Peat Eyes Jamaica On His March To Energy Equality
On a bus ride through the country Nathaniel Peat talks about his journey from a North London apartment blocks to Necker Island in the BVI (British Virgin Islands), and how he plans to end energy poverty through smart social entrepreneurship.
Few people can claim to be a master of martial arts, reality television star, certified pilot, perpetual entrepreneur name-checked by the likes of Richard Branson, and a respected community leader. Pausing for a moment in his drive to end energy poverty on a bus between Kingston and Montego Bay I caught up with Nathaniel Peat, one of Jamaica’s leading figures within the UK diaspora.
Peat’s story of overcoming hardship, personal change, success, failure and perseverance is the perfect start to this profile series on exceptional individuals, Without Limit.
Amid the din of a bus filled with entrepreneurs from the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, Peat’s cheery grin and positive demeanour are evident as he offers friendly advice.
Interestingly, Peat himself could earlier have been a part of this programme, as his parents are Jamaican — his mother from Portland and his father from St Ann.
The MOU signing would prove the cherry on top of a particularly successful year for Peat, whose goal to end energy poverty has been growing from strength to strength in East Africa, and has seen the entrepreneur spin what was initially a major gaffe into a tipping point for major success.
A member of the Virgin Media Pioneer’s network, a Virgin official connected Peat to his now Nigerian co-founder at Gennex, Dowa Doneye.
“We were looking for a solution for a way in which we could power phones more quickly, so we decided to try making and selling powerbank phone cases. When we were going to pitch to a major supplier, we realised this other company had just pitched something similar and gotten the contract.” Peat reluctantly disclosed the other firm was no less than an as yet unknown Mophie.
“So we thought why not try solar instead. We had a few prototypes made and tested them while out and about in London. One day I went for a meal and there was a lady there from Kenya, and she looked at my phone charging from this solar cell thing and said, ‘OMG! What’s that?’ She then said, ‘My brother works at a major telecoms firm in Kenya. Can I take this to Africa?’ And we said ok sure.”
Serendipitous moments like this recur often in Peat’s personal narrative. A master networker, Peat’s skill at never missing an opportunity was picked up by none other than Richard Branson himself who, on the basis of the fledgling mobile power company’s propelling itself into a role with the 2012 Olympics, landed them an anecdote in Branson’s popular Like A Virgin: Secrets They Won’t Teach You at Business School.
The foray into East Africa proved particularly successful as the model for Gennex Elite itself evolved. “In 2012/2013 we realised there was a greater need (than powering cellphones) for electrification and energy on the continent. We found out at the time there were about two billion people who didn’t have energy, [so we started to] innovate based on the needs of the people. I learned from a former mentor who said to look at/evaluate what helps the needs of the people; innovation is not based on what people want, but on what people need.”
Peat also noted a big change is that they educate and train locals in assembling and maintaining the hardware, “Some companies before would ship [similar power devices] in, and then when they broke down, of course it was an issue because there was no one to repair them. We thought, well, why not train people to do just that.”
The company is currently registered in Kenya and Zambia, and they export to other African countries like Malawi and Ethiopia.
“Look…Africa is tough — no electrical sophistication and there is a high rate of corruption… for example, in countries like Kenya [you] can have no power for a week in rural places. Or the power will go off for three days, as a weekly/fortnightly occurrence. This has a significant impact on business.”
Peat’s foray into energy has seen him now connected with fellow “famous” entrepreneurs such as CNN commentator, NY Times bestselling author, political activist and former White House advisor Van Jones.
“I met VJ on Necker Island — Richard Branson’s private island retreat— [at a] gathering for leaders who have the power to change the world. It was immediately all about collaboration. VJ was working on energy in the US; we were working in Africa… so we have synergies. He wanted to educate young people on how to install solar products; we were doing it already. Next thing I knew we are in the States with Van’s team forming a renewable energy alliance made up predominantly of black CEOs and employees from urban black communities; and the whole idea of it is to empower those who are disadvantaged and those who suffer, give some level of education, training and job opportunity, at the same time disrupting climate change and [developing] renewable power.”
Peat’s journey to Necker Island may seem a straightforward progression for a savvy networker and driven entrepreneur, but even this sense of purpose and drive, he admits, was something that developed later on in life.
“For me, I’ve had more tangible experiences of reaching a glass ceiling and realising you’re not gonna rise above that glass ceiling.”
Having been a member of the junior flight crew at a leading airline, Peat comments that racism and hindrances due to his Jamaican heritage, especially in light of the 7/7 shoe bomber, left him disillusioned as a youth, and many of the wrong choices nearly led him astray.
The only time he lowers his gaze throughout the interview, Peat notes: “My history is a little dark… I’m coming from an area filled with racial tension in the 90s, where many young people were almost preconditioned to this idea that the police were against black people and racial profiling was part of the system…we grew into that.
In measured tones Peat recounts the impact high-profile cases like the Tottenham Joy Gardner murder in 1985 had on him as a youth in London and notes, “… as a result of the negative environment I was living in and playing into, I didn’t pass my General Certificate of Secondary Education. Most good students get nine to 10 subjects; I had 4. I got none of them besides English, History and Music and one of the main reasons at the time we all passed English was because the teacher said he would pay 100 pounds cash to the student with the highest grade. I was rejected from further education colleges and my high school wouldn’t take me back. I literally had to beg my way into college. It was a shock and happened at a time when I had a really high exposure to crime.”
