A young Industrial Designer, Ifedayo Ojo recently led a team that brought glory to Nigeria when his design was named as the runners-up in the XPRIZE Next-Gen Mask Challenge. The award also came with a $250,000 grant which would be used to develop his innovative Naija Force facemask.
In this interview, Ifedayo spoke on the challenges faced during the competition and the joy of beating top-tier designers from Ivey league institutions like Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
First, let us talk a little about yourself, what you do, your field?
My name is Ifedayo Ojo, a graduate of the Industrial Design Department from the Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA). I am a multimedia and industrial designer. I love innovations, I love tech, I love art and I love to see how these three fields can be amalgamated together to create thoughtful solutions to some of the challenges the world is currently faced with.
Okay, so you said you love innovation. I have a little bit of digression here, innovation, technology and art, where is the convergence point of these three, one would think that art is just something that probably has nothing to do with technology, how can you link all these three together?
Oh, beautiful question! So Industrial design is actually the fusion of those three things. Industrial Design is bringing together applied science and applied art. What do I mean?
There is a science that exists mostly within the pages of textbooks and there is a science that is practicable. Putting the science to practice is technology that is applied science.
In the same vein, there is art for the sake of it which is the; “oh, beautiful painting and all”. And there is the art that can be used in everyday life, like automobile designs, furniture design, architecture, pottery, textiles, etc. Those are functional arts. These arts are not only appreciated but they are also experienced like applied science as mentioned earlier, those are applied art.
Trying to apply the theory of science into working technology and bringing the aesthetics and craftsmanship of art together on an industrial scale is what Industrial Design does. So industrial design lies in the intersection of these core fields.
Can you give an example of a project that you have worked on in the Industrial design sphere?
I have some examples but two of them stand out for me. The first one is a self-initiated footwear project that I did while I was in school. It is an indigenous footwear that serves both as a shoe and a sandal, and it is made to adapt to our terrain through a custom 3D printed traction-sole. It also fits well into our rugged lifestyle in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
The footwear product-design typifies how one can physically combine art and technology together. In that project, I tried to look at how we as Nigerians like to dress. Our dressing and lifestyle is influenced a lot by the western world. Shoes are a huge part of this borrowed culture. In many ways, they are ill-fitting to our climate, roads and indigenous style of dressing. So I thought to do a footwear that Nigerians can wear regardless of their gender, that will be comfortable, and rugged enough to withstand our terrain. A huge Unique Selling Point (USP) of the footwear is that it is a utility shoe and works as a sport, casual and semi-corporate shoes. It was also designed to be breathable due to our hot climate. I called the footwear SNEAKSAND as it was created to be both a sneaker and a sandal.
This footwear design won me my first gold coin prize for a product design project at the Adobe Behance portfolio review in Port Harcourt in 2017.
The other one is a utility electronic gadget that serves as a book divider, a laser pointer and a thumb drive.
Now I am curious about what happened to that project, why are we not seeing this footwear on an Industrial scale in Nigeria, why is everybody not wearing it?
Excellent question, I’m very happy you asked this question. You see, Industrial design is not something that ends in your studio or laboratory. It is capital intensive. From sourcing of materials, to logistics to assembly line. Industrial design thrives in an industrialized economy, an economy that is concerned about growing its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is a scorecard for the value of its currency and economic health.
Unfortunately, Nigeria is not an industrialized nation, we are proud consumers. We do not manufacture and the few manufacturing industries have their progress stifled in a lot of ways.
Large scale footwear manufacturing requires a lot of resources, unless the production is outsourced to foreign industries like in China. That also requires reasonable funding per scale.
Ultimately, the production was hindered by these challenges. Even when I got approached by interested investors we encountered roadblocks, due to the brevity of this interview, I wouldn’t be able to discuss the details.
In summary, we are not an industrialized nation and there are not adequate resources to pull that off on an industrial scale.
That is really sad. But let’s quickly go to this XPRIZE project, briefly what is that project about and how did you get to know about it.
