Today I was traveling by road between Lome and Accra and I was thinking about what I wrote in my last post on "shortcuts" and I saw that even in the middle of the nowhere along the highway there were houses and these houses were built by masons.
Every single house in the world started with a workman digging a hole or making a brick but why are these very valuable and very hardworking men not the richest in the world? I figured that it was because they never see the big picture.
All they do is do what the architect or the foreman tells them to do. They are incapable of organizing themselves into nothing other than unions who bargain for higher wages and not a creative collective force capable of changing their own lives and the lives of others for good.
Are African entrepreneurs like laborers and masons? Each man works for his daily wage and when they come together it is not for any loftier goal than to make more money and is that why you rarely find great masons or great African entrepreneurs??
We are intelligient people and should be able to come up with really more efficient ways or organizing ourselves for maximum productivity and creativity. If we don't do it the foreman will come from China or India then the architect will come from Silicon Valley and we will forever remain labourers.
This is another long post so get your popcorn and soda.
I find it strange that I struggled to find 2000 words to write for an Oxford postgraduate admission essay but can effortlessly write a blog post that is much longer.
“Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to think multidimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience -- to appreciate the fact that life is complex.” ― M. Scott Peck
I have a friend named Bob who really likes to walk and knew all the pedestrian shortcuts in the town where we grew up. There used to be a joke that if you make the mistake of going to visit him at home on weekends without notice, his mum will tell you that he had gone searching for shortcuts.
It seems that habit is not only limited to my friend but also widely prevalent in African entrepreneurship. We always want the quickest and most efficient way to get to our destinations and it is not necessarily a bad thing. It is actually a default human trait that perhaps led to some of the greatest entrepreneurship ventures of our time. In Africa, this quest for shortcuts ideally should lead to great innovation but instead I have noticed that it leads to opportunism. Shortcuts no longer become mechanisms to enhance efficiency when the sole motivation is to “get the money as quickly as possible”. The average young entrepreneur is not interested in building a sustainable venture but only to be prosperous or appear prosperous in the shortest possible time.
Competition has great advantages as it has led to the survival and dominance of our species but greed could also make us extinct. Materialism probably has led to massive capital growth in developed societies but they have relatively level playing fields and almost everyone can aspire to be what they can be without undue limitations. When you couple greed with many other limitations beyond the control of the average individual in Africa it becomes destructive. Competition is great but greed is not. Greed in an immature ecosystem leads to parasitic and predatory relationships that destroy it.
Let me take down my “halo” and explain more using ecological analogy.
Evolution Of The Ecosystem And Equilibrium
Business and tech ecosystems are very much like natural ecosystems, there is a basic level of equilibrium that must be attained for an ecosystem to exist. Higher levels of equilibrium are also possible as ecosystems evolve and grow. The food chain consists of all players from the predators and parasites to symbiotic relationships, even bottom feeders and scum are useful in an ecosystem. There is usually balance because all organisms evolved into the ecosystem or evolved with it. Evolution is not a hasty process, it takes time and it takes a lot of iterations and selection for the ecosystem to move to higher states. Extreme Darwinism in business ecosystems do not necessarily lead to stronger players, it is a sign of acute indeterminacy and indeterminacy rarely leads to sustained growth.
There is no manual anywhere for how a technology ecosystem must evolve and the default model most adopt is that of the most successful and most widely known ecosystem of all - Silicon Valley. The story of the creation of Silicon Valley is now in the book of legends but what a lot of people don’t realise is that Silicon Valley itself is also still evolving and the old models there may be in decline. Alternative financing models like “crowd funding” are beginning to gather serious momentum and there have been notable successes in recent times. Silicon valley adapts and always evolves and part of the evolution or survival mechanism of Silicon Valley is to export its predators elsewhere to find prey.
"We believe that the shift away from backing transformational technologies and toward more cynical, incrementalist investments broke venture capital."
The Venture Capitalists (or VCs) are at the top of the food chain in the Silicon Valley ecosystem and they make no pretensions about their motive. They exist to make significant returns for their limited partners and investors; they rarely hide in “sheep’s clothing”. The VCs are going broke and they are looking for new hunting ground, they actually need Africa more than Africa needs them. It is therefore worrisome for people to think that to grow a delicate ecosystem like we have in Africa we must bring in the VCs first.
If you bring lions into the savannah too early all the game will be eaten and the lions will starve to death eventually. The VCs themselves know it and they have however been very cautious not to run to Africa until the ecosystem has shown some maturity and is ripe for harvest. The usual excuse of distance and the need for intimacy with the ventures they fund are just “excuses” as the intimate relationships they speak of are analogous to the relationship a shepherd has with a calf he is fattening for slaughter at a feast. It is not a long-term relationship.
An Attempt At Descriptive Taxonomy Of The African Tech Ecosystem
This is not an exhaustive “descriptive” or “phylogenetic”taxonomy of all the players in the African tech ecosystem but an attempt to provide background on the role of each player as well as their significance or consequence of their actions.
Opportunistic entrepreneurs are parasites in an ecosystem. They rarely have original ideas and sometimes feed on their own kind or put themselves in a position where they bleed the customers and eventually the ecosystem to death. They are the bottom feeders and the leeches, the opportunistic entrepreneur typically seeks VCs and early exits and hardly build transformational ventures only incremental ones. There is usually very little passion for what they do or for growing any ecosystem, they never collaborate and their only passion is to make money and move on to the next host. They typically seek for shortcuts or do quick and dirty ventures. Does that sound familiar? To me it describes a disproportionate majority of the current field of “tech entrepreneurs” in Africa.
