The change-makers in Nigeria’s new digital economy are turning today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities. They are the tenacious new wealth creators in a country that celebrates its 60th anniversary in October.
THERE IS A WIDELY-HELD BELIEF THAT AFRICA can escape its poverty by skipping enormous stages of development through the use of technology. Those who are proponents of this belief continue to put their faith in technology’s ability to help Africa leapfrog and escape years of exploitation the continent has suffered through colonialism. One country at the forefront of this movement is Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, with over 200 million inhabitants.
According to a 2019 report by the Center for Global Development, Nigeria overtook South Africa as the leading investment destination with 55 active technology hubs accounting for a total of $94.9 million in funds raised in contrast to the $60 million raised and 59 active startups in South Africa.
Furthermore, the country is considered Africa’s biggest technology market and accounts for 24% of internet users in Africa with 126 million people online in December 2019, as per figures from Internet World Stats, 2020.
The Nigerian Communications Commission estimated the country had the largest number of telecommunications subscribers with a tele-density figure of almost 96.76% last year. Matt Warman, the United Kingdom’s Digital Minister, in a report published by the UK’s Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport, estimated that Nigeria’s tech sector is projected to create some three million jobs and generate £67.4 billion ($80 billion) for the economy by 2021.
The boom in technology has created riches at traditionally unprecedented rates all over the world, turning recent university graduates into young billionaires. A new generation of business leaders who are charting a new path for the next generation are emerging and being hailed ‘the new tycoons’, hungry to take a slice of billion-dollar empires with their innovations.
The new tycoons of Nigeria are much younger and work in a collaborative economy to disrupt existing systems than their older peers and have a focus on generating wealth along the way.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made everyone realize how important technology is and its impact has never been more important than it is today. These new young multi-millionaires have most often moved back to Nigeria to set up companies that have spurred on the Nigerian tech sector. Whether it’s in the fields of energy, agriculture, banking, transportation, logistics, health or fintech, Nigeria’s new tycoons are moving away from conventional old money to a new digital economy to build future wealth.
The subsequent growth of these entrepreneurs has also attracted many big tech companies and investors as well as international attention and funding. According to the African Private Equity and Venture Capital Association, North America-headquartered investors accounted for 42% of all African venture capital deals in the last five years with only 20% of venture cash coming from Africa-based investors, forcing the continent’s entrepreneurs to seek support from the West.
Whether it is Jumia with its subsequent listing on the New York Stock Exchange or Andela, with its $100 million Series D fundraising round, which has trained hundreds of software developers and engineers for companies around the world, or Kobo360, a leading tech startup for the logistics industry raising over $30 million in private equity from Silicon Valley, these tycoons are all vying to secure their market positions through disruptive technology.
The new tycoons are however driven by much more than capitalism. There is a keen sense of responsibility towards their country that moves beyond monetary gain and rather towards creating real impact.
They are finding creative solutions that fill gaps left by the state, from edutech solutions to buttress the weak public education system and making learning more accessible and effective, to providing financial freedom through innovative fintech solutions that ultimately engage large segments of the population previously outside the banking system and that cannot access traditional financial services.
Take, for example, the innovative digital blood bank startup, LifeBank Nigeria, which has transported over 10,000 units of blood for frontline health facilities across the country and attracted $200,000 in funding in 2018. Founded by Temie Giwa-Tubosun, the organization aims to curb major challenges for the healthcare system in Nigeria through its shortfall in supply for blood, which is needed for transfusions during surgeries and related procedures. The social enterprise is focused on developing a better way of delivering blood to hospitals in Lagos.
“We use World Health Organization-approved equipment and so far, we saved over 5,000 lives. Our biggest achievement is how we have linked hospitals with blood banks and now are even supplying ventilators to help deal with Covid-19,” says Giwa-Tubosun.
Another area where tech tycoons are becoming more and more disruptive is in the agricultural sector.
