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Prof Tickodri: from electric shocks to making electric cars

If Uganda produces its first commercial car, a hybrid one at that, by 2018 as it is being reported, one man who will go down in history as one of the brains behind that remarkable development is Sandy Stevens Tickodri-Togboa.

He is a professor of electrical and computing engineering and executive director and principal investigator at Makerere University’s centre for research in transportation technologies. Prof Tickodri-Togboa was the coordinator of the team of young engineering students who assembled the Kiira EV. The professor told the story of his eventful life to Simon Kasyate on Capital FM’s Desert Island Discs show.

Allow me introduce to you Professor Sandy Stevens Tickodri-Togboa. Good evening and welcome to desert island discs.

Good evening Simon and the listeners.

Let’s [start with] the Kiira EV before we go to you. The country woke up to breathtaking news that Uganda [will] have [its] first car. We saw President Museveni testing it and you having that interesting interview on CNN…

(Laughs) Very interesting; the story goes back to 2007. A former student of mine, Dr Wanyama, visited MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) on a completely different assignment. This was to do with the many projects I run, now known as I-Labs (Internet Laboratories). He had been invited to visit the place so that he could translate it [and], if he liked, bring it over to Makerere.

Because it is a mechanism that enables you to access laboratory equipment via internet and be able to perform experiments online and that time the state of equipment laboratories in Makerere faculty of Technology were such that you didn’t want to walk there. So we thought a shorter cut for us, [if government could buy equipment for us] was to embrace this technology. So along that line [came] this colleague of mine, younger than me; and while he was in the MIT, came across this group of students who were working on a renewable energy car that wouldn’t pollute.

Their mission was to create an international consortium of young minds from very advanced engineering universities to collaborate and produce cheap cars. So, a question was asked of him if there were young people who would join this consortium and the answer was yes and we got our first invitation to participate in this. Now, on his return, because he was no longer in the electrical engineering department but of computer science, he had constituted this group who formed the club to link up with a project then known as VDS vehicle design summit based in MIT.

A branch of that was immediately formed in Makerere, led by a young gentleman called Jeremy Steven Ntambi. That time, I had just returned from Gulu University and I was just starting to find my focus and unfortunately this gentleman all of a sudden left Makerere and these young people who had formed the club felt orphaned, I actually call them my orphans, and this project was critical for their graduation.

The current DVC for finance and administration [Barnabas] Nawangwe was dean at that time. Knowing my competencies, inclinations and interests, he said, “Prof, look, why don’t you help me here. Me, I am an architect. I have nothing to do with these guys you are an electrical engineer. You have been with UEB for all this time; so can you step in?”

I said, “Sure.”

So that’s when I acquire these orphans. In fact, they were three groups I-labs, management information systems and the vehicle group. And fortunately, at that point I didn’t have much of administration work. I spent a lot of time in the trenches. And the question was how I reformulate this in such a way that these students are able to graduate. And then at the same time begin something I had wanted to do all along, which was the reason I had gone to Gulu.

I thought it was a virgin place. Some of my ideas I couldn’t do in Makerere due to their rigid structures but two years didn’t give me the opportunity so I came back. So, this was one moment when I said, “Look, this is now the opportunity to begin to do things different from how I have seen them in Makerere.” Why? Because when I did my PhD, which was in Odessa (the third largest city in Ukraine), which is now I think under war, I had been supervised by a Russian Jew professor who was an expert in radar and I had seen how they did some things in the labs and I must say I broke some rules in the lab.

But I also think you had a tremendous team of young people…

What had happened is that I had been teaching engineering mathematics to all engineers that this country has had since 1985. Very few in this country have not passed through my hands. So, even when they would be admitted, I would tell them, “You see, I am in a unique position because whereas you have option to hate other professors/ lectures, for me you have no choice because without passing this subject of mine, Engineering mathematics, you cannot become an engineer, because it’s fundamental, it cuts across and not very many people want to teach it.

And then the kind of method I used was first of all time-keeping. We agreed that I’d be in class on time and anybody who comes to class after that stays out because mine isn’t a toilet where you don’t ask for permission but I am allowed to be late up to 15 minutes because of the jam. But after that if I didn’t show up, you also disappear. And also mine was a participatory approach.

Selects “Rhythm of the falling rains” by The Cascades

From the Kiira EV, you are credited for putting together a team of industrious young men. Was there a woman?

