BUILDING AFRICA'S TECH FUTURE -
"I want to help build the future of the continent by solving its biggest problems"
—Iyinoluwa “E” Aboyeji
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Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: You know, I want to help build the future of the continent by solving its biggest problems and turning them into fantastic business opportunities.
David Madden: Silicon valley likes to say that it’s making the world a better place. but that’s mostly bullshit. the problems that most famous tech companies are solving aren’t real problems, but in other countries — developing countries — there are entrepreneurs who are building things that are actually changing people’s lives in very practical ways. That’s what this podcast is about.
I’m David Madden and you’re listening to the Revolution of Necessity.
On this podcast, we share the stories of tech entrepreneurs in developing countries. These are people who are innovating in places where technology could genuinely make the world a better place.
This podcast is supported by Omidyar Network. Omidyar Network is a philanthropic investment firm set up by the guy who created eBay, Pierre Omidyar, and his wife Pam.
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Coming up, a wunderkind from Nigeria. He launched his first startup - an online learning platform while he was still an undergrad in university.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: One day we got a an email from the, from the dean: “Hey guys, you gotta shut down your website. Or we’ll sue you!”
David Madden: Small matter of intellectual property!
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: You know, just a tiny thing.
David Madden: His next company, Andela, is one of Africa's biggest tech success stories.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Get a job. No experience required!
David Madden: Recently, Fast Company named his third venture - Flutterwave - one of the most innovative companies in the world.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: At Flutterwave we say: “Africa is not a country but we make it feel like one”
David Madden: We’ll talk about all this and more coming up, but first, the man himself: his name is Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, but everyone calls him E. E, welcome to the Revolution of Necessity podcast.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Thank you, Dave. Thank you.
David Madden: It’s great to have you here, E. I’ve got to ask. You’re only 26, right?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes. As of when this was taped. (laughter)
David Madden: You’re only 26 and you’ve already started three pretty amazing businesses. When you were growing up, which wasn’t that long ago...
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Still growing up.
David Madden:..Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Not really. Um... my parents will tell the story when I was a kid, every three days, I would change what I wanted to be, right? So one day I wanted to be a taxi driver, the next day I wanted to be a policeman. And the one theme across all those things was that they got cash.
So whenever there was a lot of, like, somebody was collecting cash, right there, short term, It didn’t matter how low the job was, that was the job I wanted to do. But, um, I guess as I grew up, um... I, I kind of had several crisis of identity moments where it became less about what I wanted to be, but more about what I wanted to do. It’s now a lot less about like Who Are You? You know, are you an entrepreneur?- No, you know, I just want to solve, you know, I want to help build the future of the continent by solving its biggest problems and turning them into fantastic business opportunities. So that’s kind of where I’m at now.
David Madden: So you were born and raised right here in Nigeria.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes. In Yaba.
David Madden: Right, in Yaba.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes.
David Madden: The Yabacon Valley.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes.
David Madden: Before it was the Yabacon Valley.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Before it was the Yabacon Valley, yes.
David Madden: Um, but you ended up going to university in Waterloo, in Canada.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes, I went to Waterloo.
David Madden: Yeah, tell us how did this happen.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: When it, it was time, um, and my brother had found a school to go to, a prep school to go to, they told my parents “hey, you know for the price of one kid, you could send like — and maybe a little more — you could send two” And my Nigerian parents never let up a deal ever. They think you’re cheating them, when they do. So my dad was like, he just did the math in his head and he was like: hey E, Sam — he just calls me Sam — so he’s like “Sam, junior, you go with your brother, um to, to Canada” and that was literally my luck. And when I got to Canada, I was so terrified by the prospect that they would bring me back that I worked so hard to do all my courses. I did 10 courses in one semester.
David Madden: Wow.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: And then my guidance counselor, um, was a Waterloo grad, I’d never heard about the school.
David Madden: OK.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: And he was like “they pay you to go to school”. And, like, you know, my, my instincts from what I told you earlier is that where there’s money, I’m like, I really want to be there. So I went and read up a lot about it and I saw that you could actually be earning money while going to school, and so I, that was the only Canadian school I applied to.
