Gossy Ukanwoke: Bringing Innovation To BetKing
A boat ride from Victoria Island across the lagoon and through the Badagry Creek would open you up to a different type of Lagos – one without the hustle and bustle that characterises the 20 million strong city, one with a host of private beaches where you can be at peace with nature and your thoughts.
It was in this place of serenity and in his private beach house that the Guardian Life team sat with Gossy Ukanwoke, the Managing Director of BetKing, a major sports betting and digital entertainment company offering services in Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Ukanwoke is an entrepreneur through and through and one with a passion for using technology and innovation to bring about change. Years before he took on the helm of affairs at BetKing, Ukanwoke, at the age of 23, founded Beni American University, the first online University in Nigeria. In June 2015, he was awarded the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. He was then named as one of the 50 Global Makers and Shakers of EdTech by Qatar Foundation in 2016. The following year, he was named CEO of the Year by the Africa CEO Forum in 2017.
From the balcony of the white-coated house where we sat, if you look past the waving palm fronds and the pool which has the initials of his first name, you would see the Atlantic Ocean lapping at the beach just a few metres from Ukanwoke’s wooden gate. Right there, I wondered if the 32-year-old entrepreneur had always had his life planned out.
“It would be hard to say you’re planning out your life and looking at exactly step-by-step of how you want to get to any point in your life. But for me, I’ve always known I wanted to have my own business, build something, start something and that’s been that way for a very long time.
“But getting to this point in my life, I guess it’s multiple points of decision making and multiple reflection points. Here are the two options; to live here or live there and choose one path over the other. And I guess, that’s sort of how I’ve been able to get here. Not like thinking that I want to be here and then working towards it particularly but just having a general idea of who I want to become and making decisions every day to get there,” Ukanwoke says.
Born in Umuahia, Abia State, south eastern Nigeria, Ukanwoke holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Management Information Systems from the American University of Cyprus where he graduated Summa Cum Laude.
As opposed to the trend which sees African students in Western countries staying back after their education, Ukanwoke made the decision to come back to Nigeria and start afresh. A decision that was informed by his belief that his chance of doing something game-changing in Nigeria were much higher than anywhere else in the world.
“It’s like taking the opportunities of the things I wanted to do, coming to a place where [it’s] more like fertile ground and that would position me towards my own personal goal of using technology and innovation to disrupt existing industries.”
On his return to the country, Ukanwoke founded BAU Research and Development. Through BAU R&D, he founded the Beni American University and BAU Executive Education. BAU R&D has completed investments in two traditional Nigerian universities and is poised to expand its portfolio of institutions across Africa.
Ukanwoke boasts of a wealth of experience that spans across diverse sectors including government, education, security, finance and entertainment.
Prior to joining BetKing, Ukanwoke was the Co-Founder and CEO of Integrated Intelligent Imaging West Africa, a company established to provide a wide range of solutions in Aviation Security, Toll Management, Airspace Monitoring, and other services. He also launched Alistair Maine Group in 2018, to deliver top quality hospitality, lifestyle and leisure experiences centred around the shorelines of the Atlantic Ocean, creeks and lagoons in Nigeria.
Speaking about his work in different sectors, Ukanwoke says the mode of transport might be different but the journey is still the same, for him, irrespective of the industry, his priorities are still to “empower people, give young people opportunities, create impact in the society, have significant change in different communities and importantly, use innovation and technology to change existing industries.”
BetKing – That Feeling
Gossy Ukanwoke assumed the role of the Managing Director of BetKing in April 2020, two months after the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Nigeria. Like everyone else around the world, the new MD had to tackle the challenges of working in a pandemic.
The challenges were even more unique for a young sports betting company whose products are hinged on sports. The global shutdown of sporting activities amid a series of lockdowns were the challenges that welcomed the new MD. He had to make decisions that saw the BetKing not only through the pandemic but also emerging as a major player in the sports betting industry.
“It was like a case study of being thrown into the deep end,” Ukanwoke reflects.
In his capacity as the managing director of BetKing, Ukanwoke is responsible for the strategic growth and development of the business.
Speaking about his game-changing focus for BetKing, Ukanwoke says although the gaming industry itself has not changed tremendously in a very long time, however, “there is a lot of room to use innovation to diversify ways to reach people, because at the end of the day, it’s still the same sport.”
There are over 20 sports betting companies in Nigeria. And indeed, if you boil it down to the core of the business; Manchester United is playing Arsenal, if you place a bet on that, it’s pretty much the same thing for everyone else. But what is BetKing doing differently from the others?
Ukanwoke says for BetKing, the secret is in the experience. “What really would change how we are as BetKing to our customers, is in the experience that we give them. It’s not about changing the gaming itself. It’s about the experience of gaming. Whether it’s from the way that you’re able to take their bet, or the way that you’re able to process it, and get them their money back.
“And that’s really what the bigger difference is because we are all selling the same thing. But at the core of it is the experience for people. Do you give them the feeling of belonging?”
More Than Betting
BetKing is taking things further beyond gaming by impacting the communities and investing in the lives of people.
“What do you do for them beyond gaming?” Ukanwoke asks. “When they’re done doing business and they’ve withdrawn their money and they’ve moved on, what do you do for them? What are you doing in the community? How are you changing lives? How are you supporting people in different areas? How are you enabling sports? How are you enabling youth training?”
At the height of the lockdown, BetKing extended a hand to mitigate the effects of suspended sporting activities on its agents and their businesses, by making a series of donations to support them through the economic hardship. Similarly, they contributed relief materials for isolation centers in parts of Nigeria with the aim of aiding efforts to manage and suppress the spread of the coronavirus in the country.
BetKing partnered with the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF) in 2020 to donate funds to assist over 200 market women during the festive period.
The company has also created over 100,000 jobs through its agency network with approximately 40,000 in the first year.
Ukanwoke says he personally oversees the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR). BetKing has a number of areas of focus for CSR; supporting business and entrepreneurship, youth training and education, and sports. The company is also planning on focusing on healthcare as well.
When BetKing launched in 2018, it was “just a sports betting company,” three years later, it experienced exponential growth that has seen the young company achieve milestones in the industry and cross-continental growth.
BetKing launched in Kenya in June 2020, taking the company a step further into becoming a Pan African Brand and Market Leader. In November of the same year, they announced that Multichoice became a 20% Shareholder in the parent company, a move that solidifies their position as a major challenger of status quo in industry. Similarly, their sister company in Ethiopia was relaunched and invested in their local league to bring that league to television and build the sports industry in the country.
Ukanwoke’s approach to leadership is guidance through inquiry. “My approach to leadership is I ask a lot of questions. If you ask guys who work with me, if you come to me to give you answers, I will not give you answers. I’ll ask you questions until you come to the answers yourself, because I feel that my ability to be a leader is that I can come here (the beach house), switch off and no one needs to find me to be able to do anything.
“You’re able to empower people enough to act and be free and actually have the courage to make decisions when you’re not there knowing that when you come back you’d be happy with the decisions they’ve made. For me that’s what leadership should be.”
BetKing’s unique approach to customer experience and CSR combined with its offer of the biggest odds on major leagues with exciting markets across several sports and virtual games has powered its rapid growth in Africa in just three years. And with the relaunch of the brand, it promises to revolutionise the gaming experience in Africa.