Interview with Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu from Coldhubs
April 18, 2017
“I believe in simple solutions”
ColdHubs provides solar-powered cooling systems that help farmers in off-grid areas in Nigeria to maintain and extend the life of their harvest. Founder and CEO Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu is the recipient of this year’s special prize “Start Up SDG7” (UN-target Sustainable Energy for All)” as part of the Start Up Energy Transition Awards.
Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu is a farmer and radio host. He lives in Owerri, in the southeast of Nigeria. In 2015, the 34- year-old founded ColdHubs. The start-up currently has 15 employees working to produce modular “plug & play” cooling systems, which can be operated with solar energy beyond existing electricity networks.
Mister Ikegwuono, why did you found ColdHubs?
The idea for my start-up came from a radio show, where I work as a radio host. The show I run targets farmers and serves as a knowledge platform for new developments in agriculture. That’s the reason I spend a lot of time on the ground talking to farmers, which helps me to identify their problems and challenges to get a better understanding of their current situation.
Farmers are suffering from crop losses, especially with perishable fruit. They lose a large part of their annual harvest because they do not have suitable storage facilities. This is mainly due to the fact that in remote villages there is neither a power connection nor cooling. The refrigerators, which are already on the market, are very expensive and inaccessible for our farmers.
A ColdHub cooling system next to a market in Nigeria. Solar panels serve as a roof and provide the system with the energy needed. More than 150 farmers use these systems to store parts of their harvest.
Farmers in Nigeria earn less than a dollar a day. To avoid losses, they must sell their crops as soon as possible. Over 19 million farmers in Nigeria face this challenge. Three years ago, the Rockefeller Foundation confirmed that over 470 million farmers are affected by crop losses in developing countries. On average, more than 45 percent of their crops are lost, a quarter of their annual income. That is why I believe in simple solutions. If the farmers have no electricity at their disposal, we bring solar-powered cooling rooms to them, so that they can store their perishable crops until they sell them.
“I want to be there when renewable energies completely change the energy landscape of Nigeria”
– Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, Coldhubs (Nigeria)
You received the Start Up Energy Transition Award at the Tech Festival in Berlin. Did you make any interesting contacts there?
Yes, I have made many contacts for my company. At the moment, I can not yet assess whether these contacts will result in cooperation. Business relations are slowly developing. This is the only way to build the trust you need for cooperation in business.
Do you have any tips for success for other energy start-ups?
The life of an entrepreneur can be a lonely one. As a company founder, I realize how much priority and time must be shifted to the business. But simply put, you must believe in your idea. If not you, than who else? You are the engine that can fuel and realize your idea. As a start-up founder you can not expect to wake up one day and suddenly have achieved everything! It is impossible to reach your goals immediately.
An employee is sorting boxes filled with vegetables inside a ColdHub. The prize money of 10.000€ will be used to produce another ColdHub.
And if someone approaches you and asks how they can best help you, you must have the answer ready. This is what makes a start-up founder. You must have thought everything through in detail. If you are not prepared at the moment, you lose confidence in yourself. Then you are lost.
And do you have tips for investors who want to support start-ups?
You should be patient, and be more of a mentor than an investor. They should guide the start-up through the process and help them build their business. Investors are, of course, under pressure to hand over financial reports to their lenders. They are always in a hurry and often impatient. But I firmly believe that the relationship between an investor and start-up should be heartfelt and based on understanding and patience.
Is the Energiewende important to you personally?
Absolutely. My home country Nigeria is a developing country. We are 200 million people and produce just 3000 megawatts of electricity. I firmly believe that renewable energies will be the next big “thing” in Nigeria over the next decade. And I want to be there when renewable energies completely change Nigeria’s energy landscape.
In addition, I believe that cooling systems will soon become more environmentally-friendly. Environmentally-friendly refrigerants combined with energy-efficient plants and energy-saving behavior will reduce environmental impact. In less than ten years, we will have refrigerators that are operated only by small batteries-similar to smartphones.
Tanja Gönner, Chair of the Management Board of the GIZ, and Andreas Kuhlmann, CEO of dena, present the “Special Prize: Sustainable Future For All” to ColdHubs. This special award honors projects for the United Nations’ 7th Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 7), which contribute to affordable and clean energy for all.
What are the biggest challenges for start-ups in the energy sector?
There are plenty of challenges. Personally, I see CleanTech as the hardest sector for start-ups. The products in CleanTech are often used by a large amount of people and the development of these products requires many employees. That is something very different if you compare it with a mobile app for smartphones. In CleanTech, you build an actual product and your goal is to make people pay for it in the end. That is why one has to be ready and willing to share their ideas and knowledge with others. However, there is also the problem of product counterfeiting. That is the reason why companies in the energy field always have to keep developing their product.
Do you have a personal message that is close to your heart?
It was an honor and a privilege to be here and to win the prize. And it is recognition for our work in Nigeria. It gives me the courage and the necessary strength to continue. I think we’ll do the right thing and we’ll succeed.