Opportunists or extreme capitalists have a doubtful role to play in the ecosystem, some could argue that they are there to make it remain competitive but I doubt it. They only bring in further incrementalism and indeterminacy not transformation. When an ecosystem consists predominantly of opportunists a lot of attrition occurs and it declines. The opposite of opportunistic entrepreneurs are the innovative entrepreneurs. They are the lifeblood of the ecosystem and they are those that sustain hope because their goals are “big, hairy and audacious”. They are the ones who end up like the Elon Musks or Mark Shuttleworths and bring about transformation not only in the ecosystems but the world. They are “the crazy ones” and the Wired Magazine article "Want to become an internet billionaire, move to Africa”.is almost making these types extinct as every opportunist (local and foreign) brandish it as an excuse.
The potential billionaires are already in Africa but they don't realize what they have. It took me visits to over 20 countries in Africa to realize the advantage I have as an African who has spent most of his life in Africa and who really understands Africa's common problems. Whenever I go outside Africa it is to learn and not seek help because I know that we already have all that we need. If we could raise hundreds of millions of dollars in local funds to fund telecommunications companies then anything is possible. I witnessed and participated in the process of such fundings firsthand and it made me realize that we have everything we need in Africa.
The Venture Capitalists
The VCs (both local and foreign) usually "come in" to make money and we must make no mistake about it. They are not white knights or saviours; they are capitalists. For months now I have been shouting everywhere that there is a huge difference between INVESTING in Africa and MAKING MONEY from Africa. VCs come to make money and have little interest in investing in long-term growth of an ecosystem but we need them because exits are important and they also bring in a sense of purpose and urgency with them. The profits enterprises make and the capital gains at exit validates the existence of an ecosystem
The Government And Impact Investors
The government and impact investors in the African ecosystem are usually either symbiotic or parasitic hosts. Most times in Africa government officials become parasites themselves colluding with opportunists draining funds from the ecosystem through corrupt practices and depriving us of true innovation. There are very few serious government partnerships that go beyond propaganda and senseless proclamations to gain the youth vote. Rwanda is an example of a location where the government is serious about the growth of the ecosystem because “they get it”. Most governments don’t “get it”. They don’t because the politicians are usually from another era and don’t really see value in tinkering with some bytes and pieces of hardware. The governments however have no choice but to play a role in creating the enabling environment and policies for the ecosystems to thrive.
Most impact investors in Africa put token investments in doubtful ventures out of “pity” or because the founders have made enough “noise” to be able to give the investors some bragging rights. They also believe that those “arms-length” “token investments” are enough catalysts to stimulate growth in an ecosystem and get frustrated when they don’t get results. Others build true symbiotic relationships and stay long enough for the initiatives they have invested in to reach scale. These hosts are also vital to the sustenance of the ecosystem as they also help to provide some seed funding and policy to shape the environment for fragile early stage ventures in a difficult terrain.
Local Investors, Local Seed Funds and Angel Investments
These local investors or funds should ideally have been local financial institutions but they are very risk averse and instead focus on easy wins or funding highly profitable proven private sector trade or deficits in inefficient public sector. Local investment does not have to be from financial institutions alone, they can also be from successful individuals with a stake in growing the ecosystem. The local investors need to be involved in the process of building a local ecosystem, as they are likely to have higher order stakes that usually transcend financial goals. They live in the environment where the problems are solved and are the ones whom ideally should fund early stage ventures and carry them through to profitability and visibility of other institutional investors.
The reality of what we currently find in Africa is that a majority of the possible local investors do not completely understand technology ventures and their only exposure to investment has been either the stock market or their own private businesses. They only see risks for their investments and prefer control as a mechanism to mitigate those risks. In most instances they become more of the problem than the solution but they are still probably the most vital to the ecosystem if things are done properly
Startups in Silicon Valley build on each other and that is what the African ecosystem must do. We can invest in each other and the investors because we are all stakeholders in this. The same problems an entrepreneur faces in Zambia are probably similar to those of another in Senegal and nothing stops an entrepreneur from one country to learn from others not in direct competition with them or get investments from the more successful ones outside their region. Such collaboration can be of mutual benefit and will be the building blocks of future African enterprises at scale.
Accelerators, Incubators and Technology Clusters
Beyond the role of providing a platform for start-up ventures to launch, these are meant to be institutions and mechanisms for aggregation of talent and they are also meant to foster collaboration. I met with the founder of one of them in East Africa and he was complaining that they have transformed into something different from what was originally planned. They have become places where entrepreneurs come because they want to gain visibility and win contests but not give back to the community or grow.
The sense of community is being replaced by fierce competition for these awards and prizes and he should know best as he organizes one of the most prominent events in the region. Other communities are springing up around Africa and will most likely have the same problem as they are funded by grants and will need to show something to their backers. The quick and dirty way for them to show some traction is events and contests. I believe this is a dangerous trend, as it will allow fatigue to set in very quickly.
The mechanisms these communities use to aggregate talent are largely inefficient and may end up alienating those they really need to get involved. A friend of mine noted that a group photograph of members of a local hub showed that they were either predominantly from one ethnic group or alma mater. Cronyism is quickly setting in and these institutions are now also becoming like parasitic hosts for opportunists.
The Shortcut Problem And Why Collaboration Is Important
Ecosystems are not simple structures or entities and the relationships are complex but what is true is that every ecosystem evolves on its own terms. "Aid" or "pity" won’t do it for Africa and neither will extreme capitalism or opportunism. It will be done by hard work and investments are not the only solution; they are the nutrients that allow the bottom of the food chain to thrive and support all others.
When I hear people talking about lack of investment being the problem with the growth of African ecosystem all I hear is people either looking for excuses or shortcuts. Seed investments are like real seeds, which can only grow when the environment is right. You can’t plant seeds on rocky terrain without nutrients and expect them to become trees overnight; it is impossible.
You can’t also introduce predators into a location without prey to feed on; they will not thrive. The VCs know this and they wait patiently for the spoils of the harvest after the seeds are grown and the ecosystem is thriving. VCs don’t sow seeds, they harvest. Impact investors provide some nutrients while the rest of the ecosystem (including government and regulators, entrepreneurs and local investors) do the rest.
