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Mind Blown By Drone At 160km/h

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It’s a strange sight. Four men wearing Virtual Reality (VR) goggles with heads bowed and moving up and down and from side to side. They call it a Stevie Wonder – the humor is a bit rough in this business – but this is the modus operandi of a drone racer.

All four sit in a stand at the rugby field at the Cape Academy for Maths, Science and Technology, in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. The drones buzz like a swarm of bees over the rugby field.  With the help of VR, all four have the view from the cockpit of their small drones as they race through hoops, weave through S-bends and barrel roll though low hanging gates at 160 kilometers an hour.

“The first time you fly it’s one of those eye-opening experiences. It’s like you are floating outside your own body, especially if it’s FPV (first-person view)…When you are using goggles, you are fully immersed in virtual reality. It’s as if you are looking at yourself while flying. You still experience all the vertigo of being up in the air and you feel that on the ground. When you get up you feel dizzy after the flight, it blows your mind,” says six-year veteran drone racer Alan Ball.

This experience captured the imagination of Ball. Four years ago, after he got tired of waiting for parts from overseas, he converted his garage into a thriving drone business.

“I said whatever it costs I’m in. That’s how I started… I was working from my garage at night while doing my day job. I would come home from work and work another eight hours until one in the morning, then go to bed, then it was the same thing again the next day.”

Five months later, Ball quit his job as an iOS game developer at Naspers, Africa’s $74.5-billion media group. With R50,000 ($3,900) out of his own pocket he opened the first drone shop in South Africa, Flying Robot.

“Two years later… I am in this massive 200-meter-square warehouse and shipping drones around the country 24/7. We’re now four staff, shipping 15 to 20 drones daily,” he says.

Ball is one of hundreds of Africans waking up to this up-and-coming sport. You can make big money at the top if you are prepared to spend money. A professional will spend as much as R35,000 ($2,700) on one drone.

A pilot’s license can cost up to R30,000 ($2,300). Thereafter you still need to be part of a company that has a Remote Operating Certificate (ROC), of which there are only 11 ROCs in South Africa, says Ball.

Photo by Jay Caboz

Drone prize pools can run into the millions. At the 2016 World Drone Prix, in Dubai, from a $1-million prize pool, 15-year-old Luke Bannister walked away with $250,000 after placing first at its inaugural event.

The sport’s popularity is growing as fast as eSports – professional online gaming –which has taken off in countries like South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States, as well as South Africa.

A sign of the times in 2016, The Drone Racing League (DRL), which was broadcast live on US sports channel ESPN and Sky. It raised $8 million from Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins who is worth $7.4 billion.

Thirty two competitors face off in heats until they are whittled down to a final four. Obstacles can range anywhere from stadium hallways to two-meter-square gates.

“Your tracks become three dimensional. It’s no longer just an on-the-ground two dimensional track. You can now start exploring verticals and doing maneuvers like a Split-S, to get the quad down and then back again,” says Ball.

In Cape Town, the numbers are growing. Ball says the biggest turnout he’s seen was a crowd of 200 at the South African FPV Racing Club in 2016.

“A lot of guys practice by going through kids’ jungle gyms. The tighter the gap the more the challenge and showing the skill and the precision,” says Ball.

Back at the rugby field in Cape Town, with the four Stevie Wonders, there is a ragtag collection of dads, sons, hobbyists and professionals. Each pilot brings a bag of wires, batteries and spare parts. If a drone smashes into a flag, they can repair it on the spot. In this sport, a handyman is as good as a dashing racer.

Mayday! Mayday! I’ve Been Hacked

“The pioneers in the scene seven years ago were taking components they could find that were everyday – CCTV cameras or everyday transmission video systems. They would then figure out how to put that on a plane or a quad and start flying it,” says Ball.

“It was a cool time to do it. I was building my own flight controllers from old gyros from helicopters, and assembling that. Some racers would use Sony cinematography goggles, what you would sit on the couch and watch TV with. They put those into snowboard goggles and hacked them together themselves.”

Ball’s first drone was a hack job – a three bladed Tricopter. With soldering iron and an open mind, he built it using a plan he downloaded from the internet, a cut out mainframe from copper PC board and 10mmx10mm meranti wood for arms.

“It’s a great platform to learn about technology and electronics. We are using it today at the Cape Academy for Maths, Science and Technology’s workshops, teaching [students] about remote control and how things work in flight,” says Ball.

Ball’s hack jobs are a far cry from what he builds now. In May, he launched his own drone, called the EchoQuad-X. Ball says in the racing scene everyone is now building their own.

