By Oluwatoyin Akinola
At a time Nigeria is battling a strangulating economic crunch leading to the folding up of many businesses, Chinedu Okpara, who at a time could not get a dream job decided to take his destiny into his hands as an entrepreneur. From recharge card vending, to computer education business, Okpara now seeks to help homes and businesses save money through his innovations. Sunday Sun recently caught up with him at his Smooth Technologies Limited headquarters at the Alaba International Market, Lagos. In this chat, he shares his enterprise journey story, also his innovations.
Tell us a bit about your background sir?
My name is Okpara Chinedu, CEO of Smooth Technologies Limited. I graduated from the Federal Polytechnic Oko, Anambra State. I finished with Upper Credit in Business Administration and Management. After my youth service, I had to manage my father’s business, he was very ill at the time. The business was selling industrial machine parts. The business eventually collapsed. Meanwhile I had worked with a friend, I learnt about computers from him. So after my father’s business packed up, I started looking for a job but nothing was forthcoming. Then I started a business centre, making phone calls, selling recharge cards.
I had always had this vision of being an employer of labour, how that was going to happen I didn’t know. So I started the business centre, I was both the employer and employee. Later on, my younger brother joined me because he couldn’t find a job as well. We were the first company to sell recharge cards at a discount in Alaba International market. So we were able to attract customers. From there we grew to buy our first computer. We started sending mails, then expanded to a full cyber café, doing even overnight browsing, then we grew to have a computer school. We created the market in Alaba International, and we’ve pioneered various innovations.
So tell us about the latest innovation in town
I got the gas powered generator idea as far back as 2011, when I attended a seminar where we were taught about the innovation. I liked the idea, researched it, found out it worked. But I lost interest because the device was manual and one had to be adjusting manually to balance the generator. Whenever I’m not there, my staff were not able to adjust it. But sometime last year, we discovered that another innovation was available that didn’t need manual adjustment.
The device can be used with most of the available fuel generators, (except the small Tiger generators)2.0KVA upwards. What we do is that we change the carburettors to the one that we designed. It is done under 10 minutes. And if you want to go back to your fuel carburettor, you can always go back.
The advantage of powering generator with gas is that it is very environmentally friendly. No carbon, no sulphur is emitted like we have with fuel. You won’t have to be servicing the generator often because gas is pure. It is not poisonous, just like you are cooking with gas.
How long does the cylinder outside your office last?
The cylinder takes 24kg gas, we use it for our offices downstairs and upstairs. We have over 20 computers, printers, fans. When we were using fuel, we would fill the generator with 25 litres, it would usually last us from 9 am to about 5.30 pm in the evening. But since we switched to gas, it would last till about that same time when we usually close and also the next day for another four hours at least. Our monthly usage was about N180,000 when we were using petrol but since we switched to gas, we’ve been saving close to N80,000 monthly.
Also we are working on our Propane, we have commissioned the research. It’s about gathering food waste to make our gas. There are so many food sellers around, and they throw away a lot of food wastes at the close of business. So what we are looking at is collecting such wastes and converting it to gas. There is a process that makes that happen. We can also use faeces but it’s not easy to collect that.
Can’t refuse do that?
Yes, but that process will be more tedious because we will have to sort first. That will be more expensive and time consuming. With the food waste, we just collect and put in our reservoir where it is converted to Propane. We are working on that at present.
Back to the use of gas, how safe is that especially for residential use
In terms of safety, it is relatively very safe. It’s like you are using camp gas. Usually we recommend five yards distance from the generator, so the exhaust is facing away. I use it at home for the pumping machine, also spill over job from the office because the market closes by 5 pm. I have a small office there, we do mass dubbing of tape messages for churches. So it powers the machines.
So for residential use, how much gas should one get?
For residential purposes, depending on how much load, we help you calculate that. It can carry air conditioners (AC) depending on your generator capacity. For instance, what we use at the office can carry two ACs, it has the capacity to do so because it is 7.5KVA. But we don’t use it for AC in the office.
