
What would you like to tell our very supportive and wonderful BN readers from across the globe?
In the words of Ayn Rand, “We will not let our fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. We will not let the hero in our soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life our continent deserves, but has never been able to reach…” We will check our road and the nature of our battle, yet in the end, the Africa our generation desires can be won. It exists. It is real. It is possible. It is ours!“
Thanks for your time, Idris!
Photo credits: Idris Bello, Eyegothere Photography, AlphaPaul Photography
Gbenga Awomodu is an Editorial Assistant at Bainstone Ltd./BellaNaija.com. When he is not reading or writing, Gbenga is listening to good music or playing the piano. Follow him on Twitter: @gbengaawomodu | Gbenga’s Notebook: www.gbengaawomodu.com | Facebook Page: Gbenga Awomodu