Collaboration between all players is the most vital factor for growth and I don’t see much of it happening in Africa only schoolyard type "pissing contests". In a previous post I wrote about changing the narrative to one that reflects reality and spurs conversations around real issues. The conversations alone are not enough; collaborative action to move things forward is even more effective.
We had a Twitter conversation recently where a number of people alluded to the fact that the right skills were not available in Africa and my position is that it is a wrong assumption. The skills are there, the seed investors are there but we have only had ineffective mechanisms for aggregating them. We have been trying to use the wrong motivation to spur engagement and growth.
We all need money and I wont lie that it does not solve a lot of “personal problems”, but that is what they are “personal problems”. Some may extend this to say that if I solve the financial problems of my family and myself then there are fewer headaches for everyone else. Eastern Nigeria is a typical example of where this thinking fails. People build huge mansions in villages without roads, electricity or water and end up spending more to provide basic things for themselves when it would have been much cheaper if it were by communal effort.
I hear some complain that mobile money has not gained much traction outside East Africa and they blame the telcos when they should actually blame the tech ecosystem. The foundation of any tech ecosystem is efficient payment mechanisms to speed up monetization and there are no shortcuts to building ecosystems around payment initiatives. We need to solve the hard problems.
After having being involved in several mobilemoney implementations we realized that the tech ecosystem plays a bigger role in growth than the telcos or mobile money operators. Innovative solutions force players to change as there is already a lot of competition to succeed but instead of innovation in payments we see opportunism and attempts at closing out others. The winning players are those will provide the customers with better service and not those who give them no options. We need to do better than what we are doing now and it not going to be achieved by shortcuts alone.
Time to put back my halo….
I work everyday and make money but there is a greater satisfaction I get from creating products and new services. Money is a useful by-product to spur more creative activities. I don’t get paid for writing blog posts but I put my views out there hoping to make an impact by changing the way the community perceives things. Money alone as a motivation will only bring more opportunists to the ecosystem and it won’t bring passionate entrepreneurs.
I came back to Africa from the UK bright-eyed and with a vision to contribute to the transformation of Africa but found an Africa struggling to survive not thrive. The opportunities to thrive abound yet we still struggle as individuals. The struggle to survive as individuals usually leads to behaviours in the opposite direction of collaboration and nobody wins long term. Surviving as individuals is hard but there is strength in numbers and a true ecosystem creates its own support mechanisms. What we have to our advantage is the numbers and it is strange that we don’t realize that advantage and push it. 100 million+ entrepreneurs is a formidable force globally so let us become a force rather than fodder.
There are no shortcuts to building great enterprises and even more awesome ecosystems but we keep making the mistake of thinking that throwing money at problems will solve them. Money does not solve problems; thinking of solutions solves problems.
“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me... Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful... that's what matters to me” - Steve Jobs Summer 1993
Chimamanda Adichie said:
“There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another."
For the African tech ecosystem to thrive the type of “Nkali” we need in Africa is a collective not singular one. “Ubuntu” needs to come before Nkali.
Ubuntu: "I am what I am because of who we all are."
Shameless plug you can ignore:
We at Afrinnova believe that the only way African startups can be viable is not only to prove their model locally and build critical mass but they should also look at models that can be scaled beyond one country. African problems are usually common to most countries and the real potential is in Africa as a market and not just local economies. There is no need for East or West type rivalry and no need to reinvent the wheel if collaborative partnerships can be formed across borders. What we plan to do is make this type of growth and scale models the norm rather than the exception. As a startup founder who has scaled to several countries myself I know that there are challenges and that is why we decided to start a different type of accelerator that helps African startups scale beyond borders.
To take a stab at solving the issue of efficient aggregation of talent at scale, we are experimenting shortly with an initiative named “OpenGarage Africa”. As the name implies it will involve actual garages being contributed and used as distributed co-working spaces with the owners benefiting from having excellent Internet access and contributing to growing the ecosystem. We will start from the more successful entrepreneurs before we move to the general public and our vision is to make tech entrepreneurship clusters even more prolific than street gangs. This is not another shortcut and it is hard work as we take the road less travelled and try to make a real difference.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. - Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
Disclosure: I was an ecologist in my past life and my undergraduate thesis was on the ecology of a hydro-biological habitat
As I was making breakfast this morning I stopped to think of what I was doing and how it applied to running businesses and specifically startups. I am not a great cook even though people like my brother-in-law would think otherwise but I try hard and I am the biggest critic of my own cooking.
People cook in different ways; there are those who only know how to fry an egg and make breakfast then nothing else. There are those who can do a bit better than that and then there are the gourmet chefs. There are also those who only know how to eat and complain about food but don’t know how to make anything.
The speed of cooking also differs as well. We have a part-time chef in Togo who takes way too long to come of with food which sometimes is of less quality than what the housekeeper in Ghana produces. He is supposed to be a professional and works in a prestigious restaurant while she was not trained formally. She learned how to cook from her mother. The housekeeper rarely misses and is very creative with her cooking. She always learns a few Nigerian recipes from my mother whenever she comes to visit and she owns it afterwards.
Our chef in Togo is like the MBA graduate who does all the analysis and measurements but does not always have a hit. The housekeeper in Ghana is like the creative entrepreneur who learns from mentors and the environment to produce great results. She also understands her customer’s needs and makes the effort to know the right recipes.
I also feel that our attitude towards cooking as entrepreneurs also determines the type of businesses we will come up with. I have a theory that people who don’t know how to cook at all are not very creative people while for those who know how to, the response to criticism or praise of the cooking determines how well we will manage people or lead them.
The fact that some entrepreneurs subsist on pizza, noodles and “Gala” (a local Nigerian snack) does not mean that they don’t have the skills in them to come up with great meals. They may just be pretending and cooking actaully is what helped them to get where they are now. It is rumoured that Mark Zukerberg kills his own animals himself before he eats them.
