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BN Trailblazers & Tastemakers: Geeky, But in a Really Cool Way! Chidube Ezeozue Is Taking Giant Engineering Strides for the Nigerian Power Situation

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When BellaNaija heard about this super smart grad student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, we had to find out more. Chidube Ezeozue ‘s innovative ideas for the Nepa Situation were highlighted and celebrated in his school journal and we knew this was a story to chase up on.{Read up on our previous post about him here} Born and raised in Nigeria, Chidube is a home grown genius who keeps aspiring for more. With a passion for all things technology, we were convinced that this was a geek we had to talk to. What makes Chidube tick? Why did he choose to tackle the the NEPA situation head on? Why does he think it is possible to address this situation? What else has he been working on? Find out all these and more in our interesting interview with this really cool guy who is exploring uncharted territories.

Where did you grow up? Please share some of your growing up experiences with us!
I grew up in Aladja just outside Warri. My earliest memories of growing up include my mother being super-strict about academics. During primary school, she would prepare and give us (my siblings and I) ‘revision while in school’ to do during break time and when we returned home in the afternoon. She would check those, our class notes, our stationery and work with us to get our assignments done.

We also had a pretty strict study timetable for after-school so no TV or playing outside till 5pm (back then, Delta TV started broadcasting by 5pm anyway). By 5pm, it was then a choice between TV and going outside to play. We mostly chose TV which is weird because it wasn’t particularly good programming but this probably explains why I’ve never been enthusiastic about playing soccer till date. My mum also ran some small businesses and got us involved in helping with that too.

We know about the Nigerian education system and its flaws, tell us about life at the University of Nigeria (UNN); the challenges and pluses of studying Electrical Engineering at UNN?
A lot the challenges of studying in a public Nigerian university like UNN are not a secret. There are the usual challenges with getting necessities like electricity, water, internet (yes, this is a necessity today!) and a proper transportation system. There was also the poor and often inadequate facilities including broken and inadequate class furniture and a lack of lab equipment and consumables – I still remember having to run around the lab looking for a chemical as common as hydrochloric acid during a chemistry practical exam.

Then there were the over-crowded classes but this gets better as you advance since there are fewer combined classes in higher years. I could go on and mention the sub-par lecturer you come across once in a while, the outdated curriculum, the lack of rigor in the classes, the concentration of most of the grade in a single exam and the handouts/textbooks you occasionally have to buy to pass but that will just be beating a dead horse.

On the bright side, there were many students determined to make the best of a bad situation and there were lecturers who were dedicated and knew their stuff. Electrical Engineering, specificially, is not a particularly fast-changing field at the moment so we did not quite face many of the outdated curriculum problems. Also, I think studying electrical engineering placed me centrally in the middle of many paths; I could swing toward electrical power (which was a bias the department certainly had), but it also allowed me swing to electronics, communication and computer programming.

Fortunately too, we still had a lot of lab equipment from an era when things were better and since the field hasn’t changed much in the last few decades, a lot of this equipment is still relevant. However, taking knowledge and experience away from the laboratory sessions was still largely up to the student; you could just as easily stand aloof and copy readings from others as you could be the one fiddling with the knobs and taking the readings from the equipment.

You finished with a first class degree from a Nigerian University. That’s quite a feat! Can you shed more light on that?
After our first year, quite a few people were on first class GPAs. I guess it was only after the second year that I realized that graduating with a first class was a real possibility. To make this happen, I had lots of encouragement from the  people who ran BKADD and some others from the Uhere Study Center, which is a live-in/study center run by the Opus Dei institution in the Roman Catholic church. I vaguely remember some of these guys ‘threatening’ that they would not attend my matriculation if I did not make all As in my first year. I called their bluff ;).

By my final year, I was confident that I would make a first class. In fact, being the best student in the university was a distinct possibility. Some lady from the humanities beat me to it. At UNN, as well as in most Nigerian universities, there are always urban legends running around about being victimized if you are smart. We had such for the E.E department then as well but, to a large extent, I found them to be untrue. Granted, you could get questionably poor grades in an exam you were confident of but I found that, to a large extent, this is a result of the ‘sketchiness’ of the lecturer or carelessness in his grading rather than some systematic targeting of a student.

