Few things are as frustrating as discovering that your phone has run out of charge and you have no easy way to recharge it. This is what confronted Tanzanian Meck Khalfan when there was a power outage in New York City. So he set out to build a charger that would put all others in the market in the shade. Leslie Gordon Goffe tells the story.
It’s an ill wind that does not blow someone some good, so the saying goes. And a very ill wind, Hurricane Sandy, blew Meck Khalfan, a 36-year-old Tanzanian-born, New York-based software engineer, a lot of good when it hit the New York area in 2012, leaving many parts of the city without power.
It was lucky for Khalfan, who knew all about power outages and unreliable electricity supply growing up in Tanzania, that he was able to charge his iPhone and iPad using a portable battery pack charger loaned to him by a New York neighbour.
“We had food and water,” says Khalfan pointing at the large refrigerator in his luxury New York City apartment. “But the thing we really needed was a good battery charger, because that can help you keep connected and survive anything.”
Meck Khalfan watched frustrated New Yorkers struggle with chargers which had limited capacity and which failed to fully revive their electronic devices, and came up with a great idea.
He would, he decided, revolutionise the portable battery charger industry by developing a rechargeable battery pack for smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices that would hold charge several times longer than other chargers.
Khalfan decided, also, that his charger would not use the cheap wiring present in so many chargers to cut costs and which usually damage a smart phone or tablet’s battery. Khalfan would use, instead, copper wiring, which though more costly is also more durable and better for connectivity.
“I thought that if someone can make a really good charger – one with high quality, and nice design,” says the soft-spoken Khalfan, becoming animated, “they could make a fortune.”
And it looks as though Meck Khalfan’s charger, which employs as its motto ‘Charge Where You Are’, is about to make him a very rich man indeed.
He wasted no time after Hurricane Sandy was over, while much of New York City struggled on without power, in developing his idea and putting together a team that could transform it from the drawing board into the shops.
His team consists of like-minded African engineers and entrepreneurs abroad, some in the US and some in China. Ani Onuorah, a Nigerian-American electrical engineer who had worked for Corning and Merrill Lynch, is a co-founder of the company and was appointed the firm’s president.
Another co-founder, Abraham Merishani, a Tanzanian-born, China-based computer scientist and entrepreneur, who owns and operates the Tanchin Trading Company in Guangzhou, became Chief Technical Officer while Tanzanian-born, New York-based Ed Kavishe, a top fashion photographer and owner of the Fashion Wire Daily newswire service, is a marketing partner and an investor with about 5% sweat equity in the company.
Another investor, and advisor, is Meck Khalfan’s wife, fellow Tanzanian Ninon Marapachi, who has made a big name for herself in the business world in the US as managing director of the $20bn Merrill Lynch/Bank of America-Global Wealth and Investment Management hedge fund in New York.
Marapachi was recently named one of the “40 Next Emerging Business Leaders” by an American finance magazine.
Having got his team together, and the first round of financing – which came mostly from family and wealthy friends – sorted, Khalfan launched his charger in September 2013 during New York Fashion Week, a year after Hurricane Sandy.
He called his charger the ‘Puku’, after a beautiful but tough antelope found in Tanzania. Khalfan made the charger available in a dizzying array of colours, from lime green to hot red. It thus became a prized fashion accessory for the impossibly cool and unbelievably hip.
“We wanted to make it the coolest gadget in the world for years to come,” says Khalfan, opening a box with a Puku in it and explaining just how much power his new charger packs.
It has, the software engineer s warming to the topic, a total capacity of 8,000 milliampere-hours, or is as powerful as around 3,000 AA batteries. It has, he says, at least 1,149 hours of standby time, 56 hours of talk time, and 153 hours of media play time.
A single charge would, Khalfan says proud of what he has created, provide up to five full charges for most smartphones and be able to charge more than one device at a time.
“Most of our customers used Mophie,” Khalfan says, referring dismissively to the market leader and industry rival which makes the Mophie Juice chargers. “But now customers say we got Puku. We don’t want Mophie any more.”