According to the newly re-elected president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Akinwumi Adesina, the African continent is spending about $35 billion on food imports alone resulting in a significant loss of jobs. By 2030, the size of the food and agriculture business in Africa will be worth a whopping $1 trillion.
“Nobody drinks oil, but everybody eats food. So those that want to be millionaires and billionaires of Africa are going to come out of that sector. In agriculture, I believe that Africa can industrialize,” says Adesina.
According to World Bank data for 2019, Nigeria’s agriculture sector still employs over 35% of the Nigerian labor force.
This demand has led to a number of tech firms who have begun to supply the agricultural sector.
“The agricultural sector mostly comprises small-scale farmers who do not have a lot of access to capital or technology to scale their business. By providing market linkages, training, and financial services, tech firms help to improve food security and create more employment opportunities for the sector,”says Bismarck Rewane, a leading economist in Nigeria.
Despite government and private sector investments in building tech infrastructure, Nigeria’s emerging tech tycoons also face other challenges within the chaotic business environment such as reliable access to electricity and access to finance.
However, as is customary with the never-say-die attitude of Nigeria, these challenges are not only providing its new wealth creators with an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade but also to contribute to the long-term growth and economic stability of their beloved country.
On the following pages, we profile some of Nigeria’s most influential young innovators who are leading change and are part of a growing tribe of visionaries scripting their own version of the Nigerian growth story.
FARA ASHIRU JITUBOH
Co-Founder and CEO/CTO, Okra
IN 2016, A PIONEERING RESEARCH CALLED ProjectDiane carried out by digitalundivided, an Atlanta-based accelerator for high-potential women entrepreneurs of color, found that only 11 black women had ever raised more than $1 million in venture capital (VC). And only 0.2% of that funding went to startups founded by black women. Two years later, that number stood at a paltry 34 and over the past decade, the report concluded that, of all VC funding, black women raised just .0006%. It is clear that women of color are waging an uphill battle to address this disparity.
And this is why when Fara Ashiru Jituboh raised $1 million in a pre-seed round for Okra in just six months, which was also oversubscribed during a global pandemic, it caught the attention of the African tech world.
Okra is a Nigerian-based application programming interface (API) connector which allows the secure exchange of real-time financial information between customers and banks. But this is not Jituboh’s first time at the rodeo. Growing up between Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the United States, she launched her first business by the time she was eight years old.
“My dad was one of the very first people with a computer and internet in Saudi Arabia because he had to send emails. So, I spent a lot of my early days on the computer just trying to figure out how a computer worked. I was about six at the time. I knew I loved computers and I felt it opened you up to the world. I had my dad take me down to register the business and I was doing door-to-door sales,” says Jituboh.
Very soon, she started recruiting other kids to be part of her door-to-door sales business before setting up a website for playing games that attracted about a 1,000 kids a day. That was when Jituboh knew she wanted a career in technology. That and the fact that the world of computers provided an escape for her from bullies.
“I was about 13 or 14 when I started coding because my school in the USA introduced coding as an elective. I was bullied as a kid so I spent a lot of time at home and it was an escape and it turned out to be something I was good at and I was getting attention for it. I would be online and enter coding competitions and I would win, so, it’s like you are cool in this world even if you are not in your everyday world,” says Jituboh.
Her childhood dream was to be a game developer and she pursued that at North Carolina University where she completed a degree in computer science and along the way, set up an organization for engineering graduates who were looking for alternative careers in 3D-animation or video games, instead of the traditional engineering route.
After college, she joined JP Morgan in New York and started a clothing line at the same time. At JP Morgan, Jituboh began to nurture her talent for creating solutions that solved problems for organizations. She began with creating a document versioning tool to help analysts within the organization find documents with ease.
“So, analysts can keep their documents there, so, even if they are no longer there, you can see the last version of that document, and people began adopting it. I started to understand that there is so much value in building solutions that solve problems and that was the beginning of me tinkering on the idea of building something to provide other solutions.”