David Madden: So maybe not everyone knows this, but in the tech world, the University of Waterloo is famous.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: It is.
David Madden: It’s sometimes referred to as the MIT of Canada. And some cool companies have come out of it, perhaps most famously the makers of Blackberry, uh, and it’s a hotbed of entrepreneurialism.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yep.
David Madden: Now, you weren’t studying computer science.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: No, I wasn’t.
David Madden: But being in that environment, how did that influence your career choice?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: It changed my life. I had an experience at Waterloo that really changed my life and it really came out of the fact of what it was — the kind of place it was. First day of school, I get to orientation and my friend, my roommate, um, his name is Pierre and the way, the way we met was very interesting. Some scrawny kid, white kid, just taps my back and he’s like “hey, how you doing?” And I’m like I’m good, I’m a freshman. He’s like “yeah, I’m a freshman, too! I need a place to stay tonight. Because my residence is not ready. Can I stay at yours?” And I’m like, yeah, I just met you 20 seconds ago, but why not? You’re probably not a serial killer and if you are, well, I guess it’s fun. So he stays at my place and we became really good friends.
David Madden: As part of his study program, E’s friend Pierre spends some time in Silicon Valley. When he returns, he gets E all excited about startups.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: We started to talk about his experience at Silicon Valley, then it was the first time that I really thought about tech as something more than just something I could use on Twitter or Facebook. Something that human beings could actually make. Right? Like, like, people like me and Pierre, not just like Mark Zuckerberg, God. You know? So that really changed my perspective and at about the same time the university was establishing something known as the Velocity Program. And so it was this entrepreneurial residence that you could go to and run a business from.
So I think Waterloo really um, in terms of the environment that it was, it was this really small tech ecosystem, um, that really grew from engaging its students and giving them an avenue for them to, um, engage in tech entrepreneurship. And a lot of the folks that were in my cohort, and even after, are really really successful entrepreneurs, um, today.
David Madden: Well, it had such a big impact on you…
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: It did.
David Madden: ... that you started your first company while you were still studying. Tell us about… tell us about it.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yeah, so yeah, so In 2010, me and Pierre met up, we’re talking, um, we’re thinking about what we could do together. You know, there was this idea, um, that he had for an online learning thing. I, I mean, it was pretty obvious at the time because this is like kind of the beginning of the wave of ed tech companies, right?
So what we did was we saw there was a huge need for pass questions, because Waterloo had a unique thing at the time, the professors didn’t think it was worth their while to, to actually rewrite the, the pass questions, like, they would just take the old versions.
David Madden: Yeah, for the exams, you mean.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes, they would just take the old versions and just do them again. So whoever had the most pass question papers answered, won. So what we did was we would buy those pass question papers, photostat them and upload them to our platform. And then we would, we had this technology we had, we had built that allowed you to stream them because we wanted people to pay for access to them, but not to download them. So they would pay a subscription for access to them and they could take snippets. And then we would have a team of people answering the questions. And that actually worked, I mean, that went really wild.
David Madden: The startup is going well, but e wants to bring ed tech back home to Nigeria. so after they graduate, Pierre and E sell the business and E gets to work on his second startup.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: I, I had this long-running obsession with my own country, naturally, right? And, and so I always saw the world through the lens of what was going on back home. And it was clear that while I had done this successful business in Canada, there was even greater need for what, for the stuff I was doing in Nigeria. Um, and so, I would talk a lot about it to a lot of people who were back home, um, but then it just seemed like empty talk. I was just looking for an excuse to come back. So my excuse was I couldn’t find a job but I don’t think I looked as hard, to be honest. So, so yeah, just, I basically stayed a year to raise capital, and then flew back to Nigeria.
David Madden: So before you got on the plane back to Lagos, you had already come up with the idea for your…
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Of course. Yeah
David Madden: Your next business, right?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Absolutely. I had to, and my parents would never let me come back without something that looked like a plan. I mean, I had to have something to tell them: “Hey, I’m coming back to do this”.
