[Part 1] Doing Business in Africa

This is a special feature on conducting business in one of the world’s top business frontiers from the November 2014 Black Enterprise magazine issue, written by Richard Spiropoulous and Derek T. Dingle.

For Jessica O. Matthews, Africa is a continent of great need and burgeoning opportunity. In recent years, she has applied entrepreneurial innovation to produce a solution to one of its most pressing challenges: power.

Matthews remembers the regular visits she made to her aunt’s home in Nigeria, the country her parents emigrated from more than three decades ago. It was common for her family there to deal with power outages, and in those instances, light came by way of a diesel generator.

That experience spurred Matthews, while a student at Harvard University, to co-develop an alternative energy source. The invention: the Soccket ball, a soccer ball that harnesses the kinetic energy generated during play to provide renewable, off-grid power. A single bulb LED lamp can be plugged into the ball to provide hours of light.

The 26-year-old Matthews traveled to the continent last year to give a demonstration of this revolutionary device to President Obama and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, at the Ubungo Power Plant–a public—private partnership between the Tanzanian government and General Electric Africa. Obama hailed Soccket as the type of tech innovation that can help advance Power Africa, his mass electrification initiative.

It was a momentous occasion for Matthews, co-founder and CEO of Uncharted Play Inc., a 3-year-old company that projects seven figure revenues for 2014 and received the 2013 Black Enterprise Innovator of the Year Award for using her creation to bring power to rural, off-grid areas of Africa and other underserved countries. A dual citizen of Nigeria and the United States, Matthews, who is also involved in global youth STEM programs, is currently preparing to bring to market the “Pulse,” an energy-generating jump rope.

Matthews has more ambitious plans about turning on lights throughout the continent: the development of a 30 megawatt hydro-power plant in the Nigerian state of Adamawa. “If you look at power access in Africa, specifically Nigeria, there are a lot of different numbers about what the power access levels are,” she says. “Recently, the government has allowed for the privatization of smaller power grids and opportunities. [The plant] I’m currently working on [is] nothing huge in terms of the vast needs of the country but something significant. It’s clean power and it’s going to have customers no matter what. And it’s one of those businesses that as long as you have the right people knowing exactly what they need to do, there’s no way that you won’t be able to find a market.”

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