Simon, it is not subsequently Kiira EV which we have termed the proof of concept car (POC). And remember the colour was lime green because of renewable energy. We have since, in one-and-a-half years, also improved that. Our intention was to help us incorporate components that would help us improve the range, the distance that the car can cover before you recharge the battery.

So, we have been working on this and in the process there were some young people from St Mary’s college, Kisubi who had won a science and technology innovation challenge whose area was vehicle communication. They had produced something fantastic during those competitions, so we decided to invite them first for internship, and then share with us ideas.

And because we have incorporated the things they proposed into the improved version of the Kiira EV, and we wanted to send message out there that if there are schools that can participate in this, come with some innovative ideas that we shall take them on board. So the improved version of the Kiira EV is now SMACK-Kiira EV. It is of a hybrid nature. In addition to the batteries that drive the car, you have the engine to charge the car when the battery goes down but the car is for charging not pushing.

But let’s get down to the person that you are Professor Tickodri. You earlier mentioned that you come from West Nile. Now I will start there. When were you born? Where were you born and to whom were you born?

I was born in 1949 on 29th October in a place called Oduluba. The first time it came out to the public is when the president was launching the Kiira EV. In fact, in my statement during that launch, I declared to the president that because of the calibre of people that I had groomed for several years and because I knew the capability, I was now ready to go home to my village which is about 3 kilometres to the east of Arua.

But, unfortunately, three-and-a-half years [after my birth], my mother passed away in circumstances I have never understood. But one thing that happened was on the last day we were collected to go and see her in the hospital, I had never seen a mzungu. A tall white guy came approaching mum’s bed and because I had never seen a human being without skin (laughs); (for me a white man was a human being without skin), I just took off from hospital and never went back and later I was told mum is dead.

That created a lot of things and that time my elder sister who, I think, was about 12 years, was the one looking after us and I think by nature I was a rebellious character so I must have given her a lot of hell. My father had to marry somebody very young about the age of my sister to look after us.

How many are you?

We are three. Actually the name Togboa actually means debt to God. Why? Because other than that elder sister, all the intermediate kids died. So, mum says, “I think I owe a debt to God I am not even sure this one will also survive.”

And Tickodri?

That is my father’s name. It means born without a bed, born on the carpet. But then something happened after about one year and-a-half because of my stubbornness. Because I could not be contained at home, I was thrown in school at about the age of four. Fortunately, I had a cousin around that time studying in St Aloysius, Nyapeya and I would sit close to him when he comes with his things and listen to whatever he said. So, I learnt something about the alphabet.

So, when I was thrown into school the first thing I was asked was my name. They were writing on sand. I was seated next to my cousin and he wrote his name; so these things of instinct, I actually copied and wrote that guy’s name. His name was Tunya and when the teacher came, she saw and said, ‘Read your names.” My cousin said, ‘Tunya’. When it came to mine, I said, ‘Togboa.’ And then she asked, ‘Who of you is Tunya and who is Togboa?’ I told the teacher I knew if I didn’t write anything you would send me home.

So, the teacher recognised that survival instinct in me. That is how I remained in school and three months later, we were all ganged up and brought to what was then a posh school to sit some entry exam in an urban demonstration school in Arua. Fortunately, all the four brought from there passed so I went to P.2, finished primary and went to Arua Junior School.

And the usual way during those days we didn’t have P.7 then I crossed over to Nyakasura. My younger brother didn’t get much of an education and my elder sister married after my step-mother came home. She was about, I think, sixteen and, fortunately, she got married not very far from Arua demonstration school. So, though she moved away, my lunches were in her home. But later, her family moved to Bunyoro, Budongo forest.

What was your father doing?

My father was a foreman of construction.

What was the motivation of you going to Nyakasura School at the time when there was [St. Joseph’s College,] Ombachi?

No, Ombachi was not there. I only remember St. Aloysius, Nyapeya which was a Catholic school but I was pushed into Anglican because it was the best school around. When I was in Arua demonstration school, Ombachi was only a technical school.

When you get down to Nyakasura at this time I assume that you were proficient in English. However, you were coming down to a place where they spoke a different language from yours and different cultural practices...

Once you get into a school, you are locked up. The idea of going outside to interact with the culture was not the mode of things at that time. The environment in Nyakasura was not like a hotel and also the rule; it was like back in my home secondary school that while on school compound, you didn’t speak any other language apart from English. I can declare to you that I do not know Rutooro and speaking vernacular was equal to an hour of punishment; running around the school field. But I think I should share with you what happened when I got to Nyakasura.