David Madden: And you’d also already raised some money for it, as well.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yeah, yeah, I raised not a lot of capital, but I had about $30,000.
David Madden: And tell us, what was the original vision for Fora, your new company?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: So the original vision was there’s an education problem in Africa. We need to fix it. So the way we will fix it is we’re gonna take all these… we’re gonna take the MOOCS...
David Madden: These massive online courses...
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yeah, online courses, right. And we’re going to distribute it, everybody would be educated and the world would be a fantastic place. Now a few weeks into our research, we discovered “OK, who’s going to pay for this thing that you guys are trying to do?” And then we came up with this “genius idea,” quote-unquote, of going to the universities and selling the MOOCS through the universities. Which could have worked.
However, you know, the universities were like, yeah, I get that and I get you want to share revenue with me, but like what do my teachers actually then do? And so basically, we just pivoted again to selling already-delivered online degree programs, um, and helping students finance them.
David Madden: But the business is not the massive success E hoped for.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: The thing basically is Nigeria basically normalizes you, right? Like, you get a very strong survival instinct when you do business in Nigeria. And so what that does it it keeps kind of like suffocating your dream. You get very realistic about the world, you know what I mean?
And so what, what happened at that point was I had become, the vision became so small, that we unconsciously were serving such a small market and we didn’t even realize it. But at some point we started to hit the barrier of scale because these courses were really expensive and people weren’t necessarily earning enough.
I started to think: what else could we do? But then my thought process was also “yeah, but you could do all these more amazing things, but like that would break things”, you know? “Right now, you’re kind of making some money, it’s OK, it’s not fantastic, you know, but you’re living, you’re alive. The startup is not dead”.
David Madden: Hungry for ideas he reaches out to people he thinks could help.
One of these people is an american, Jeremy Johnson, another wunderkind who has already built two successful ed tech companies.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: This was somebody who was a little bit further along on the path that I was going and so I sought him out. Aggressively.
David madden: E feels that jeremy could really help….. if only he could get a meeting.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: I kept emailing him and he wouldn’t respond.
David Madden: And then finally, E gets an email back, saying:
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: "Oh yeah, I can see you tomorrow."
David Madden: There’s just one small problem. Jeremy is in New York and E happens to be back visiting Waterloo in Canada.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: And what I did, he still probably doesn’t even know until today, was I was like “yeah sure, I can meet you tomorrow at 2 p.m” And I, I basically went, borrowed money from my friend Arjun and went to Toronto that night, took the overnight bus to New York, and I was there with a Starbucks for him at 2 pm.
David Madden: Amazing. Amazing, and so, for people who don’t know, just tell us how long is that bus ride from Waterloo in Canada to...
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Oh, man! It was forever. So Waterloo to Toronto is three hours.
David Madden: Yep.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: And then from Toronto to New York City is 16 hours.
David Madden: Wow. So you’ve just done this epic overnight bus trip, rolled into New York City.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yep, just rolled into New York City. It was scrappy. I think in those days everything was a make or break moment. And you didn’t know what... what, what would be the determining event. You pull all the stops to make that thing happen.
David Madden: So 2pm, New York City. Tell us about that meeting.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: We just started talking so I was telling him “Hey, this, this is what happened since the last time we saw” Right? Like, I’ve gone through this crazy experience, things are going kind of sideways. And then we started talking about, about, he started telling me about he went to Kenya trying to figure out, um, kind of a more scalable way to educate lots of people.
But then they quickly realized that the kids, the, the the cost of the education, of a quality education, folks would never be able to pay for. Which was the problem I had. So we started talking about what that idea could look like and, and stuff and, and so, I was, I picked out some nuggets from it and also it tallied with a few experiences that I had on this journey, and one of those experiences was: um one day, I was coming back from the office and I saw a lot of people at the national stadium. I asked a, a friend like “what’s going on here? Like, is there either an event, a match, I mean, whatever, what’s going on?” And he was like “No, they’re here to write the immigration exam”. So we weave through the traffic and I didn’t think much of it but then later in the evening, on the news, they, they’ve shown that apparently at the immigration exam, there were over 60,000 people at the exam and there was a stampede and so some people died.
