Interview

Jessica O. Matthews is the Tech Maven Bringing Renewable Energy to Nigeria and Beyond

Jessica O. Matthews is bringing renewable energy to countries throughout the Continent with her global tech company, Uncharted Play.

This feature is in conjunction with our inaugural list—“OkayAfrica’s 100 Women”—where we take a look at the women making an impact on the African continent and in the diaspora.


Check out the biggest names in culture to young up-and-comers in "OkayAfrica's 100 Women" list here.

Energy is something Jessica O. Matthews knows a thing or two about. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School, Matthews launched Uncharted Play, a renewable energy tech start-up, at just 22 years old.

But despite being an award-winning social enterprise, Uncharted Play is the product of chance.

“Believe it or not, I never aspired to be a businesswoman or run a major company,” Matthews says. “I always wanted to make really cool meaningful things, and generally help people self-actualize and get more value out of whatever time they have left on this planet. As it turns out, to do that sustainably and at scale you have to build a business.”

Matthews, a dual citizen of Nigeria and the United States, first came up with the idea for the company when visiting Nigeria for a family wedding. When the power went out during the party, her relatives switched on the noisy, noxious diesel generators that have become a way of life for nearly 60 million Nigerians. Only 25 percent of Nigerians have access to regular electricity, and the nation averages 32 eight-hour power outages per month.

At that moment a light bulb went off. “Even in the most developed communities power is not something that's always available,” she explains. “You're constantly looking for that plug; constantly figuring out how to get the power you need for your devices when you are outside your home. You're still tethered to the wall. And then of course when you go to less developed communities you don't even have a reliable grid system. So to me the future is decentralization, removing ourselves from the grid and relying on new technologies more integrated into our environments that allow us to always have access to the power we need, when we need it.”

Matthews’ innovative approach to off-grid power is micro-generator technology has spawned two signature products, the SOCCKET, an energy-generating soccer ball, and PULSE, an emergency battery charging jump rope. Both products use Uncharted Play’s proprietary M.O.R.E. (Motion-based, Off-Grid, Renewable Energy) technology to harness power generated by minutes of play to create hours of electricity.

Over 500,000 SOCCKET and PULSE products have been used across developing countries, primarily in Latin America and Africa. Now, Matthews has set her eyes on an enhancing the company’s presence in the U.S. market by engaging parents and youth interested in renewable energy and global issues. But it’s not all about business—the company hasn’t neglected its social enterprise roots: through its Think Out of Bounds educational program, Uncharted Play aims to teach one million kids innovation and STEM by 2020.

While the company started in the “play” space through its soccer balls and jump roses, Matthews doesn’t rule out potential applications of the M.O.R.E. technology to products in other industries. Other social issues, such as food and water, may also be targets of future Uncharted Play products.

As the 13th black female founder to raise more than $1 million in outside investment, Matthews stands out in an industry primarily dominated by white men. Like many minorities, the Uncharted Play founder has faced bias from investors skeptical of her role as a tech founder and CEO. Despite these challenges, Matthews has actively embraced her identity. “I have decided to be very authentic in terms of my perspective, my culture, my personality, as a black woman of the African Diaspora, and finding people who want to work with that,” she says. “And so in raising the round, moving to Harlem, working in Africa, hiring a very diverse team, and doing business with diverse people, I feel very confident and very happy to say that it is possible to raise money and it's possible to be successful and still be authentically, one hundred percent a black woman.”

Today, Matthews leverages her experiences a black woman in tech to help others as the chairman of the board of the Harlem Tech Fund (HTF), a separate nonprofit entity of Uncharted Play. Through HTF, she works to empower Harlem residents and members of historically disenfranchised communities through technology entrepreneurship.

The CEO’s ambition and drive have not only caught the attention of the White House, but also have attracted significant investment. In late 2016, Uncharted Play closed its first major round of financing with $7 million in seed funding from heavy hitters including NIC Fund, an African renewable energy investor, and Magic Johnson Enterprises, an investment company owned by the NBA Hall of Fame legend.