Following that derailment, Peat credits the steadfast nature of his Jamaican parents who got their son over to Florida to study aviation and turn his life around.
Like most outliers, Peat’s parents had instilled extra-curricular activities into his life, as he had first started practising martial arts at the age of four and is a trained saxophonist and violinist.
“After attending Brunel University I went to Florida to pursue pilot training. To make money for school, I was teaching martial arts and also teaching music lessons. Mom and Dad always said you have to work twice as hard to achieve, you’ve got to do better to achieve.”
However, his return found Peat encountering his peers no better off in terms of community crime and violence than when he left.
“I saw a lot of killings in the UK. It was then I really began to think how I [could] raise more capital to complete my studies and make an impact. I did interviews with youth and asked what they thought was missing from [their] curriculum, interviewed teachers and developed a curriculum for young people at risk of antisocial behaviours, at risk of failing in schools, [prone to] bullying, low self-esteem, sexual exploitation, gangs and crime and violence.”
Another turning point that pushed Peat forward took place when a family friend’s son Kiyan Prince was murdered – stabbed trying to break up a fight. “That was the pivot for me to push hard for The Safety Box.”
The Safety Box was Peat’s first foray into the spotlight and a new world of social entrepreneurship, policy development and business that would change the direction of his life forever.
The concept of The Safety Box is that it is a mindset – not guns and knives that kill people – so everything inside the box is designed to keep you safe…Conflict resolution, a knife-protection programme centred on knife-free “gross motor movement… it was solutions that were much more practical”, notes Peat, whose programme proved more successful than previously “impractical”, government-implemented tactics like mediation.
“After initial trials and completion of that part of the programme, when self-esteem was raised, we were able to implement phase two: PSHE – Personal Social Health Education – a new concept introduced in schools under the Labour Government to help young people integrate better into society, and give them social skills.”
At this stage Peat’s The Safety Box was now fully aligned and integrated with the national curriculum, which meant they were able to operate within the daytime programming as part of the timetable, increasing overall impact.
“The Safety box was the first time I made my name as a social entrepreneur; we measured impact to 8,500 young people in the UK, impacting with our partners Cure Violence (SoS) the prisons such as HMP Cookamwood YOI Prison, where we reduced group attacks in the space of one year by 95.6 per cent. We reduced the fights by 51 per cent, reduced the assaults by 52 per cent, and reduced overall violence by 51 per cent. I really wanted to make a difference. Being cognisant of the reality many of the youth faced at that time, with racial profiling and social exclusion, I decided I really wanted to do something that would help them, because I myself was able to come out and do something. These people need to understand that despite where they come from they can achieve.”
After this initial success, accolades came pouring in for Peat. “I won the Enterprising Young Brits Awards in 2007, a national competition. I was the first person to get two awards from the competition, also the first black person to get it and the first under 30. The award was given by Brown and Darling — up until that point I had never met a prime minister or leader of a country. To have the prime minister of the UK say congratulations and well done meant so much for me. I had worked really hard and I felt as though what I had done had been recognised.”
This recognition would only grow as Peat found new-found fame. “In 2007 BBCcalled to say they were producing a programme called BBC Last Millionaire, where they took 12 of the most successful young entrepreneurs overseas to be filmed as an observational documentary-style reality programme; see how successful we would be if they took away our money, contacts and our ability to communicate, and gave each of us the salary of a low-skilled worker.”
Planning initially to make sure he could stay on for at least three weeks to get enough exposure from the series, Peat actually went on to win with his formula for a tourist attraction in Egypt.
“I was aware of the public reception [to the show] and ensuring I maintain a level of integrity at all times on screen for two reasons: I ‘represented’ black people, being a black person on the series, so I wanted to be authentic; and I also wanted a certain level of values to be imparted through the screen. People of colour are not often portrayed in the media in a positive light.”
Peat noted that during filming his brother contracted a condition similar to Crohn’s disease. Peat contemplated dropping out to be able to return to his brother’s side in the UK. But the impact and influence he had gained encouraged a disheartened Peat and he decided to stick with it.
SO WHAT’S NEXT?
“I want my impact to be significant in terms of energy poverty, and to say comfortably that I’ve touched at least 30 million lives. I used to have a goal to impact 1 million people, which I achieved when I did the programme.
“For Jamaica, I want to set up some level of manufacturing for Gennex Elite, but that’s later. Right now Jamaica has the ability to [move toward] renewable energy, and we want to really empower Jamaica by teaching and training our youth and our women in particular around STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), which will aid them in developing solar and renewable solutions to support and to build capacity in Jamaica. We want to have a social impact and have a commercially viable energy solution; moving from education and training to assembly and maintenance. Then from assembly and maintenance we want to go into design and manufacture, and Jamaica is perfectly located because of the shipping lanes for export and import.”
Citing people like Richard Branson, Bessie Coleman and Dr Ben Carson, author of Think Big, as role models who have shaped his vision, Peat notes that it’s those closest to him who have consistently kept him driving forward.
“In this sense probably the best mentor I’ve had is my dad. He always said, ‘whatever you do, do to the best of your ability; whatever you’re in, reach to the pinnacle… look for solutions to problems as opposed to wallowing in the problem’. The way I’ve been educated at home, my uncles, family, martial arts teachers, my sensei etc, these people close to me have been more mentors to me than people outside of that circle.”
Category/ies:Articles, British Virgin Island, Jamaica Articles, Regional Articles, Renewable Energy, Solar Energy, Success Story.
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