Start-Up Stories: Exposure Robotics Academy
This is the first of several articles in Ayiba’s new series “Start-up Stories;” tales of business and entrepreneurship on the continent.
Ayiba Associate Editor, Akinyi Ochieng, interviewed Obinna Ukwuani, a recent MIT graduate and founder of Exposure Robotics, an innovative educational start-up hoping to help young Nigerians cross the digital divide. While based in the United States as a student, Obinna created a remarkable business model. Just how did he do it? Read on for his story.
Akinyi: Exposure Robotics is such an inspiring concept. What life experiences led you to develop the idea?
Obinna: I spent most of my secondary school years here in the U.S., but I spent 8th and 9th grade in Nigeria at boarding school. While not my first time in Nigeria – I had travelled there with family before – it was my first real experience living in Nigeria and learning to be Nigerian. That was my “Nigeration.” After that, I never really lost the connection that I developed with Nigeria and all the family members I had met and all the places I had been. The experience has always been on my mind.
When I came back to finish high school in the U.S., that was when I first became involved in robotics. I joined my high school’s first robotics team as one of the founding members. That was my first intro to robotics. I did that for three years, then I went to MIT. I must say that having that robotics experience in high school probably gave me an edge as an applicant.
My freshman year at MIT was ridiculously hard, as the whole MIT experience is. I ended up having to take some time off – for two years actually. During those two years, I got really involved with Harambee Nigeria (an agriculture-focused NGO).
During the last year of my time off, I initiated the Exposure Robotics program. The company came about because during those two years, I would teach robotics every summer through the DC public school system as part of a career pathways program exposing kids to technology. The summer prior to my return to MIT, the program was cancelled. At that point, I was jobless and my dad suggested that I consider starting a program in Nigeria. I told him that if he flew me to Nigeria, I would think about it. So he did.
He sent me to Nigeria in the summer of 2011. I travelled around, going to Abuja and Lagos, and talked to a lot of friends and a lot of young people who owned schools and were involved in education. I also talked to young businesspeople in their mid to late twenties.
I had taken my robotics kit with me and told people about what I was doing back in the U.S. All of these young, ambitious guys told me that I could charge a ton of money for it. I could get people’s kids together and teach them these skills. Then I realized that there was a market for this, which fueled my drive.
Before I got back to the U.S., I sat down with a really good friend of mine in Nigeria and we discussed the name, the logo, and the business model. I walked away with a fuller idea of what I was going to do. Before I left, I got in touch with a lawyer and starting bringing together the foundation of the company.
When I got back to MIT, I went to the Nigerian Students Association and I told them about my idea. I told them I thought there was an opportunity to pursue robotics education in Nigeria if they wanted to join me. I came out of that meeting with three co-founders and then I recruited two others later. We worked that first year doing proposals and reaching out within our individual networks to find companies who would be willing to help us facilitate this type of program.
Our business model is one in which our students attend for free for the most part. The vast majority, 99%, don’t pay for it. They’re from all over the place.
We had a proposal, then we travelled to Nigeria the following January to meet with the companies. Once we got there, they told us that they would back us up. At that point, we started recruiting our classmates at MIT to teach the program.
I flew to Nigeria later that year to run the program for eight weeks. This year will be the second summer. We’ve had our squabbles and our fights, of course. There are a lot of relational things that are involved in business that I feel like a lot of people don’t know about when it comes to how to you treat people and hierarchy. These are your peers, but somehow they are supposed to be listening to you. Sometimes that’s kind of weird. How do you debate equity shares and all that stuff, etc. We’ve had all those challenges but at the end of the day we’re running the program again this summer. I’m flying out a week from now to coordinate things.
Akinyi: What is your central mission? What are you hoping to achieve with Exposure Robotics?
Obinna: There are so many answers to that question. One answer that we usually give is that education in Nigeria should change. I went to high school there, so I know it’s all about memorization and regurgitation – not really about application. Kids can cope with basic schoolwork, but they can’t use their hands to build anything. Our approach is project-based. We teach you and then you prove to us that you actually know what you’re talking about when you build and program a robot. A lot of it is self-driven and a lot of the challenges are open-ended in that you really have to sit down and work together to figure out how to solve a problem. We think that’s something that isn’t being done in the Nigerian education system.