David Madden: This is the exam to immigrate to...
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: No, to, to, to become an immigration officer.
David Madden: Oh to become an immigration officer! OK. To become a civil servant.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: A civil servant, yeah. So many young people wanted that job and I was like “that’s crazy that 60,000 people could show up for an exam”. Like, imagine if you could even just find like 10 geniuses from that. Like how much, how much like money, impact, you know, how much could you change those people’s lives and how much could they even produce!
David Madden: At this meeting in New York Jeremy mentions how he’s having a tough time finding qualified engineers for his business. Even though salaries are pretty decent from 150 to $200,000, and it made E think back to that massive crowd of people in lagos trying to become civil servants.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: And I was like “dude, we could train some Salesforce engineers if that’s how much you’re…” it was funny, a joke, but basically that was kind of what kind of flowed the conversation. So the conversation we basically had was “hey, if I go and start this company, will you back me?” And he was like “Sure! Let’s do it!”
David Madden: Inspired, E returns to Lagos and pivots. He starts running coding 101 classes and then getting students gigs on global freelancing platforms. It’s the start of a new business: Andela.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: It’s a simple model, so what happens is, you basically find the most talented, you have a very extensively data driven recruiting process where anybody can apply but you basically filter out a subset less than 1 % of the entire pool of applicants
David Madden: So you took that national stadium...
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes! and then, and then found the 10 people, right? And then take these 10 people, invest $15,000 into them, paying them, housing them, making sure they are immersed, making sure they are learning in a structured learning program. That basically transforms them from raw talent to superstar, right? And then place them with Google, Facebook. And because they are so smart the process works, right?
David Madden: Yeah.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Because they can learn anything. Realistically these, these guys can learn anything. They’re way smarter than anybody I’ve ever seen. And they would get into Stanford if they would be more meritocratic.
David Madden: A few months later, Jeremy visits lagos, fresh from his own company’s successful IPO. He loves what he sees and E has an important idea.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: I’ve just gone through this really harrowing experience of trying to build a company. Am I ready to lead another one? You know? Would I not just rather be the one worrying about how much money is in the bank and whose salary and just focus for a few years on just, like, executing, knowing fully well that, you know? And it was very obvious that he had, because he had the track record, he could raise capital.
David Madden: E joins forces with Jeremy and some others who are passionate about this new startup.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: We basically partner up, he becomes CEO of the combined entity which was Fora basically morphing into Andela, um, and then um, and then we just, I was here in Lagos running operations and recruitment, um, while, you know, they were over there in the U.S., um, getting the jobs.
David Madden: Often you see founders will hold an idea close to their chest or they, they are reluctant to add new co-founders. What was it about your experiences, E, that made you so open?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Well I think it was the nature of the ecosystem I grew up in. When I was at Waterloo, I was very famous for like hosting founders. So a lot of like people came to my house, stayed at my house and we shared our ideas and worked together. But one thing I always admired about those founders is they always asked for help.
It is actually harder for, um, people who grew up in this environment because, as you know like, we live in a very low-trust country and people are often taken advantage of. Basically you, you, you shy away from asking for help, you, you always, you kind of put up a facade all the time. But my experience is, what other successful founders taught me, that if you don’t ask for help, nothing, nothing happens, right?
David Madden: Was there any difficulty dividing up the roles in those early days of Andela? Or was it...
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Well, everything was, we were able to figure out because the mission was very clear, right? So I mean, like Jeremy was best able to be CEO because he could raise money, he had seen scale before and he had a lot of very deep insights about the educational process and how it needed to be designed to deliver the outcome of what Andela is. Especially on the marketing and branding side, he was just excellent about crafting the narrative and I learned so much from him about those things, right?
