We held this interview over Skype, 8am on a Thursday. Ololade was home. “I’m home now, home in Nigeria,” he told me.
I was at our office and one of many things I was curious about as I rigged up my PC to begin our chat was whether this was not one of those hardware production arrangements where a China sweatshop produces a phone and exports to Nigerian distributors who simply slap their names on it.
Ololade Otayemi is the CEO of Orbra phones, a local smartphone maker. “Local” is used loosely of course, because a chunk of the workflow is still executed in China. But in this interview, Ololade tells us the differentiators and how involved the Nigerian team is involved in the process.
He started out early. “At the age of 12, I created an electric mobile hand-fan which I sold to the boarding students in my secondary school,” Ololade says, recalling his journey. But now he makes smart devices.
Thanks for joining me Ololade. Let’s jump right in. What is Orbra?
Orbra is an ICT firm based in Nigeria. We want to be known for providing solutions to basic life challenges using technology. For now we design and produce mobile devices. We are building Orbra into a global brand that all Nigerians can call their own. A global brand that will become synonymous with innovation and excellence – like smartphones, tablet PCs, power banks, smart bracelets etc. That’s what most people know us to do.
When did you start Orbra?
I started in 2008 unofficially, but 2009 officially. But the whole hardware / mobile division started in 2011. I was in school and had just gained admission, when my uncle sent me a new laptop. So I started researching on different things I could do with my laptop because I didn’t want to just be like my other roommates who had laptop and all they did was watch TV series with their girlfriends.
And since the cost of enrolling in a web class then was too high, I had to teach myself. Then in 2011, after I had already registered my company I moved the business to Lagos. I wanted to do more, so I opted for web development and graphics design.
I had issues going to see clients with my laptop, thanks to Lagos police. Once they saw anyone with a laptop bag, they stopped and searched you and ask for all manner of receipts.
That always made me late for meeting with my clients. So I wanted a tablet PC so I wouldn’t have to always go about with my laptop
When did Orbra really start. The hardware, phone making Orbra?
So I entered computer village and I saw an iPad sold for over N120,000 ($600) and a BlackBerry playbook that went for N150,000 ($750). I couldn’t afford it and it was when I began to think about many people like me who wanted the same but couldn’t afford it at the prohibitive pricing.
So I thought I’d find a way to make tablets cheaper. I met a guy who had a brother outside the country, so we contacted him and he helped visit the factory who made the first Orbra tablet. We sold it for N30,000 and we had just 30 units. We sold all in less than two weeks even though the device wasn’t very fantastic specswise and didn’t have a name. So I thought okay, I can do this better and that was how Orbra Mobile Devices started.
What was happening between 2008 and 2009 and between 2009 and 2011?
Web development, software development and graphics design, although I had always wanted to have a big workshop where I could come up with crazy inventions like my dad.
Ahh. Nice. Let’s talk about you then; your education and family. We’ll get back to discussing Orbra later.
Okay. Dad is an electrical electronics Engineer. I believe he was one of the first persons to build out locally made inverters in Nigeria. I think he was even the first. I spent most of my time growing up in his workshop – scattering things and burning myself here and there.
In fact, I still have a mark on my face from soldering iron burn.
Mum was a teacher, now a vice principal and a business woman. Growing up, we had a lot of crazy innovations in our house; we had light switches and reading lamps that were sound activate, all made by dad. Most people believe I got my “techiness” from dad and the business part of me from mum.
Woah. It’s almost like in the movies. Sorry about the burn, but I gotta say, you had some useful childhood. How about your education?
LOL. I guess I did.
Secondary School: Tai Solarin Secondary School in Ijebu-Ode – that was where I started exploring technology.
At the age of 12, I created an electric mobile hand-fan which I sold to the boarding students in my secondary school. When I was 15, I created a capacitance water heaters that switched on automatically only when placed inside water and switched off the moment they were out of water. This was needed at the time because boiling rings were causing various fire outbreaks all over the country. I sold a lot of those as well. My University was at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife where I studied Material science and engineering
Nice. So, where are Orbra devices made? What’s the process, from ideation to the final product?
They are designed in Nigeria, hardware is assembled in China. Software and Packaging are done here in Nigeria. We are working with some partners and stakeholders to bring our factory to Nigeria.
That should be concluded before the end of 2016.
What’s holding it back? Bringing the factory to Nigeria?
A lot of factors; One, funds, we are looking at about $3 million. Second, power, although our factory design will be powered using wind farm and solar panels, it would save us a lot of funds if power was constant. But I know we are getting there as a nation.
What we are looking at is full manufacturing, not just assembly. We want to have everything we need in Nigeria. EVERYTHING.
About funding, I’m going to throw a salvo of questions. Forgive me. How much did you start Orbra with? Where did it come from? Do you have investors? Are you taking on investors?
Mum is my first investor. She took a loan of N1.7 million for me back in 2013. Before then, one of my mentors gave me N100,000 to get my prototypes in 2012. So for now, my mum is my only financial Investor so far. We are talking to investor at the moment. Enloop San Francisco Just valued us at over NGN 10 billion.
We are trying as much as possible to funding within Nigeria. We want Orbra to be a fully owned Nigerian company that will wow the world
No foreign VC money?
Yes, as much as possible. We haven’t had any offers from outside anyways.
That is audacious. I’ll ask how that pans out in a future interview . Is Orbra profitable?
Yes it is
How much did you make last year?
We had Over N22 million in revenue and without any form of advertisement. But that’s really small. We want to do more. That’s why we are currently seeking investment.
You currently have three devices on your line up launching on October 1, tell us about them.
First is the Eve – an Octa Core Android Smartphone with 3GB RAM and 16GB on board memory, although we are now considering having a 32GB version of it. Check here for more details on Orbra devices.
I like your wearable though. The product pictures look great. What inspired the design shape and form and what does it do exactly?
Nigerians have not been taking their fitness seriously and it wasn’t like that three to four years ago.
This was a personal quest, and people loved it. I love to stay fit. I like to go to the gym and I like to monitor my progress. That was what informed this
And after I made the first samples, people loved them and I decided okay, let’s make this a product and it’s been awesome.
Yeah. I was going to say that. Most Nigerians are not into wearables. The ones I know, at least.
Yes. The issue was the price. Most wearables I know go for at least USD$150, and most of them are ugly. But ours is cheap, functional and very fashionable.
LOL. Ugly. I think that depends on who you are asking.
Tell us about your team. How large is it? What sections are there? And what are their tasks?
There are 6 of us. Myself as the Team Lead. One person each in HR and Business Administration, Account and Finance, Marketing, Software Engineering and Hardware Engineering. That’s us
Who designs the phones, and what company picks up production in China?
Yeah. Usually I come up with a design and run it by the team for their input for now. RE China production, that’s a part we are not willing to reveal yet.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced working on Orbra?
First was market acceptance, but when people realized how great the products were and how young the people behind it were, they liked them. Second has been funds, but that is partly because we haven’t actively sought investment until this year. I think that’s all basically.
Describe your typical day
Wake up, pray, get on my computer and get somethings done. If i have to go out, get dressed and go out. I always have plenty of work to do, so I’m always busy.