As the saying goes, “Naija no dey carry last.”

popular
(Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

#StopRobbingUs: Nigerian Techies Are Getting Arrested on Their Way to Work and They’re Pissed

We talked to Bosun Tijani, part of a movement in Nigerian tech fighting back against police extortion.

While young, hardworking Nigerians entering the tech industry may dream of the riches and high regard given to their counterparts in Silicon Valley, the reality is much grimmer. In addition to the hassle of learning code, workers are being harassed and extorted by Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police for simply looking like techies, which in Nigeria comes with a whole set of different assumptions. The police assume young Nigerians with laptops and smartphones are involved with internet fraud, not software development, and believe they have excess funds. It's confusing as the "Giant of Africa" is seen as a leading force on the continent for digital and technological progress.

Keep reading... Show less
News Brief

Bozoma Saint John Is Getting Her Own Docuseries

The series will premiere on Starz and cover a range of topics related to her personal and professional life.

Star business executive Bozoma Saint John will get her own docuseries coming to Starz in 2019, Fast Company reports.

The Chief Marketing Officer at Endeavor will host and produce Bozoma: Being Badass, a series that will cover various topics related to the executive's passions, professional endeavors and personal life, such as of the loss of her husband to cancer and navigating the subsequent grief that comes from losing a loved one. The exec told Fast Company that the show will aim to inspire others "to show up wholly as ourselves."

"The multi-hyphenate that I am. Being black, being the child of immigrants...being a widow, a mother. All of those things that make up who I am. That's what's so beautiful about the human experience. None of us are one-dimensional," she added.

She'll also interview others in relation to each topic. Saint John described the series as "a cross between Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Mister Rogers, and The Oprah Winfrey Show." The show will be executive produced by Parts Unknown producer Alex Lowry along with Saint John herself and Anjula Acharia.

The show is set to begin production early next year, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

popular
Keith Roper/Flickr Creative Commons

Kais Saied is Set to Become Tunisia's Next President

While official results have not been published, the retired academic reportedly secured 76 percent of the votes according to the exit polls.

Last week, Tunisia held its legislative elections, according to reports by Aljazeera. The Ennahda Movement obtained 52 seats in the 217-member parliament while the Karoui's Heart of Tunisia party came second, with 38 seats. While the presidential elections were only scheduled to take place in November, they were pushed forward after the country's first democratically-elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, passed away in July. Two independent candidates, media mogul Nabil Karoui and retired law professor Kais Saied, have been facing off in the presidential runoff. However, recent exit polls suggest that Saied secured between 72 and 77 percent of the vote.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Illustration by Simone Martin-Newberry

A 15-Year-Old Nigerian Student Lends Her Voice to the Fight Against Boko Haram With Graphic Novel

Aisha Mustapha's graphic novel about her experiences under Boko Haram was published today for International Day of the Girl.

Aisha Mustapha, is a 15-year-old student from Nigeria, using her voice to tell her own story. The young writer recently penned a graphic novel about her experience fleeing Boko Haram, locating her family and trying to further her education. It's a heavy subject, obviously, but with her graphic novel, she offers a voice for young people directly affected by the crisis in Northern Nigeria.

The book was published today to mark the International Day of the Girl, a day established by the United Nations in 2011 to "highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face, while promoting girls' empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights."

Aisha's talent for storytelling has previously been highlighted in Assembly, a by-girls-for-girls publication by the Malala Fund that brought Aisha's graphic novel to life, premiering it today in conjunction with International Day of the GIrl. Tess Thomas, Assembly's editor, elaborated on the purpose of the publication saying, "We believe in the power of girls' voices to generate change. Our publication provides girls with a platform so their opinions and experiences can inform decisions about their futures."

Aisha's words were illustrated by artist Simone Martin-Newberry, who had this to say about the process of creating the visuals for the graphic novel: "I was very moved by Aisha's story, and really wanted to treat it sensitively and do it justice with my illustrations. My aim was to capture the real emotions and actions of the story, but also keep my artwork bright and colorful and full of pattern, to help reflect Aisha's amazing youthful spirit."

Check out some excerpts from the piece below and head here to read it in full.
Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.

popular.