Digital nomads: how Funfere Koroye crafted their journey from China to the UK

Today’s digital nomad is a design engineer who has worked on 4 continents: Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. After designing tech-enabled devices and shoes for Tecno, AFA Sports, and Thando’s, Funfere Koroye now lives in the UK where he is a TechNation Ambassador and CEO of a hardware and innovation startup Nupay Technologies (Nupay Technology)

During an hour-long conversation on Google Meet, Koroye shares with TechCabal how he ended up earning £5,000 per project as a freelance hardware engineer.

First of all, what exactly does a design engineer do? I’ve heard of graphic designers, UI/UX designers, and even art directors. Design engineering is a first for me.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: we design the hardware of things; what they look like, how they feel and the materials used. We’ll direct the look of the things you use, from laptops and phones to shoes and even toys.

So you are essentially architects, but for everyday objects. How do you become a design engineer?

With a design engineering degree, you are taught one side of things. I have to say that design engineering, as a degree, is not industry specific. You must specify which industry you prefer while taking the course. Typically, in America where I studied, there are 4 industries for design engineers: furniture, footwear, transportation and the technology industry. But within the Big 4, there are subsets like jewelry, bags, even boats. No matter what industry you specialize in, it all starts with pen and paper, as with all design work, whether it’s UI/UX engineering or hardware engineering. You draw the idea you want to create, create a 3D version of that design, and a prototype of the 3D design is created at the factory. Most of the time, the prototype is a mold used to create the model of the material. All over the world, companies hire design engineers. Both Nike and Adidas hire design engineers and product designers to help them make their shoes. The funny thing is that the UI/UX people stole product design from us; Design engineers are the true owners of the term product design.

Is design engineering what you always wanted to do? Or is it something you stumbled upon?

Yes! I always dreamed of being an inventor. When I decided to become an inventor, there weren’t really any options in Nigeria to help me achieve that goal, so I had to look elsewhere. I looked at the United States, I looked at Europe, the United Kingdom, then finally I settled in San Francisco. I was 17, in 2007, when I first took this trip, so that in itself was a bit crazy because I had never traveled outside of Nigeria before that time. And, you know, that was the start for me.

So, what was your first professional experience as a design engineer?

My first real professional experience took me to China to do an internship in a shoe manufacturing company, and I loved it. During my last year of study in the United States, I transferred to my university campus in China and fell in love with the country. There I did an internship as a junior designer for a shoe company. Then, after graduating in 2012, I left the United States and moved to Italy for a bit to work as an apprentice shoemaker, which is also part of design engineering. Thus, during my first professional experiences, I touched a bit on some aspects of design engineering.

Wow, USA, Italy and China early in your career. How long did you stay in these countries?

In the United States, I stayed there for 5 years, but I had to leave once my student visa expired. I lived in Italy for a year, and in China I would say a total of 4 years. My first year in China was as a transfer student. Then, after leaving Italy, I returned to China to work for the same shoe company where I had done my internship. During this period [I was] between China and Nigeria. I finally had to leave China in 2016.

Ah, why did you leave? Sounds like you liked China.

It was difficult to obtain residency in China. China’s work and business visas only grant you 30 days of residency, and after it expires, you must return to your country and reapply. You and your employer can apply for a temporary residence permit, but it often takes 6 weeks to process and even then it’s not a sure thing. Back when I was there, the Chinese government also had strict rules, something to do with Nigerians flouting the rules, so it was difficult even to get Chinese employers to sponsor you. So after hanging around for a few years, my re-entry application was denied and I ended up in Nigeria in 2016.

It must have been difficult to return to Nigeria full time right after your career took off.

Not really. Like I said, I was already hanging around between Nigeria and China so it wasn’t really difficult for me to adapt. When I got back, I was applying for jobs in the most random places. But one day I got an email from Tecno Mobile and they wanted me to join their design lab as a phone developer and industrial designer. The job gave me enough time to work independently in my role. This is actually what led me to specialize in one area of ​​design engineering: advanced technology wearables. So yeah, leaving China was sad, but it set me on the path I’m on now, which even allowed me to start my own tech startup.

And how was the money through it all? How Much Does a Design Engineer Earn?

It’s different for everyone, of course. When I was at Tecno, I was earning around ₦400,000 (~$1,500) per month and that was in 2016 I believe, and I was 26 at the time. And it wasn’t exactly ideal because I originally asked for ₦800,000 ($3,000) per month, but they didn’t agree. After leaving Tecno, I worked in other places where I was earning around ₦800,000 to ₦1 million ($3,800) per month. This continued until the pandemic when I moved to the UK. However, for freelance projects it depends on how much information they need for me, but it’s at least £5,000 per project. I won up to £20,000 for a project.

Oh, so your taste for Nigeria didn’t last very long then. What changed?

COVID has come, basically. I had visited the UK before but never really saw myself living there. But around the time the pandemic was over, I decided to create a hardware product for the LPG industry called Nugas (Nupe energy). Unfortunately, it didn’t take off, but we got funding and traction. So I realized that I had to leave Nigeria and have a different perspective on building products.

How did it go?

Short version, I’m now a Visa Ambassador for TechNation, the company that approves visas for the UK’s Global Talent Visa in the digital technology industry. So I would say it worked really well.

And the long story?

I had to think about how I could enter the tech space in London. That’s how I came across the Global Talent Visa and TechNation, which is open to techies with at least 5 years of tech experience who can contribute to the UK economy. The great thing about this is that there are 2 categories, Exceptional Talent, for established leaders, and Exceptional Promise, for emerging leaders. And the requirements were pretty minimal: I needed a great CV, a reference for a good job, and my name in the press. And you know the best?

Airport food?

Uh no. The best part of the visa was that I wouldn’t need to stay in the UK for the duration of the visa. The Global Talent Visa only requires you to stay in the UK for 6 months out of each working year you have applied for, and you can apply for up to 5 years. It means that I have 6 months to explore other countries, and do more things.

So you’re basically the poster boy for digital nomads. What was your favorite part of it?

I have worked in 5 countries now but have visited almost 20. To date and in the project my favorite has to be my freelance work for a solar hardware company in Tanzania called Jaza Energy. They DMed on LinkedIn and said they were looking to create the Tesla battery for Africa. So they took me to Zanzibar where I lived for a few months, all expenses paid. I think that’s one of the great things about being a digital nomad; your profile is available on the internet, you are not just in Nigeria, or wherever you are; you have access to the whole world. As long as someone is willing to give you work somewhere. You are literally a citizen of the world, you know? I will say Zanzibar is my favorite place I have been. But China is my favorite place where I have lived.

As a TechNation Ambassador, I can also help others experience it. It’s a non-monetary role, but my job is basically to raise awareness about the visa and help applicants write their applications.

What is your least favorite part?

I’d say he moved somewhere legally. As Nigerians, we often use the studies to enter and reside in different countries. Lately it has become more difficult. Even today, people find it difficult to settle down even after getting STEM degrees.

Finding a career path has also been tricky because no matter what you study, you always have to choose where you want to see yourself in this industry, especially in the tech industry.

But it looks like you’ve found a trajectory that works for you. Do you have any fears?

Like everyone else, I’m afraid of failure. What if I wasn’t up to all this, all this tech bro stuff, you know? I have a number of eyes on me, and people who often reach out and say they want to do what I do. But I’m still afraid of failing, which is normal.

Everyone in the tech industry knows that to succeed you have to fail multiple times. We don’t talk about it enough but this fear is present in all of us.

* The dollar rate is equivalent to the Nigerian exchange rate in 2016.

If you would like to share your digital nomad story, please contact me at [email protected].

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