For an apartment that uses about 90 litres per week, what quantity of gas would be needed?
Assuming you are spending about N15,000 on fuel per week, that’s for about 90 litres. Gas is N3,500 for 12.5kg, it could last for about four days. You’ll definitely be spending less, probably N7,000 per week instead. Except the generator is leaking or weak. We often do a trial for clients for a few days to know their level of consumption and be able to recommend. We do this because a lot of people are still doubting. For those who have experienced it, we are having orders for the service already. All those cylinders in the office are for clients who requested our service.
Do you have competitors?
I think there are three of us presently. We have people we have trained to do this.
What is the bigger picture for you, where do you see your company in the next 10 years?
For me, the dream has always been to be a big employer of labour. So in the next ten years or thereabout, we hope to be employing over 10,000 people, that is my core calling. Also I’m a teacher, I teach on being an entrepreneur, leadership, I’m writing books and I see myself as a motivational speaker.
The challenges you’ve faced as an entrepreneur, your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs…
There will always be challenges. Economic meltdown is one every entrepreneur is facing. There was a time it was so bad for the company, we were selling our computers just to feed, that was in 2005 but I refused to give up because I believe in my dream. The business was stalled, we went bankrupt, I even told my brother to go look for a job. But by the grace of God, we bounced back.
My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs especially those still learning from a boss, they should empathise with their bosses, try to put themselves in his shoes. For instance, when bosses say they don’t have money, it’s true. As a businessman, sometimes, I don’t have money in my account but I have what can be converted to money.
As entrepreneurs, we are like ducks. You see a duck floating on the water but you don’t know what that duck is doing underneath to stay afloat, there’s a lot of movement with the feet under the water. Most people see us smiling but they don’t know what we are going through. We borrow, we have sleepless night from staff, creditors, landlords, sometimes our heads are hot.
I was trained in business in school, but we are not taught how to face challenges, how to cope in the classroom. You get into business to experience all these things. But it’s good because all these challenges have made me stronger, and I’m able to encourage others, because not everyone can weather the storms, some will buckle under the problem and give up. I share my experiences in my books and people are encouraged, and I’m making money from the books!
For example, sometime ago, a friend of mine told me how his friend committed suicide because of a loan of N2 million he’s been unable to pay. My friend that called me was contemplating the same thing when he called me and I had to encourage him. Funny as it may sound, I was in debt of about N7 million at that time and the last thing on my mind was suicide.
Challenges will always come, so entrepreneurs should have that at the back of their mind. Government policies will affect business, business can crash, and even staff can crash the business. I had the experience sometime ago, a member of my staff was transferring the company’s money into his account. And at times, accidents or some incidents that will affect the business will occur.
Tell us about the printer you modified
We started using this printer in 2007. We developed our modification because of the cost of the ink that came with it. According to the manufacturer, each cartridge of the printer can do 300 each which comes to about 900, and that is just for text! Each cartridge costs about N3,000 , four of that is N12,000. If you are charging N10 per page, for 900 pages, you’ll have N9,000. One is running at a loss.
So we started thinking of the way out. Initially, we were refilling ink, then we started researching and along the line, came up with the idea of the external ink reservoir/flow. Each bottle of ink is 500ml, so each can print about 30,000 pages, and the ink will cost us about N80,000. With the other cartridge, it will cost about N300,000 to print the same quantity. That’s why we are still in business, we can charge N10. Our job is 95 per cent printing.
Though I’m the CEO, I took it upon myself to repair and service the printers, so that we can save for the company. Although I charge the company for the cost, I write it for them (laughter). Because I do this, other people are bringing their printers for servicing.
Because of this printer modification that we have done, someone once raised the issue of legal problems with the manufacturer. And my response was this; ‘Warranty expires after it has been tampered with’. So, because we have tampered with the machine, they have no business with it again. So there is no issue.