‘GE Lagos Garage will help build Nigeria’s manufacturing ecosystem’
Patricia Obozuwa is the Director, Communications and Public Affairs, GE Africa, a digital industrial company. She spoke with ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, on how the firm is using its Lagos Garage to advance innovation in the manufacturing ecosystem through various training and development initiatives. She revealed that the major challenge confronting start-ups remains funding. Excerpts:
How long has the GE Garage been on, and how many people have passed through this process?
First, let me give you a brief history. The GE Garage Programme started in the US, and it was to invigorate people’s interest in manufacturing by using these advanced technologies versus traditional manufacturing. And the first time we took that programme outside of the US was to Nigeria in 2014. We had a pop-up show for three weeks. People came in and they used the equipment, interacted with their peers and it was totally different from what had happened in the U.S. What we found was that a lot of people were coming across this equipment for the first time.
Typically, in the U.S, it was more like an activity that is a lot of fun for the maker community to come in and make things but, in Nigeria we felt this could be a big opportunity to grow these skills in people so that as the world gets into advanced manufacturing technology we can do it at same time in Nigeria. And if this works well, I mean not just with GE, but also with efforts from other people as well, we can completely leapfrog traditional industrial processes and go straight into the advanced manufacturing technology. And I say that because I am likening it to mobile phone use; we completely jumped the whole landline phase and went straight big time into mobile phone technology and that’s the vision. If GE can support it even in a small way by teaching these advanced manufacturing skills, we really see it as a contribution to the sustainable development of Nigeria.
In terms of impact, we launched a permanent programme in December 2016. We run classes periodically and people come in, they experience the garage, they go through the programmes and come out with great business ideas. So far, we have graduated 250 people from the program. The GE garage has touched over 80 businesses that are contributing to the Nigerian economy. Hundreds of prototypes have been developed there at the garage and 14 people – alumni have received prestigious international awards for products that they’ve either developed or started the development at the GE Garage. So, it’s really great impact but it’s even more impressive in terms of the quality of the impact when you hear the stories like you’ve heard today from our alumni. From their stories, you will see what kind of impact made on specific businesses and what they take back and even expand further around them, basically building a community out of what they’ve learnt from the Garage.
We launched the online portal, the e-learning portal of GE Lagos Garage, which remains a significant moment for us because it’s an important opportunity to expand the reach of the current programme. You would have heard from the alumni of the programme what kind of impact that the programme had on them and their business ideas, and how they’ve transformed the ideas into successful business models, or at least viable business models. So, we’re delighted to be able to expand this to cover even more people across wider geography in Nigeria.
How beneficial has the programme been?
Looking at the GE Garage programme in general, the whole idea behind it is to really help build the manufacturing ecosystem in Nigeria and support tech start-ups and entrepreneurs to grow their skills and encourage even more start-ups to use technology to take their businesses or their business ideas to the next level.
So it’s a programme that teaches technical skills in the use of advanced manufacturing technology like 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC Mills, which are housed in the garage, but also teaches participants business development, marketing, branding, and other things that surround a business beyond the technical aspect. That way, when people go through a programme at the GE Garage, they came in with a product idea but they leave with a business model formed that they can then translate into a full and proper business going forward.
Is GE collaborating with any other group, or probably state governments in pushing this further?
In terms of collaboration, the Lagos State government has been very supportive. We are looking at possibilities of what we can do together around the proposed ICT Hub cluster in Yaba. We’ve had a lot of conversation on how we can take it further. I am a member of the advisory council for that project so we’re contributing in kind also in terms of planning and bringing ideas and direction for the ICT Hub. We have collaborated with them through LASTVEB to do a training for 25 people. We’ve collaborated with the Ondo State Government as well to offer a Mini GE Garage Programme in Ondo State and we are open to working with other such partners. We’ve worked with the Tony Elumelu Foundation to train some of their entrepreneurs that are focussed on manufacturing at the GE Lagos Garage. So, it’s something we would look at continuing where we find like-minded partners and opportunities for more impact.
For businesses that have emanated from the GE Garage, what is GE’s follow up mechanism?
First of all, what we do here is provide training. We also give the participants access to potential investors to get funding for their projects. So that intervention of getting from an idea into a business model, is the real contribution that we make but, because we have such a good relationship with the alumni from the Garage, they generally tend to keep coming back here. They have access to equipment and they talk to us directly. So, we see what is happening with them, they invite us to their business events and so on. So, it’s a very informal way of continuing the relationship but, our commitment is to light that flame, get it started, move it from an idea in the person’s mind into becoming a prototype of the product they want to make and a business solution to make it happen.
Everything else for us is really icing on the cake. It’s extremely delightful to see the progress the people have made from the GE Garage Programme. We are not looking to be lifetime partners for each of the businesses; we are looking to support, give and then let them take it from there. That is the only way to make it sustainable.
The sustainability in itself comes first in selecting the people that come to the Garage. We go through a rigorous process, choosing 25 people out of a thousand plus applications who have strong ideas that they want to turn into businesses. So, we know that the participants we choose are already committed, and what we put in, in terms of training, exposure to potential investors, and collaboration with their peers, has the maximum impact that it could have. That’s very important to us.
Some of them have gone on to join other accelerator programmes while some have met investors here at the Garage and then moved into setting up a business. I will give you an example. There is a young man called Anjola Badaru who went through the GE Garage Programme. His friend had a problem with the AC (Air Conditioning) blower of his Mercedes Benz and he thought to himself, ‘here are 3D printers at the Garage, and we can make practically anything.’ So he took the AC Blower and got the design on a computer and 3-D printed a plastic version of it and it actually worked in the car.