You mentioned that you’re a believer of technology. Would you say you’ve always been that way or that is as a result of the time spent at University?
A lot of my belief in technology came from growing up around my Electrical Engineer father. We always had copies of IEEE Spectrum or Scientific American lying around the house. We also had tools; soldering irons, all sorts of digital meters, then the regular stuff: screwdrivers, hammers, etc. and my dad frequently let us watch or ‘help’ while he worked. In secondary school, I was in JETS club too but it wasn’t too serious back then. In undergrad, those same BKADD and Uhere boys pretty much harassed me till I got a computer – a second-hand, beat up Dell Inspiron that my mum convinced an uncle to sell us.

I think getting that computer was a major turning point, I quickly learnt how to write programs in several languages. One type of program that I enjoyed writing were games because I felt they were complex and challenging to think through.

My first programming language was QBASIC, I wrote an implementation of Nokia’s “Snake” and a small car race like the type you had on those tiny ‘Golden Light’ handheld game consoles. Shortly after, I learnt VisualBASIC and wrote a chess game in this. After learning C, I tried unsuccessfully to write a file compression program but couldn’t get around all the bugs. Fortunately, a friend lent me a Java book so I learnt the Java programming language and wrote my file compression program in it. This program was instrumental in getting me an internship at MTech Communications in 2007. After my internship, I became BKADD president and needed a ‘cool’ project for the club to work on during the session. I thought it would be cool if we built a chess playing robot that ran on the chess game that I had written a few years back. Building the robot was however more difficult than we expected – first of all, there were the cost implications. The club barely had enough money to buy the components.

Secondly, we didn’t get access to the kind of equipment we needed to use in the mechanical engineering lab to do some of the fabrication e.g. a milling machine for our gears. Eventually, we resorted to working with a welder in Enugu who tried fabricating stuff by hand. Lesson: hand-fabricated gears are not pretty and they don’t work. Eventually, I had to focus on my bachelor’s thesis and we gave up on the robot. I attached a proposal we wrote to appeal for support then. It’s a little long but it contains a few pictures of the robot in development and our design too.

Tell us about your time in NYSC. You mentioned that you served in Jos. Did you attempt to redeploy? How was being in Jos with the political upheaval at that time?
Before posting letters came out, I tried unsuccessfully to get posted to Lagos but after I was posted to Jos, I decided to stay there without attempting to redeploy. This was partly because I didn’t want to lie about having “cancer” or some other outrageous medical condition. I also found a home in the Nigerian Christian Corpers’ Fellowship (NCCF). I lived in the NCCF house in Jos, was the national publicity secretary and participated in our Rural Rugged outreaches to neighboring villages. These experiences as well as the friends I made in my time there made staying in Jos worthwhile.

Jos was constantly in a state of tension at the time – I have already mentioned the curfews. In addition, a few weeks to the end of my service year, there was a major crisis. We had to stay indoors for two weeks. In fact, the NYSC DG had to visit us with foodstuff in hand so that we did not starve to death. Ok, I’m exaggerating a little about starving to death.

Tell us about the BKADD, your role in it and how it helped influence who you are today
As already mentioned, I was a BKADD member and eventually president in my final year. At the club, I met some of the smartest people I know today. The club gave us ‘mind’, it made us feel like we were hackers who could do anything we wanted and should only do things that were difficult. It was almost as if an unwritten criteria for being president was having the eloquence to fire people up to do stuff.

I also eventually went to work for Seamfix that was started by a bunch of BKADDers. At Seamfix, I saw entrepreneurship ‘work’, I literally watched the founders go from straddling ‘Okada’ to attend meetings to the day when the first set of brand new official cars – 2010 Toyota Camrys – arrived the office. The founders of Seamfix also believed in me and gave me a lot of responsibility, even as the young, relatively inexperienced software engineer I was. This hastened my development a great deal.

With your 1st class degree… was it very easy to transition into the work environment?
My work environment in Seamfix right out of undergrad was very laid back; typical startup culture – loose resumption times, looser closing times, relaxed dress code etc. – so transition was not difficult. Additionally, the founders had a mix of first-class degrees and very excellent second-class uppers as well so it wasn’t hard to be geeky there.

Since the founders were friends, I didn’t really have to submit a formal application to Seamfix especially since in the earlier days of the company the recruitment process was pretty informal. However, during my NYSC, I applied to one of the top oil companies. I got through all the interview stages except the last but the recruiting experience left a bad taste in my mouth – everything from the 3 dangerous road trips between Jos and Lagos on my meager corper salary including 2 where I slept on the road thanks to the curfews in Jos at the time, the failed promise to reimburse the cost of travel and the very short notices given on invitation. After that experience, I promised never to apply to another company, plus I didn’t want to have to deal with ‘claiming sickness’ to get away from work for interviews. I have gone back on that promise since I got to MIT, haha!