I, I had all the local network and contacts, so I was, you know, it made sense that I would be on the ground and that I would also help with recruiting because I had the profile to do that. Lots of young people had seen me in the entrepreneurship space, I had a little bit of a following, so people were paying attention to what I was saying and so that made that easy, right?
David Madden: So you said you were all really aligned on the mission.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes.
David Madden: What was the mission in those founding days?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: We have a deck that I still have on my computer and what it says was “How would you create one million jobs in the developing world?” That was basically it.
David Madden: And what was the Andela answer at the time?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: The Andela answer at the time was “What one million jobs?” [laughter]
What one million jobs can you do from Africa? because it wouldn’t make sense for you to ship one million people around the world if you create one million jobs. But what one million jobs would you, would you be able to do? And, and when we thought about it, tech, because tech didn’t require you to be physically present. It was, was, it was where the one million jobs were because there is just so much demand in San Francisco and New York and all these other capitals for talent. Right? And, and so if you match the huge demand, um, the huge supply of young talent coming from Africa, in particular -Africa is going to be more than half of the world’s working population in 18 years, so not a very long time, right?- And then all these tech jobs that are, that are under incredible strain and systems, like Amazon is hiring every day and because of that, they’re pricing out of this world. If you match the two, you would answer the question, right?
David Madden: But what was your idea or your insight about how you would get that kind of scale, like how you would, how would you rapidly train all these...?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yeah, so, it evolved over time. I think the first thing was, um, you build for the customer, who was the, the U.S. company looking for talent, and what, and what they would want is, they want Stanford-level talent for India-level prices. Right? Um, and, and the beautiful...
David Madden: Was India an important reference point?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yeah, it was. Everybody compared us to India and wondered why we would do it in Nigeria if India was already doing it.
David Madden: Right, and what was your answer?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Our answer was very simple. The best Indians are CEO of Google. They already left for Silicon Valley. You’re not going to get them. Right? In Africa, the best Africans are probably working some dead-end job somewhere. Right? But they’re definitely not CEO of Google yet.
David Madden: So you saw a big arbitrage opportunity.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Huge. Huge arbitrage opportunity where we could answer that question for, for businesses: how do I get Stanford-level talent at India prices?
David Madden: Why did Andela work, but not Fora?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: But not Fora. Hmm. I think there were a few things. The first was Andela started because of the experience of the founders, um, especially Jeremy. We avoided some pitfalls. For example, what I would have done if I wasn’t working with Jeremy was to try and go and get a university license. Which would have delayed us four, five, 10 years. And I saw friends go down that path.
David Madden: Yeah.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: But what Jeremy did was design the program around not getting the university license and doing things that today seems, seem obvious, but at the time seemed very stupid.
David Madden: Can you give us an example E?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Paying people to train. Like, and, he went the path of paying because paying did three things for us. Number one: it actually eliminated the key worry for a lot of these people, which was “How do I survive while I do this? How does my family survive while I do this?” Right?
David Madden: Yeah.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: And then the paying also did a second thing: it made us a company rather than an educational institution, so that got the government off our backs. And then paying also did the third thing: was that we had more applicants. Because it was so obvious what we were doing. I mean, the first pitch we did was “Get a job, no experience required.” And that was a pitch that sold because a lot of people and then so that’s why were able to attract such large numbers.
So I think it’s really that non-traditional approach but it only comes from the experience of having built companies before and that’s one of the things that, that um, gets, gets at me in the ecosystem: you’re not getting a lot of large outcomes because people — a lot of people — don’t have the experience building businesses here or building businesses anywhere, right? Jeremy had taken a company from nothing to IPO and so he had that level of experience, and, and he could transfer on the lessons from that to us, who had spent all this time running around in Lagos and building networks and knowing people so we could implement.
David Madden: So how did Andela grow so fast? Because it grew, it scaled super quickly, right?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yeah, it was about the team, right? Like, the team just had the experience to do it. We knew what to do, we knew how to translate a solution to a problem we faced into a process that could scale, right? and those are things you can’t teach in business school, right? They are things that you learn practically, on the job.And then the other thing was capital. Obviously. Capital made the difference. Um...