So, XPRIZE foundation is a non-profit organization that crowdsources solutions through science and technological competition to help contribute to breakthroughs that will benefit humanity.
XPRIZE revolutionized the private space industry with the $10M Ansari XPRIZE in 2004. The winning technologies from that competition were acquired by companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. They have also recently partnered with Elon Musk to launch the biggest prize competition to date- which is a $100million prize for carbon removal. This is all to give you an idea of their magnitude as an organization.
I got to know about XPRIZE through a post made by a friend of mine online, whom I follow closely in this field.
He made a post showcasing his entry submission for the same competition. Out of curiosity, I followed that link to check what the competition was about. Coincidentally, at that time, I was working on a concept around redesigning face masks and face shields. I was doing that because shortly after the lockdown was eased in Nigeria, people couldn’t wait to start socialising, go to ‘owanbes’ and other functions, so much so that many resorted to face shield in place of face mask. At that time, I read in an article according to WHO that covid-19 was potentially airborne and I told myself if this is true, then face shields offered very little protection.
Nonetheless, I was able to understand from the public’s point of view that they craved the joy of being able to reveal their smiles again, especially, at parties and other social functions.
This is where industrial design comes in, observing problems and tinkering innovative ways to solve these problems on a mass scale. I began to think of a way to combine face shields and facemasks.
So, when I saw the post on Instagram, it was a situation of opportunity meeting preparation, I entered for it and luckily for me, I met the participation criteria and most of the things they required were things I was already incorporating in my own concept. All I needed to do was to tweak and finetune my concept to fit their guidelines, that was how I got on the XPRIZE Next-Gen Mask Challenge.
How did the process go, how many countries were involved, how many people were involved and how far did you go in that competition?
The process was a very rigorous but interesting one. It’s a global competition like I said earlier so there were competitors from all over the world. Before teams were shortlisted, there were about 1000 teams from across the world.
So, for me in Nigeria here, I had to form and lead a team which included myself, Samuel Akinola and Arotiba Ayobami. The process was quite tedious because I had to juggle that with my 8-5 job. I currently work in the development sector, and the only time I got to work on the project was at night through midnights and weekends.
As of the time of the contest, Nigerian public universities were on an industrial strike and the country was on a lockdown. We had little or no access to laboratories for research because the competition relied hugely on research and development. This meant our innovation has to function, it has to be efficient, it has to filter and it has to be breathable.
I had to do all this from the confines of my room. I quickly set up a room studio and I had to improvise for a lot of things. Thankful, I have a couple of resources here and there in terms of the hardware, 2D and 3D printers and generator to power them. Also, on weekends, I’d go to the sculptors to make models, then pay for laboratory space to try out things. There was a time I wanted to do a particular test that needed an industrial pressure machine, I could not do it, so I had to rent vacuum cleaners to improvise for suction pressure.
It turned out quite interesting to know that I was improvising from the confines of my room and my kitchen and competing with people who have state-of-the-art facilities and resources like students from Johns Hopkins University, Arizona State University, MIT and co. With all these situations, going all the way to emerge second in the competitions is where the story gets interesting.
What was the innovation, what is your entry called?
Our innovation is a surgical-grade nose mask that addresses a lot of the problems people have with face mask wearing because the challenge is to develop a solution that helps people adapt to this new lifestyle.
How did we do that? First of all, XPRIZE had done the research and listed a couple of problems, about 15-20 problems, things like people complaining that face masks fogged their glasses, things like facial expressions, face masks aren’t inclusive for people who can’t hear, face masks cannot be inclusive enough in terms of the design and the solution to help them to communicate, that’s for expression. Also for reusability, it’s not sustainable enough, most times people spend a lot of money on a disposable face mask and the ones that are reusable have the challenges stated earlier.