Without trying to step on any toes and not trying to be too chauvinistic, my “cooking theory” also confirms that women make great entrepreneurs and managers because they learn well from each other and their mothers. They are also much more creative and share their recipes with each other. Women should be building entrepreneurship ecosystems and not men.
Cooking is both an art and a science and so is entrepreneurship. Some people believe in following the recipes to a “tee” while others just “wing it”. The bottom line with cooking is that timing is the most important factor. You need to know just how long it takes for each stage to happen before the next one does. Cooking and writing code is not the same thing. It is for the same reason that developers are not necessarily the best founders or managers.
Some men use drinking as a way to evaluate people and others use golf but I think I have devised a new selection criteria for our startup accelerator, we will ask the entrepreneurs to try to cook us a meal and then we will decide if they get in or not.
In the meantime here is my new recipe for “Jollof Geek Noodles”:
2 Packets of noodles
A can of cooked sausages or some corned beef
A medium sized Onion,
Some ground pepper
A pinch of curry
One “Maggi Chicken” stock cube
Cook the noodles in waterseparately for 3 minutes,
Fry the onion, curry, pepper and sausages or corned beef in margarine to make a sauce.
Mix the sauce and noodles and simmer in low heat.
Serve while hot and steaming to your brother-in-law who is also a geek and does not cook.
I hate narratives because they only look at the past and are really no good at predicting the future but they are a necessary evil as they help to shape the conversation around an ecosystem. The only problem is that a lot of people do not listen to the conversations around a sequence of events but only see the tale and rationalize everything about the future based on it. Singular narratives according to Chimamanda Adichie create stereotypes.
We are seeing a situation in Africa now where we are trading one stereotype for another. We are moving from the story of an Africa that needs to be saved by “heroes” from outside to an Africa with so much opportunity that you must come to have your share. Both narratives exist in parallel universes where you have different individuals or groups with different frames of reference. What is common with both however is that they are extreme views propagated by people have no altruistic motives just either guilt or greed.
The bottom line is that very few of the versions of the stories are objective. They are usually either self-serving or with some ulterior motive. Some try to justify or validate irrational exuberance and hype while others look for excuses to validate the inferiority of Africans or try to lamely appease their conscience. There needs to be a middle ground where we hear stories of actual reality, stories of where the rubber meets the road.
If there is one thing all of Africa has in common it is “problems” and people are trying to solve those problems each day. A problem solved in Zambia could also be solved in Senegal using similar methods and that is why it is important that we get the right stories out there. We need to have real conversations and real stories, what we don’t need is skewed reporting or lists without any objective or empirical basis. I recently I found a glimpse of a real conversation on African startup ecosystems on Quora and it was only Erik Hersman (@whiteafrican) that (in my opinion) tried to give an objective view of the status quo. I find that usually there is hype on both parallel universes and the hype is usually a mechanism to justify flawed narratives.
Chimamanda said in her presentation that the default position of most people outside Africa is “patronizing well meaning pity” and that pity is what the worst of us exploit either via crimes like 419 or other self-serving narratives. Very few people actually say that we can actually solve our own problems ourselves. Whenever I am in Silicon Valley on Afrinnova.com business, I tell people I meet there that my objective is to come there to learn and not look for money and they look at me as if I am from outer-space or on some exotic narcotic. I tell them that there is a lot of money in Africa and all I am coming to do there is learn how to get it out. This money is in the hands of both potential investors and consumers but most people look at Africa's huge population and only focus on how to get money from the consumers. They dont usually think of how to make them investors and believe salvation comes from external VCs and Angels.
Herman Chinery-Hesse is a friend and a personal hero. He proclaimed boldly earlier that only Africans can save Africa and few listened. He gave some speeches lashing out at the World Bank and others for their role in further helping to under-develop Africa but those statements were swept under the carpet. We need to keep shouting it on rooftops so that people will actually listen. “No country in the world develops from aid” and similarly “No startup ecosystem in Africa can be created solely by external funding or pity from Silicon Valley”.
Nmachi Jidenma is the only one who has a consistently positive narrative of all of Africa, she has a simple objective with CP-Africa; to celebrate progress and not failure. I admire that she does not focus on the negative but the positive and it is ok. I read CP-Africa stories when I am feeling optimistic about Africa and ideally we should all be but I also think there should be a CR-Africa where the “R” stands for “Reality”. We should be dispassionate in analyzing the good and bad in Africa and have real conversations about moving forward and not just “digital high fives”. Nmachi is doing her very best and following her convictions but what are others doing?
One of our local voices in West Africa in the tech ecosystem was beginning to bore me with lists and skewed coverage until they brought in fresh blood into the space. Bankole Oluwafemi (@mrbankole) has been able to spur real conversations around topics that are largely Nigerian in nature and he is another glimmer of hope in dark abyss. He needs a bigger forum, a broader frame of reference and he will be a super star.
In East Africa, the narrative is about East Africa and it is about contests and hype, it is all also centered around MPesa. Surely there are many more exciting things happening in East Africa besides MPesa? There should be many more gods other than Bob Collymore for people to worship? I am seeing the narrative on the ecosystem there degenerating into hype and schoolyard type “pissing contests”. While hype could bring investor attention, there can easily be too much of a good thing.
The South Africans hardly see themselves as Africans and Francophone Africa seems like a black hole to other Africans who hardly know what is going on there because of language barriers. All of the above is my own narrative and can be challenged, I welcome that challenge and want to have objective conversations about them devoid of emotional or nationalistic sentiments. I work in several African countries and visited quite a number so my perceptions are mainly firsthand. I was born in Nigeria and I am more critical of Nigeria than others because I know more. I don’t get carried away by false hope because I know there is a lot for work still to be done. I also welcome all conversations about Nigeria.
