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GE Garage’ll revive zeal in manufacturing – Obozuwa

The Director, Communications and Public Affairs, GE Africa, Patricia Obozuwa, recently spoke with  Olabisi Olaleye  on the activities of GE Lagos Garage, a technology-based training programme that recently graduated the third batch of young Nigerian entrepreneurs. Excerpts:

How does this GE Lagos Garage programme fit into  digital industrial transformation?   

Today, we define GE as the world’s premier digital industrial company. GE operates in several sectors. In Africa, GE is in oil and gas; we are in rail transportation, power generation, we have an energy connections business, an aviation business and a health care business. All of these are industrial equipment businesses. Traditionally, GE has been a conglomerate in several areas. We had a media company, we had an appliances business, there is GE Capital, we were in the financial services business. But over the past few years, we have consolidated our industrial businesses and have divested from some of the businesses like the media company and GE Appliances, to really focus on the industrial side. With the acquisition of Alstom late 2015, we have a much stronger industrial portfolio. Also, in 2015, we launched GE Digital. In the digital business, we are looking to be among the global top 10 software companies by 2020. That is how aggressive our ambitions are there.

The transformation to digital industrial is a process where physical operations intersect physical sciences, data and advanced analytics. GE Digital is the leading software company for industrial Internet and we are helping other companies accelerate their own digital transformation to fuel productivity and growth using ‘Predix’, GE’s operating system for the industrial Internet.

Given that GE is a multi-sector business, how would you advise Nigeria to diversify the economy?      

I think the federal government has made quite some progress in diversifying the Nigerian economy focusing more on agriculture and other sectors. GE as a company is diversified in terms of our industrial businesses and digital, and we are committed to working in partnership with governments and private companies across Africa, and certainly in Nigeria, to really build a sustainable future. By bringing our technologies, we can work with governments and companies to develop infrastructure across Nigeria. GE is generally involved in platforms to discuss ways to advance the industrial sector in Nigeria. Our Nigerian CEO was recently appointed to the Nigerian Industrial Policy and Competitiveness Advisory Council. Jay Ireland, who is our CEO for Africa, is also on the presidential council in the US on Doing Business in Africa. GE leaders get involved in these kinds of things because people see the value that GE can bring with our knowledge of business and industry.

What is the GE Lagos Garage initiative all about?

The GE Lagos Garage programme is a part of a series of programmes around the world tagged GE Garages. The origin is that we wanted to reinvigorate interest in manufacturing in the US, where it started. We had quite a few pop-up shows in different locations, where we set up advanced manufacturing equipment like 3D printers, CNC mills, and laser cutters for people to come in and make things using these advanced technologies. It was interesting to see the kind of acceptance and the interest from the public, especially the big maker community in the US.

The first time we took that programme outside of the US was to Nigeria in 2014. What we did then was to have a three-week programme like what we had done in the US, where we put the equipment out there. The reaction was very different here to what it was in the US because, for most people coming to the Garage in Nigeria, it was their first time of encountering such advanced manufacturing equipment.

We tried out a pilot in December 2014, a six-week programme, where we built a bigger curriculum, which wasn’t just about prototyping and learning the technical skills but also business development and marketing as well.

Can this be likened to a technology hub?

You can liken it in the sense that it is technology that people are exposed to when they come into the Garage. This is advanced manufacturing technology. It’s really to build a manufacturing ecosystem and teach people the skills that are needed to be competitive in the future. These advanced technologies are new globally and in the same way that Nigerians have crossed the whole traditional telecommunications system and moved straight to mobile phones and adopted it in a big way, we anticipate that Nigerians will embrace these advanced manufacturing technologies and become immediately competitive globally. That’s where industry is heading all over the world. Any manufacturing outfit that isn’t refining its production by using these advanced technologies will be left behind.

Is this a one-off training or is GE sustaining it over a period of time?

It is not a one-off training. We will sustain this over a long period of time. We have four-week sessions that we are running once a quarter. Since we launched last year, we have successfully completed three training sessions. We had one in December 2016. We had another one in February and we just completed one in June. We bring in about 25 people and over the four-week period, they have full access to the advanced technology equipment in the GE Lagos Garage.

We have instructors who instruct them specifically on how to use the different equipment and help them work to produce prototypes. We have an instructor for 3D printing, an instructor on laser cutters, and an instructor for CNC mill. These instructors are there full-time to work with them. And then we bring in experts to run sessions with them around business development, marketing, prototyping and really develop their technical expertise.

Do you have any form of collaboration with the federal government on this project?         

