“I could make many, many things with that,” said Sam Kodo, looking at a Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini.
Where most people see only a phone, 23-year-old Kodo sees a combination of components that can be taken apart and used to make a PC, or a robot that plays football.
But then again, he is not like most people.
Kodo was just seven when he started building his first robot that could both circumvent obstacles and interact with people. Born and raised in Togo, his father was a physics lecturer at the University of Lomé and Kodo would enjoy many hours in the library studying formulas and equations. It was here that he just fell in love with electronics.
It didn’t take long for his parents to realise he had a talent, and both did their best to support his passion. Without access to many new parts required to build some of the things he wanted, both helped him find components he could re-use from broken-down appliances, such as old TVs.
He recalls how his mother would give him money to buy toys as a child just so he could take them apart and build his own inventions. “I want to take the opportunity to thank my mom,” he said.
“And I was also very fortunate to have my dad help me find the right parts I needed. And then I was also able to go to libraries and just educate myself.”
By the age of 15, Kodo’s robots could recognise faces and objects, speak, execute orders and even play football. And it wasn’t long before he created his first smartphone and PC.
Low-cost computers for Africa
Today Kodo is the founder of Infinite Loop, a company that locally produces low-cost personal computers for students. His miniature computers, called the Lifebook PC, are small enough to fit into a pocket, and they have to be plugged into TVs or mobile phones to turn them into a functional internet-enabled desktop PC. They are sold for a fraction of the price of other PCs in the market (under US$90) and cost around half the amount to produce.
Kodo’s work has caught the attention of international media, and last year he was named one of 12 finalists of the Anzisha Prize, an award for African entrepreneurs between the ages of 15 and 22.
His inspiration for creating his own PCs came from a need he identified at university. “When I went to university I realised there was a serious lack of tools to do my homework and university studies. So I decided to make my own computer so that it could help me work properly.”
This soon caught the attention of other students with similar interests. “I was fortunate enough to team up with others who had the same talent, and we created the company that is now called Infinite Loop.”
The start-up employs six people and has sold around 50 computers in Togo, which Kodo said is still their first version. “We plan to create many versions, and have many other projects for Africa too.”
Teams are everything
Kodo looks up to the likes of technology pioneers Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, and makes use of some of the lessons they have learnt in their careers. For starters, he acknowledges that there is more to building a business empire than being able to produce something innovative or being a computer whizz.
“Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg might not have particularly been good businessmen or good administrators or even good at marketing, but what they did was they surrounded themselves with people who have the competencies and skills to turn their [innovations and computer skills] into a company,” he noted.
Kodo’s business partner has been his friend since childhood, and has studied commerce. He explained they have complementary skills, which they use to make joint business decisions. “When you choose a business partner, choose someone who complements you – not someone with the same skills – and someone who can add value to the business,” is his advice.
‘Be curious, do not fear failure’
According to Kodo, technology – such as mobile phones or PCs – has the ability to solve some key problems on the continent. Above all he wants his PCs to be affordable so everyone can benefit from them.
“With the computer I’ve created it’s important to remember there was a purpose behind this type of computer. It’s accessible and not expensive. Pretty much any student who’d like to purchase a computer like this can do so.”
He advises other African entrepreneurs to “be curious, enquire, learn, and always be original” in whatever they do. He added it will also be easier for them to succeed if they love what they do, and they should not let the fear of failure prevent them from starting.
“Just think about it. If you fail, at least you have tried. There are a lot of people who have ideas but never try,” Kodo commented.
“Even if you fail, you are already one step better off in life than those who don’t even try.”