Making Africa in Shenzhen (Part One)

First Impressions of a Ghanaian Entrepreneur in the ‘Silicon Valley of Hardware’

The skyline of Shenzhen from Window of the World theme park

I am Desmond Koney, a mechanical engineer, a maker, and an entrepreneur from Ghana. I believe the transformation of Africa is a responsibility bestowed upon the present generation of African youth. Open source innovation and rapid prototyping of ideas are crucial for makers like me to create this change and build a better life for our nations. However, some missing ingredients, specifically mass production and manufacturing, sink our ideas and efforts to be catalysts of this transformation.

I have left many designs and calculations for solutions on my heavily burdened PC hard drive because they often cannot go beyond that. Many in my community of makers, hobbyists, and DIY hackers have similarly abandoned many promising solutions at the prototype stage due to the challenges of manufacturing in Ghana and Africa in general.

‘Many in my community of makers, hobbyists, and DIY hackers have similarly abandoned promising solutions at the prototype state …’

Yet, we still build home automation projects, IoT and machine learning applications to feed our addiction to creating. Some of us show off our creations on WhatsApp groups. A few of us get promised by angel investors to help us cross the bridge that they think remains in getting our inventions to market. My personal experiences with such angel investors have not been pleasant. Most entrepreneurs are received and treated as if we are sole beneficiaries of our companies. Most are often given outrageous offers that stifle the growth of our companies even before they take flight.

Recently, I started working on an energy system that is to eliminate the problem of domestic waste and provide clean energy in the process. I got this idea when stench from organic waste started filling up my neighborhood because the rubbish collector trucks refused to show up. This phenomenon lead to a Cholera outbreak in my neighborhood. To me, this was unacceptable. I thought this solution could be manufactured in my country and so I dedicated resources to its development, not anticipating the roadblocks ahead. I went to manufacturing plants in Ghana to see if any of them could produce this design for me but came up short.

One day my mentor, who has been very instrumental in the development of this project, mentioned Shenzhen, a city in China, near Hong Kong, as a place known to be ‘a big factory’. I had seen a Wired magazine documentary of Shenzhen on YouTube and knew it was a place dubbed ‘the Silicon Valley for hardware’ and had heard about its potential to make things at an interestingly fast pace.

With many credits to my relentless mentor, I was given the opportunity to go to Shenzhen to get a factory to manufacture my invention. All I had was my Computer Aided Design (CAD) models and some design calculations and simulations. I had no clue of how to go about my trip or who to talk to.

‘The wisest thing I did, however, was to go to Alibaba.com and find manufacturers to visit and left them messages about my impending trip.’

While preparing for the trip, I was consumed by how to make the best out of the opportunity I was being given, while playing worst-case scenarios in my head. I couldn’t get a direct flight from Accra to Shenzhen and so I booked a ticket that went through Guangzhou, about an hour away. I booked extra hotels as a backup plan. The wisest thing I did, however, was to go to Alibaba.com and find manufacturers to visit and left them messages about my impending trip. This was a trial exercise since I thought most business minded people would not entertain an exuberant boy who maybe just wanted to play. Instead, my email was inundated with replies from all the manufacturers I had contacted and to my wide-eyed surprise some had even gone a step further to offer to book my hotel. “Are you serious?!” They were. We followed up on Skype and I felt the job was half done before leaving the shores of Ghana.

After a sixteen-hour flight, at 10 pm China time, I exited Guangzhou Bai’yun airport and my tropical blood reminded me how far from home I was when I was greeted by the winter breeze I thought I had prepared myself for. With clenched teeth, a tourist awareness, and a local SIM card I had bothered a Zimbabwean student on my flight who attended a Chinese university helped me buy. I called the first manufacturer on the list who had offered to pick me up from the airport since their factory is in Guangzhou. Within ten minutes, I was chauffeured to the hotel I found on a booking website. Everyone I met that night smiled and seemed eager to speak the little English they had probably picked up in a movie. I went to bed and planned my activities for the next day.

“Wow! Guangzhou is beautiful!” I told the two gentlemen, probably around my age, mid-twenties, when they came to pick me up the next morning. “Wait till you get to Shenzhen” was the reply. After treating me to some wonderful Chinese breakfast, we headed to the factory. “They really mean business”, I remember thinking to myself.

‘My Chinese hosts found it courageous of me to venture to a foreign country all by myself.’

From my observations of people rushing through traffic jams, everyone seemed to be part of a well-oiled machine and their unified focus in improving China felt very tangible. I got a very good understanding of the role of a unified mindset that led to the transformation of China over the last decade from my new friends who were not shy to boast of the economic strides the country has made. I was happy at their curiosity to know more about my country as well. I did my best to convey answers filled with hope and the prospects that lies in Africa. I believed this was a way to change the constantly negative narrative of the continent and felt responsible to represent my homeland in a good light.

Rush hour in Guangzhou

My Chinese hosts found it courageous of me to venture to a foreign country all by myself. I felt respected for having the nerve to believe in the goodwill of humans despite negative stereotypes held in both cultures about the other. I think my generation is doing a decent job accepting diverse cultures and as I fell asleep, due to jet lag, during the ride to the factory somewhere on the outskirts of Guangzhou, I had no fear or suspicion of harm.

At the factory, the workers smiled at me as if they were being paid to welcome visitors. I was welcomed into a board room by the factory manager, the company CEO and some experts in the manufacturing field who I could tell had been waiting for my arrival. I was shocked. Do these people know I am not from a fortune 500 company? Do they know I am a 25-year-old hustler trying to make my little dent in the universe? I had my first lesson on the importance of tea and got served with various delicious fruits. The relish on my face at every taste brought them joy.

‘Do these people know I am not from a Fortune 500 company? Do they know I am a 25-year-old hustler trying to make my little dent in the universe?’

We introduced ourselves and talked about what we do respectively. I told them that I am a founder of a startup in Ghana looking for manufacturers for my invention and I was amazed when their excitement to work with me didn’t dwindle. This was really a boardroom meeting!

I showed them my Computer Aided Designs (CAD) models and proceeded in a manner somewhat counter intuitive to what I had done in Ghana before. I talked about my design without a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and looking back, I think what probably prompted me to do that was my feeling that they had a genuine interest in helping me get my product manufactured. In doing so, I got feedback from the experts at the meeting who commended some of the designs and gave me recommendations of things to consider in making its manufacture feasible. This was the kind of expert advice I wanted.

‘Most of the engineering work was well communicated since engineers basically speak a universal language.’

From that meeting, I got useful insights from biological scientists and logistic experts all focusing on me and my design. Even though there was a language barrier our discussion still had levity. Most of the engineering work was well communicated since engineers basically speak a universal language. I was already overwhelmed by the attention to detail they were giving to my work. Talking to them before leaving Ghana had helped them plan for my arrival.

Just as my tea pot was never allowed to be empty, I was brimming with hope for the prospects of my product being produced. I got a tour of their factory and they showed me all the machine tools that would be used to manufacture my product. They even wanted me to take pictures to prove their capabilities to my investors. As mundane as that sounds, in Ghana, taking pictures are not allowed in some factories. I learned this during my time looking for manufacturers in Accra.

The day was far spent but all of my hosts stayed so we could do the recommended iterations and plan the building of a prototype. I was so surprised when calls were being made to suppliers for the materials. Afterwards, I was treated to a tour of the beautiful city of Guangzhou with all the city lights and even got to meet one of my hosts’ girlfriend. They offered to give me a ride to Shenzhen and we set off that evening. I was very exhausted, but my first day in China had raised my expectations for the rest of my planned two-week stay.


Follow this story in Part Two.

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