Those masks weren’t comfortable, you can’t exercise in them. A myriad of problems that they listed, so the challenge for us was to address at least five of those problems. Interestingly, our solution addresses 10 of those problems and some of the advantages of our solution include its reusability & transparency. It brings back the joy of blowing a kiss, it is very efficient, you don’t have to always discard a face mask and buy a new one, you can wash it in soap and water. It is breathable with efficient filtration. It is also designed to be as light as a feather.
It functions as a surgical grade face mask, industrial workers can use it, medical doctors can use it and every other person can use it. That was our solution.
Do you have a name for it?
We called it the NF mask, Naija Force mask.
Did you win that competition?
In the grand scheme of things, we came runners-up, but there was a category that we won which is called the mask’k appeal award, that was a separate category that they created for the team whose concept is most likely to be accepted by the public based on popular vote.
Is there any prize coming with all these wins?
There is a $250,000 grant that we won for the runner up position. That runner up solution is also tagged the mask’k appeal award, so, there are three different categories, the overall winner wins a $500,000 grant then the two other runner ups will split $500,000 each.
Have they paid you your grand prize?
Oh no they haven’t, there are certain processes that we have to go through and they are following very closely with it to see that it is being initiated. Especially the part of the grants that would go into production.
During the process of the design and the process of all the entries, how will you sum your experience from the beginning to the end? What lessons did you draw from that experience?
Unbelievable! One lesson I drew from it is ‘never say never’, because we live in a time when the world is smaller than it used to be, thanks to the internet You never can tell how big it can grow and how far you can go with it. Never write-off yourself or think that because you’re from a certain part of the world you’re limited. You must always do all you can with what you have right where you are! That was a very huge lesson, that ‘never say never’ and you never can tell how far you’ll go unless you try.
What is the future, what is the next step for you and your team, are you talking to governments, are you talking to investors, when are we going to see the Naija Force mask in circulation in Nigeria?
That’s a very relevant question. As I speak to you, we are currently in the process of further research and development to refine the mask, as it is, we need it to pass FDA approval to make the mask fit for use. There are a couple of things to do to make sure the mask meets these requirements. We are working with industry professionals and trying to make sure that while the pandemic is still on, that the mask gets to the market on time.
The mask is still relevant beyond the COVID-19 pandemic because it helps with respiratory diseases which without being negative, will still be prevalent after COVID. Surgeons, nurses and industrial workers will still need it.
Most importantly, going by the fact that the competition was initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be nice to see the product out before the demise of COVID.
Finally, what would you say to young people drawing from your own experience of the amazing competition and how far you’ve gone. What will you say to young innovators? Many young people are leaving the country through the desert. Some are going to Canada. Once they leave, they excel. So what do you tell Nigerian youths who are in Nigeria?
As a young Nigerian, it is discouraging to see that there are so many potentials in the Country and you’re limited only by government policies and geography. My advice to fellow young Nigerians is for them to keep pushing and preparing for opportunities. Gone are the days when people tell you something is impossible. Though sometimes the path you want to take may seem uncharted. Don’t give up because there are people who have gone ahead. Also don’t be discouraged because you don’t have people in your immediate space to look up to. The world is now smaller than it used to be many years ago. Through the internet, you can keep up with thought leaders, industry experts and mentors and stay up to date with the latest in your area of choice.
In summary, stay globally connected and keep doing what you believe in even if no one else does in the immediate.
Thank you, very good point you make there. I know I said that was going to be my last question but you’ll indulge me at this very last one.
What do you think about this statement, is it that Nigerian youth are limited by their environment and government policies or are they limited by their mental capacities or are they really ‘lazy youths’ as someone once said?
Nigerian youths are very smart, resourceful and resilient and I don’t think they are lazy. The government needs to understand that times have changed and things are evolving quickly so policies needs to capture these modern day realities.
A typical example is how youths are trading in crypto and making money from their homes with mobile phones and laptops. Youths are also doing remote jobs for companies and businesses across the globe from their rooms and getting paid. Yet they are seen by the government and older generations as unserious or lazy because they are not seen under the sun doing rigorous jobs.