Three friends are on a mission to bring reliable electricity to Nigeria
Their company is pioneering solar microgrids for small businesses
An energy crisis has plagued Nigeria for nearly 40 years, leaving thousands of people without necessities while facing difficulties obtaining education and work, along with increasing criminal activity at night.
Nigerian-born Ifeanyi Umejei decided to do something and reached out to friends and fellow Virginia Tech alums Emmanuel Ekwueme and Cedrick Reynolds for help with his vision to bring reliable electricity to the West African country.
The three started a business, ICE Commercial Power, that develops solar microgrids. The project is in its pilot stage, currently serving 15 consumers in a commercial shopping center in Asaba, Nigeria. The majority of the businesses in the area operate for about 12 hours each day.
“There’s a real electricity crisis,” Umejei said. The country’s largest stations are only able to produce 2,800 megawatts. “If you think about what you’re able to do with electricity on a daily basis, that’s an opportunity that doesn’t exist for over half of the population [in Nigeria]. This is a significant population of humanity that does not have access to electricity. You can’t hardly do anything without electricity anymore. You can’t learn, you can’t work.”
The modular microgrids are powered by photovoltaic panels located on the rooftops of buildings. Consumers are connected to the microgrid via smart meters, which monitor and regulate power remotely via cloud access, according to ICE Solar’s business plan.
Umejei’s vision came during a trip back to Nigeria in 2016. He spotted two little boys holding hands, trudging in their worn sandals in the middle of a red dirt road in Asaba. Their faces held no expression in particular, but Umejei noticed that their dark eyes still appeared curious and hopeful. He paused to speak to them before snapping a picture and moving on.
Umejei couldn’t shake the impression the boys had left on him. He often looked at the picture and thought about ways he could give them a better future. Umejei also couldn’t forget the older people he met and their experience of struggle and heartache.
“It was sort of that coming-to-God moment,” said Umejei, who lived in Nigeria until he was 7 before moving to the United States and settling in Virginia Beach. “I saw the look of despair on people’s faces, and it was really heartbreaking to see the loss of hope. I’ve accomplished so many things in my life because I had hope. Without hope you really don’t have much, but these two kids still had that spark. For me, I felt I had do something to still give them a shot. I can’t allow them to turn into what everyone else is feeling right now. We all start out with the same level of faith, but conditions force some of us to lose hope along the way.”
These were the concerns Umejei took into account before devising his plan to help. Although Umejei studied biology with a minor in psychology before graduating in May 2007 from Virginia Tech, this project is one he feels is worth more than what his degree could teach him. But first, he’d need a hand.
“I wasn’t concerned about whether or not they would like the idea, because these were two high-quality individuals,” Umejei said. “With people’s lives and careers, the question was if they had the capacity to take on this task. I was pleased to discover that, despite everyone’s schedules, they jumped on board, and that’s such a great testament to who they are.”
Balancing their careers with this project was the most difficult task. Umejei works as a financial analyst in New York, while Ekwueme is a bioengineering postdoctoral research fellow in Massachusetts. Reynolds works as an executive director at an investment banking institution in New York, which meant the three ended up sacrificing their weekends and most of their free time to devote to the project.
With a population of about 190 million and a gross domestic product of more than $560 billion, Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa, but it also experiences the greatest number of power outages monthly. They have a huge impact on small businesses, which, on average, experience 239 hours of outages every month.
Although the project is off to a good start, Umejei hopes other corporations will help.
“For us to have meaningful impact, we need more than 15 consumers,” Umejei said. “So we need to figure out how to scale quickly and reduce the upfront costs to make it affordable for people. The grids and electricity is really expensive to produce in Nigeria.”
The company recently competed in a conference at Harvard University titled Partnering for Prosperity: Working Together for a Strong & Inclusive Africa. After presenting their business concept, ICE took second place and was awarded $5,000 to put toward the business. The company is in discussions with Microsoft to form a partnership for the smart meter’s cloud component. Umejei also plans to begin crowdfunding for those willing to donate to the cause.
“At some point, you have to stop complaining and you’ve got to start taking action,” Umejei said. “I looked at other people who were doing things and saw them as superhuman. But to be in this position and taking action, I want anyone who’s listening to know that they are absolutely capable of doing what they want and taking action.”