David Madden: So Andela raised a ton of money.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: They could raise a ton of money. And that really boiled down to the genius of Jeremy in being able to craft a story that was inspiring for the investor, um, and also delivering against that story. Right?
David Madden: So, E, how did it feel to be part of something that was just growing so fast? This, this baby of yours and it was a rocketship.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes, it was madness. We were moving every month. It was crazy. Um, you just never feel it in the moment because, you know, in the moment, you’re just worried about the next thing that will break -and it will break, something will break- and you’ve got to fix it. So I mean, early 2015, you know, we had seen this early success around Andela but we were scaling so quickly that we were running out of space pretty much every month, and so my job was real estate.
David Madden: Andela is booming. Its first coding class in 2014 had just 4 engineers, but by the end of 2015, there’s more than 100. In a few more years there’ll be more than 700. And Andela has a stack of contracts to provide remote development work from big us companies. Money is pouring in. Andela’s seed round is over $10m, In 2015 they raise a $14m series a. But E, is getting restless.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: The annoying thing about scale is after a while, the major problems are solved and you start to look inevitable. And that’s where your heart sinks, right? Because, at the end of the day, you started out, everybody underestimated you and they thought you were stupid and you couldn’t do anything, and you got to the point where now everybody’s is kind of like “oh obviously it’s going to be done” and that puts you, first of all, it puts you under a lot of pressure to stick to what works in the early days. So you often don’t want to go in new directions because your point is look, people are coming to us because they think what we’re doing works. So why would we try something new? Right? And that’s the point where it starts to get boring.
David Madden: He starts thinking about the future and it kinda scares him.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: I remember I had a dream and I broke out in sweat and what happened in the dream was I was at the airport, I was traveling for a vacation and there were a lot of Andela Fellows in the airport with me, and I was like “hey guys, what’s up? I mean, what are you guys doing?” And everybody’s just like “yeah, I’m moving” “I’m moving to Paris”, “I’m moving to Germany”, “I’m moving to California, I have a job there”. And, you know, I woke up broke into sweat because it was just gonna be like man, like, we’re gonna basically build the largest migration of tech talent from Africa. Which, to be honest...
David Madden: You had a nightmare about brain drain.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes. Huge. And so I thought look, somebody has to build, somebody has to figure out how we’re going to make this business successful.
David Madden: The local ecosystem was missing important things that would keep these world class software engineers in Africa. If E wanted a local Silicon Valley, he would have to start building that critical infrastructure himself.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: I took some months off to go for National Service and just seeing how much the, the entire country needed, um, tech to infuse their lives, like daily people need to be able to use tech and today they don’t because, um, there’s no, the exchange of value process for every business is still fairly cash-based and manual because payments doesn’t flow in in that process, in that business process. So you can, you can talk about tech all you want in VI and Yaba, but at the end of the day, when the average northerner wants to pay for milk, he’s not using M-Pesa...
David Madden: By the way, M-Pesa was a way to transfer money on your mobile phone.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: .. Right? He’s paying cold hard cash. And so I, I toured the north and saw that and it gave me a different perspective of what it means for tech to really influence a population.
David Madden: E realized that for Africa to really take advantage of technology, the continent needed critical infrastructure. Like digital payments.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: It was basically access to market. Talent. What’s talent going to do? And at the end of the day, the, the loop is not complete if the talent doesn’t get access to market with tech products that are fantastic and then build big businesses.
David Madden: Andela are still booming. In the middle of 2016 it announces a $24m investment round led by Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan-Zuckerberg initiative. But E knows what he has to do. 8 weeks after “The Zuck Round”, E tells the world that he’s launching a new company: Flutterwave. The mission: solve digital payments in Africa.
So you make this leap and you make it into an area that you...
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yeah, I don’t know much. I don’t have any experience.
David Madden: …You don’t have much experience in right now, which is the whole payments service, right?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yeah!