Sarah Lacy was the first of her kind in Silicon Valley to visit Africa and present her story. It was largely her perception from a few visits and it has led to one of the most heralded funding successes in the West African ecosystem but she did not see what was happening in Ghana and had a different perspective. I tried hard to bring her attention to it and very few people noticed Ghana until Mike Butcher of TechCrunch brought out MEST into the limelight. Suddenly now all the talk is about MEST and Ghana!
We have had more hits on the Afrinnova.com site since the MEST story broke on Techcrunch than any time ever. I am sure that there are many more MESTs all over Africa and many more need attention but do we need the Western tech media to do this for us? I think the most useful attention is the attention of the local investors and not something to feed the 24hr tech news cycle in the West.
We must not let the African Startup Ecosystem become a victim of the “narrative fallacy” or illusory correlation currently plaguing Silicon Valley. They now are trying to get out of it by having real conversations on forums like Quora. We are no strangers to having conversations, Oluwaseun Osewa started by providing us a forum in Nigeria called Nairaland.
We need a Quora for all of Africa and not just voices hyping East or West African limited successes. I belong to a group on Facebook called Silicon Africa and I am beginning to see real conversations like that there but sadly it is still dominated by West Africans and we need to make it all inclusive.
Silicon Africa has members who are entrepreneurs from the African diaspora as well local founders doing real work. I had a conversation with the founder of the Silicon Africa group Amaete Umanah recently and he agrees that we need to take Silicon Africa outside Facebook and make it a platform for real conversations around the startup ecosystem all over Africa and not just East or West Africa. If you want to join the group please ask an existing member to add you or add Amaete Umanah as friend on Facebook, he will bring you in. Members from all over Africa are welcome. Let us make the conversation about Africa and common African problems not just countries or regions.
In my last post where I mentioned GTBank's failure to delight me as a customer, I got zero feedback from the bank even though their services are now back online.
I am still a customer of the bank because I loved the bank and to a certain degree still do. A lot of the reasons why I stuck with the bank from the very beginning are rooted in the culture the founders of the bank put in place to ensure a that the bank remained a sustainable institution reflecting their legacy. As a founder of a number of enterprises myself, I have nothing but respect for these values and copied a lot of them shamelessly.
GTbank remains the most ethical institution in Nigeria today and they did not sell their souls for money when others did. This is reiterated by a lot of the alumni of the institution who still go back to work there after leaving to work elsewhere.
GTBank remains the hunting ground for talent by other institutions because they really invest in building their manpower. The training starts before you join and continues throughout your lifetime of employment. I have heard of surprise tests being carried out bank wide to ascertain knowledge of standard operating procedure. The average employee is a banker and not a "bank worker"
3. Teamwork and team size.
I gather that a team leader there never leads a team of more than 5 people. Once a function gets too big they break it down into smaller more manageable teams and it allows more intimacy and focus. The span of control is 5 subordinates to one leader and there is real coordination and complementary effort. I never see two GTBank marketers trying to outdo each other when trying to get my account the same way employees of other cutthroat banks do. We copied this team structure shamelessly.
They were early adopters of modern banking technology and for the longest time their portal was based on an award winning open-source content management platform. They don't follow the herd, they create their own path and make the technology work for their customers. Because of their ethics their selection process for any technology is based on the merits of the technology and not on favors. It is this technology savvy that made them one of the first institutions to accept social media and use it very effectively for feedback.
My first account manager was Herbert Wigwe the current DMD of Access Bank. He was a deputy manager then but I frequently saw him taking his turns to do teller duty. My biggest shock however was when I was personally served by Fola Adeola the then CEO and founder. He was so polite when I insisted on having mint condition notes. Nobody was beyond doing any task and they made sure that you went through every function to have a better understanding of the issues of your colleagues and the customers.
That last one struck a chord with me and for any new initiative, I try to attend training with my team so that I have better understanding of the technology and also ensured that I sometimes personally intervene to interface with the customer.
I don't know what is happening but this current GTBank is not the old bank I used to love. I want my old bank back.
"The opportunity of a lifetime must be seized during the lifetime of the opportunity" - Leonard Ravenhill
I woke up this morning asking myself if we have slowly allowed mediocrity into entrepreneurship by trying to make a science out of it? Have we decided to make opportunism a science too?
I am inclined to think that building a great business is an art in learning about human behavior and preference while most of what goes into building a great product is a mixture of art and science. I am wondering if lean thinking and iteration should not be left for tactical maneuvers only after you have really thought through your "great new idea" and actually have a plan that you think will work. I am a strong believer in great design and purpose as the cornerstone of sustainable venture and not "indeterminate optimism" according to Peter Thiel in his famous Stanford lecture. Great entrepreneurs are not gamblers, they dont depend on luck, they have a purpose that drives them towards greatness.
I saw a movie trailer yesterday for a movie coming out in 2013 and asked myself a question, why are these guys not just launching it now instead of giving us these teasers? "The Dark Knight Rises" trailer was out a whole year before the movie was released. I have seen that this happens when the studio is very confident that it will be a blockbuster and it usually is. They get the right story, put together an awesome cast then go for the collective jugular of the public at the right time. Timing is very important in the movie industry and the book "The Long Tail" explains why this is so. I have observed that only very confident studios take their time and stick to a schedule that ensures that they have consistent hits.
Releasing consumer products in technology have started following the same pattern in America. The release of great gadgets is usually timed to coincide with the holiday season when most purchases are made. Apple will only release the newest iPhone around the Thanksgiving holidays and new lines of existing products as well. The iPad was the only exception to this rule but… “Within 90 days of its release, the iPad managed to penetrate 50% of Fortune 100 companies”.
Apple and the major movie studios have one thing in common, they do their homework well. Startup entrepreneurship on the other hand has recently become like gambling. It now seems that “founders” just race to haul dung on the wall first to see what will stick. As much as good timing is important there is also bad timing. Personally I think the best products are those that anticipate need and plan for it well in advance and not those who blunder to see if they can solve some problems. A startup is a business venture and not an just an experiment.