The idea of Okra came from this newfound idea of problem-solving.
“I started a lot of my working life in the financial services sector but what really made me go into this space is that I am a tech person and I try a lot of apps and I try to automate my life as much as possible. When I moved back to Nigeria in 2014, I hadn’t been in Nigeria except for summer vacations, so, the transition was a bit hard because I was using tools that were just not available in Nigeria.”
This was when she first noticed a gap in the Nigerian fintech market. The problem with fintech apps was the lack of access. So rather than creating a product for downloads, she wanted to build the enabler for an infrastructure product for the ecosystem to build upon and by so doing, create these great products she had always wanted to use in Nigeria.
She started a company to build technology for other players like Renmoney and Airtel. When she got married and relocated back to America to give birth to her son, she realized that a number of the applications she was using would not work because they could not connect to Nigerian banks.
“So, I was talking with my engineers and we started [deliberating on] how we can build a product that will help people with living and we were figuring out what is the true problem we were trying to solve here?”
Jituboh wanted to connect Nigerian bank accounts to apps. “So, I knew this was available in the US but I didn’t understand how it was done so I thought the banks were using an API or something and realized it was actually cloud and I realized this is a problem we cannot only solve but do it in a way that has value and that is how Okra came about. We wanted to build a tool for ourselves,” says Jituboh.
Being an expert in over 20 different programming languages, Jituboh with Okra set out to build and design the application, with a $1 million seed funding from TLcom Capital.
“We bootstrapped for a very long time and we realized that if we wanted to run fast, we needed to look at capital. We created our pitch deck and started going round to explain the vision behind the business which was to be the largest unified API banking solution on the entire continent.”
Okra offers a pay-as-you-go and volume pricing system which works with businesses to make sure that they are paying what makes sense for their bottom line.
The company currently has over 240 clients that are live and integrating with the platform. Even with the track-record of the platform and Jituboh’s impressive reputation in coding and startups, there was still a lot of gender bias in the tech space that she had to overcome and she deals with even today.
“Being a [female] CTO, a lot of people are skeptical as to whether I actually do have the technical prowess to do the job. A lot of the time, people don’t get that it is really true that I can do the job. We have had investors we didn’t go with say things like they can get someone in that understands the technicality and we can find a CTO for you.
“Some investors even had technical teams vet us to make sure I knew what I was doing. It seemed geared towards the fact that I am a female CTO and I think that was the major challenge I felt: ‘is this just fluff or can she actually code?’ And I actually do write code and work with the team to build this hands-on.”
Jituboh and her team are still focused on providing solutions for the African market. Doing anything that changes consumer behavior is difficult.
As Jituboh puts it: “It is all about localizing for this market because not everything that works for the US or the UK works for this market. So, you really have to understand what to keep and what to let go.”
She and her team are still perfecting their solution. From connecting users to their USSD to internet and mobile market solutions, Okra’s ecosystem hopes to be the leading platform and a super-connector on the continent and by all indications, Jutiboh is definitely the right person for the job.
Man On A Mission
Founder and General Partner, Future Africa
SUCCESSFUL ENTREPRENEURS NEED TO EMPLOY excellent strategies, in-depth market knowledge and an insightful view of customer behavior. However, such qualities will not work without traits such as perseverance, tenacity, passion and resilience. And, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji is one such entrepreneur whose motivation to succeed saw him through myriad challenges.
Aboyeji’s story of perseverance to manoeuver his way to fortune through numerous ups and downs is engaging.
At 29, he has already co-founded some of Africa’s most innovative and disruptive companies and has now firmly set his sights on building the fund for Africa’s future, which he calls Future Africa. The new organization is a people-powered innovation fund that provides capital, coaching and a community to mission-driven innovators turning Africa’s biggest challenges into business opportunities.
This is something he has excelled in over the years. At Andela, a brand many are familiar with, he turned the challenges of unemployment into a global staffing solution for tech entrepreneurs and in the process, created a success story that raised over $180 million in the company’s series D funding round.
