In recent times, several Western media have repeatedly focused on Africa, analyzing the prospects of the ‘dark continent’ whilst raising caution about the ability of the next generation to manage resources effectively and carry out the required changes. In this exhaustive interview with BN’s Gbenga Awomodu, an exceptional young African from Nigeria speaks on a range of issues bothering on social entrepreneurship, development, sustainable health care, and Africa. Idris Ayodeji Bello, a 2012 Weidenfeld Scholar in Global Health Science, trained as a Computer Engineer at the Obafemi Awolowo University, and has had varied global experiences with leading multinationals, including Procter & Gamble and the Chevron Corporation, with social and business networks spanning five continents. He was profiled in 2011 as Huffington Post’s ‘Greatest Person of the Day’ and listed among CNN’s Top Ten African Technology Voices to follow on Twitter in 2012. Dedicated to the enhancement of lives by developing and deploying attractive platforms for innovation-driven, technology-enabled investments across the African continent, he shares from his wealth of experience and sheds more light on the just concluded 2012 Oxford University Pan-Africa Conference. Get ready and enjoy this encounter!
Could you tell us about yourself – growing up and schooling?
I was born in Jericho, Ibadan, about thirty-two years ago, but my childhood was mostly spent in Ilaro, Ogun State. We lived and schooled on the campus of the Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro, and life was very simple. There were very few distractions and the rule with our disciplinarian librarian father was “Never get caught without a book!” I read Chinua Achebe’s “The trouble with Nigeria” before I was ten, and Kole Omotosho’s “Just Before Dawn” about the same time. Growing up was fun. My parents were not rich, but we also were not poor. In addition to my four other siblings, we had several cousins living with us who had come to pursue polytechnic education. At no point did the dinner table have less that thirteen people during my childhood days. In May 2002, I graduated with a First Class in Computer Engineering from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. I had learnt to juggle several things and still keep up a stellar academic record. This was helpful as I went straight into employment.
What was your experience like working with two reputable multinationals?
Even before finishing at OAU, I was recruited by Procter and Gamble to become the Planning Manager of the Ibadan Plant with responsibilities for production planning, materials management, and warehouse inventory across the West African region. Coming straight out of school armed with just a degree and a little internship experience I had undergone in my fourth year, P&G was like being thrown into deep waters, but with the knowledge that just as you were about to drown, someone would probably step in to rescue you. I remember asking Adeolu Akinyemi, the Recruiting Manager then, what it meant to work at P&G. He said, “You will learn a new definition of Challenge!” There were long days and nights (including weekends) spent at the plant, long hours spent on the phone negotiating for raw materials from foreign suppliers, and explaining to Nigerian port officials why our clearing agents were not allowed to give ‘tips’ to get our raw materials released from the port. My time at P&G was like a mini-MBA without a curriculum, and it really built my foundation in entrepreneurship following my technical education at Ife.
In what ways have your previous employments/jobs contributed to the progress of your recent social entrepreneurship projects?
I have been very blessed in terms of the kind of jobs I have had, and how they have moved me closer to my goals. When I choose to accept a position, money has never been at the top of my criteria. The bigger question for me has always been: “what value is this employment going to add to me as an individual?” “What experience is this job going to offer me that would help to move me nearer my goal?” In much the same way as the potential employer spends time interviewing me, I spend more time researching them, and interviewing them too. With a first class degree in computer engineering, I could have gotten a job in any Telco, or oil company in Nigeria then, but what was more important to me then was gaining a global exposure through my job, learning skills which were very different from what I had learned in school, and being giving responsibility from Day 1. When I left P&G to go abroad for my Masters, several of my friends questioned my move. I had gotten very comfortable at P&G and was doing well. And here was I abandoning such a position to seek out an uncertain future. However, I never saw it in that light. I had achieved my objectives, and it was time to take on the next challenge. When it came to time to choose a research area during my Masters, I opted for Data Analysis in Particle Physics. I knew nothing about particle physics, but that was exactly the point. I ended up writing my thesis on different non-parametric density approximation techniques applied to signal detection in particle physics. It really stretched me, but laid the foundation for my next job after graduation. At Chevron, I got the opportunity to do several things ranging from upstream technology to digital fields monitoring, from strategy and planning to information management. I also had the opportunity to travel widely overseeing projects across the US, Latin America, Angola, and Asia. Those experiences I believe further helped refine my thinking and decision-making process, and my management and people skills. It also exposed me to what it meant to do business at a global level. Hence, after six years, when I felt it was time to move on from Chevron and pursue a degree in Global Health at the University of Oxford, it was also a conscious choice. I felt I had proven myself and gained very valuable skills, and it was time to move on from individual success to making significant impact.
What inspired you to enroll in a Masters programme in Global Health Science?
I had always had issues with the healthcare system in Nigeria, especially after losing two of my siblings to the system’s inefficiencies, and another close friend to a strike action at UCH a few years back. However, it was at Rice University, during my MBA that I strayed into the field of global health. I got acquainted with Professor Marc Epstein, an expert in microfinance and the use of commerce models to improve health and promote development in poor regions. He had partnered with Rice 360° Institute for Global Health Technologies to teach “Commercializing Technologies in Developing Countries” in which teams of MBA and undergraduate engineering students develop business plans for global health technologies, and then travel to Rwanda where they undertake field research for their business plans. This interaction exposed me to the problems of access, the lack of relevant statistics, and several other challenges faced in the area of global health. However, my greatest motivation for applying for a place in the Global Health program at Oxford stemmed from belief that solving the daunting challenges faced in the field of global health requires a multidisciplinary array of people who are able to bring to bear their diverse backgrounds and innovative approaches.
You like to refer to yourself as an Afropreneur, a Bandstormer and a Wennovator. (How) did you originally coin those?
I woke up one morning and thought it sounded cool to join entrepreneurship and Africa to form “Afropreneurship” (afrocentric entrepreneurship). Bandstorming is the collective pooling of philosophically linked ideas focused on solving social and economic problems. It was actually coined by Michael Oluwagbemi, another enterprise-focused Nigerian that I met in Houston, and the Founder of LoftyInc Allied Partners Ltd, an organization dedicated to the enhancement of African lives by developing and deploying attractive platforms for innovation-driven investments in education, technology, and healthcare in the ECOWAS sub-region. We were jointly teaching a class on “Emerging Markets’ at the Frontier Markets Scout Program of the Monterrey Institute of International Studies in California early last year when a problem came up, and we decided to brainstorm. As we went through the brainstorming process, each person continually built upon the other person’s ideas, and Michael exclaimed, “This is not brainstorming, this is bandstorming!” I coined the term “Wennovation” when I visited Nigeria a while back to attend the Nigerian Leadership Initiative’s Future Leaders Class, and to pursue my vision of business incubation, which I had successfully been involved with in the US, and explore how I could translate that to Nigeria. It is based on the belief that when like minds develop new ideas or solutions through purely collaborative work, such a result is not just innovation—which recognizes the primacy of the individual—but rather wennovation, replacing “i” with “we” to emphasize the collaborative feature of afrocentric entrepreneurship. Our value proposition to the entrepreneurs is that you cannot go it alone. You need to team up to refine your idea and attract funding. I also intended the ‘We-‘in ‘Wennovation to refer to West Africa, our focus region. Today, we promote wennovation through the Wennovation Hub, a business incubation program and facility in Lagos, Nigeria, but soon to be replicated across West Africa through an alliance with the Africa Leadership Forum and the African Innovation Prize.