‘Stanford Seed was game changer in my entrepreneurial journey’
Chief Executive Officer, SB Telecoms and Devices, Mr. Abiodun Afolabi, in this interview with FLORENCE UTOR, underscores the objectives of Stanford Seed, its partnership with the Lagos state government, and the benefits of the programme to him as an entrepreneur.
What is the Stanford Seed Transformation Network (STN)?
Stanford Seed Transformation Network is a network of entrepreneurs from developing countries trained to end the cycle of poverty by building successful and sustainable businesses. It is the brainchild of a philanthropic couple, Robert and Dorothy King. They felt a better way to make a meaningful impact in developing countries is by supporting entrepreneurs to eradicate poverty.
The Seed programme, which is a new faculty in Stanford University, identifies organisations that have potential to scale up and extend beyond their countries of origin. The idea behind the programme is to build several of these businesses in West Africa to indirectly solve the region pervasive poverty problem. In Nigeria, we have had over 50 organisations that have participated in this programme namely SB Telecoms and Devices, Housessories Limited, SystemSpecs, Remita, and V-Connect, to mention a few. That’s how successful the programme has been.
The network is all about building a formidable bond between organisations that have gone through the programme ensuring collaboration that will bring about the desired change.
What is your role in the association?
I was elected the Vice President and I am also the President-elect who would take over from the current president who is the Managing Director of Housessories Ltd. Our president happens to be one of the first CEOs that participated in the programme and her commitment is not in doubt, and we believe sincerely that with her leadership, all the objectives that we set for ourselves would be achieved. We also have CEOs of Seedvest Group and V-Connect, among others, on the executive committee.
The Lagos State Government recently invited Stanford Seed TEAM to a Stakeholders’ Meeting. What were the takeouts from that meeting?
The Lagos State Government has identified the Yaba axis as a technology hub, and intends to develop that area, providing all necessary infrastructures to make it a Silicon Valley type location in Lagos. Stanford Business School Faculty and Seed transformation members were invited to be part of a stakeholders’ meeting on the project. The Ministry of Wealth Creation coordinated the meeting with support from the Ministry of Energy and Office of Overseas Affairs and Investment, among others. As a matter of fact, the Lagos State University was involved and the Vice-Chancellor of the University attended the stakeholders’ meeting. The objective of that meeting is to get Stanford and other stakeholders involved in the project which will be wholly private sector driven. Lagos will invest through Ibile Holdings, its investment arm, and will also create an enabling environment. At the end of the stakeholders’ meeting, a steering committee was put together which the Stanford Seed Transformation Network will support as much as it can.
How helpful are government’s policies to entrepreneurial growth?
I think I am more familiar with Lagos State and I know the federal government, to a large extent, is making efforts. I would cite an example: There was this Aso Villa Demo Day that was organized by the Office of the Vice President and the whole idea was to bring technology companies together, giving them an opportunity to pitch what they do, and possibly get investment. More of that should happen.
Government needs to be very deliberate about promoting local content. If there is a service or product a Nigerian company can offer, it should not be outsourced or given to a foreign company. There should be a deliberate attempt to implement the budget on local content. This should be a priority. Why should government still depend on international software’s when we have a whole lot of software developers and companies in Nigeria that would rival any company abroad? As a matter of fact, you have so many international companies that depend on the resources in companies like Andela. Even if implementing a project would require an international partner, there should be a clear caveat that there must be a Nigerian company that must be trained to take charge of the project. We must have all these things not just in acts and in laws, we really need to see it operational.
Although, you have highlighted on the potential and competence of Nigerian companies, one question that is still ever prevailing is; Can they match up to their foreign counterparts in terms of quality of products and services?
Yes, I say that with confidence and I can cite examples. A good example is our company, SB Tel and Devices, the provider of TAMS, a human resource application that manages employees from recruitment to retirement. It was very easy to dismiss us when we initially started because we were seen as a Nigerian company. Today, we have in excess of over 1,000 organisations using our applications in Nigeria, Ghana and Guinea. If we are not competent, private companies would not have engaged us.
Another good example is SystemSpecs, I am proud that a Nigerian company is responsible for sweeping funds for the federal government. These are things that ordinarily would have gone to international companies. It’s not an issue of competence, the skill set is here but what is missing is that enabling environment and support from government.