The genesis of the company dates back to when Aboyeji was at the prestigious University of Waterloo in Canada, where he was first introduced to the exciting world of Silicon Valley by his classmate Pierre. The university had something called the cooperative education system, which combined a semester at school with two semesters of work esperience and a final semester at school.
“The expectation is that with a five-year program, you get work experience. I went for that program with Pierre who was sent off to Silicon Valley and I was sent off to the United Nations. We ran into each other one day and Pierre started telling me about his experiences in Silicon Valley and quite literally, that is what got me hooked on tech,” recalls Aboyeji.
After watching the movie, The Social Network, the two young entrepreneurs were ready to embark on their own tech journey. Aboyeji provided the seed funding of $5,000 and Pierre brought in his software chops and together, they launched Bookneto, an online learning platform, which was supposed to disrupt the university’s million-dollar legacy system, Blackbaud.
“Obviously, it was crazy. Now, I understand that and for some weird reason, I thought we had a real shot,” says Aboyeji. The company was not as successful as they hoped and Aboyeji ended up selling the company and moved on to his next venture.
Many emails and a trip to New York later, Aboyeji struck up a conversation in a coffee shop with Jeremy Johnson, who had just finished an initial public offering (IPO) for his company and was deliberating on how he could make executive education affordable for professionals in Kenya.
“We started talking about how he needed a salesforce engineer and he couldn’t find that even at $105,000 a year and I picked up on that. I said ‘this is something we can definitely find for you here in Nigeria and I am sure a lot of Nigerians would love to learn if they think they can get $105,000 or even half of that’,” says Aboyeji.
They piloted their new model and the rest is history.
After two years with Andela, Aboyeji decided to move on to do a graduate program in business. But he had stumbled on a problem which was tinkering at the back of his mind.
“One thing that kept me awake during Andela was how difficult it was for us to get paid in Nigeria. With Andela’s model, we had to get paid in the US because that was the easiest way. So, US companies paid us in the US and we got the money in Nigeria whenever we needed it. I always thought about that as something that wouldn’t work if we wanted to pay people at scale.”
The problem was simple. A lot of sellers and merchants in Africa do not use digital payments due to the multiple payment systems for many platforms. Aboyeji met two entrepreneurs who were working to solve this issue and invested in the company. Flutterwave was born.
When Uber took an interest in using the platform to integrate all its payments in Africa, Aboyeji knew they were on to something. He joined the company as the CEO in 2016 and by 2017, they raised venture funding and became fully established. Flutterwave has raised about $35 million in a series B round led by experienced players in the global payments arena such as Y Combinator, Greycroft, Green Visor Capital and Mastercard amongst others.
Today, the company has become one of the fastest-growing payments technology businesses processing over $2 billion across over 50 million transactions with annual revenues of millions of dollars a year. Aboyeji has since stepped down as CEO of the company but still remains a shareholder in both Flutterwave and Andela. His latest passion, Future Africa, was launched just before the global pandemic hit. The vision of the platform is to unlock Africa’s potential.
“There are a lot of challenges in Africa and with that, a lot of opportunities to also create value and economic empowerment.”
Aboyeji is using the opportunity for leveraging technology as a way to remove barriers to success for African startups to reach the same scale as western companies and drive success.
“The goal was to play the traditional venture capital game and have our investment manager and go out there and raise a fund to invest in startups. That plan has significantly changed since the Covid pandemic. We have now put our energy on finding new innovative ways to address the issue of funding in Africa,” says Aboyeji.
The platform allows investors to co-invest with Future Africa on a deal-by-deal basis through investment syndicates. In exchange for capital, an annual subscription fee and a reasonable carry for the Future Africa team, investors receive an opportunity to invest in ground-breaking innovators solving some of Africa’s biggest problems.