Because we didn’t have electricity back home and when I left junior, because of the experience I had with the skinless fellow who showed up at my mother’s bedside and I never saw her again, my thinking was that this guy must be able to seize why mom never came back or he is possibly the reason. But I didn’t try to track it down. So, when I left junior, my ambition was to become a medical doctor so I would be able to understand what actually happened. So, I left Arua on 21st January, 1962 to go to school. It was a long journey. It took me three days.

During prep, the kids who knew electricity went and removed the insulation curtain around the switch and they came to me and said, “Hey, you touch this and when I did touch the cable, the thing threw me and it took me some minutes to wake up and everyone was laughing. So, the next morning, I explained to the teacher and the teacher took time and explained and that developed curiosity.

Plays madilu systems from Congo

Beyond just this little experience that changed your course of life and ambition, what other memories will you have to share with us from your stay at Nyakasura School?

The environment in our secondary schools, whether it was King’s College Budo, Mwiri, were so good and far better for the most of us than what was obtained at home, and visitation was not there. I mean, for the four years I was in Nyakasura my dad never showed up.

So when you got holidays, where would you go?

I had a cousin in Jinja who was working in Nyanza Textile [Mill]. I had an uncle in Kampala, so most of my holidays I stayed here.

After Nyakasura, where did you go?

To the University of Nairobi

Apart from reading and excelling in your academics which I am certainly sure you did, is there anything else? Were you in the drama club?

In Nyakasura, I was the entertainment prefect (laughs) and by the time I left, I was the deputy head prefect.

What is with West Nile people and their love for Congolese music? Is it the proximity with the way Congolese live there life?

It is not noise with Congolese music. But back in Nyakasura, I was a cricketer and tennis guy but football not so much because they chose players according to size

Why didn’t you come to Makerere University? Why Nairobi University?

There was no engineering. The faculty of technology had not yet opened up (until 1970) and by that time I was in my second year in Nairobi. Someone called Prof Fishwick, who was teaching control engineering to me in Nairobi, was brought here to become the Dean in Makerere.

When you’re done with University, are you looking out for a job?

Questions of jobs particularly for professional disciplines were not there because we were few in numbers and also government institutions would come to recruit you from school.

Plays I stand accused

You graduate as an electrical engineer from Nairobi University, or maybe should I ask, around that time we always met members of the fairer sex at the university, fall in love and marry them. Was that the case with you or were you strictly the bookworm?

Certainly not a bookworm. In fact, even when we go back to Nyakasura days, there were always those guys that would wake up at 4am we used to call them Knockers or nocturnal. I would finish all my work and go to bed. During those days, I would get girlfriends but the idea of settling down was not down in my system.

Eventually, after traversing the world and coming back, I wanted to join Uganda Post and Telecommunications Corporation because I had done digital telecommunications and I was among the few at that time that had done it. I did the interview and I ended up teaching the panel. As I waited for the results, three months down the road, nothing. And one day I meet the chief personnel officer and I ask him what happened, he said: “What?! You mean you do not know what happened?”

He said, “The panel found you over-qualified.” That is how I ended up teaching in Makerere. There was a girl who had just finished her PhD from France. Those days it was not very common for girls to wear jeans but this girl was wearing jeans and for three consecutive weeks, we kept watching each other. There was one guy from the faculty of Education and he was really bad mannered and twice he threw out filthy jokes at this girl; so, me who was polished, I stepped in and defended this girl. So some time she invited me for tea.

She was also teaching in Kyambogo and we strictly had tea. Then she introduced herself, “I am Dr Ruth Natukunda.” So, we had tea twice. So I also introduced myself and told her, “You could as well add doctor to my name.” You should have seen her collapse. Well the rest of it is history.

Do you embed social media?

I do, but I am not active.

Are you blessed with any children?

Yes, we have three children; two girls and a boy.

After that, what next for Dr Togboa?

On 10th December 2011, I presented to all these people my presentation, talked about ground transport that we are in now, I talked about marines, I talked about space, agriculture mechanisation but we want to take this ground transportation thing to commercialisation where private sector will say, “we should come in”.

If you were marooned on a dessert island and you were given chance to carry one person or thing who/what will it be?

My smart phone

Plays Ndombolo [Ya Solo] by Kofi Olomidde

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