You don’t get on the Forbes Africa list of thirty young people under the age of thirty unless you’re doing something extraordinary. Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, the stockily built serial startup founder, has found himself a spot on it, but he’ll probably wave off the idea that he’s performing wonders. As far as he’s concerned, what most of the world sees as his exceptional business success is, in fact, the result of his chasing a more prosperous future for Africa, a future enabled by technology.
But as much as he tries to steer clear of chest thumping, Aboyeji’s feats, which he insists have been achieved in collaboration with others, are outstanding, especially for a man his age. At 26, he’s already founded several startups, two of which have gone on to gain the attention of many, from international media firms to Silicon Valley investors- including a certain Mark Zuckerberg.
The early days of an early bird
It’s not exactly clear that attending a Jesuit College sets you up for great things, although Iyinoluwa may have gained from his student days at the Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja. He does share the Jesuit scholar’s tendency to think abstract thoughts- an ability that has birthed some of the startups he’s been involved with.
One thing that’s certain is that his entrepreneurial instincts were alive even in his early days; he started Bookneto.com, an online learning platform, as a 19-year-old undergraduate in Canada. Bookneto was acquired in 2013 by the Canadian Innovation Center, a non-profit entrepreneurship support organization. Iyinoluwa wrapped up his studies in Canada, and returned to Nigeria, determined to bring the e-learning revolution to his home country.
With the help of some old friends, Iyinoluwa founded Fora, an online platform, which he hoped would help African universities create online courses for professionals. However, the project was hindered by local regulatory issues.
“In early 2014, it became clear that Fora wasn’t working as we had hoped,” Aboyeji said in a blog post. “We were unable to raise the capital we needed and I did not have the political networks to break through various regulatory barriers we faced.”
Thankfully, he got a lifeline from an investor, and decided to seek the advice of Jeremy Johnson, a partner on the Fora project, on the next steps they could take (Jeremy had himself cofounded a successful education technology startup in the USA). The two men brainstormed over possible ideas, and finally arrived at one, mooted by Jeremy: a training hub for software developers. Aboyeji got back to his team at Fora; they decided to wind Fora down to pursue the new idea. That new idea was Andela.
At Andela: grooming Africa’s next generation of tech leaders
The Andela team set out on “a big, somewhat impossible mission,” as Aboyeji admitted in an interview with the business journal, How We Made It In Africa. Finding and training the best tech-savvy talent on the continent into world-class software developers was going to be a huge task. Funding was needed too, but it wasn’t certain that investors would see the opportunities it presented them. Fortunately, they got help from some people who had originally backed Fora.
And there was even more help to come.
As news of Andela’s novel approach to technology training spread, the global tech ecosystem began to take notice. The startup grabbed the headlines when Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan invested $24 million in it. Zuckerberg’s bet wasn’t uninformed; in two years, Andela had attained a market capitalization of over $100 million, and it was still showing a lot of promise.
Developers were being trained in Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent and were being connected with companies that needed them. The “impossible mission” was becoming a reality. “Because of its broad social impact, I was very, very pleased to be part of that,” Aboyeji says.
Facing down new challenges: diving into Flutterwave
In 2016, Aboyeji left Andela. Not a few jaws dropped at the news of his departure, and perhaps a few dared to wonder aloud if it was a bad move. Even more interestingly, he was making a clear break with his early interest in education technology. Fintech was calling, and he believed it was time to heed that call.
Aboyeji realized that the burgeoning financial technology space in Nigeria and across Africa was still significantly underdeveloped. Businesses were finding it difficult to conduct financial transactions online, and the existing payment system was fragmented and not very efficient. His extensive contact with the world beyond the continent probably made this lack appear quite stark to him. The future of payments was digital, but Africa’s digital economy wasn’t even close to taking off. This had to be fixed, if Africans were going to be relevant players in the future global economy.
“When you have a situation where a majority of people who live in the world are excluded from the new prosperity of software, that’s not good news for the future of the world,” he said in an interview with CNN.
Flutterwave, Aboyeji’s answer to the continent-wide payments problem, is an interface which allows businesses and banks to make and receive payments. Banks and existing payments service providers are integrated into Flutterwave’s platform, so that businesses and customers can pay for products in their local currency and avoid extra costs. It’s headquartered in San Francisco, USA (allowing it to tap into Silicon Valley’s knowledge base and support) but has offices in Lagos, Nairobi, Accra and Johannesburg.
Thus far, Aboyeji’s latest venture has been a big success. It has gotten over $15 million in funding from international investors (including YCombinator, Social Capital and Omidyar Network). With over 10 million transactions and $1.2 billion worth of payments processed, Flutterwave is growing by leaps and bounds, and reaching for new frontiers in the fintech space.
Solving problems seldom hurts (if ever)
When asked about his approach to entrepreneurship, Aboyeji opines that focusing on market needs is the strategy to go with.
“Neither your (startup) idea nor the execution matters,” he says. “The most important thing is the market. Have you found a market that actually has a problem worth solving?”
Given his penchant for thinking out wildly successful solutions, it’s very likely that Aboyeji will have his hands on something new in the not too distant future.
Feature Image by Bellanaija.com
Ikenna Nwachukwu holds a bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves to look at the world through multiple lenses- economic, political, religious and philosophical- and to write about what he observes in a witty, yet reflective style.