The first time Olugbenga Olubanjo had access to round-the-clock electricity was the day he arrived in Canada, aged 24. Growing up in Ibadan, Nigeria’s third-largest city, Olubanjo was one of 70 million people in that country who get their power from intermittent sources like solar panels and generators. As an engineering student at the University of Toronto, he immediately saw the difference reliable electricity made to his ability to study and work. And it sparked an idea: create a long-lasting, portable and rechargeable power pack that could provide clean energy to communities back in Nigeria.
Olubanjo founded Reeddi in 2019. Its flashlight-sized lithium-ion power capsules are now available to rent for 50 cents a day at corner stores and solar-powered charging stations in Nigeria. Last year, the Reeddi power capsule was named one of the best 100 inventions of 2021 by Time. And Olubanjo has clearly now caught the entrepreneurial bug: with two University of Toronto classmates, he has started Fyyne, which connects clients with barbers and hairstylists who offer services for Black hair.
Here’s how Olubanjo channelled his life experiences into a business that gives back.
The elevator pitch: “We are making the future with our Reeddi capsule by providing clean, reliable and affordable electricity. We bridge the gap of possibilities to limitless and sustainable innovations.”
The “aha” moment: “I have family still in Nigeria and they complain about the existing energy solutions, such as generators and solar panels, which are often tied to a five-year contract. They’re also not mobile (solar panels come with a big battery box) and typically only provide direct current, making them less flexible for users. I was having a bath one day and looking at a bottle of liquid soap, thinking ‘if I can make something as easy as this…’ I thought of something mobile enough to move around easily and flexible enough to supply grid-like electricity. That idea was what eventually became the Reeddi capsule.”
Getting started: “I was studying civil engineering at the University of Toronto and started asking friends if my idea could work. I did a rough mock-up on paper and connected with a student in electrical and mechanical engineering for the design and development. Then we used the university’s 3D printers to create models. We showed them to potential customers in Nigeria and used their feedback to optimize the system design. We conducted a pilot in Nigeria to get the insight we needed about our technology and business model in our target market. By the time I finished school, we had a working prototype. From there, it took off.”
Preparing to go to market: “There was a lot of travelling back and forth to Nigeria. We did a lot of mapping using government reports and data on places where energy infrastructure doesn’t exist. We hired a team in Nigeria to carry out the partnerships for our charging stations and retail partners. At the same time, we like to know where consumers are coming from. We’ve interviewed over 200 individuals who lack steady access to electricity, and the capsules collect data during their daily use so we can continue to learn.”
Growth story: “In 2019, it was just me and one other person. Now, we have 20 staff members, including 15 full-time. We currently serve over 600 households and businesses every month across our products.”
How COVID-19 led to innovation: “It changed things a lot. I’m based in Toronto but when the pandemic hit Lagos, our office there shut down, which caused a lot of issues with renting the capsules at local corner stores. That led us to develop a virtual rental marketplace, TempOwn. It connects individuals and businesses with thousands of equipment-renting owners for things like Reeddi capsules, drones and more. We’re seeing a lot of industries adopt the platform, especially agriculture where people use it to rent out tractors. Our goal is to scale it across the world, but right now we are just operating in Nigeria.”
What you wish you’d known starting out: “I didn’t realize that entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint. There was a time when we were trying to rush manufacturing and wasted around $15,000 on mistakes. We thought we could speed up the process, but optimization takes a while. You have to enjoy the successes and know that failures are part of the process.”
Advice you’re glad you ignored: “I’m a Black man and I have an accent, being from Nigeria. Early on, I was advised by someone (who was trying to help) to get someone else to pitch the business for me. I almost did, but — thankfully — it never worked out, because that would have been the end. That person wouldn’t have had the same enthusiasm as me. There’s no way anyone else can discuss your product the way you can.”
Best thing about starting a business in Toronto: “I love how multicultural it is. You get a lot of diverse ideas from so many talented people. And the University of Toronto has provided a lot of support.”
What’s next: “We’re trying to raise money and are applying for grants to optimize version 2 of the Reeddi. We also have a couple of exciting new innovations in the pipeline that are going to be released very soon. I’m very excited about how everything is evolving.”
The electronic device you can’t live without: “My laptop is so precious to me. I’ve been using it since I started the company and it’s taken me through a lot. I use it for drawings, modelling, programming, checking stock. It’s like my baby.”
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