The second reason we’re interested in developing such a program is that we want to create a generation of technical innovators – kids who can build things. Eventually, we want to see Africans solving African problems in an African way as opposed to importing foreign solutions. We should have people who can sit down, assess a situation, and come up with a novel solution tailored to conditions that are unique to Africa – or Nigeria, in this case.
Akinyi: You touched on the difficulty of relating to colleagues, but what are some of the other challenges you’ve faced in starting a business?
Obinna: The hierarchy problem fits into a category of problems which is probably one of the toughest things for me and the rest of the team to deal with. What we’re doing is kind of novel. There’s no one else in Nigeria really doing what we’re doing right now.
Funding hasn’t really been an issue because we’ve always had companies pledging all the money that we’ve ever needed, but the team internally has been stressed because we’re still trying to figure out how to structure our business. We’re all young guys in our early twenties. We haven’t even graduated from college yet, so we’re running this out of dorm rooms. We’re using our own funds and our parents’ funds to fly back and forth to Nigeria. We’re just learning. We’re learning on the job and that has been one of the toughest things.
Organizing a business structure in a sustainable manner has been hard. We want to create something that doesn’t necessarily need us to be present but continues to run. We can imagine that once we graduate, we might not want to necessarily be so involved with Exposure as we have been in the past. I believe that something like Exposure should continue to run, so we’re trying to figure out how we can bring Nigerians on board so that they can learn what we’re doing and take over when we no longer want to run it ourselves.
Akinyi: Do you think the challenges you have faced are unique to working in Africa or that they are just universal issues that come with starting a business?
Obinna: Definitely universal. The more experience you have, the lower the chances that you’ll encounter these sets of problems. But a problem that is more unique to Africa, or to Nigeria, is that the middle class is smaller and poorer than in a country like the U.S. or in Europe or some parts of South America. Our program, by Nigerian standards, is an elite program. Or I guess, by anyone’s standards, it’s an elite program based on the cost and what we’re offering.
Our instructors are all students from elite universities. In our case, they’re all mostly MIT engineering students and we pay them very well. We fly them, we feed them, and we pay them a handsome stipend to keep them incentivized and to attract good talent to our program. And somebody has to pay for that.
Our tuition right now is roughly $3000, which is half a million naira. In Nigeria, the average salary is around 140,000 – 150,000 naira a month – roughly $1000/month while our program costs $3000 for five weeks. There just aren’t a lot of parents who can afford that and even if they do have the money in the bank to pay for that, it’s a huge investment. Other programs charge 20,000 – 30,000 naira for two weeks. That’s many times less than what we’re charging, so there’s a competition issue. There just aren’t many people who can afford to pay what we need to charge to offer what we’re offering. That’s definitely something that’s unique to Africa or other parts of the developing world, but that’s not insurmountable. We have plans to tackle that problem.
Akinyi: Do you think that entrepreneurial climate in Nigeria is different or similar to the U.S.?
Obinna: Increasingly, Lagos is starting to look like some places in Silicon Valley. You have companies like Jumia which is raising billions from investors. Now there’s funding available and you have incubators popping up all over the place. There’s CcHub in Yaba in Lagos. I visited them and they’re doing amazing things. There are a lot places you can go and find resources and money to run sophisticated tech companies.
There are also a lot of self-taught Nigerian computer science graduates who have drive and want a piece of the pie and are going to start ventures. I know a lot of young guys who are going off and building things like student management software where you can log in and check your grades – things that we kind of take for granted overseas. They don’t have that in Nigeria and Nigerian students know this. I could count on my fingers the number of different softwares that are hoping to solve that problem and they’re all from young people.
The entrepreneurial climate in Nigeria is just as rich as the entrepreneurial climate in the U.S. My personal philosophy on that is the more challenges, the more opportunities. Every time you wake up in the morning in Lagos and you’re driving around, you complain about something. You complain that you can’t find coffee in the morning when you’re tired and cranky. That’s an opportunity for you to start the equivalent of Nigerian Starbucks. Everything is an opportunity. The more people that recognize this, the more businesses will start to pop up as long as the funding is available. And every day the funding gets better and more conducive for new business.