For our readers, could you give an overview of Echiuma?
Jessica: I should start out with the problem; in Nigeria power is really infrequent. We could be talking right now, and the power could go out and not come back for two weeks. If you want to have electricity during a blackout you would have to use a generator. And that is only for grid electricity, where only 40 percent of the country has it. That can be really challenging for a business that needs energy to function. Through the process of customer discovery, we found that manufacturers are really the ones that have some of the highest energy usage, that we can help solve that problem. We will be selling off grid solar systems that would provide them electricity during their working hours. Leveraging the sun in Nigeria to provide them with electricity is great. Essentially, what we would be doing is selling solar systems to businesses in Nigeria, starting with manufacturers.
Where does the name of the company come from?
Jessica: My family is Nigerian and my native tongue is Ekpeye. I was talking to my mom and my dad asking them to help me come up with a name. My mom gave me Echiuma meaning “good light.”
Can we know a little bit about your background, what you’re studying here at Cornell?
Jessica: As you know, Gina is in the Law School and deals with the legal aspect of the company. I am doing the MBA here at Johnson and I did the Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion program, because I thought that would be a nice overlap around what I’m trying to do. As far as my background, I will start with my undergraduate degree. I went to Northeastern University, where I studied business with a focus on Entrepreneurship and Supply Chain Management. Just before coming to Johnson I was working for a solar panel manufacturer. At the time they were one of the largest in the world, “Yingli Green Energy.” That is where I got the inspiration to start this business and I came to school to start this company.
When did you realize and start to care about the power outage problem in Nigeria?
Jessica: It’s been a problem since I could remember. When I was there in 1998, we did not have power for two months. I never really thought I could do something about it until I started working in the solar industry. Even though it was a large company, our main office very much had a startup feel, and I got to learn a lot about the industry. I think ever since I started working at Yingli in 2012 my VP used to talk about doing something in Nigeria. I think it was back in 2013 or 2014, one night I was thinking about it, how needed it was, and the next day I went into the office and said let's do it, and we started working on it. Shortly after I decided to go back to school, because I realized that is a good place to just focus, learn, and apply things to the business, and I was right because it has been so helpful.
How have businesses been taking your proposals? Have they been following your business plans?
Jessica: We are not selling systems yet. We are still in the planning phase for execution and continue to do customer discovery. One person that I have spoken to in this process is one of the chairmen of the Manufacturing Association of Nigeria. He definitely seems interested because he is affected by the problem. The kind of people who are angry about this issue, they are the perfect customers, so I am hoping to do a demo/sizing for his facility.
What about cost? Is it very expensive to implement solar panels in Nigeria?
Jessica: There is a very high upfront cost, which is another reason why solar panels have not taken off in Nigeria. That's why we're trying to do a payment plan for 2-3 years. Even in the United States, it is usually a power purchase agreement for an installment plan for over 20-30 years. But it is too much of a risk in Nigeria to cost a system out that far.
How will your company function, since you are providing services for Nigerian businesses but are currently based in the US?
Jessica: I would be living in Nigeria. I plan on moving in August after graduation.
Did you grow up in Nigeria?
Jessica: I grew up in the US and would go back and forth, first as a kid, then as a teenager, and then the past 3 years, every year.
And the rest of your team?
Gina: Briana and I will be based in the US, but we are both more than willing to travel to Nigeria as necessary. We are very excited for Jessica’s move back to Nigeria after graduation; having her there is critical to establishing the relationships Echiuma needs to thrive.
What are the greatest obstacles you face for right now?
Jessica: Just doing the customer discovery. Culturally in the environment, trust is an issue, and getting people to talk to us is difficult. People have been suspicious when we call potential customers.
Gina: Although solar is not a new concept, most companies in Nigeria focus solely on providing solar systems to houses and other residential units. There is currently no one offering solar systems to businesses. That is where we come in. Echiuma is focused on providing solar solutions to businesses, specifically to manufacturers who need consistent energy to produce their products. Our goal is to fill this gap in the market and provide manufacturers with a sustainable and cost-efficient (in the long run) solution.
Do you have any advice to share with our readers?
Jessica: When I was an undergraduate I just did not realize that there are not many “real” rules. You are making your own path even if someone says something is not possible. It was my junior year that I sort of figured that out. And now I just tell anyone you should just make it happen. Question the rules that are in place and see if they are outdated. So if you are interested in entrepreneurship, I highly recommend that you touch on something now.