“The X-range is almost like Meccano. [Drone racing] is a very DIY hobby; you build your own drone, you fix your own drone when you are sitting at your work bench at night. We thought let’s give people options to build it their way and inspire creativity to come up with their own configuration that suits them and how they want to be,” says Ball.

You Can’t Get The Kids Off The Computer

Clearly drones are how Ball wants to be as an entrepreneur. His other ventures didn’t work out. The first shot at entrepreneurism was importing cement, which didn’t kick off. He then tried selling video jukeboxes to music stores. He also took a shot at developing app games, which brought in some cash when he started working with Naspers. It was the business of his heart that proved a winner.

“I was always taking things apart and putting them back together again. Maybe they didn’t work when I put them back together again. When I was a kid I was building my own computer. I built model airplanes and full-sized gliders. I was drawn to the thrill of flight.”

Drones are also tearing through social media faster than they rip through the skies. Drone racers share their movies and experiences online. YouTube is often the glue that binds the small band of racers in Africa.

“People are coming up with new tricks all the time. The only way to see it is on YouTube. Every time there is a new model that comes into the community it’s all shared and distributed through YouTube.”

“It’s accelerated everything that’s related to the hobby. Initially it was online forums for online pilots. I think things have moved out of the forums and into the technical celeb space where you have your YouTube channels. We learn from them.”

There is no denying that drones and their ability to fly cheaply have made themselves indispensable to entrepreneurs looking for an innovative edge. Drones have been used to map mines, deliver pizza and photograph weddings. Once, a bunch of drones flew together to make a hovercraft.

The Nerd Herd

But, Ball warns, there are pitfalls.

“You are not allowed to fly a drone higher than 50 meters. You are not allowed fly 50 meters near roads or buildings, which means you are not necessarily allowed to fly in your backyard. Privacy is obviously a big thing.”

“Now with the drones being so easy to fly, it makes it easier to take a photo of their house, but what they don’t realize is there is someone else in their back garden that could lead to other things happening.”

In Australia, in 2014, a property company used a drone photograph to advertise a house on sale on a large billboard. The company didn’t realize that, at the time, the neighbor, Mandy Lingard, was tanning topless next door.

“It went through all these checks and only when it was on the billboard did the lady who owned the house notice that she was tanning in her back garden. It led to a large lawsuit,” says Ball.

There is also the rising fear of drone hacking.

“Yes, it’s true. A hacker that is a Remote Control [RC] enthusiast hacked a known protocol that drives the drone, the radio control, and took over the drone. He proved it was very easy to take over control of any RC plane or drone.”

Fear or not, the buzz of the drone is likely to get louder over the skies of Africa in the next decade.

Entrepreneurs

Why This 48-Year-Old Woman Is Building Ghana’s Biggest Solar Farm

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Chairman of UBI Group Salma Okonkwo. UBI GROUP

For more than a decade, one 48-year-old entrepreneur in Ghana has been quietly building up a multimillion-dollar oil and gas outfit called UBI Group. Salma Okonkwo is a rare woman to head up an energy company in Africa. “I don’t stop when the door is being shut. I find a way to make it work,” Okonkwo told Forbes. “That’s what propelled my success.”

She’s now expanding her reach across Ghana’s energy industry, working on an independent side project that may become the biggest in her career. Okonkwo is building Ghana’s biggest solar farm, called Blue Power Energy, slated to open in March 2019 with 100 megawatts of energy. It’s set to be one of the largest in Africa.

“Most of the multinational companies that come to Ghana don’t put in infrastructure. They operate a system where they invest very little and they take it away. They sell their products and leave,” Okonkwo says. “I’m hoping to provide employment and add to Ghana’s economy.”

Okonkwo grew up in Accra, one of 14 children born to a real estate agent and developer mother and a cattle dealer father. She often visited her grandmother in her family’s ancestral village. She’s a member of the Akan clan, whose women often sell products they make, like sandwiches or smoked fish, to make sure their children are provided for—and that left an indelible mark on Okonkwo. “The women didn’t know how to read and write, but they knew how to make a margin,” Okonkwo says.

After graduating from an all-girls boarding school with little running water, Okonkwo moved to Los Angeles for college at Loyola Marymount University. (Her family was able to pay her tuition.) She graduated in 1994 and briefly worked in California for a food brokerage company. Then oil and gas company Sahara Energy Group recruited her; Okonkwo returned to Accra in 2003 for the job.

Within a few years, Okonkwo realized that the firm could grow by opening up retail gas stations. She presented the idea several times over the years, but each time she was rebuked. Executives told her they wouldn’t change their business plan because it would be too political and would require too much of an investment in infrastructure.

