When he came to Canada as a PEIF Fund Mentee in September 2017 to start a Masters Program at the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto, Olugbenga Olubanjo could not have imagined the amount of success he would enjoy within a 6-month span. Within such a short period of time, Olu – who came to Canada during his second year as a PEIF Fund Mentee and on full scholarship to the University of Toronto – has won a notable Canadian award and emerged a strong contender for another for his start-up, VECO. In December 2017, Olu and his team of four placed second in the running for the prestigious Hult Prize at the University of Toronto. The Hult Prize is the largest social entrepreneurship competition in the world with a 1 Million-Dollar prize for the winning team. Their strong showing qualified them for the next stage of the competitions. And most recently, in March 2018, Olu and his team won an RBC Innovation and Entrepreneurship People’s Choice Award at the University of Toronto.
VECO Team: From Left, Olu Olubanjo, Vasily Grigorovsky (Ph.D. Candidate in Neural Engineering), Evans Eluerkeh (Undergraduate Chemical Engineering Student), and Chuzy Ikpe (Master of Engineering Student of Mechanical Engineering).
Sponsored by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), the RBC Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is one of several RBC awards and part of a number of innovation themed activities at the University of Toronto to support new entrepreneurs and start-ups. The competition for the awards took place alongside the University of Toronto’s Start-up showcase where over fifty start-ups associated with the U of T present on their innovations during the university’s annual Entrepreneurship Week. Activities for the week include a number of panel discussions, workshops, pitches and networking events.
Olu’s start-up, VECO – founded in collaboration with neural engineering doctoral candidate, Vasily Grigorovsky, is an idea born out of his experience growing up in Nigeria. Olu went through all levels of education excelling in spite of the fluctuating electric power supply in the country and in most parts of the region. Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the lowest rates of electrification in the world with about only 20% of the population having stable access to electricity. Unfortunately, this trend does not seem to be changing any time soon. By 2030, a projected 600 million people in Africa will not have access to affordable energy. In Africa in general, and in Nigeria specifically, a large percentage of trade is done through open markets often populated by millions of small business owners, including low-income women. These market traders rely heavily on cellphones for operations, transactions, and supplier communications and frequently have to charge their phones using sparse grid access points. Furthermore, during the day, traders and stall owners have to protect themselves and their wares from the sun using large umbrellas. VECO’s innovation is to provide solar-panelled umbrellas with rechargeable battery packs to suit the varying needs of Nigerian traders in sub-Saharan Africa. Energy captured by the panels and stored transforms into an indispensable resource with phone charging capabilities for traders and their families. Additionally, traders will benefit from the umbrella’s LEDs, which will provide diffuse ambient light for families. This will replace kerosene lanterns or candles that families use now and which are linked to negative health and environmental outcomes.
Olu came up with the idea while he was in Nigeria discussing the problem of power outage with a friend. However, the idea wasn't fully formed. He looked carefully at the problems with electricity supply in Nigeria and built on his experience to compete for the Hult Prize Competition at the University of Toronto. After some brainstorming and market research, he and his team came up with this innovative solution. The device will provide clean and sustainable energy to the target population – market traders in Africa. As part of the winning team at the Hult Prize Competition, University of Toronto, Olu and his team competed in the Regional competition held in Toronto last weekend. While they did not advance to the next stage, the quarter of a million Naira prize money for Olu and his team is an uplifting start to what promises to be a ground-breaking product that will address some of Africa’s energy challenges.