We are committed to supporting skills development in Nigeria, actually, across Africa. We have a corporate social responsibility platform called GE Kujenga, across Africa. Kujenga is a Swahili word that means ‘build’. And why we chose it as our platform for Africa is that we see ourselves as partners in building a sustainable future for Africa. And we do this by three things: empower, equip and elevate. We empower people, building valuable skills; we equip communities and institutions with new tools and technologies; we elevate innovative ideas that are helping solve Africa’s challenges.

The empower piece, that’s building valuable skills, is what this skill development programme is centred around.

What is the criteria for taking part in the training at the GE Lagos Garage and how do people get access to the training?

Before we start any session, we call for applications. Traditionally, we’ve called for applications quite broadly and we put a set of criteria. These are: practicality, does their idea fit in with the machinery and technology available in the Garage; feasibility of venture, viability of the business idea, synergies between what the programme can offer and the participant’s business idea; local content, can the idea or product promote job creation locally and empower Nigerians; and, finally, potential for collaboration.

Thereafter, a panel of assessors ranked each participant’s idea, conducted verbal interviews and confirmed each applicant’s availability and commitment to the programme.

The final 25 candidates who scale the above criteria and processes are then selected and offered admission.

But the bottom line is that you need to have an idea that your training at the Garage will help you take it to the next level.

They tell us their ideas in advance and it is based on those ideas that we take them in and give them the tools that will help them develop those ideas into business ventures. 

For the session we did in February, it was from a partnership we had with Tony Elumelu Foundation. They already have an entrepreneurship programme – The Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme (TEEP). We just partnered them to provide people on their programme whose businesses are around manufacturing, with the knowledge of advanced manufacturing technologies.

Do you have after-training support for those who go through the training?       

At the end of the day, when a person comes in to try and advance their ideas, there is a personal responsibility that comes with it. People who have taken time to develop these ideas, are generally committed to making them happen. So what we do is, while we provide them with all these trainings, we also provide them with avenues for them to meet potential investors who will help advance their business by providing grants or loans.

Graduates from the programme have secured about $1 million in funding so far; some during the programme and others after the programme by being able to show the investors prototypes made at the GE Garage.

We are also working on other possible partnerships that could see people from the Garage go straight into other programmes that will get them in the face of investors.

Is there any plan to expand this programme and take it outside Lagos to other states in the country?

We will be looking to work with partners to consider ways that it could expand. Very importantly, it has to be something that is sustainable. We are open to talking to potential partners about the possibilities of expanding the programme.

Do you have any partnership with Lagos State in driving this initiative?

Lagos State is very interested in skills development. I’ll say Lagos is committed to it. The state government has been very interested in this programme. When we launched it end of November last year we had the permanent secretary from the ministry of employment and wealth creation and he spoke passionately about Lagos State’s plans for skills development. We are in conversation with that ministry around ways we could potentially work together in future to support skills development.

What has been the impact of this training at the GE Lagos Garage, in terms of the number of people trained?

First, let me talk about the impact. We’ve had about 95 people pass through the programme so far. We are looking to get a lot more. Typically, we have 25 people in each session, but we expect that it influences further than the number of people that come through the programme.

More than 40 businesses have been influenced by what people have learnt from the GE Garage.

Over 100 prototypes have been developed in this GE Lagos Garage. People who came in with ideas have worked with like minds and developed ideas into prototypes that are now being used to build business models across Nigeria. Then 20 ideas that we can point at have transformed into actual business models. It’s quite an impressive impact for a programme that 95 people have gone through.

What has been the success story of GE Lagos Garage?

There is a young man that was on our programme in December. His name is Anjola Badaru; he successfully designed and built a fully functional AC blower for his friend’s car. Instead of his friend spending an equivalent of $900 to buy that AC blower for his Mercedes Benz car, he re-designed and built a new fan. That has made him to actually start an automotive parts business.

Another one is Juliet Aliu, a woman that came through the programme. She successfully prototyped soles for her shoe business. She created the sole design at the GE Garage.

There is another graduate, Henry Ibitolu that had this vision of developing affordable telescopes that can be used in schools. He too came through the programme and has developed prototypes of that telescope.

Also, there is Tochukwu Chukwueke, who developed a product called the Toochi Device which enables students read better. Basically, it is a stand for a book that has some support to hold down a page and it is adjustable. The device has won two awards so far: one from the American Society for Mechanical Engineers for Innovation and another International Innovation Award. He actually won a more industrial sized 3D printer that he is now using in Nigeria and helping developing these skills for other people. There are several others of these success stories we can name.

The world is undergoing a digital revolution. Do you see Nigeria catching up with the rest of the world in terms of skills development and infrastructure?           

We absolutely believe that by developing advanced manufacturing skills needed for this digital revolution, Nigeria can leapfrog the traditional industrial stages and become globally competitive. Investment in developing skills is very important and it involves several things.

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