Growing up, Awele Uwagwu’s view of energy was deeply influenced by the oil and gas industry. He was born and raised in Port Harcourt, a city on the southern coast of Nigeria, and his hometown shaped his initial interest in understanding the role of energy in our lives.
“I basically grew up in a city colored by oil and gas,” says Uwagwu. “Many of the jobs in that area are in the oil sector, and I saw a lot of large companies coming in and creating new buildings and infrastructure. That very much tailored my interest in the energy sector. I kept thinking: What is all of this stuff going on, and what are all these big machines that I see every day? The more sinister side of it was: Why is the water bad? Why is the air bad? And, what can I do about it?”
Uwagwu has shaped much of his educational and professional journey around answering that question: “What can I do about it?” He is now a senior at MIT, majoring in chemical engineering with a minor in energy studies.
After attending high school in Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, Uwagwu decided to pursue a degree in chemical engineering and briefly attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2016. Unfortunately, the impacts of a global crash in oil prices made the situation difficult back in Nigeria, so he returned home and found employment at an oil services company working on a water purification process.
It was during this time that he decided to apply to MIT. “I wanted to go to a really great place,” he says, “and I wanted to take my chances.” After only a few months of working at his new job, he was accepted to MIT.
“At this point in my life I had a much clearer picture of what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be in the energy sector and make some sort of impact. But I didn’t quite know how I was going to do that,” he says.
With this in mind, Uwagwu met with Rachel Shulman, the undergraduate academic coordinator at the MIT Energy Initiative, to learn about the different ways that MIT is engaged in energy. He eventually decided to become an energy studies minor and concentrate in energy engineering studies through the 10-ENG: Energy program in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Additionally, he participated in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in the lab of William H. Green, the Hoyt C. Hottel Professor in Chemical Engineering, focusing on understanding the different reaction pathways for the production of soot from the combustion of carbon.
After this engaging experience, he reconnected with Shulman to get involved with another UROP, this time with a strong focus in renewable energy. She pointed him toward Ian Mathews — a postdoc in the Photovoltaic Research Laboratory and founder of Sensai Analytics — to discuss ways he could make a beneficial impact on the energy industry in Nigeria. This conversation led to a second UROP, under the supervision of Mathews. In that project, Uwagwu worked to figure out how cost-effective solar energy would be in Nigeria compared to petrol-powered generators, which are commonly used to supplement the unreliable national grid.
“The idea we had is that these generators are really, really bad for the environment, whereas solar is cheap and better for the environment,” Uwagwu says. “But we needed to know if solar is actually affordable.” After setting up a software model and connecting with Leke Oyefeso, a friend back home, to get data on generators, they concluded that solar was cost-comparable and often cheaper than the generators.
Armed with this information and another completed UROP, Uwagwu thought, “What happens next?” Quickly an idea started forming, so he and Oyefeso went to Venture Mentoring Services at MIT to figure out how to leverage this knowledge to start a company that could deliver a unique and much-needed product to the Nigerian market.
They ran through many different potential business plans and ideas, eventually deciding on creating software to design solar systems that are tailored to Nigeria’s specific needs and context. Having come up with the initial idea, they “chatted with people on the solar scene back home to see if this is even useful or if they even need this.”
Through these discussions and market research, it became increasingly clear to them what sort of novel and pivotal product they could offer to help accelerate Nigeria’s burgeoning solar sector, and their initial idea took on a new shape: solar design software coupled with an online marketplace that connects solar providers to funding sources and energy consumers. In recognition of his unique venture, Uwagwu received a prestigious Legatum Fellowship, a program that offers entrepreneurial MIT students strong mentoring and networking opportunities, educational experiences, and substantial financial support.
Since its founding in the summer of 2020, their startup, Idagba, has been hard at work getting its product ready for market. Starting a company in the midst of Covid-19 has created a set of unique challenges for Uwagwu and his team, especially as they operate on a whole other continent from their target market.
“We wanted to travel to Lagos last summer but were unable to do so,” he says. “We can’t make the software without talking to the people and businesses who are going to use it, so there are a lot of Zoom and phone calls going on.”
In spite of these challenges, Idagba is well on its path to commercialization. “Currently we are developing our minimum viable product,” comments Uwagwu. “The software is going to be very affordable, so there’s very little barrier for entry. We really want to help create this market for solar.”
In some ways, Idagba is drawing lessons from the success of Mo Ibrahim and his mobile phone company, Celtel. In the late 1990s, Celtel was able to quickly and drastically lower the overall price of cell phones across many countries in Africa, allowing for the widespread adoption of mobile communication at a much faster pace than had been anticipated. To Uwagwu, this same idea can be replicated for solar markets. “We want to reduce the financial and technical barriers to entry for solar like he did for telecom.”
This won’t be easy, but Uwagwu is up to the task. He sees his company taking off in three phases. The first is getting the design software online. After that has been accomplished — by mid-2021 — comes the hard part: getting customers and solar businesses connected and using the program. Once they have an existing user base and proven cash flow, the ultimate goal of the company is to create and facilitate an ecosystem of people wanting to push solar energy forward. This will make Idagba, as Uwagwu puts it, “the hub of solar energy in Nigeria.” Idagba has a long way to go before reaching that point, but Uwagwu is confident that the building blocks are in place to ensure its success.
After graduating in June, Uwagwu will be taking up a full-time position at the prestigious consulting firm Bain and Company, where he plans to gain even more experience and connections to help grow his company. This opportunity will provide him with the knowledge and expertise to come back to Idagba and, as he says, “commit my life to this.”
“This idea may seem ambitious and slightly nonsensical right now,” says Uwagwu, “but this venture has the potential to significantly push Nigeria away from unsustainable fossil fuel consumption to a much cleaner path.”
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.