Quick and dirty fixes can sometimes become major hits and some well planned products fail but I am beginning to comprehend that success or failure is not about the product itself but how well the entrepreneur understands the market or even human behavior.An Apple iPhone repair shop in Agege Lagos will make as much sense as selling surfboards in Iceland.
I am being inundated with apps about the Olympic games all of a sudden. One of them actually wants me to bet money on the chances of the Nigerian Basketball team winning a gold medal. I am beginning to question if this is as a result of a fundamental lack of ambition, ideas or plain laziness. Someone argued that they have to try and fail so that they learn and I told him that there has to be balance. Sometimes people could get addicted to your failure and never expect anything good from you. You could become damaged goods even before you start. I know that this sounds like it goes against my charge to Africans to always aspire and don’t care about failure but there is a thin line between trying hard and ridiculous opportunism.
I believe in Africa and African entrepreneurs have to learn to believe in they can achieve anything if they set their minds to it and prepare. Quick and dirty is not a great strategy and it does not lead to sustainable ventures. You can come up with great ideas on the fly but it takes brilliant and sensible strategy to build a sustainable venture from that idea. Steve Jobs was not a spirit; he was a human being like you and everyone else around you. I read somewhere that -
“Apple's industrial design group is comprised of 16 'maniacal' individuals who share one singular purpose - imagine products that don't exist – then make them come to life.”
Why cant 100+ million young Africans do better than 16 people?
Apple and the movie theaters care deeply about their brand and they have a sixth sense about what customers want, the hits are a manifestation of that seriousness. Nollywood is filled with mediocre talent today because of the same quick and dirty mentality. The next Universal or DreamWorks will not come out of there anytime soon.
I heard this first from Jite Okoloko the founder of Ocean and Oil the precursor to OANDO group after he just raised $3m in Series A funding from a single presentation to prospective investors. Jite is one of my mentors and I admire him greatly. We were traveling from Benin to Lagos by road when he told me of his "war stories".
He started by selling fire alarms in the USA and later started teaching salesmen the art of the sale. He came back to Nigeria to start “Blue Chip Capital” before he hit his mojo with Ocean and Oil. Jite is now also the man behind Notore Industries the largest agro-based venture in Nigeria
Every startup founder should be a good salesman and the pitch is not only about your deck but how you articulate your vision. I have heard many pitches from young people who ramble on about how they want to disrupt an industry and they go on for ages without hitting the point. When you try to correct them they take it personally or try to make excuses. I actually learn more from the mistakes of others before me rather than look for flaws in their advice. I take in the good and the bad.
I learn everyday and I just remembered this quote as I was putting finishing touches to the new Afrinnova deck. I pitched it to Jite on New Years Day this year and he told me to send it to him to critique. I know I have slacked but better late than never :)
There is something troubling me about Nigerian payments and it is not just our poor infrastructure but also our attitude to delivering service. A lot of the work we do as a professional services company is largely proactive support and what that means is that we never let the bad things happen before we fix it. We anticipate possible snags and can tell easily from the rate of growth in traffic that we could possibly hit a bottleneck and advice the client to take proactive measures or we proactively take those measures if we can within our own scope of work.
We became that way because we learned from seeing bad things happen. We have seen the catastrophic effects of downtime on customer confidence. We have seen that if you lose confidence it takes years to try to rebuild it and it is a costlier effort to try to do this than to have proactive support. It has been our biggest selling point to those who have felt the pain and it is also our biggest weakness with those who do not really understand what we do. Some clients will think that we just have a bunch of people sitting and waiting around for bad things to happen but that is very far from the truth. We have those people there to help prevent other people from making bad things happen.
A majority of the time, downtime in Africa is not caused by hardware or software failure but "people failure". You cannot use scripts to monitor people, you have to interact with them and sometimes reason with them to let them know the impact of a seemingly harmless decision further down the line on a transactions platform with multiple integration points.
GTBank probably has the best payment gateway in Nigeria and several people use their service. They used to respond to complaints very quickly but recently it seems their service levels are going down south at an alarmingly increasing rate. Right now their internet banking service works sporadically and I made a complaint almost 24 hours ago and still have no response.
A couple of months ago I tried to buy a ticket online with my Mastercard (via the ghastly Quickteller site that I can barely stand) and was billed 3 times for one ticket. It was obvious the integration points between Slimtrader, QuickTeller, Air Nigeria and GTbank were messed up but I had no business with the merchant or the payment processor but my own bank as the card was theirs.
It took almost two months before I got 86,000 Naira back. Nobody told me sorry after that and nobody paid me back any interest for the loss of income from my money being tied down. All I got was a mail about 2 months later saying that the problem had now been resolved. I actually considered suing them but realized I would spend much more than the 86,000 Naira on the slow Nigerian legal system. Most likely wait years before I got heard and probably by that time all the players would have imploded from consistently bad service.
That experience made me realize the importance of back-office processes more than ever in a place like Nigeria. For any payments or transactions processor, your back-office is the most vital service point. It is not about fancy front ends or all the work we do as technical consultants. It is about human beings interacting with other human beings to quickly solve largely process related problems..
I had a friend talking to me about jointly setting up a payment processor recently with other partners and I asked him who would have responsibility for back-office processes? He did not have a clue the same way he did not have a clue on who actually owned the customer. For a payment that originates from a bank account, the bank or card issuer owns the customer and has primary responsibility of interacting with the processor or gateway provider in the case of any problems.
We have AIPS being spewed out for Mobile Payment companies but in their evaluation process, has anyone bothered to check if they have strong back-office processes put in place? For Mobile Payments it is easy for anyone including the Mobile Payment company to blame the infrastructure provider which in the case of Nigeria will be the telcos and they should ideally own the customer as any failure will be blamed on them. So why cant the MNOs just be given licenses as this clearly can affect their business? I digress…. that matter is left for another post.
