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How Flutterwave and Olugbenga Agboola are laying the groundwork for a startup boom across Africa

By Guardian Nigeria
24 March 2023   |   1:54 am
As the new year kicks off, many experts are predicting economic downturns. Thanks to a constellation of factors, including the Russian invasion...

As the new year kicks off, many experts are predicting economic downturns. Thanks to a constellation of factors, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine and lingering supply chain issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the bright spots seem few and far between. Luckily, Olugbenga “GB” Agboola sees a sunnier picture.

As the CEO of Flutterwave, an African payments company recently valued at $3 billion, he’s accustomed to seeing potential in places and ideas that others overlook. To him, the African tech scene is ready to make returns on the foreign investments that have poured into the continent over the past few years.

In other words, the best is yet to come.

“Everywhere you look, there is untapped potential in Africa,” Olugbenga Agboola said. “The current state of affairs hasn’t dampened that. Africa’s digital economy is still set to expand over the next several years, more than five times its current size by some estimates. When you look at that, it’s hard not to be excited, no matter what the immediate future looks like globally.”

He envisions a future for African startups that follows the model Flutterwave pioneered. By beginning small, constantly upgrading offerings, and taking full advantage of its domestic and international partnerships, the company managed to break almost every record in African startup history.

“Our biggest strength as a company has been partnerships. It takes a village to make this work, and now that Africa is rising in terms of investment and startups, there is a much bigger village,” he said. “When you have companies like Flutterwave that have achieved unicorn status in Africa, it attracts the attention of top Silicon Valley investors and partners, which also increases the population of the village. So now that we have shown to the world that African startups are legitimate investment opportunities, the seeds for future growth have been planted.”

Olugbenga Agboola is firm in his commitment. He pointed to trend lines from the past few years — how startups in Africa raised more than $4 billion in 2021 after raising only $2 billion in 2020 — as the best way to think about the future.

“The thing about technology startup companies like ours is that we can move quickly. The act of pivoting is baked into our DNA. When we notice a problem, we possess the agility to be responsive to it,” Agboola said. “Of course, we did not predict the Russia-Ukraine war and all of the consequences it has caused around the world, but shocks like that can be absorbed when you have the ability to look around and make quick changes.”

In those terms, Flutterwave has been an inspiration. The company was founded in 2016 by Olugbenga Agboola and Iyinoluwa Aboyeji as a simple payments option for Africans, but it quickly expanded its offerings to cater to a broader and more diverse range of clientele. Now, it’s a juggernaut that’s transformed the landscape of online payment in and to the continent.

“When we began, we understood the need for an online payment processing service in Africa because we had worked internationally and seen how financial technology benefits people and companies,” Agboola said. “But what we did not foresee was becoming the infrastructure of all African online payments. Right now, there is not a fintech company in Africa that does not use our service.”

Its latest pivots — launching products like Flutterwave Market and Send, as well as acquiring the creator platform Disha — show the broad vision and foundational belief that Flutterwave and Olugbenga Agboola have in their market space.

“Every day we’re seeing African companies scaling to the U.S. and vice versa. This is the beginning of the seeds growing into fully mature companies,” he said. “We are very proud to have helped show other African entrepreneurs the way to grow smartly and to show foreign investors the true potential that lives here.”

The momentum that Flutterwave has started can’t be stopped by a few bad months in the global economy, he added. The potential of African startups has always been great, but now that Flutterwave has demonstrated a realization of that potential, more money and ambition will be poured into other startups.

In 2021, Time magazine named the business one of its Most Influential Companies, thanks in part to its ability to inspire. Not only has Flutterwave given new hope to African entrepreneurs, opened the eyes of a generation of students, and commanded soaring investments, but it’s also worked alongside governments to change regulations on interstate commerce to become more business friendly and economically stimulative.

“Our goal is not to simply create a company. We want our legacy to be much greater than that,” Olugbenga Agboola said. “We want to inspire others, to make things greater for Africans, and to help the world see the true potential of the amazing people we have here.”