After founding some of the continent’s biggest tech success stories, Aboyeji is now on a mission to find the next Andelas and Flutterwaves and put his own money where his mouth is with the goal of transforming the many challenges on the African continent into opportunities using technology as a catalyst.
On Nigeria’s 60th anniversary, he says: “Sixty years in, my generation is asking fundamental questions about Nigeria. Why do we exist? Why do we need to exist? For me, the way I reconcile this is very simple. Nigeria could be the greatest black nation on earth if it could be focused on leveraging technology and innovation to ensure everyone access to opportunity regardless of who they are or where they are from. I still believe Nigeria has a real shot at building a black African superpower if we do this innovation this well.”
The Right Moves
OBI OZOR HAS ALWAYS BEEN A decisive individual. By the age of 11, he knew he wanted to become a priest. He joined a seminary school in Enugu in south-east Nigeria to make this dream a reality until being diagnosed with a kidney disease that meant that he had to drop out. But this was not before he made his mark among his peers. He quickly earned the nickname, ‘the king of the Igbos’, because of his enterprising nature, when he started his payphone business in school by the age of 14.
He acquired a Nokia 3310, which he stored with the school’s cook, and allowed students to use, at a price, to call their parents. Before he knew it, he was making so much money that he was paying for everything for his friends during the holidays. A passion for the real art of business was slowly developing.
But his true calling came during a detour through pre-med school at the University of Michigan in the US, where his professor encouraged him to try his hand at business. By then, Ozor had already developed an acumen for it. He began with a small logistics enterprise using savings from working part-time at a supermarket. The business began to bring in about $7,000 net each month.
He was making enough money to support his family back home so at the tender age of 19, he made another life-changing decision to tie the knot with his college sweetheart.
Along with his unflinching focus and grit was a remarkable hunger to be the best and win at everything he did. Case in point was his wish to become the first black Pope when at seminary school.
“I always want to win. I was calculating how long I had to serve to become the head in Nigeria and then the route I needed to take to get the top job and become a Pope.”
And when he started his tech business, Kobo360, a logistics business using technology to organize the highly-fragmented trucking business in Nigeria, it was not enough to just build a successful business, Ozor’s goal was to become an African unicorn.
And the company is on track to do exactly that. Kobo360 has raised about $37 million in its series A round and is on track to do about a $360-million run rate.
“My mum is a very determined woman and she never gives excuses and is very confident, so that is where I got my winning streak from. I learned how to handle stress and be nonchalant from my dad and that has always helped me. So, I have the killer instinct of my mum to keep pushing and even if I never get to the top, I am also very satisfied with my progress,” says Ozor.
And he has every reason to be. Online, real-time matching of shippers and truckers and the transparency the process offers has the potential to lower costs significantly and boost volumes, helping everyone make more money in a more sustainable way.
And that is what Kobo360 has managed to do. It is focused on not only disrupting the supply chain space, but making it affordable for businesses at the same time.
“I figured out that the problem is not that there can’t be an efficient logistics solution, the problem is also that people are price-sensitive in Africa so how do you innovate to bring an efficient supply chain solution at an affordable rate?”
His case study was at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where Ozor completed his undergraduate program. At the time, Ozor had left the University of Michigan and sold his trucking business and along with his friends, raised about $35,000 to start a diaper-trading business.
“From my experience, when we were shipping baby diapers to Africa, to Lagos, it took forever to get there. It will take about eight days to get from Lagos to Kano, then about four days to get from Lagos to Onitsha and then you pay a ton of money that is almost the same price as shipping. So, I was wondering ‘can’t this thing be reduced’?”
Before he would tackle that problem however, he joined JP Morgan, where at the time, the goal was to become a hedge fund manager.
“I think hedge fund managers are the smartest and most complex finance people in the world so I thought I wanted to be one of them. When I went to JP Morgan, the plan was to do banking for two or four years and work for a hedge fund and after that, launch my own fund for emerging markets,” says Ozor.
