Photograph — Ari Labadi

“Intellectual property theft is a major issue in Nigeria and Africa and a lot of the time, what you will see is a lot of Africans outside of Africa excelling in this hardware field because the countries they have migrated to have better laws and protection for ideas created within their areas.” Funfere Koroye, Co-founder of Nupe Project.

“How do we solve this problem?”

“What can we do to fix this?”

These are the kind of questions that prompted the establishment of Nupe Project, an ideation and product design start-up based in Lagos and London. For Co-founder, Funfere Koroye and his partners, it’s about solving Africa’s problems one hardware at a time rather than complain and blame the government. “There’s a huge hardware problem in Africa. Almost every problem that is stereotypical to the continent and Nigeria as a country is usually in and around a physical solution,” Koroye told Ventures Africa.

Originally, Nupe Project was set up to be an online portfolio of solutions to drive conversations around indigenous hardware development in Africa, but it soon caught the attention of some companies and blossomed into what it is today. The product design/industrial design market is nearly non-existent on the continent as Africans are widely known for their import culture. A lot of hardware design and development work are taken outside the continent, hence the need for re-education on product innovation to solve Africa’s unique problems.

The start-up is co-owned and run by five people, three of whom form the core team. Koroye is the original founder and product developer; Micheal Omotosho is a design engineer based in the United Kingdom; Dami Onanuga is a recently graduated industrial designer; then Ifedayo Ojo, and Anjola Badaru. All fields combined, the team has experience in hardware manufacturing for food and beverages, footwear, furniture and mobile phone design, tech and alternative energy generation.

“We all met through social media and we just aligned on the fact that there have been few hardware inventors of African descent in the last decade to the level of a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk and we just feel like we had to put ourselves out there and do something different,” Koroye said.

Nupe Project operates three different business models; one is working with companies on a commercial basis to help innovate their in-house products. The second model is coming up with unique ideas that can be taken to market through grant applications and venture capitalist funding. And the third is working on non-profit-making projects to help communities. “We feel the last model of our business is very important because sometimes the people that need help can’t afford to pay for it,” Koroye said.

In the last few years, Koroye and his team have worked with a series of African companies across different fields to innovate products, including Tecno and Tanzanian company, Jaza Energy. “We worked with Techno to design mobile phones and more recently with Jaza Energy to develop a solar inverter battery to provide affordable electricity in off-grid communities,” Koroye said. On a non-profit level, they have designed a sanitizing solution for Drasa Trust, an NGO set up in memory of Dr Ameyo Stella Adadevoh.

Solar inverter battery for Jaza Energy
Credit – Nupe Project

“We are in a global world now because of the internet. You do not need to leave your country to be part of an international community, so take advantage of the interconnectivity of the internet. Crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are void of African ideas. We need more Africans on these platforms sharing ideas and trying to raise funds.” – Funfere Koroye

So far the start-up has operated out of pocket and has faced a lot of challenges with funding. Hardware development is expensive, costing a hundred times more the amount it would take to develop software. There are also other factors that threaten the existence of the business like unfavourable policies, a lack of basic resources and a lack of STEM education. Hence Koroye’s call for the introduction of hardware design into school curriculums in Nigeria, and tax incentives for the exportation of Nigerian intellectual property.

“We are in a continent where the conversation about hardware and creating hardware is still in its infancy. And there are extenuating factors like lack of power, lack of policy for IP exportation and lack of education in STEM courses and classes from primary level to university. So we are facing adversity on a lot of fronts. But we won’t let them deter us,” Koroye told Ventures Africa.

He also said the start-up is looking to raise funds and scale up in the near future by trading equity and by taking its ideas to market to increase its customer base. “We haven’t taken any idea to the market because it is expensive, but we are working on one or two products that we will take directly to the market before the year runs out,” Koroye said. They are also applying for grants and submitting ideas for innovation challenges, particularly those coming out of the UK since the UK has programs that are interested in accelerating innovation in Africa.

Funfere Koroye, Co-founder, Nupe Project

For the founders of Nupe Project, seeing the impact of their product ideas and witnessing the landscape changing around the conversation on hardware design in Nigeria and Africa makes them happy. Currently, in Tanzania, there are about a hundred thousand people using a solar inverter battery designed by the start-up. “This means a lot to us because we have never had that kind of traction with a product we designed,” Koroye said.

Regarding their experience and growth as business owners so far, Koroye said, “We’ve learnt that every connection must be leveraged and that some of the most important people to your growth may not necessarily give you money. Do not be afraid to fail. Seize every opportunity and you will be surprised what happens.

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