At 36 years old in 2006, Okonkwo decided she’d heard “no” too many times and quit to try it herself, focusing on bringing liquified petroleum gas to the hard-to-reach region of northern Ghana, where many families still rely on burning firewood for energy. Because Okonkwo’s father was from northern Ghana, she knew firsthand how the business could change lives there. “It was just too hard to pass up the opportunity,” Okonkwo recalls. “It looked quite lucrative.”

But Okonkwo hit an early snag when she realized that she didn’t take into account a complicating factor: The North had few storage facilities for the liquified gas. To get it to the remote region, she’d have to build the storage herself, and she was already struggling to secure funding. So Okonkwo pivoted and started trading diesel and petroleum wholesale. A contract to supply fuel to Dallas-based Kosmos Energy came in 2007, followed by one with Hess in 2008. In the early days, she financed the operation by mortgaging some properties that her family and husband had inherited.

A UBI Group retail gas station in Ghana. UBI GROUP.

By 2008, UBI opened its first retail gas station. It soon owned 8 outright and managed another 20 through partnerships. That caught the eye of Singapore-based multinational firm Puma Energy, which had 2017 sales of $15 billion from operations in 49 countries. Puma acquired a 49% stake in two of UBI Group’s subsidiaries (retail gas stations and wholesale fuel distribution) in 2013 for about $150 million.

After the partial acquisition in 2013, Okonkwo says, she started developing her solar company. She estimates the company will spend about $100 million—financed by roughly $30 million in loans—to create 100 megawatts of solar power by early next year. Construction started earlier this summer. The plan is to add another 100 megawatts by the end of 2020.

Despite all the sunshine in Africa, solar power isn’t a prominent energy source on the continent. Most farms are concentrated in South Africa and Kenya. In 2009, Morocco announced plans to build one of the biggest solar farms in the world. The first of the project’s three phases opened in 2016. “I don’t know of another large-scale project like this in Africa that’s led by a woman,” says Arne Jacobson, who has been studying renewable energy with a focus on Africa since 1998 and is now the director of Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center. “Power is fairly expensive in countries like Ghana. If they can keep costs low, this is will be a profitable venture.”

The project is also personal for Okonkwo. Half of the solar farm will be located in her father’s village in northern Ghana. The rest will be spread out throughout the North, which is Ghana’s poorest region, according to Unicef. The organization says the area has seen the smallest progress in terms of poverty reduction since the 1990s.

There are so few employment opportunities in the north of Ghana besides farming that most women migrate to Accra looking for work. Many can only find jobs as “kayayo”—working in markets carrying goods for customers, sometimes known as “living shopping baskets.” They live in slums and regularly endure harassment, theft and even rape. Okonkwo, aiming to create a better alternative for some of these women, says Blue Power Energy has already created hundreds of jobs in northern Ghana and that more than 650 will be created upon completion.

Okonkwo’s ultimate goal is to bring cheap energy to northern Ghana through the solar farm, which she hopes will incentivize companies to create lasting jobs there. In the meantime, she is opening a day-care center in Accra for children born to kayayo women, where, as she explains, they can “get educated and hopefully break the cycle.”

“I want to bring support to my people in the north,” Okonkwo says. “Then there will be more Salma’s all over the place.”

 

– Chloe Sorvino

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The Bloodless Battle Against The Malaria

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With Africa having a big share of the global malaria burden, technologists are developing new, cost-effective ways to detect the disease – minus the needle.

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The Nigerian Who Runs His Business On Luck

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Don’t tell Akin Alabi there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything. He just might tell you off.

At 41, he has built multiple businesses and is making money and time for more.

Alabi is the founder of NairaBET, Nigeria’s first and leading sports betting platform, a company he started in 2009 after he identified what he calls “a starving crowd”.

By that, he means a customer base willing and able to pay for services enough for him to make a sizeable profit.

Besides NairaBET, Alabi owns a small football club, has a book-writing business, is into digital marketing, business coaching and seminars, and is also contesting for a seat in parliament in the 2019 Nigerian elections.

The entrepreneur-investor likes to spend his days identifying specific gaps in the market and providing solutions to address them.

READ MORE: Nigeria; Where Football Is Life

Over the years, he has identified many ‘starving crowds’. He found the first one just after completing a diploma in business administration in 2001. At the time, there was a growing desire for Nigerian youth to travel abroad, especially to Canada, in search of greener pastures.

According to data from the Canadian immigration service, as many as 27,625 immigrants from Nigeria were residing in Canada by 2011.

