Oscar Ekponimo, the Founder of Chowberry Inc, a technology-driven social business that helps retailers cut food waste and improves food accessibility and affordability for disadvantaged households facing food poverty, was named in Time Magazine’s list of 10 Next Generation Leaders in 2017. He speaks with ABIODUN AWOLAJA on his various innovative solutions and contributions in leveraging technology and enterprise to address local challenges in Africa.
YOU were named in Time Magazine’s list of 10 Next Generation Leaders 2017. How were you able to achieve that and how does your background relate to your present engagements?
The recognition from Time Magazine is for my innovative use of technology to address hunger and the challenge of food poverty in Nigeria through the Chowberry app; a technology service that aggregates data on food nearing the end of shelf-life and facilitates its redistribution to families in desperate need of meals. I studied Computing in the University of Calabar and participated in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) completing a course in Technology entrepreneurship. Considering my educational background in computer science and connecting that to my own personal experience with the food deprivation; these two elements enabled me on one hand to understand the problem deeply, and then leverage my skills and technical capacity to invent a solution that effectively addresses the problem. Through Gallery of Code, I want to provide an enabling environment with the right tools and technical know-how for other young creative to develop solutions to our local challenges such as Chowberry
Chowberry Inc., has been described as a technology driven social business that helps retailers cut food waste and improves food accessibility and affordability for disadvantaged. How precisely does this work?
The Chowberry app is used by supermarkets to upload and observe products within their stock that are approaching expiration; as the expiry dates approaches automated discounts are initiated on the soon to expire food products and through the app we have NGO’s and other social benefit organizations purchase these items at extremely low prices and then distribute them to families and communities facing hunger during their feeding programs. This way we simply prevent waste and redirected what would have been wasted to persons in dire need of food. A simple example can be a box of Cornflakes cereal which usually costs N1, 500, because its expiring in 10 Days you can order from Chowberry for as low as N300. Consequently we are making healthy food options more affordable to lower income earners and households. It is important to note that impoverished persons facing hunger do not have access to a smart phone app, hence our partnerships with NGO’s who are already working in impoverished communities where food poverty is rife. There are responsible for taking advantage of our platform to feed more people for lesser amount.
How would you access the Nigerian government’s approach to entrepreneurship, particularly among the youths?
The current government really does not take entrepreneurship seriously. In as much as it is not the government’s responsibility to produce entrepreneurs, however, only government can provide an enabling environment for entrepreneurship to thrive such as improving the ease of doing business and tax incentives or waivers for early stage entrepreneurs. Keeping this in mind, government efforts therefore falls far below expectation in creating an enabling environment for young entrepreneurs. There are not enough funds, grants or programs that support entrepreneurship championed by government. I am aware of programmes by the Bank of Industry and a few other establishments but this is a drop in the ocean, with over 50 per cent of the population being under the age of 40.
What was the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise in Applied Technology based on?
Since 1976, the Rolex Awards honours 10 individuals around the world embarking on revolutionary projects that improve the well-being of communities and push the frontiers of human advancement. The award is based application of technology to address the problem of hunger and food poverty, specifically for the Chowberry app which provides an alternative affordable source of nutrition for thousands of under-privileged households.
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Nigerians would be interested in Gallery of Code, described as an R & D lab that works to develop innovative solutions to local challenges through the blend of arts and technology. Arts and technology? How?
The lab is designed to have yearly residency programs that brings together talented inventors, artists, designers, software engineers and innovators to generate innovative ideas for inventions that address challenges in the health, agriculture, education and the energy sectors in Africa. These talented individuals will then be matched with our international partners from Ars Electronica Futurelab who are experts in technological research and development to be mentored and guided on the technical processes required in bringing those inventions to life as physical products and services. These new inventions will be fine-tuned and further developed into viable solutions working with scientists at the Ars Electronica Futurelab by the initiators of the project. An example of such a project is a Solar Powered Portable Ultra Sound Machine for use as point of care diagnostics in rural and indigent areas in Africa. Such a solution will make it possible for pregnant mothers in villages have ultra sound scans which are sent to health-care professionals in cities for interpretation and recommendations. This has enormous potential to reduce maternal mortality and diagnose internal ailments such as liver or kidney diseases in rural areas.
Explain how your ideas can encourage women in enterprise and reduce poverty.
With Gallery of Code, we have a strong focus on the inclusion of women and girls in science and technology; therefore the first cohort of residents in the lab will have a strong gender bias for women. So, this will encourage women to start new ventures out of the innovation created through the residency programme. And I strongly believe that the ideas and solutions targeting thematic areas such as Agriculture and Energy will be solutions that improve the wellbeing of communities either by raising their income levels or creating a cheaper more efficient alternative in accomplishing a task.