- Tony sat with Olou Koucoi, the Founder and Managing Director of Sakpata Motors, a West African company locally manufacturing electric bikes in Benin.
- Here are the various points discussed:
- Olu’s family background
- Business in Africa
Tony: Good morning! Good afternoon! Good evening! Depending on where you are joining from. I have a brilliant gentleman with me here, Olu Kukoi. I am hopping that I am pronouncing it correctly, Olou!
Olou: Yes! That’s correct. Olou.
Tony: Excellent. I am very happy to be here with you today. We are going to be talking about one of the revolutions that we sadly do not talk about enough in Africa. We are going to be talking about electric vehicles made in Africa and the electric motor-cycles. So, Olou! How are you, my friend?
Olou: Good morning, Tony. This has been a pleasure, thank you for having me.
Tony: Excellent! Olou, we’ve known each other for quite sometime now. Right!? We met initially for a little while in person initially in Ghana for an event and since then we have had a number of interactions together. I know that you are a strong supporter for more clean energy and energy efficiency in the continent and I am sure that people are going to discover that like I did a few years ago. First of all, I would like people to find out more about you. Can you introduce yourself and tell us more about yourself?
Olou: Like you said, Tony, my name is Olou Kukoi. I was born in Benin. My father is Yoruba from Nigeria but he was born in Benin himself. All of us, my brothers were born in Benin from a Benin mother. We actually grew in a household of two nationalities. I went to the University to study environmental management and sanitation and I was lucky to early on start playing with solar panels and wind turbines. I car funs to design wind turbines early on in my first year od undergrade. The journey did not however take me straight into solar or renewable energy field.
After undergrad, I was recruited in Ohio State University to be a research associate in water and soil chemistry. I was actually working on the pollution of lake Iri which is the lake that separates Northern Ohio and Canada. My research work was actually looking into Agricultural practices, fertilizer application by farmers; Nitrogen and Phosphorous, and investigate whether when the rainy season comes, how the run-off of those chemicals go into the lake and tell whether the lake’s pollution is coming from Agricultural practices or not.
I was doing soil and water chemistry for about two years before moving to Philadelphia Pennsylvania where I went to graduate school there. I did a dual degree program between the schools of social policy and practice and the Warton School of Business. My focus was mainly organizational leadership. How to engineer businesses. Some of us then decided to go back to Africa. We were young and felt like let us go back to the continent and help people build businesses. We therefore came back to Benin with the idea of training people on how to become entrepreneurs and add contemporary design to their work so that they can be able to support their work to the US market. We started making crafts such as cloth, napkins and varieties of items.
At some point the market grew in the US and we were unable to deliver. This is because people did not have electricity. In most of the villages we were working in, in Benin and Togo did not have electricity to work at night. So, we were able to produce at scale. That led us to pose for almost three months and re-think. We actually were actually doing this as a non-profit organization. We posed and started thinking differently. We started asking ourselves, – ‘if we are training people to become entrepreneurs and we ourselves are not entrepreneurs, we are trying to be a prophet.
The second thing we thought of was that the first thing we need to do was to provide electricity first and once the production is growing, we can start expanding the market at the same time. We switched from being a non-profit to being registered as a business by the end of 2012-2013. I then switched from doing the entrepreneur training work to solar energy business because I had already familiarized myself with solar energy some years ago and being the US, I learnt a lot also about solar panels and wind turbines. It is around that time that Bear-Foot power and some of the east companies started doing solar lights in a box and started distributing them from the get go.
Tony: I just want to say that while you were talking, we might have missed a couple of words but that’s not a problem. That is effectively the demonstration that we are all working to address here. You had some issue with the grid and you must have switched on the generator. So, people can actually see how on a day-to-day basis how this problem is so important to address. I am sure you are going to come back to that. You mentioned a lot and I just want to pick on some of them and still get to know you as a person first right.
You mentioned for example, moving from NGO to a limited company and this is a change that happens to so many people. How easy was it to do it because, I know usually from my experience when you start out as an NGO, switching out to for profit is not easy for people to adjust? Could you quickly respond to this question?
Olu: That’s a really good question Tony. It was difficult to adjust. It took us about three months. We used a strategic approach in planning called future planning. In future planning, you get your whole team together an do an ideation of what you see the organization becoming the next five or ten years or even sometimes twenty years. Each person had their own perspective. We did a future search and through that we noticed some of those issues that I mentioned earlier. So, we decided to stop operations. It took us three months to go through the transition. Even after transition, it was still difficult. The way the mind is wired to do development work is different from the way the mind should be operating when you are in business.
We then started thinking about ourselves and the survival of the business. Terms that we used also changed. Instead of beneficiaries, we now had customers. We however leant one good thing from being an NGO previously, it was that our customers in our minds was beneficiaries. So, our customer service was better that some of the competitors. Back then, we were the only solar energy company in Benin offering really reliable after sales service where we reached out to customers every three months. We check on them. We brought that attribute from being an NGO.
It was however very hard to have a margin on each product that we were distributing and thinking in terms of making profit and try to sometimes try to make a lot of profit. That was challenging. Ethically, that was difficult for us. We decided to seek help from other business owners in the US. In the US there is a lot of associations for business owners who try to run a business in a more ethical way. We joined some of those groups and every time we are operating, we try to think about the environment, meaning the planet and the people.
