Doing Business in Africa: Go Bold, Go Big, or Go Home!

I have often wondered, if I knew then what I know now, would I have started Cellulant? It is a question that is frequently discussed between Bolaji (my co-founder) and I; and often we look at each other and shake our heads emphatically saying “NO!”

Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. Toby Thomas, CEO of Ensite Solutions, described entrepreneurship as ‘a man riding a lion’. People look at this man and think, “This guy has really got it together! He is brave!” And the man riding the lion is thinking, “How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?” In a nutshell, that is an entrepreneur’s journey in Africa.

The African content has one of the most dynamic business environments in the world. The continent and its people demand attention- good or bad- no one can look or experience Africa and remain seating on the fence. Africa demands your emotion, be it joy, sadness, anger, love, hate, pity, benevolence- there is simply no in-between.The question then becomes what you do with those emotions: do you run away and find “greener pastures” or do your seize the mane of the lion and ride it to success? If you chose the latter, and chose to stay take on the entrepreneurial journey in Africa you will quickly realize that nowhere else in the world does the statement “Go Big, Go Bold or Go Home” ring truer than on the continent. Your success in Africa depends on taking big bold steps, having great ambition and an unapologetic relentless pursuit of excellence.

Truth be told, drawing a business plan on a serviette might not have been the smartest way to begin a business, but looking back, and reflecting on this journey of ours in building a $1 Billion business in Africa, our realization is that we wouldn’t change a thing.

We might not do it again, but now that we are on this journey, we wouldn’t change a thing.

Our vision was to build a world class business for Africa by Africans, and as we take stock in our daily lives of what we have accomplished, we see that this dream is being realized every day. We see that Financial Technology is closing the distance of access to necessary services such as water, power, health, and education. However, we know that we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Today, same as it was 10 or so years ago, we face the entrepreneurial problems of scale and speed in an environment that lacks viable infrastructure. Like everything else, mobile payments and digital commerce in Africa needs a strong and viable infrastructure to move forward. You find that a payments infrastructure becomes as critical to the effective growth and management of society as rails, roads and electricity.

Yet, despite the challenges we have faced and continue to face, we see growth, as innovation continually changes the way people do business in Africa and consumers access basic services. Africa’s innovation acceleration in payment solution is unlike any other part of the world, and today we see that the innovation in this space has increasingly become a catalyst in bringing about social and economic transformation to the continent. Long before Safaricom’s MPesa in Kenya, no one imagined that a USSD code could deliver financial inclusion for a large population of ‘unbanked’ citizens. In fact, to date- you will find that there is still a significant number of Kenyans without bank accounts, whose financial institution is their phone; and with the rise in the use of smartphones in Africa, users continue to support growth in mobile money usage and cashless payments.

As the industry looks to provide new value-added services such as consumer payments, cash disbursements and collections in value chains such as agriculture, healthcare, education, etc, every business will have to find a way to harness the new financial technology revolution that is taking place in Africa.

As 2015 came to an end, the Cellulant journey of scale and growth took another turn as we partnered with the AfDB on the Agricultural Transformation Agenda across Africa. Having shown great success in Nigeria, the eWallet technology for farmers is now being scaled to more than 10 countries in Africa. As of February 2016, we began working with the Liberian Government and the first cohort of 150,000 farmers to transform their agricultural sector. We are seeing the same transformation in Liberia’s agricultural sector that we saw in Nigeria, where small holder farmers who were at the bottom of the economic pyramid saw a doubled income over a 3 year period. In Liberia, we have developed an innovative farmer e-registration platform in Liberia which provides a holistic system to link farmers and agro-dealers to agricultural inputs supply chain, finance and market places all through their phone. We will push for the same success in other countries where Agriculture contributes to a large percentage of the overall GDP.

But then what? Today, roughly 12% of Africa’s mobile consumers can make payments using Cellulant’s services and products. As we accelerate towards providing infrastructure to various sectors by using mobile payments, the burden of success has become greater, because now we know it can be done. We can use technology to transform countries, communities, societies, businesses and everyday consumers; and succeed we must.

There is no question that doing business in Africa is hard; but everyday we find reasons to wake up every morning, determined to achieve our mission and realize our vision of connecting everyone, to everything, everyday.