We saw how the multiple issues of fraud made banks in Nigeria have a rethink about magnetic stripe cards and it was not just pressure from the regulator that made that happen, it was more of pressure from the consumers and the pressure on those nice customer service people who sit in banking halls and call-centers trying to manage all hell breaking lose around them. It was not Visa, MasterCard, Interswitch or even CBN that forced that call to be made, it was “the customer”.
Waiting for the customer to force you to make a call isn’t just “not proactive” it could be termed as negligent. It should be anticipated by any proactive organization that transaction levels will increase during peak transaction times like the end of the month and it would be very prudent to ensure that things don’t break at those peak periods. If GTBank with all its mature processes can make this kind of mistake then is there hope for Firstbank, Ecobank and others?
We recently heard of the fiasco that happened with the cutover to new systems after the ECOBANK and OCEANIC merger and people were too quick to start blaming platforms and bank software vendors had a field day spreading FUD. That fiasco happened not because one platform was better than the other but because people did not plan proactively for what could go wrong.
As support people we believe seriously in “Murphy’s law”. Murphy's lawis anadageorepigramthat is typically stated as: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong". For the transactions business you have to take this very seriously and try to keep Mr Murphy far away from your platforms. It is because of Murphy’s law that I worry very much about NIBSS being the sole switch interconnecting all players in Nigerian payments.
What happens if NIBSS fails at peak periods the same way GTBank Internet banking is failing now at the end of the month? Has any stress testing been done to look at doomsday scenarios on our financial sector if some catastrophic event happens in Lagos or specifically Victoria Island? What kind of disaster recovery plans do payment providers and banks have in place to protect consumers from losing everything if all their systems collapse and they lose all data? These are valid questions I must ask as a consumer and I think we must all start asking the right questions.
I think it is time the consumer starts being proactive too and we should help crowd source downtime information not only to help ourselves but also to force the hands of these providers to take service seriously. Yes, I am not totally altruistic about it as it will mean more business for people like us who don’t go to weddings and miss all family functions because "we just make things work". In the meantime we should take a look at this site and see how we can do something similar for Nigerian commerce and banking sites. http://downrightnow.com/
I think I may have found a slogan for another startup I am setting up. “We just make things work” and by the way, GTBank Internet Banking is still down. It makes me really wonder if GTBank is human or machine. If they were human then they would have responded to me by now.
I was asked by a tech blogger a simple question on how to get a good co-founder and I ended up rambling into a blog post.
Salil Narayanan should not let his head swell too much :)A co-founder is probably your most vital strategic decision as an African entrepreneur. It is even more important in Africa as I have seen from experience that a lot of great ideas and startups die not because of market forces but because the founders break up the companies prematurely.I cannot honestly say there is an art or science to getting the best co-founder as I have had the same one for roughly 20 years now. We have tremendous chemistry and a great working relationship all these years.However from the discussions I have had with other fellow entrepreneurs who are in an equally good place, the consensus is that the qualities have to be more about you than the other person. To summarize, according to Amaete Umanah “you have to earn the best co-founder”. It is a premium as truly great co-founders are hard to find. To get a great one you also have to be a darn good founder yourself.As strategic as the co-founder decision is, it is not a magic bullet that will solve your problems. You need to think of it as a long-term relationship and not a short one so you must basically love working with each other. My wife sometimes gets jealous when I spend a lot of time having conversations with my co-founder on-line and she calls him “my boyfriend”. He is far away in Australia running another startup in the energy business but I consult him on all matters and all my major decisions and copy him on routine e-mails. He was the first person I told when I decided to get married to my wife.You need to have mutual respect for each other and must be genuinely passionate about your goals as well as each other’s opinions. I probably will hate my co-founder today for not letting me execute "YhelloPages.com", an idea that was before Facebook and Eskimi for a telco based social network. He believed portals were a bad idea at that time. I also acknowlwdge however that the idea would not have worked if he did not support me. We were not in competition with each other but in collaboration and "complementary" to each other. He is still the best coder I know on the face of the planet even though he has sold his soul to Bill Gates. His soul is now beginning to yield dividends asit is rumoured that Bill G is taking a stake in his Australian venture with other amazing people.As close as you need to be, you also need to be able to work independently of each other and realize that you can have other interests as well. You need to be different enough from each other not to have polarizing views but a stabilizing influence. My co-founder decided to move to South Africa in 1996 just 3 years after we started and I knew it was something he had to do. He tried hard to convince me to move as well but I just was not ready but his move opened the way to all the great partnerships we have with South African companies today and I owe every single thing we are doing now to his courage to take a plunge into the unknown. Salil introduced me to some of my best friends in South Africa and probably the greatest business partners on the planet.In all, I can say that what has been the most important thing that has helped us was trust, honesty, tolerance and openness. Salil is an Atheist Indian who was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Nigeria and South Africa and now lives in Australia. He is married to a devout Hindu vegetarian. I am a bush Benin boy from Edo state who was fortunate to have some rich relatives and supportive parents. I am now married to a Ghanaian 1st class Finance graduate and an MBA from INSEAD, we could not all have had more diverse backgrounds but we have a great friendship that transcends business and I guess that is what you really need; a friendship that surpasses business and even enhances it.
....Oh Chale! I also realized his wife was born in Ghana so maybe that is the common link :) So try to get some Ghana luck as well!
2008 was the year I was probably the fittest in my entire life as I found my “mojo” in tech. We were making real money as we started doing several projects at once. I worked very hard and played even harder, I played tennis 3 times a week and swam twice that same week as well.
2008 was also the year I had my biggest health scare as I arrived in Nigeria 20th December from the US via South Africa. I left News Café at the Palms and ended up in hospital early in the morning as a result of serious abdominal pains.
