On a Mission to Change African Tech
Sam Kodo is on a mission. His plan is to modernize the African tech industry. This might sound like a huge effort for one person to take on, but Sam is no ordinary tech-guy: he’s a robotics man and has been since his early childhood. At eight years old he created his first robot…from scrap metal and old electronic components. By the age of 19, Sam was not only building robots, but also designing the sensors for them. Since then Sam has gone on to found his own entrepreneurial tech companies, the first being Infinite Loop, which built affordable computers for college students, and now Linloop, which will focus on innovative consumer products. His multiple awards include the Forum des Jeunes Entrepreneurs, the Mandela Washington Fellowship, the United States African Development Foundation, and the Future en Seine. With all of that behind him, there is no doubt that Sam could succeed at anything he set his mind to. Sam credits his determination and belief in dreams, two characteristics encouraged by his parents, for setting him up for success.
Born and raised in the city of Lome, in the African country of Togo, as a small boy Sam was intrigued by the hows and whys of the way things worked. He found dozens of possible new uses for every item he took apart. Old throw away radio components could be reused not just in radios but in computers, robots, walkie-talkies. His sharp energetic mind and intellectual drive were nurtured by his parents. His father, a physics professor at the University of Lome, provided Sam with access to the University library. It was there that he spent hours poring over advanced scientific journals and books about electronics. Sam’s mother instilled in Sam the belief that he could overcome any obstacle and the courage to believe in his dreams.
It was this courage to dream that led Sam to America. In Togo, Sam is a student of sociology at The University of Lome. Sam is quick to point out that sociology has “nothing directly to do with science, technology, or robotics,” but it does fall in line with his passion to shape the future of the tech industry on the African continent. Changing the world requires understanding the world, and knowing that the hows and whys of culture are as important as the hows and whys of robotics. There are few University level robotics courses in any of the countries in Africa, and to study his passion Sam knew he would have to find opportunities outside of Togo. This is where fate and dreams converged: Sam signed up to become an Alliance Abroad exchange visitor and accepted a training opportunity in the States in the tech field.
Before becoming an exchange visitor with Alliance Abroad, Sam felt that he was in a “long tunnel and could not see the light at the end of it.” He knew what he wanted to do, but still had many questions about how to get there. He now feels that he can not only see the light, but also a future full of “rainbows” on the horizon. Alliance Abroad helped to place Sam with Zpryme, a research, media and events company focusing on energy. At Zpryme, Sam puts his electronics know-how to use, helping to develop an energy-saving game designed for a virtual reality headset.
Living in America is not quite what Sam first imagined it would be. Zpryme is located in Austin, Texas, and Sam expected to see cowboys and horses, just like in the movies he watched back home. “I was very surprised to see that it was completely different from what I imagined, the cities are beautiful, and technology is at its peak.” Office life in America is also not quite what Sam imagined. Initially he was afraid that the program would be very difficult and that he might become nothing more than a robot himself, working without a minute to rest. Instead, Sam has a role that allows him to work from home or the office, and the company hosts many events where Sam has a chance to meet new people and learn from them. He’s found Americans to be “well educated, polite, and respectful of the opinions of others,” and is particularly struck by the “freedom of everyone” to be who they are, regardless of race, religion, or orientation. “In my point of view, a majority of people here in the States have a high degree of consciousness.” He also notes that “everything is big in the US,” from the buildings to the cars, and happily the internet speed in the US is fast!
Sam is finding his time in the States to be a great opportunity to meet new people. He finds ways to relate to everyone around him, not only making friends at work but also with the people that he meets every day: from Uber drivers to the customers who frequent his favorite Austin eatery, Bird Bird Biscuit. He also uses the internet to make new friends, joining various MeetUp groups in Austin that share his many interests ranging from food to music to travel. His new friendships have given him access to uniquely American activities, such as attending a SuperBowl football party, and an insight to the American way of life, “Americans are very connected to their pets,” he has observed.
But life in America is not only about meeting new friends, it also involves maintaining contact with friends and family back home in Togo. Sam speaks with his family every day utilizing technology like WhatsApp to stay connected. “The internet speed in Togo is not always consistent,” Sam says, “so we use audio and speak to each other, the visual connection is not always possible.” Internet speed is one of the things that Sam hopes his company will have a hand in improving in the future when he returns home. His experience away from Togo has helped him to frame not only what needs to be done, but how it is possible to do.
Wherever he happens to go, Sam always remembers where he is from. “In our culture in Togo, we are very polite and don’t talk too much; we listen more and ask interesting questions. It’s thanks to those values that I am quickly learning new skills in my everyday tasks, by asking lots of questions and listening carefully to the answers.” And Sam is combining his values learned in Togo with the techniques he is learning in the States to create a new way of approaching tech development. His genuine interest in others has helped him forge friendships in the States, as well as business connections that will help him in his efforts to modernize developing countries. Finding himself to be in a position where his passion for technology and his desire to help African countries make quantum leaps forward in robotics, “is a dream come true.”
Sam may be an Alliance Abroad exchange visitor, but he is also a visionary of the Future. He will take what he is learning in the States back to Togo with him, where he plans to build “every-day inventions that could change my community” bringing new technologies to the many countries of Africa. He dreams of being a “great entrepreneur who will impact many lives with incredible innovations and inventions” and will rely heavily upon the business connections he has forged while in the US to help him accomplish his goal. He also intends to continue building robots, focusing on recovery and recycling of discarded parts and electronic waste. But most importantly of all, Sam wants to “give hope through my voice to the many people in Togo, and around the world, who dream and let them know that everything is possible.”
To those future exchange participants across the world, those small children of today who will grow up with big ideas and big dreams, Sam offers a solid piece of advise: “the biggest obstacle to pursuing your dreams is lack of good information.” Sam knew little about exchange visitor programs, but it wasn’t until a friend of his told him about Alliance Abroad that Sam began to research programs and begin making his dream of training in the US a reality. There are still moments when he cannot believe that he is really living his dream, training at a US tech company, making connections that will secure the future of tech development in Togo. There are times, in the back of a car, chatting with an Uber driver on the way into the office, that Sam will see an American flag and stare at it in disbelief, pinching himself to make sure he is really here and not just dreaming.
Written by Theo Kitchen