Whether or not this is true, what is certain is Puku is the most-talked-about battery pack charger of the moment.
Puku got its first real test in the marketplace in October 2013, when it went on sale on the Puku website and was made available, too, in a few select shops, such as the very fashionable Urban Outfitters.
Though a little more expensive than its competitors, at $99, the Puku S8 sold out quickly and Khalfan and company had trouble keeping up with demand. For instance, this past Christmas, though the charger was on many people’s wish list, it was as scarce, and hard to find, as its antelope namesake.
The Puku’s scarcity was, in large part, because Khalfan struck an important deal only a few weeks before Christmas making the Puku the official charging partner of the lingerie company, Victoria’s Secret, at the firm’s New York fashion show in December 2014.
Models taking part in the show used only Puku chargers emblazoned with a special Victoria’s Secret icon on it and various celebrities and trendsetters were photographed in the media sporting Puku chargers powering their smartphones and tablets.
“It has become quite fashionable,” says Khalfan, “for the fashionista.”
So, why did he call his battery pack charger, of all things, after an antelope?
“Why we picked puku, the antelope?” says Khalfan, who was born in Tanga, in northeastern Tanzania and attended the Ilboru school for gifted students in Arusha and the University of Dar es Salaam before leaving for a US university to study Computer Science and Mathematics and become a software engineer.
“We picked ‘Puku,” says Khalfan, who has Tanzanian art scattered throughout his New York City apartment, “to make sure we create a brand that touches our background. You can’t distance yourself from your roots. It is what shaped you.”
Best of times
These are the best of times for Meck Khalfan. His year-and-a-half-old company, inspired by a hurricane that brought bad news for most but brought a good idea to him, is already valued at $20m. The firm has eight people on staff; three of them in China, where the Puku is manufactured and produced.
Khalfan’s success has led to many awards. In 2013, Khalfan was named African Business Leader of the Year by the prestigious Washington DC-based US Corporate Council on Africa. In 2014, he was named New York City Techno Innovator of the Year, and Entrepreneur of The Year, as well.
Though he is enjoying success now, Khalfan says it was not always so. He had other ‘big ideas’ which did not prove to be so big, after all. New to New York in 2009, Khalfan decided to invest both in real estate and in a bank in Tanzania. Neither idea has borne much fruit.
Chastened, Khalfan, a software engineer, focused on what he knew: technology. “With Puku we have been a success, and we have managed to make some noise,” says Khalfan.
He certainly has. And he plans on making a lot more noise in 2015. If all goes to plan, Khalfan expects to sell a million of his Puku chargers by the end of year.
“We want to be the company that one day replaces Samsung and Sony,” Khalfan says ambitiously. “It is time for Puku.”
Similarly, Khalfan believes it is Africa’s time, too. “I think this is Africa’s turn,” he says, “but Africans need to be motivated and need to have the guts to seize the opportunity.”
Though he has taken, sometimes, to talking tough like an American big businessman, Meck Khalfan clearly has a good heart. He and his wife have set up the Touch Foundation, which brings vital healthcare services to rural areas in Tanzania.
“Look, the biggest issue in Africa right now is power, the power that charges your phone, charges everything,” Khalfan says. “We always expect power to go out at any time, so,” he says, promoting his Puku charger, “we need a device that can give you power and peace of mind.”
The speed of Meck Mwbana Khalfan’s success, after relatively few years in America, is stunning even to him. So, what, I asked him, was the secret of his success, and had racism not been an obstacle?
“Maybe I don’t pay attention to it,” says Khalfan, who is the son of a Muslim father from the Segeju people and a Christian mother from the Chagga people. “You are going to have enemies. But I say focus on the positive and the negative goes away pretty quick.”
Besides, says Khalfan, “I am a Tanzanian, and Tanzanians are world famous for their friendliness. I make friends very easily, and make business relationships easy. So, maybe the secret of my success is all down to my Tanzanian roots. Maybe.”