Tell us about Seamfix. What is Seamfix? What did you do at Seamfix and share some of the work you did at Seamfix

Seamfix is a software company started in 2007 by four UNN Electronic Engineering grads right out of NYSC. The company makes software that helps organizations run more efficiently. For example the company has a secondary school solution that handles things like fee payment, grading, etc. There are also solutions for managing universities and hospitals. One of Seamfix’s main strengths currently is in biometrics, creating solutions that allow organizations capture fingerprint and image data. Existing clients for these products include Airtel’s and Starcomms’ customer registration platforms as well as solutions used by many state governments to fish ghost workers out of their payrolls. This section does read like a commercial 🙂

While at Seamfix, I did some work on most of these projects and others that didn’t see the light of day. A lot of my time there was spent on the customer registration project for Airtel; building, testing and doing support for the software that the registration agents carry around, as well as the back end that stores the data and performs customer activation.

You were having a good run at Seamfix, why did you decide to go to MIT

Sometime in undergrad I figured I had a knack and passion for teaching and ever since then I have wanted to be a university lecturer. Going to MIT was one step in making that happen.

Tell us about the projects you’re working on right now?


Nigeria’s electricity problems are no secret. Solar technology presents an attractive alternative due to Nigeria’s abundant solar resources, solar’s environmental friendliness and portability (no need for complex transmission/distribution infrastructure or gas pipelines, for instance). It is however hindered only by its upfront cost. SolarKobo therefore intends to bear this upfront cost and charge a more palatable monthly fee that we guarantee would be less than the cost of running a petrol/diesel generator. If Nigeria has 60 million private generators, by some estimates, why can’t we have equally widespread solar systems that are guaranteed to be on 24-7 at less the cost. We are essentially democratizing the utility and putting it on individuals’ roofs.

As simple as this idea may sound, there are significant challenges involved in this, not the least of which is access to cheap capital. The high upfront cost of the system means that we require a lot of capital at the beginning and the long payout period of several years requires that this capital be cheap in terms of interest rates and that sort of thing. There are other challenges that have to do with billing, credit worthiness, system component quality, component sourcing and maintenance.

We have created plans and forecasts to understand the feasibility of our plan in addition to a pilot of the idea at a barbershop in Akoka.

In addition to our zero-upfront offering, we also have a ‘managed solar’ offering where the user pays the upfront cost of the system (and they own it). This offering comes with complimentary two-year free maintenance. We intend to apply the same strengths from the zero-upfront model – smart monitoring, quality components and proactive maintenance. The only difference here is the funding model and the system ownership.


The best way to share NepaSituation’s vision is to present a series of use cases:

1. You want to bake a cake, but are trying to avoid having the power go out shortly after you stick the dough in the oven. NepaSituation will tell you how long electricity will last.

2. You are coming home from work…tired but decide to stop by the market and pick up some fresh meat. If electricity will stay all night, you can stick it in the freezer and cook it tomorrow. Otherwise, you should pass up on buying it because you are too tired to cook it tonight. NepaSituation will help you make that decision.

3. You want to go an get a hair cut but need to know if your barber has light. NepaSituation will tell you.

4. You want to visit a friend to watch a premiership match/iron your clothes if they have electricity. NepaSituation will tell you.

5. You are looking for a new house. You will like to know how bad things have been in the neighbourhoods you are considering and perhaps factor your expected cost of diesel into the advertised cost of the house. NepaSituation will provide historical data.

6. You run a business and can be flexible about your work times. NepaSituation can guide you to work times that make the most use of PHCN (This was actually a use case at Seamfix).

The bottom line is that everyday, we need to make decisions that depend on the availability of electricity. NepaSituation will provide the information you need to make those decisions. Finally, there is no publicly-available national view of the electricity situation and anecdoctal evidence is hardly accurate. NepaSituation provides that view and gives us a tool to hold the government accountable for its claims of improving electricity supply.

NepaSituation however depends heavily on the availability of information and we have contemplated several sources of outage information ranging from PHCN to our current crowd-sourced model. Admittedly, we have also seen very limited adoption and constant use but, hopefully, all the press we have been getting of recent will change that and that will be seen in the coming weeks. Shameless plug here :), in a bid to retain users, we have a daily airtime raffle draw, the more updates our users make the more their chances of winning.

