When Tolulope Iroye was announced the winner in the Best Use of Technology category at the Future Awards in January 2011, not many had known him before then. Visibly unprepared for the announcement, he stepped onto the podium anyways but later confessed he never expected to win. Perhaps, that was just a modest way to downplay his own achievements. Tolu’s story is one of passion and diligent work mixed with excellence, which is now being rewarded. Despite that he has never had formal higher education since finishing secondary school education a decade ago, his winning entry, which he calls the Magic Box, is a device the size of a 500-Watt voltage stabilizer, with which you can remotely control your electrical appliances via your GSM phone, from anywhere in the world! In this exclusive interview with BN Editorial Assistant, Gbenga Awomodu, he shares his various experiences in life, ranging from childood, science and technology, to business and formal education.
Meet Tolulope Iroye
“I am Iroye Tolulope, a 28-yr old electronic whiz, born into a family of eight, had only primary and secondary education, but developed my talent in the area of science and technology. I have a passion for innovation, and believe that if I can think it, I can design it. I am into the design of energy-saving gadgets, solar systems, inverters, security system, etc. Most times, I talk to my clients and they tell me their electrical problems and I just give them the solution. I design software and hardware which can be used to automate industrial machines or for any other purpose, and I am the winner of the Future Awards category for Best Use of Technology.”
In Love with Science and Technology
Tolu reveals that his fascination for science and technology dates backs to his childhood. He recalls, “It started from the curiosity I had as a kid: voices I heard from the radio and people I saw on the TV. I used to wonder if people were actually in those boxes and I broke several radio sets just to find out. People never left me in the room alone with the radio because, before they got back, I would have destroyed the radio.” He was easily a different kind of kid and he tells us, “I was a very quiet person. I used to be indoors and some times, my parents would force me out of the house: ‘Go and play with your friends and don’t stay inside!’ They were worried that ‘how can a child stay indoors for almost a week during the holidays?’ It was only when they sent me on errands that I went out.”
The son of a computer scientist father who had worked with Phillips and President, both electronics manufacturing companies, Tolu dug into his father’s library. His favourite from the stack of various books ranging from encyclopaedia to medical to science and arts, were the science books. In fact, his first personal science project at the age of 6 was inspired by illustrations from Advanced Level Physics by Nelkon & Parker. He tried to duplicate whatever he saw and even though he could not read or comprehend much of the words used, he sought help from his elder brothers. He adds, “I can remember seeing the internal diagram of a car in one of those books and I was wondering ‘how can I build this?’ I broke my toy cars to find out if there was anything similar to what was inside the books… At age six, I was using a very old edition of Nelkon & Parker. I saw the internal diagram of a battery which I copied and built using local materials at home. I could not read, but my elder brothers helped me to interpret some of those things. Sometimes I would bribe them with a share of my food because they soon got tired of my numerous questions. From what they told me about the battery, I broke a normal battery and brought out the carbon rod and got a tin of milk. I removed the top of the tin and inserted the rod in it. I ground charcoal and mixed lime water and grass.” But where did he get the idea from? He explains, “In the book, they said something acidic…. my brothers told me about salt, lime, unripe mango… I just reasoned based on what they told me that I could use those items as my own local materials. From then, I just had interest for anything science.”
The Painful Turning Point
Indeed, science seemed to hold so much promise for this young chap and he dreamt more about even bigger accomplishments. But something happened which would have far-reaching implications on the path to achieving his dreams. He says, “In SS2, I lost my dad so we had only mum to support six children from her teaching job. I am the fifth child, with three brothers and two sisters… I decided to relax because I had actually been planning to study abroad then and my mum could not afford that. I didn’t have interest in Nigerian universities because at that time I was already building projects for final year (university) students… I was between 18 & 20 years old then.” He began to channel his energy into his hobby – solving gadget and energy problems for people.
Since then, Tolu has moved on: “Well there is nothing like doing what you love; people do say I’m from another world. Most of the products are sold within my environment, but I am planning to expand soon.” How about the challenges involved in turning what he loves to do into money? “Well it’s one thing to love building things, but is it a marketable product? That’s a question I do ask myself. I build stuffs not because of the money, but the experience I gain. Well, because my clients know the products are locally made, they tend to go for imported ones – so I add extra features to mine which makes my products more durable. I would like to expand my business and I intend to create multiple streams of income by putting all my little ideas to work.”
Surviving in a Certificate-driven Environment
Tolu continues to read and learn more theory about electricity and energy efficiency even though he does not have any formal post-secondary-school training. However, considering the Nigerian environment is arguably a very Certificate-oriented one, how does he fit in? When asked about any previous experiences when somebody looked down on him because he does not have ‘the qualification’, he opens a can of worms! “Academically I was okay in the secondary school. I have my O’level results, all credits, in one sitting. Well, getting a proper education in modern science and technology will help expose me to more advanced systems and help me create designs that can compete anywhere in the world… I met a professor who was the Dean of Engineering in one of the Nigerian universities. I was planning to run a program that would empower Engineering students in practical electronics, so I wanted him to give me permission to use one of the classrooms on Saturdays. My clients are mainly final year students and I give them final year project support. Some of them said they needed some training, so I thought, ‘Why not run a programme that would train this people so that they’ll be able to practice engineering? …most of them end up becoming something else…’ He asked me, ‘what is your educational qualification?’ I told him, ‘O’level’. He said, ‘You this O’level boy, how can you come from roadside to this place and say you can teach us? What do you know? People in this school (the students) are very, very, intelligent and they know all these things. It’s just that they are lazy. If you go to the lab you’ll see what they’ve done…’ He even referred me to one of the display boards at the Engineering block… In which, I was the person who built that for the final year students, the year before – a digital display board like the ones you have in eateries. The professor told me that one of their students built that and that they have very intelligent students. The other projects that he actually showed me in the lab: I contributed to those projects. I was just laughing. A friend that went there with me, a graduate, was just pissed off …like ‘what’s this man saying?’ He wanted to talk, but I was now like ‘keep quiet’… I left there. I didn’t continue the programme and I forgot about the whole thing.