Tony: That’s excellent because it kind of reminds me of policy that we follow here at Renewables in Africa where we talk of the Tripple Bottom Line – “Planet, People and Profit.” It’s clearly fascinating. We clearly need to have many conversations. Ther are clearly so many chapters we could explore. The key issues that I can remember that you have said is changing from a non profit to for profit is mind set change.
Tony: Now, back to you as a person, I could see that you kicked off your interests in Benin and travelled to the US, expanded your knowledge and came back. What is driving you or what is it that you are chasing?
Olou: That’s a big question! I think my father can answer this question better than I. My father studied political science during the Russian influence in Africa. He was in Russia and later came back with some of the Philosophical books he was studying there. I was growing up around the same time so, I was sought of his best friend although I was a child. He could take me to all the political meetings. One thing that stuck with me was the idea of leadership that time which was doing all you can for the betterment of all the people. For me I am not into politics but for me, it’s like using technology and business into an organization to alleviate poverty. It is like in US in Philadelphia where I worked with Incurs serrated people: teaching them different garden techniques so that when they get out of jail, they can join the landscape workforce. That the same drive that is present when I am working in remote villages in Africa. Nothing has changed, whether I am operating in the US or Africa.
The focus is always increasing the quality of life, making life better around me. My mind being brought up was always been put to looking into socio-economic problems. I actually do it naturally. I do not try to do it. Whenever I spot a socio-economic problem that I think we can use knowledge to solve, I actually talked to my dad and his friend when they come home and it slowly becomes a project. From the age of ten, I have always had a project. Whether it is getting my classmates together in elementary school to plant trees, clean some streets or in college launching a tourism business with my friends. So, that kind of work drives me. It really not money or whatever other people say like I want to be reading and growing. I love knowledge, but I mostly love the practical side of knowledge where I can use it to design tools or elevate the well being of humanity as a whole.
Tony: That’s definitely a brilliant response. I actually get to understand what drives you a bit better. According to you are you not afraid that at times you could be chasing perfection?
Olou: Yes! But I do know that nothing could ever be perfect. We always strive to do the best we can.
Tony: That’s Great. So, would you say that you once that innovation is done, are you still happy to implement it from the operational phase and grow this idea or you would rather create and move on to something else?
Olou: I learnt that a little about myself in business. It happened to me in end of 2015 going to 2016 when I couldn’t anymore do the same thing with the solar energy installations. We tried to design our own stand alone, roof top solar remote monitoring technology. I spent a lot of time in California with some Australian friends trying to do that. We launched it in Africa but it di not work out the way we planned. It is however working out now since 2019 with the UK-London energy team. We have six different branches though out the country. We are were in Togo and we were getting contracts in Nigeria as well. The company did not really need me. The company was running smoothly and operations were running smoothly without me. I was the managing director and I would just be there. I had to move on and do something else. So, yeah! Your question is spot on. Of course, I straggled with it, the decision, but I know now that I am not the operations guy. The way I am wired is more of designing it, get it to start running and ensure that it is running smoothly. It is then that I am I become bored and I have to find another physical problem that I have to move on to. You know, I have to be honest with myself in business.
Tony: Does it mean for your case, when starting up a business, you prefer to have a partner who can step up and carry on to the next phase and move the business forward to growth and beyond?
Olou: Yes! I promised myself in 2018 that I will never start a business alone again. Always in partnership.
Tony: Always in Partnership.
Olou: I think that’s the key to success in any endeavor. Teamwork.
Tony: That’s great. When did you come back from the US?
Olou: I was doing back and forth. I came back in 2011 when I graduated and we stated the ground operations in 2012.
Tony: You mentioned that there was a group of you coming back so how many were that came back and started this new idea?
Olou: In Benin I was the only one. Collectively, from University of Colombia and Prenton I have some African friends there as well. Some went to Ghana while others went to Nigeria. One guy went to Kenya to do the solar pickle lights business. We however stay in touch.
Tony: How did you get involved into the program that took you to the US?
Olou: I went to the US first as a researcher in Ohio. Then the program at the University of Pennsylvania is an organizational leadership program. I was searching online because I wanted to study how to lead organizations. I wanted to study organization design, and organizational leadership. I knew this before I even went to the US. I studied one year of economics before venturing into environmental engineering. During my one year of economics, after high school, I already wanted to study how to build organizations and that program did not exist in Benin. So, I did environmental engineering, went to the US as researcher in soils and water chemistry but then I was still looking online for the same organizational leadership program and I found one particular program I really liked at the University of Pennsylvania. I went to the program director, talked to him and started applying. It took me a full year to apply without even knowing that the University of Pennsylvania was part of the Ivy league schools. Some people ask me, “Oh! You must really be smart; you went to an Ivy league school.” I was like,” what’s an Ivy league?” Anyway, that’s how I found the program. I did not even apply for multiple programs like some of my colleagues did back then. I just knew what I wanted and went for it. Later on I knew that I was lucky to get in.
Tony: Maybe the fact that you did not know about the Ivy league kind of removed some pressure so that you were able to deliver your best.
Olou: Yeah! Absolutely.
Tony: You quite lucky. You could have ended up in Harvard, right? Haha! Thank you for this first part, Olu since we got to know a little bit about yourself and that s brilliant story. There is so much that we can pick up from there.