Initiative to get secondary schools into top undergraduate programs here.

Working with an undergraduate here at MIT, we started a program to encourage and mentor promising secondary school students into top undergraduate programs. Our vision is to create a generation of highly-educated Nigerians who will in turn contribute their quota to the development of Nigeria. Working with the University of Nigeria Secondary School, we did a pilot of this initiative last year. We selected a few top students, bought them SAT preparatory materials and paid for their SAT. Their performance was not as outstanding as we hoped and the experience reminded us that not every student (brilliant or not) has the ability to study on their own and do well at the SAT. So in future iterations of the idea, we will be experimenting with ways to determine which students can self-study, and for the rest, we come up with a different preparation strategy. We are also looking to widen our reach of secondary schools. Finally, getting into top undergraduate programs here requires a combination of great SAT scores and secondary school grades as well as a commitment to community, leadership, initiative and creativity. Hence, we are also designing activities for our candidates that will emphasize these attributes.

The Bridge Initiative

This effort is similar to the one mentioned above but it is aimed at undergraduates and recent graduates. The goal is to mentor them into top graduate programs here and the motivation is same: build a generation of highly-educated Nigerians. For this I am working with a number of graduate students some of whom are working behind the scenes to ensure the program takes off smoothly. The others are serving as mentors and a drawn from top schools around the United States including MIT, Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin. To get the word out, we reached out to a number of Nigerian universities obtained contact information for their best students in science and engineering and we are building a pool of candidates. This project was started this year and, I guess, the coming months will reveal how successful it becomes.

Do you have any kind of funding for your project?
All these projects are run as leanly as possible so that most expenses can be covered out of pocket. SolarKobo’s January 2013 pilot was, however, funded by a seed grant from MIT’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship

How will the NepaSituation App help to improve power situation in Nigeria?
The NepaSituation app cannot directly improve the power situation in Nigeria. However, it will let people plan better around the power situation to make the most use of the cheap, PHCN supply. Nevertheless, we hope that an app like this will improve accountability and, perhaps, indirectly drive the government to create a lasting solution.

Do you have plans to move back to Nigeria?
I certainly do. Unfortunately, I cannot provide timelines. Returning home has to be worthwhile for me and I am working hard at projects like SolarKobo to provide myself with a challenging job to return home to.

What are your thoughts on the current brain drain in Nigeria?
Brain drain is a hotly debated topic – not just in Nigeria – but in countries like Malaysia, India and China. The cons are usually the focus of the conversation but let me highlight a few of the less obvious pros:

– Diasporas are huge source of remittances which, by some estimates, are today larger than foreign direct investment to some developing countries

– Diaspora networks also serve as necessary and useful liaisons for businesses/investors seeking to come into Nigeria

– There is also a theory about how a lot of professionals working in the diaspora hit invisible ceilings in their careers in their host countries. Eventually, some of these people bring their experience, capital and education back to run and start companies in their home country

Okay, ‘Dube, you’re officially a geek! Do you have any fun? What do you do for fun?
When I’m not working at MIT, I swim (finally learnt how, here 🙂 .  I also did some rowing with the MIT rowing club last summer and I cycle quite a bit. I learnt how to play table tennis during NYSC but I haven’t played much since then. I watch an unhealthy amount of TV (I still don’t know how I get any work done), occasionally read non-school books (I’m a huge fan of Robert Ludlum) and I hang out with friends too. I enjoy cooking and I’m also getting into baking (constant electricity, flowing water and a non-muddy market to buy stuff in actually makes cooking less a chore 🙂 And I have pictures showing I do have fun!

Thank you chatting with us Chidube. We wish you all the best in all your projects. Check out Chidube’s project SolarKobo HERE.

You probably wanna read a fancy bio? But first things first! Atoke published a book titled, +234 - An Awkward Guide to Being Nigerian. It's available on Amazon. ;)  Also available at Roving Heights bookstore. Okay, let's go on to the bio: With a Masters degree in Creative Writing from Swansea University, Atoke hopes to be known as more than just a retired foodie and a FitFam adherent. She can be reached for speechwriting, copywriting, letter writing, script writing, ghost writing  and book reviews by email – [email protected]. She tweets with the handle @atoke_ | Check out her Instagram page @atoke_ and visit her website for more information.

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