A year ago, Obi Brown emerged winner of the Most Innovative Product category of the 2015 edition of Etisalat Prize for Innovation. In this interview with Peter Uzoho, he speaks on his winning product, the prize, his new start-up, among other issues
You entered for the Etisalat Prize for Innovation last year and won. What motivated you to enter for the prize?
For a few years I have consulted in the field of education technology and recently I decided to develop this company called Insight Africa that creates exceptional resources that helps students prepare for a career in science and technology and we started off with Mathematics at the secondary school level and as we were finishing it up, we saw the Etisalat challenge and we thought that it was a nice idea and opportunity to showcase our innovation. So, we said let’s test our assumptions here, and we put in for the challenge and one day we got a call and the rest is history.
What prize did you win?
It was for the most innovative product under the product category that was going to be able to drive the adoption of broadband.
What is your product name?
The product name is Study Lab. The essence like I said, is that we want to be able to create exceptional resources to help Nigerian students prepare for a career in Science, Technology Engineering and Math so the idea is simple since we know students spend a little bit of time in the classroom and more time outside practicing concepts. We know that the more a student practices, the better he/she is able to understand and embed concepts.
So we created a system that has thousands and thousands of innovative, interesting and meaningful problem sets in Maths, Physics and Chemistry and each of these problem sets has a video solution where the teacher will explain the concept and derive the solution in such a way that the student will be able to apply that concept to another question.
So as you go from one problem to another, you are building your competencies in that subject area while learning, closing your knowledge gaps and understanding the wider application of these subjects. I mean there is no use learning a set theory if you don’t know where to apply it; there is no use learning simultaneous equations if you don’t know how to apply it. So we crafted questions that link these problems to real life situations across the entire spectrum of the application – from business to sports to general science and Mathematics and we have video solutions for them.
We also initiated a new product, we have prototyped it and it’s been tested; it’s a learning toy built like a Lego set and it allows children to be able to aggregate these Lego type pieces; I use the word Lego because all of us know it. So they will be able to aggregate them, create cities with them and learn geometry. It’s an educational toy and we call it ‘Geometrocity’.
Since winning the prize, what work of innovation are you currently engaged in?
Since winning the prize we have improved what we were doing before at Study Lab and at the same time we have a team also developing the educational toy.
Are you in partnership with any educational body?
We are currently working with senior lecturers in the university and First Class students to create content for us in Physics. That is where we are right now and we are working with the department of Physics although it is unofficial but we are partnering with lecturers on an individual basis. We have had a review with the Mathematics unit of the Faculty of Education, University of Jos and so we are pursuing some kind of partnerships with content creators there. But going forward we want to be able to form other partnerships particularly for branding, sales and marketing.
Did winning the prize contribute to getting you some form of awareness and support in terms of funding and equipment?
One of the biggest things that this prize brought to the table was the Etisalat brand. That’s the biggest thing really and going forward we hope that we will still be able to partner with the brand successfully but that’s really the biggest thing. What we want to do is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in true sense of the word. The capital input is a pretty high. I will describe what we really got from Etisalat this way; you are driving from Maiduguri to Lagos right? So you have a full tank of fuel when you get to Yobe you top up, when you get to Gombe again you probably have to top up so what Etisalat did was to help us on our way financially. The biggest single thing was the brand, Etisalat brand.
I won’t be surprised if any organisations that measures brands will actually rate Etisalat brand highest in Nigeria. I don’t know I’ve not seen where they are right now but it should be number one. That brand is really solid and has really helped us in our way. It helped us gain recognition and it helped us to get a bit of confidence going forward knowing that we are doing something right and then the training we got from the Enterprise Development Centre of Pan Atlantic University, Lagos, on the behest of Etisalat was fantastic too. These are institutions that are really worth their salt.
You have talked about innovation from your experience in the educational sector, how do you see it as a catalyst for national growth?
It’s a scary fact. Our last census was put at a hundred and fifty million which was in 2007, right now the statistics say that we are one hundred and eighty six million. What this means is that Nigeria is doubling its population very quickly. Within the next decade we would have doubled our population. Meanwhile, the rate at which we are adding value to the economy is not fast enough. Currently we are about 77 million people feeding 175 million people. By the time we double, would we have up to a hundred million feeding three hundred million? That’s the question to ask. The only way that can happen is if we are all involved in creating innovative products or services, creating enterprise. So the issue of innovation really speaks to our entire future.
Since winning the Etisalat Prize for Innovation, have there been other competitions you have entered based on the reputation you got from the Etisalat Prize?
Obviously a good product is a good product, a good idea is a good idea and it deserves to be showcased; so we entered for the enterprise challenge with British Council and we won the Samsung Prize. There are a few others that we entered for and we have not gotten them so it’s the case of throwing mud at the wall and hoping that it sticks, some of them we entered for before we received the Etisalat Prize for Innovation, so those ones are still upcoming.
To SMEs, what are the pitfalls you think they should avoid in business?
First of all, keep your operating cost as low as possible until you achieve skill and business profitability. You know our facilities in Jos is number one but our operating cost is very low. We call it boot strapping. Secondly, I’m able to use my network because I grew up there, I’m able to use my network in universities and other places to attract content developers.
So I am leveraging my network capital, I am leveraging my social capital, I am leveraging an inexpensive model for development, if not we would have since gone out of business. And then looking for avenues like these to create brand, avenues like what we are doing now, a little bit of publicity, and then internet marketing to be able to create brand. But the issue for start-ups in SME is boot strapping. Really finding ways to get a lot done with a little.