David Madden: And, and, you’ve gone away and you’ve researched it carefully and you’ve spoken to all your friends in the banks and someone at a regulator, um, how did you go about getting Flutterwave actually working?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yeah, so I mean, it really boiled down to, again, the lessons I learned in Andela, and the first thing is: who is the customer? Right? That’s what we figured out with Andela that made it successful. So I started there, right? And, what would happen was I had a few friends, um, at Access Bank -they were one of our clients at Andela.-
David Madden: Access Bank is one of the big banks in Nigeria?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes, yes, and we worked very closely with them and we were getting a special view into all the challenges from a bank’s perspective of, of making payments more seamless and secure for their customers. And so we, the first deal that we started to work through, um -At the time, I think Uber was looking, was trying to work with a bank, a local bank to do their acquiring- and basically that was kind of a moment for the bank cause for the first time, you had this global, big, fast-growing tech company really looking for a specialized service that not many banks locally had the expertise to do. Quite frankly, no, no bank.
David Madden: So Africa has these incredibly fragmented payment systems, right?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes.
David Madden: And Flutterwave was basically trying to simplify all of that.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Exactly.
David Madden: You want to have this thing that makes it super easy for anyone to accept payments or to make payments. That must have been hard to build.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Oh, it’s incredibly difficult to build. It’s why we’re on planes every day, right? Cause it’s a, it’s a different kind of business from “oh, I’m going to build something in my bedroom and deploy” It’s more of “I’m going to sit down with the CEO of a billion dollar bank in Africa and ask for certain things that, you know, they’ve never been asked for before” and be able to explain to them what the value is in terms they can understand.
David Madden: Why was it so important to you for this to be a pan-Africa solution? Like, cause that, this is a huge thing to, to bite off, right?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Absolutely, absolutely. So I think really, um, two things, um, first, from the customer’s perspective, if I’m Uber, I really don’t want to deal with 52 payment companies. I would like you to just come correct with one. No matter how, and no matter how big you are in Nigeria, it will always be a sticking point for me that I can use you across the continent, right? And I think we take a lot of pride as a development community in saying “oh, oh where are you going to in Africa? Africa is not a country” And I’m like “you know, it would be a lot more viable as a country”
And so at Flutterwave we say, um, “Africa is not a country, but we make it feel like one.” Because at the end of the day, that’s really what it boils down to. It’s a scale play. So if you’re a big corporation and you want to come to Africa, it’s important that you can deal with all of us.
David Madden: As the CEO of Flutterwave, how have you gone about, sort of, attacking the continent?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: So, like I said, the banks are our partners and we do these regional plays.
David Madden: But you’re doing multiple countries, you’ve really, you’ve really gone for the rapid scaling model.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yeah, I mean, this is how we were taught to do it at Andela. Andela’s also scaled rapidly the same way, right?
David Madden: Yeah.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: What it really boiled down to is the big partners are the banks, and so when we deal with a banking partner, we like to deal with them as a group. So we don’t just go and say “hey, give us Nigeria” we like, “we want the whole group, we will connect your group, and then, we will then use the banks as anchors to scale into it”
Then from a product perspective, we build in regions. So because it’s amazing the amount of trade that happens between regions, that goes to New York and then comes back. So that’s actually one of the core demographics we attack. It’s ridiculous, but for example in Kenya, if you wanted to send a wire as a Kenyan company to a Ugandan company, right?
David Madden: It’s gotta get through New York.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: it has to go through New York, which is ridiculous, because I could just take the cash and drive across the damn border myself. Right? Which is what a lot of other small business people do, because I don’t see the point of like incurring costs of $35 per transaction plus percentage, to go to New York and back when I could just literally, overnight, drive across the border with the money.
So what we’re trying to do really is, is, is we connect the region so that their trade blocs are stronger; and then we connect that region to other regions so that those regional trade blocs are stronger. And then we connect those regional trade blocs and the continent to the whole world, so that Africa can participate as an equal in global trade, which is the entire mission of the, of the business.
