Prof Ekekwe is a rare Nigerian tech genius with many incredible world class inventions to his kitty. Among his numerous inventions is the invasive medical robotic, a system which was acquired by US govt. He also led the team that designed generation accelerometer, a major component of iPhone. In this interview, he shares his trajectory from a local village boy to a master in Silicon Valley.
How was growing up like for you?
I grew up in Ovim in Isuikwuato LGA of Abia State. I attended Ovim Community School and Secondary Technology School Ovim. I lived in the village until the day I left for my undergraduate education in Federal University of Technology Owerri. As a kid, I was told that the only way to become like legends in my community was education. I invested all to become the best I could become academically. It was a great community which made things very easy for the boys and girls. I was shaped living in a place where I could see governors, professors, and justices in the village square discussing with elders, and at the end join the entourages to play and eat in their homes. Those experiences normalized my perspectives such that by the time I came to the city, nothing was new because all the important people came from my village.
What childhood experience shaped who you have become today?
One of the finest moments I had as a teen was the day my WASC result came out. I set an all-time academic record in school history which remains till today. That made me popular in my village as many big people invited me, congratulating me with gifts. Specifically, Real Admiral Ndubuisi Ekekwe (rtd), a former governor of Imo and Lagos states, and Major General Ike Nwachukwu (rtd), a former governor of Imo State, gave me handshakes. Doctors and engineers from cities came to our village house to congratulate me. I visited a neighboring secondary school (Ovim Girls), and students saw me, came out and began singing my name. Through that experience, I quickly knew that if you excel in education, big men would shake your hands and bring you closer. That has been a moment that defines how I see being the best in anything I pursue.
What was the inspiration behind your choice of profession?
During my Integrated Science class in secondary school, I quickly connected with electricity the first time they introduced it. I felt at home with the constructs of electrons. Then the teacher started mentioning things electricity could be applied in. When I heard robot, I became a believer that it was going to be electrical engineering. His explanation of robot was important as I had worked in the farms with my grandmother and felt that technology could have assisted her in farms. She worked hard but I never felt the yield was rewarding her efforts. Today, robot is a passion. I specialized in medical robotics during my PhD in the Johns Hopkins University, USA. I own a U.S. patent in robotics which the U.S. government acquired assignee rights in 2017.
What does your company really do and what milestones has it achieved so far?
I control a digital holding company that owns properties in agriculture, healthcare and other domains. Zenvus is an intelligent solution for farms which uses proprietary electronic sensors to collect soil data like moisture, nutrients, pH, etc. It then sends the data to a cloud server via GSM, satellite or Wifi. Algorithms in the server analyze the data and advice farmers on farming processes. As the crops grow, the system deploys special cameras to build crop vegetative health index for detection of drought stress, pest and diseases. Our system has the capability to tell a farmer what, how, and when to farm. It has in-built GPS, compass and XL making it possible to map farm boundaries which could be useful during loan and insurance applications. Medcera makes software that help doctors, nurses, labs, imaging centers, insurance, patients and other players in the healthcare sector to operate seamlessly. If you visit a clinic in Medcera network, in Lagos, and then travel to Kano and the clinic uses our solution, the Kano clinic will access your medical records real-time. Our motivation is that no patient should be treated without access to his or her medical records. We are the first company in the world that made access to medical record agnostic of location and hospital chain.
What were some of the challenges you faced as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome them?
My biggest challenge has been losing team members after training them. It creates so many risks in the business. But one has to respect that people have rights to work wherever they want to work. Yet, it is painful to train and develop and then lose. I have lost my team members to big multinationals. We are managing the risks in many ways but it makes innovation crawl since continuity management is distorted.
What would you say was the most important key to your success?
The key part of my success is focusing on doing things not many people do. In our agriculture business, we are the only one in that space today in Nigeria. In the healthcare domain, we make the solution largely free because we have built really brilliant AI systems that enable value creation. Differentiation is a key element in our strategy.
Who is your mentor and why and What role has mentorship played in your success?
In business, Tony Elumelu has been extremely helpful. He is someone I can send an email and within hours he will respond. His directions have saved me money and helped me in making money especially on understanding market pulses. Getting insights from someone who has done it and continues to do it is critical. My elder brother, Engr. Dr. Okey Ekekwe, has always inspired because he has known how to change the goal posts to ensure I achieve more. Many years ago, I told him that because the principal could not allow me to do more than nine subjects in the Nigeria’s SSCE path, he went and bought GCE form and asked me to write GCE to prove that I had mastered the subjects. And when I did and got distinctions while in SS1 in Economics, Government, etc, he responded “easy subjects – everyone gets distinctions in them”. Quickly, can you deliver in Further Maths, Geography and others? That was the mentorship, driving me to do more.
Your guiding principles?
I grew up in the Scripture Union and that shapes everything in my life. For me, a life without values is lifeless. I put on that hard work and excellence. I have an unbelievable optimism about life that it is hard to lose hope in anything. That mindset gives me the energy to execute because I am so confident that tomorrow will be better than today.
What do you think Nigerian entrepreneurs are not doing well and how can they improve?
We have the ambitions with unbridled tenacity and energy. Yet, we need to elevate our capabilities to fix market frictions, not just at the downstream of the sectors but at the upstream where more impacts can be made. The fact is this: unless we can fix frictions which are catalytic, we will not liberate many people from poverty in this nation. Yes, apps can help us know where the village streams are. But building boreholes may add more value over time. I give Nigerian entrepreneurs credits because they are moving forward, cutting off the noise. The entrepreneurs will lift Nigeria because nations change only when enterprises rise.
Your advice for upcoming entrepreneurs hoping to be successful like you?
With humility, everyone is looking for success. It is a continuum. I am still on it. But largely, I will tell them to solve problems not many people can solve and that problem must have huge market opportunity. In other words, if you win, the size will be huge for you. Getting to that level requires they must invest to accumulate capabilities which can come via many channels.
In your opinion, what is government currently not doing well in term of encouraging enterpreneurs?
Government is not encouraging entrepreneurs in Nigeria. But government is encouraging small business owners. There is a huge difference between an entrepreneur and a small business owner. Entrepreneurs build scalable businesses unlike small business owners which remain at the same level for years. My hope is that government understands that these two cohorts have different needs. We need to provide oil to great companies in Nigeria like Kobo360, Zido, Save n’ Flex, Touch and Pay, FarmHire and others.