But his plans changed when he realized he was simply adding shareholder value and not contributing to the growth of the African continent. According to Ozor, most Africans do not invest much in the stock markets and secondly, he wanted to succeed on his own merit and not just because he was an African in a US institution.
“People always called me a Nigerian and so I was doing everything I could do to become different. I didn’t want to be known as a Nigerian, African or a black person because I believed I could compete and earn my place. But every time they wanted to use me as the Nigerian case study. So, I said to myself, I might as well go to Nigeria and be a Nigerian and make that difference. And that is why I started Kobo360,” says Ozor.
Uber, at the time, was the coolest tech company and along with working for the company, Ozor was also intrigued about its business model and began to ponder how its strategy could be applied to trucking. A conversation with a colleague who was at the time the COO of the BUA Group gave him his Eureka moment.
“She mentioned that anybody that solves logistics in this country will actually be the wealthiest person sustainably for the longest period of time because everybody is your customer.”
Global logistics companies like DHL can certainly cater to the needs of this market but the question remains, can businesses in Africa afford it?
He decided that Kobo360 would always need to signify affordability. The company decided to gear its efforts towards efficiencies that bring cost reductions. After six months of bootstrapping, Ozor joined Y Combinator, the prestigious American seed money startup accelerator, where they initially raised $1.3 million before raising a series A led by Goldman Sachs, IFC and TLcom Capital partners. That injection in capital brought in efficiencies that helped Kobo360 to scale up quickly.
“Our solution is like Uber for trucking. We don’t own assets and we just aggregate all the existing assets and we aggregate all the demands by integrating with all the companies you know like the Unilevers.”
Kobo360 has enterprise resource planning (ERP) integration with companies enabling their orders to come on the platform. Then, through its integration with truck owners, they are able to match the right trip to the right driver based on different parameters in their algorithm. The driver accepts the trip and has the power to also bid. Once trips are accepted, the drivers will secure the goods, load the trucks and deliver it to the destination with visibility throughout the entire journey. The customer then pays the driver after 30 days.
“We also have a payments solution or fintech lending platform called Kopay that the banks are all integrated with and the banks are bridging the working capital gap for truck owners across seven countries today. We also have insurance that brings insurance faster and also per trip instead of per annum, which saves drivers 66% costs,” says Ozor.
Kobo360 has about 260 enterprises on its platform and 17,000 trucks. It averages about 15,000 loads per month making them one of the largest supply chain providers in Africa today, according to Ozor.
In 2019, the company estimates they saved about 7.1% on logistics cost for customers and this year, are on track to get a 15% savings for customers.
“The drivers are also making 27% more on their logistics business through optimized and increase utilization. I hope by 2022, we will be able to increase driver and truck owner earnings by 40% and we will be able to save customers on average 20% of their logistics.”
The global Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way many organizations do business. For Ozor, this has been serendipitous.
“Covid has been pushing digital and making it mainstream and we are riding on it aggressively. This has allowed us to go through pure e-invoicing, which would have taken longer. We also have a lot of adoption from the truck owners’ side. Before, they didn’t think that their business needed to run digitally in order to succeed but they are beginning to see the impact. For me, we are going to see a 15% to 20% optimization just because of Covid, because we are now able to move everything digitally,” says Ozor.
The biggest challenge for the company is infrastructure. A 1,000km journey normally takes about six days minimum in Africa in contrast to 48 hours in other parts of the world and this means higher costs to consumers. If infrastructure is improved, it can improve the speed of delivery and cost-savings.
But at the moment, this is a waiting game for the startup.
Ozor is still determined to turn Kobo 360 into an African unicorn in the next couple of years and as the company gets ready for its series B round, that grit and killer instinct that helped him build his logistics disruptor, is still as alive as ever.
NIGERIA’S LEADING TECH INNOVATORS
Co-Founder and CEO, Flutterwave
Founder, Main Street Technologies
Co-founder and CEO, Paystack
Photos by Getty Images, Flickr and Flutterwave