The first hospital I went to was an upscale one at Victoria Island in Lagos where the guys charged me the equivalent of $1,200 for being foolish enough to come there as an emergency patient. The guys were too eager to conclude that it was appendicitis and were eagerly awaiting another payment of $2000 for surgery.
Prior to that day I had never done any surgery and because my father was one of the people running a teaching hospital, I always had privileged healthcare and took it for granted. I decided wisely that it was better to take my chance with the same teaching hospital in Benin City instead of the “shylock” private hospital in Lagos. That decision was one of many that saved my life.
On my way to the airport the next day heavily sedated, I made a detour to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital because I realized through my pain-induced drowsiness that I had friends there. In spite of my “connections”, I was still on a hard bed at the accident and emergency unit for four hours before I finally got an ultra sound examination at the radiology unit.
All the talk from the doctors after the ultrasound exam scared the hell out of me and didn’t make any sense. They were not so sure of what they were seeing and had 5 different interpretations. I decided to call my closest friend and brother – Fidelis Osuide, who happened to be a urologist in the UK for a “sixth opinion”. He insisted that I do a CT scan as he suspected I had kidney stones. It was 48 hours later before the CT scan was done and it was indeed confirmed that I had a stone in one of my kidneys.
You would think that was the end of the problem? Well, that was just the beginning. I discovered that they had no lithotripsy machine in the hospital to help break the stone with sound waves and instead they were thinking of surgery. I asked around and also found out that there was no such machine in Lagos and even the rest of Nigeria. One nice registrar came one night to talk to me about it and told me point blank that if I could leave Nigeria to go sort it out elsewhere it would be wise for me to do so without messing up my kidney and tubes. I had a UK student visa that was expiring but luckily I could still stay in the UK for 2 more years and still had health coverage thanks to the NHS. I ran like a bat out of hell from Nigeria to the UK where in an outpatient procedure they discovered that the stone had now passed.
I left Nigeria for good after the 2008 incident but I also left my father there and he was not so lucky. He was pressured into surgery at an expensive private hospital in Benin City against the advice of doctors at the same teaching hospital where he had worked for decades. He died of cardiac arrest from complications after surgery. It seemed the expensive private hospital where he died did not hire a good anesthetist.
Recently I also had another health scare this time in Ghana. I had malaria off and on for months because of improper management at another private hospital. This time around, I did not run back to the UK but I took the advice of another friend and went elsewhere to get it sorted. I went to a local pharmacy where the pharmacist had more experience and gave me the right drugs to clear everything from my system.
Not all private hospitals are bad and I know that because my mother in-law is also a doctor and she runs one. She is probably one of the hardest working doctors I know in Africa and the first time in Ghana I ever got malaria cured was at her hospital. I always “stubbornly and foolishly” felt it was not a good idea to allow friends and family members to treat you but now I know better. They have saved me more than once but the only downside is that my father also relied on the advice of friends and family.
Today I sit down and I realize that I have lost weeks even months of productivity and plenty of money to private hospitals in Africa yet very few of them have ever solved any problem for me. Most of them have only compounded my problems and resulted in the death of my father. A friend of mine joked recently that if you put your symptoms in Google, you could come up with better diagnosis than a lot of the doctors in private hospitals in Africa. Medicine has now become one big scam and moneymaker for opportunists.
We can blame the government we can blame the heartless doctors but first we should blame ourselves because this thing continues to happen and we never do anything about it. I ran away after I discovered we had serious healthcare issues in Nigeria and grieved after my father died but did nothing. I am tired of blaming other people for problems that we cause by ourselves from complacency. I want to do something about it but did not know where to start till today. I decided I was going to start by talking about it. We take “preventive measures” and “pray” that’s all but we never realize that we are just a rat’s whisker away from being wiped out by the next unknown epidemic.
A lot of hospitals in Sub-Saharan Africa are not being regulated properly, lack basic equipment and are killing people daily. The funny thing is that it is not only the poor people they kill, the rich also die. It is not only a shame that I could not find one lithotripsy machine in a populous and oil rich nation; it is also a big risk.
The problem with our people is that we have seriously misplaced priorities. There is no nation in this world that develops while neglecting healthcare. A lot of the debate in America today is not about the quality of healthcare but about the cost to the citizens. Healthcare in America is a huge and profitable industry and I probably personally know more millionaires who are healthcare practitioners in America than technology people.
We also have our priorities misplaced in the African tech ecosystem as well. People talk about e-commerce and payments yet they forget that the basic and fundamental needs of the citizen are food, shelter and healthcare. It is easier for you to make more money from the needs of millions of people rather than the wants of some thousands.
Even in India, healthcare is a HUGE industry and it is pathetic that each time I am at the Indian High Commission in Lagos, a lot of the visa applicants are traveling to India for healthcare related reasons. I have little respect for opportunists but great respect for innovators and the current crop of so-called African techies are just greedy self-centered opportunists.
As from this month, I am putting aside $3,000 every month ($36,000 annually) as part of my personal seed fund for healthcare related startups. I will take no personal stake in those companies and I invite all others who have made money from tech to put their money where their mouth is and fund startups innovating in healthcare, food and shelter. My mother in-law has a hospital and it will serve as a good incubator for the ideas. Heck! Afrinnova will even get involved in this!!
Why cant we also fight for a MobileMoney tax in African countries for merchant transactions above a certain threshold going towards improving healthcare and education?
The rich also die and sometimes techies die faster. The beer and caffeine will kill you faster than most people. We live a very stressful life with a lot of health risks. I finally did surgery last year in France to repair a detached retina and that came from looking at the small screen for too long. I now have 40” screens but messed up sight. The next person could be you and you may be blind before you get to the Hotel’Dieu Hospital in France.
It seems Nigeria has started exporting “healthcare” to other countries, enjoy the PM News article below