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.”

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

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