So how did Tolu feel after that episode? “Well it happens always, but I don’t allow it get to me. I believe excellence does not discriminate. I won the future award not because of my educational qualification, but because of excellence in what I do. The truth is: I can only feel down when I want to feel down. No matter what someone tells me or how they want to make me feel bad about something, I’ll only feel bad if I want to. So that’s one of the lessons I’ve learnt in life. You see, people, because they can’t do what you are doing, they tend to make you feel intimidated and inferior. I’ve had experiences with people: some teachers wondering how this student is able to do things that they (graduates) cannot. It’s something I grew up with, so I’m not even pissed. I don’t get annoyed. I just accept people the way they are.”
On Winning the Best Use of Technology Award at the Future Awards
How did he get nominated? He says, “When I was nominated, I was surprised that my work was recognized. I later investigated and discovered it was a friend. I was a bit skeptical initially when I got a call and was informed that I had been nominated for the Future Awards. When the voting started… I was like, ‘Mehn! This thing is really serious o!” I was hearing it over the radio and, mehn! This thing is really, really serious o!’ So I called my friends to vote for me. Also, from the website I also got to know that it was not totally about the number of votes. The day they announced my name, I was shocked! I wasn’t expecting my name to be called. I was really happy. Winning the award has created confidence in me and the zeal and to do more… and the encouragement… When people recognize what you have done, it gives you more drive to do more. I’ve been having calls from different places and people bringing funny ideas – very crazy ideas. Those ideas are really great and I hope I’ll be able to build those things.” Which companies does he work for? “I’ve not really done jobs for companies directly. Most of the jobs are done indirectly; more like having a middle man. Most of the companies are not even in Nigeria, but outside Nigeria. In terms of business, it’s been profitable. I don’t have partners yet. I will train some people in some particular areas – my solar systems and alternative energy systems. I’ll build a pattern – a design that will make it easy for a novice to actually construct them. I’ll employ people to construct them and also do the marketing. I’m trying to raise the funds for that kind of expansion…”
Inspiration for The Magic Box
He tells about the device that won him the award: “The Magic Box is a device which gives you control over any electrical system; it is a hardware which when installed into the electrical system of your home, gives you control over the electrical appliances by giving you access to switch off or switch on your home appliances from anywhere in the world using a mobile phone. If from your office you remember that the electric cooker was left on, just pick your phone and dial the number of the system, then input the code assigned to the cooker, the system automatically switches off the cooker; same goes for any other appliance.” What inspired this invention? “The idea came from a need to control devices in a wireless manner. It started around 2001 when I was wondering how I could switch off my fan while in bed, which I achieved using infrared system. The disadvantage was that it must be in the line of sight. Later on, the system was improved to Radio Frequency system in which there was no issue with line of sight, but the distance was limited to about 50 metres and the frequency was not stable, so the need for a more efficient system made me replace the RF system with a GSM modem which is also RF, but has a stable operating frequency. The improved version of the magic box was built in 2010.
Formal Education & Strategizing for the Future
Winning at the Future Awards has no doubt brought him much more publicity for his business than he ever dreamed of, but what are the immediate plans to grow his business and probably go back to school? “Yes, I am going back to school when my business is well established. I’m thinking about studying if my business can run without my presence. I plan to go back to school fulltime; maybe the US or the UK to study Electrical Engineering or Electrical/Communications Engineering. Last year, I applied to the University of Hull in the UK, but I could not raise enough money to fund the first year programme. Things didn’t work out the way I planned it so I had to drop that – probably at the end of the year.” On his goals and aspirations for the next five years, he prefers not to talk about it, but “I will be in a very great position” he assures.
Indeed, Tolulope Iroye has been through a lot and has successfully wriggled out of the tight corners in life. He does not have a girlfriend and is not thinking about marriage any time soon because, “I believe that marriage is about two people. I want to focus on my goals and not have to worry about two people for now.” He ends the interview on a reflective note, “I look unto God only as the source of everything in my life. Nobody can make you smaller than you are until you accept it. Everything that happened to me shaped me into the person I am today so I have no regrets. Never allow anybody to kill your dream; believe in God as your source, believe in yourself, be focused and take responsibility for anything that happens to you. Don’t blame others for your failure. Remember, you can never fail until you accept that you have failed.”
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. He believes in the inspirational power of words and pictures, which he explores in helping to make the world a better place. He blogs at Gbenga’s Notebook (www.gbengaawomodu.com).