David Madden: One of the things you did in the very early days of Flutterwave is you, um, you did YCombinator, the most famous tech accelerator in the world.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yes, yes absolutely.
David Madden: E, what role has YCombinator played in the speed of your growth?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: So I think YCombinator was very helpful to us, um, in helping us to attract the capital. Um, you know, we have a proverb in Africa, we say: if a tree falls in the middle of the forest, right? and no one hears it, right? what happens, right? And I think for us, we...
David Madden: It doesn’t really fall.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: It doesn’t really fall, yeah, exactly. So, so for us, we were growing very fast, but not a lot of people first of all even thought of Africa as an investment destination for them, or as a viable investment destination for them, um, and we could have told the story ourselves, but it would have been a harder story to tell. We would never have had 300-plus of the best investors in the world in one room listening to that story.
In two-and-a-half minutes, we got a chance to basically show global investors that Africa is a viable investment destination because there are companies that grow at Facebook scale here.
David Madden: Like Andela, Flutterwave is another rocket ship. Although it had launched in 2016, last year, 2017, Flutterwave processed over $2 billion of payments across more than 20 million transactions.
It’s already got over 100 partners including nearly 50 banks and hundreds of developers have integrated on its platform.
You’ve had this advantage of seeing some of the most interesting tech ecosystems in the world. You’ve also been an integral part of this ecosystem and Andela’s made a big contribution to this ecosystem. What does the African tech ecosystem need most right now?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Yeah, I really think the next challenge for the ecosystem is, is being able to tap into the digital transformation wave that’s kind of going on. Um, and collaborating with the established players. Having the humility to collaborate with established players to gain access to market. That’s, that’s the next step.
Payments is now a solved problem, maybe even over-solved, right? There’s so many businesses solving that problem, but now the next thing is how do you achieve scale by working together with an established player? Um, now in tech, in other countries, like Silicon Valley, it’s easy to build on somebody’s platform because these, these businesses are default open. Right? So you know Facebook is default open, Google is default open. Enterprise businesses in this country don’t even have APIs. You know what I mean? Like, so you’re starting from less than ground zero. Um, and, but that’s what’s required to even get there. I think our tech, our tech ecosystem has tried to be an island, rather than actually integrate itself into the fabric of the economy and I think we’ve become too standoffish. You know, government is just not doing anything, blah blah blah. And no one is actually engaging government.
There’s a lot of psychological reawakening we have to do to teach tech ecosystems that they do not exist in a vacuum. And the ecosystem is broader than a few tech bros sitting together at a table and drinking lattes and talking about tech and it’s like actually building stuff for real companies that impacts real people’s lives. So that’s what we need now.
David Madden: E, it’s been a great pleasure chatting with you, but you’ve got to get on a plane man.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: I’ve got to run, I’ve got to really run.
David Madden: You gotta get out of here. Get out of here!
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: I got like half an hour.
David Madden: Thanks for listening to the Revolution of Necessity.
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This episode was produced by Julia Alsop with production assistance from Ellie Lightfoot and editing help from Sarah Barrett. Our engineer is William Smith. Music by Coyote Mustache. Special thanks to Bounce News Studio in Lagos and Clean Cuts Studios in DC. We’ll have another episode for you very soon.
David Madden: If there was an anthem for Flutterwave, or even just for you, your own personal anthem.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: No! it’s actually funny, but the the song I play the most in those moments is a song called “You don’t know” by Jay-Z.
David Madden: Okay.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: And the song really just talks about like he’s basically built the empire that is Roc Nation. I actually went to a concert with Jay-Z last year and he was basically singing the song and he goes: “I told you”. So I think I listen to that song, I actually listen just to the recording of that concert because for me it’s basically, I want to be there in five, ten years, while telling the rest of the world “We told you that this was going to be a huge opportunity for the rest of the world and you know, if, whether you’re singing with us, I told you, or whether, you know, you’re kind of regretful that you missed the next China, you know, we want to be there to figure out and we work everyday to fill that moment”