In a recent article by an American online magazine, the writer referred to you as “the self- appointed timekeeper of Nigeria.” What informed that description?
It is because I am passionate about time management. It is not surprising that I am selling a solution that is in line with my own personal principle in life. I am sure you are familiar with what we refer to as African Time. Nothing happens, up till tomorrow, in Nigeria when it should. You talk about appointments, contracts, education etc., it won’t just happen as planned. I have a mission and it is simple – I want African time to be synonymous with punctuality in the nearest future.
When this intern that has worked with New York Times, and I think Washington Post, met me in Stanford and asked what I do and I said I am Nigeria’s timekeeper, he actually found it strange and picked interest in what we do. But sincerely, our mission is simple; we want to eradicate African time, which amounts to sluggishness and procastination.
More than 1,000 organisations that we work see the value in managing time and getting the expected returns on investment. If you also could have that same culture run in every facet of life in the country, the current issues being faced would not be as complicated as it is today. These are some of the things that the young chap saw and he also related that to my upbringing and for some reasons now, that Nigerian timekeeper is an alias that has stuck to me and I am proud to be keeping time for Nigeria.
Why entrepreneurship and how did you become an entrepreneur?
Two major factors, the first one is that my grandmother and my mum are entrepreneurs. I worked and went to shop with them. That’s my foundation. The second factor was the entrepreneurial module in the GNS course I took back in the polytechnic. In one of the classes, there was emphasis on the fact that government and the private sector cannot provide employment to more than 40-50 per cent of graduates. We were taught to start something rather than hoping for something that may not be available. That lesson stuck with me and I decided to be part of the solution to the problem by creating jobs. These two factors encouraged me and I don’t think I have any regrets.
How has Stanford Seed and its transformation network helped your entrepreneurial journey?
Before Stanford, I just wanted to run a thriving business by Nigerian standards and be able to pay my bills. But Stanford Seed was a game changer, it made me see beyond Nigeria and profit, and to understand that the ultimate goal of business is to solve problems. While solving problems, you obviously would have the opportunity, by default, to pay bills. That has shaped our vision and corporate goal, helping us take up a cause which is managing human resources for small, medium and large enterprises using technology.
How have you been able to keep your company afloat and survive in this period of economic recession?
We are not immune from the recession and have positioned our robust solutions as replacement for dollar denominated human resource applications to many organisations. Apart from cost savings and value to discerning organisations, this would also reduce the pressure on the Naira. That is the simple secret.
What role do you want see the Stanford Transformation Network playing in the economic development of Nigeria over the next few years?
There are several collaborations going on among network members. For instance, for every problem flagged by a network member, there is always someone within the network that can help solve. We are taking advantage of Stanford resources and network member experiences to support our businesses, helping each other solve real problems that include funding and availability of raw materials, among others. However, the bar has been raised with our involvement at the instance of Lagos state government to be part of the proposed Yaba technology city transformation project. Beyond this, we would be continuously engaged in advocacy that can shape policy enunciation and implementation.
Where do you see yourself and your company in the next five years?
We have taken upon ourselves a cause that would help Nigeria to be more efficient and help organisations get high returns on investment. In the process of doing that, we see SB Telecoms becoming one of the leading tech companies in Nigeria and West African sub-region. We already have footprints in Ghana.
In another five years, we will be a dominant force in the West African sub-region, entrenched in East Africa and other African markets. We would not just be a Nigerian company but a Pan-African company.
What would be your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Don’t procrastinate! Procrastination is the number one problem of a would-be entrepreneur. Sometimes, they would want to get everything right before getting started. Experience is and would always be the best teacher. If you have an idea, don’t waste time, hit the ground running with it.
Entrepreneurship also requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice. There are so many things that one would naturally want to do, but you need to be focused to achieve your goal. If you were sleeping for eight straight hours before, you have to cut it down to four hours if it is required to deliver on deadline. Whatever is being done should not just be about the immediate cash that you want to get out of it, but the big picture. Entrepreneurship is not a big deal. It is nothing to be scared of. If it is worth doing, go all out to do it well.