Alabi tried his luck too.

In 2001, after his visa got rejected, he decided to collate his experiences navigating the complicated visa application process and sell that knowledge online to first-time applicants.

“So anything I learned, I created the information pack and I put it online and sold it,”

“I started downloading information tutorials and videos about the Canadian application process. I put all the information together and said some people will be interested in this so let me put it out there for sale. So in January 2003, I launched my first business, which was selling information products, and the first information product was this Canadian visa package,” says Alabi.

The guide was an instant hit. Alabi was selling it at N10,000 ($28) per copy and over 100 copies later, he knew he had struck a gold mine. It was time to find other crowds. Alabi decided to share his experiences making money online through his new startup in another how-to guide, which also found demand. After the success of the two digital products, Alabi decided to register his company at the Nigerian Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC).

“I went there myself and I did everything myself and I was surprised I didn’t need a lawyer. So I created another information product – how to register your business with the CAC without a lawyer in 21 days or less. I put that out and people were buying. So anything I learned, I created the information pack and I put it online and sold it,” says Alabi.

He had stumbled on a booming industry. According to Stratistics MRC, the global e-learning market accounted for $165.21 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach $275.10 billion by 2022 growing at a CAGR of 7.5% during the forecast period. The flexible learning, low cost and easy accessibility of the market bolstered by the increasing proliferation in the internet during the dotcom boom, presented Alabi with a hungry market eager to grab anything offered online.

Akin Alabi. Photo provided.

Alabi’s story is one of organic growth. Setting goals and achieving them is a prominent theme in his new book Small Business, Big Money: How to Start, Grow, and Turn Your Small Business Into a Cash Generating Machine, where he presents a practical guide for startups looking to scale.

“As early as I can remember, I wanted to be rich. I was fixated on wealth because I did not experience wealth growing up. It is something I believe gives you freedom. Freedom to do things you really wanted to do and freedom to impact this world. You can help the less privileged and also give your family the basic comfort of everything they want,” says Alabi. “I know money is not the most important thing in life but it is reasonably close to oxygen in terms of importance.”

After the success of his digital offerings, business began to slow down, but Alabi wanted more growth. He decided he would venture out of Nigeria to the land of milk and honey, in search of that elusive wealth.

“I got to the UK and wanted to work. I looked at the potential of what I could make and after four months, reality dawned on me. I didn’t want to become an illegal immigrant and felt I was better off doing what I was doing in Nigeria. So I said ‘I had something going for me, it might not be big but there was potential’. I said ‘let me go back and make it bigger’. I was not investing in the business so it was time to do it properly.”

But before leaving the UK, a chance encounter with the bookers would lead to the serial entrepreneur’s most lucrative venture yet. His brother called him from London while he was in the town of Milton Keynes to make a bet in an online sports shop for a football game so they could win some money.

“So I played and I made some money and then I played again and I lost and I played again and I won. And I said ‘wow, anybody can do this and people in Nigeria will love it’. So I wrote down on paper, how to make money from football betting. It was just 14 pages and I put it online and I called my friend in Nigeria to help me go and run an advert in the local newspapers,” says Alabi.

He invested N200,000 ($555) in the advert and made N450,000 ($1,248). That demand was going to progress from online content to a new customer base wanting a platform to bet on sports.

READ MORE: Success Is In The Bag For This Entrepreneur

“So those that bought the information product from me started reaching out to me that the website I recommended they should bet on did not work in Nigeria. And I was like ‘wow, you people are actually taking this seriously’. They wanted to place bets from $100 to $750. So I got thinking, these people are actually sending money to me abroad to place bets for them. Isn’t there anyone in Nigeria that has a business like this? And there was no one. So I said to myself ‘I have to create this platform’.”

That was almost a decade ago. He could not afford the software to create the platform at the time, which cost almost $1 million so he used a local developer to create his first platform. Today, NairaBET, a major player in the online sports betting market, has steadily transformed itself from just a football betting platform to a 360-degree sports booking platform covering digital, SMS, apps and retail betting. And, they have a new million-euro software upgrade in place, according to Alabi.

The total value of the global sports betting market is difficult to estimate because of the lack of consistency in how it is regulated in some parts of the world. Betting makes up about 30% to 40% of the global gambling market, which also includes lotteries, casinos, poker and other gaming, according to a report in Reuters.

This has led to challenges regulating the sector in Nigeria with issues arising from double taxation from the Lagos State government. But Alabi is hopeful these issues will be resolved once there is proper legislation of the sector. In the meantime, he is betting on a career in Nigerian politics and the corridors of power.

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