Obviously it’s not a real solution because at the Garage, the machines here are for teaching purposes, so we use plastic to create prototypes. But just from seeing that this prototype works, he has started an automotive spare parts business that he is developing using 3D printers. He now has a space where he has industrial type 3D Printers that he can use to produce these parts and whatever else he wants that he may make commercial. Actually, you should talk to him. So, we keep seeing this kind of impact. GE may be the catalyst, but the real innovative thinking, the real ideas, the real solutions come from the people in this country that are solving the challenges. It is those brilliant minds that really take it forward and transform their community.
For start-ups, what do you consider as the greatest-funding or ideas?
Well, funding is a challenge for any start-up and tech start-ups in particular. The idea has never been the problem because we have brilliant minds in this country. So, it’s putting it all together, having the opportunity to work out how to develop a business out of this idea and how technology can help. So that’s the challenge that we at GE want to help tackle and, in most cases, help solve with the Lagos Garage. Funding of course is always a challenge for anybody starting any kind of venture. And we give the GE Lagos Garage participants exposure to potential investors, they follow up leads of course, but we try to provide the platform where they can meet people that are willing to invest in innovative ideas.
Now, on a large scale, what is your assessment of the programme thus far?
I am delighted when I hear the success stories that have come out of the programme. It is one of GE’s contributions to developing skills across Africa, and in Nigeria especially. It’s by no means the solution in itself. This is just one company taking steps to make sure that we can contribute to developing skills. So, we are very pleased with every single success story that we hear. From the start, we knew that we will have some impact, but each person’s story is unique and each person’s experience is changing not just themselves but the people around them and when I say the people around them, I mean, you come in with an idea, you develop it into a concept, you make a prototype, and then you go with a business solution. When you set up that business, you are contributing to the economy, employing people, selling a product, making a meaningful contribution. So, things like that make us believe that it’s a successful programme. Of course, there is so much more work to be done in Nigeria but, on this one, we are happy that we can make that contribution.
How long does it take for someone to graduate from the Garage programme?
The traditional class is a four-week programme and instructors come in and teach people the different aspects and they start creating the prototypes. We also have one-week programmes as well where it’s a slightly smaller curriculum that’s more focused on the technical side of things. That’s the model we’ve used with LASTVEB and with Ondo State, working with students. But talking about this launch, it’s very different. Now, we are going to have the online programme first so that more people will access that online programme, at least 500 per programme; in a year at least a thousand people would be able to access and learn. That would be enough for some people to go on and start what they need to start.
Some people will need further work on developing their prototypes and then they will come in for a two-week programme. The online programme is six weeks and that can reach very widely. Participants don’t need to come to Lagos to have access to the Garage; they can access that online for six weeks. Then the most promising 50 out of each group of 500 will come into the GE Garage in two different sessions of 25 each and work on prototypes, refine products and ideas and work with their peers. But even among the 500, some people who want access to be able to come to the Garage and work with the machines will be granted access on a rewards basis. It’s an open space, so when people come in here and work as GE Garage cohorts they tend to just become part of the family. We don’t turn back our alumni from accessing the Garage after they graduate. With this new programme, it’s going to reach at least a thousand people every year. For perspective, in the past two years of the programme running, we reached 250 directly as graduates of the programme. With this new online element we would reach at least eight times our previous annual number.
Do you see this as a CSR programme?
Yes. At this point it is purely focused on developing skills and it’s free for all participants.
Apart from this, which other CSR initiative is GE involved in?
We have a programme called GE Kujenga, that’s the platform for Corporate Social Responsibility across Africa. Kujenga means build in Swahili and at GE we see ourselves as partners with African countries in building a sustainable future. This is something we do across the different countries in Africa, and it focuses on empowering people by building valuable skills, equipping communities with new tools and technologies, and elevating innovative ideas that help solve Africa’s challenges.
In Nigeria, just like every other African country that we operate in, those are the three major areas that we focus on. One programme that I would like to highlight is the bio-medical engineering training that we’ve done with the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH). Even though it is in Lagos, we have had participants from across the country. We’ve partnered with the Ministry of Health and Engineering World Health. We’ve invested $1.5 million in this programmes over three years to train people.
As you know, we sell GE equipment to hospitals across the country, and this equipment undergoes wear and tear. And sometimes the difference between having equipment to diagnose patients and not having it could be a minor fault that can be fixed. So through the GE Foundation, we set up a program to train people to be able to do the day-to-day maintenance and repair of these equipment. That has the biggest impact in a place where the investment in healthcare equipment has already been made. We launched this program in 2014 and so far we’ve had 18 four-week long modules with medical practitioners and 60 people have been trained across private and public healthcare institutions, which means that 60 people are now able to manage equipment and fix small to medium issues. And in August last year, the LUTH Bio-Medical School was completed. That’s a permanent infrastructure to continue building capacity. So that’s something significant we’ve done with the GE Foundation, in collaboration with Engineering World Health and the Ministry of Health.
Lastly, what qualifies one to be on the GE Garage Programme?
We have a whole list of specific criteria, but it’s really about the quality of the idea that you bring in. Our in-house faculty assesses each application to determine if the idea can benefit from the GE Garage and become a viable business model. We don’t want to take people on that the GE Garage can’t really help. For instance, it needs to be a manufacturing-based business because what the Garage is going to teach you is how to use advanced manufacturing equipment to build further on your prototype, transforming it into a viable business model. So, in essence there are specific criteria, but the most important thing is that, it must be a viable idea for a hardware-based business. We don’t look at educational qualifications. You don’t need to be a university graduate or have a Masters’ or PhD degree.
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