In this interview, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Future Africa, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, outlines how to build a unicorn, funding and other challenges facing startups in Nigeria.
Enjoy the conversation.
NAIRAMETRICS: You were the CEOs of Andela and Flutterwave, which are now unicorns. How can more unicorns be built in the ecosystem?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: No one has the manual for building a unicorn, as what is needed is to build a business and try as much as possible to keep growing it until it blooms. Also, you are not the one that will value your business as a unicorn, it is outsiders that will do so. The best bet to unicorn status is to build a great business that solves a big problem.
Recently, the Federal Government, through President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Startup Bill into law. How would you assess the Act and its impact on the nation’s startup ecosystem?
The Nigerian startup ecosystem has been around for a very long time, but only in the last 10 years have we started to attract significant attention from Silicon Valley and global investors. It is a good step in the right direction that we have done a good job of engaging the government to create an act that ensures that the ecosystem and its interest are well taken care of and there is a launch pad for the industry to grow.
It is a good development. It is not a perfect act, but it is a step in the right direction that would evolve, particularly because of its structure which is very innovative with the National Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
This has probably paved the way for more inclusive policies going forward too. Because by law, there is this council which is democratically elected by all labelled startups and which is expected to elect four representatives to the National Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. I sense that if this kind of structure doesn’t end up working, then it must be a question of participation. It would not have anything to do with whether the government provided the avenue for engagement or not.
Now, it is on the ecosystem to engage maturely with the government because there is an opportunity to do so now.
NAIRAMETRICS: How would you assess the nation’s payment space over the years?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: We have one of the best payment infrastructures in the world, which is evidenced in processing times, among others. We are leading the world in instant payment times. The space has also produced quite some billion-dollar companies.
NAIRAMETRICS: How would PSBs impact the payment system in Nigeria?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: The Payment Service Banks will provide generalised access to more people. That is the baseline. Anything else is left to be seen. But at the very least, more people will have access to financial services products where they engage with brands that they trust.
NAIRAMETRICS: What growth stage is the nation’s startup scene today?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: It is hard to define the growth stage. We are definitely maturing. What next is to do more, which is the most important thing.
The space has changed a lot from how it was when I started. When I started, online payments were roughly about 80 million in complete volume, but now Flutterwave alone almost makes that much in revenue. This means the payment volume has gone up in the billions because the revenue model is that you take just a slice of every payment transaction, which also gives a sense of how much the space has grown.
NAIRAMETRICS: How would startups navigate the dearth of funding in the Nigerian tech ecosystem?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: Startups should be more focused on products and building their business. It is very important and the starting point. There was an industry before the funding came, so I do not think the lack of funding will stop the industry. Yes, we have had quite a bit of funding in the last couple of years.
Startups must focus on products, and their customers during this period, rather than chasing after funding. I do not think that is the right approach for now, given the funding environment.
During COVID, we had a pull-back in capital and things continued. I don’t think it is as doomy-like as people are making it seem.
I expect the challenges with the global market to get worse, so we might still have a significant uptake in labour action as we have seen with some startups. This is one of the reasons to focus on real, sustainable businesses that have the potential to make a decent profit, and so on. Without that, there is no business.
NAIRAMETRICS: What are some of the challenges of running a startup in Nigeria?
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: The biggest is talent, people who have done it before. One must invest in talent. The other really important thing is infrastructure. It is very difficult to find the right infrastructure, especially as one grows.
That can be challenging. Those are the biggest challenges. Again, we are consistently figuring out ways to surmount them. And of course, the policy environment which again the Nigeria Startup Act resolves.