Iyin Aboyeji, the man who absolutely has a tech eye
Please, by a show of hands, let’s know how many of us fell under the spellbinding sway of The Social Network, that speedy-dialogued film that Aaron Sorkin made in 2010. Remember it? It was about the founding of Facebook.
Oh Fantastic. Thanks for coming to this survivors’ meeting.
Among us today, ladies and gentlemen, we are much obliged to have Iyin Aboyeji—his friends call him E (we’ll get to that in a bit). Iyin was also smooched by that movie. But unlike you and I, Iyin has lived the life portrayed in that movie. He’s been in it for at least six years. I mean, what are the odds! But he has. In 2018, Iyin even met Mark. Got $24million of investment cash from Mark. The same Mark Zuckerberg. Say, how does one become like Iyin?
Permit me to hazard a guess. To be like Iyin, you must see everything through the eyes of technology. I know. Everything is tech, tech these days, isn’t it? But check out these facts:
In a recent Forbes Africa feature, people like Iyin Aboyeji, whose start-ups rely on technology were canonised as the New Tycoons. Why? Because they are. Tech, which is the scientific, predictable, scalable, border shattering, more secure, and easier way to conduct business, is unsurprisingly and more fundamentally altering the way business is conducted.
Take financial services, for instance. In 2016, Iyin told the world he was cofounding Flutterwave. This company, he said, would make it easier for anyone in Africa to make and receive payments from anywhere in the world, with an API (Application Programming Interface) that Flutterwave owned.
He said in a Medium post: “Our API allows businesses to accept and disburse payments from MasterCard, Visa, Verve, Mobile Money, ACH — and even cash tokens and e-wallets in different African countries by integrating one API. Our technology will enable the next generation of technology leaders in Africa to launch and support businesses that will scale — not only across Africa but across the U.S. and other major international markets.”
Today, there’s Flutterwave Barter, a mobile app. On it you could create a virtual dollar-denominated debit card, fund that card, make online payments. Should you want to receive money from, let’s see, the US? That’s covered too. Financial services, not to be too on the nose, meets tech: Fintech. A decade ago, this would have been impossible.
Half a decade before Flutterwave launched, online transfers were nothing if not clunky and unpredictable. As Seyi Taylor, cofounder, and CEO of TechCabal, described it, correctly, at the time, receiving payments online in Nigeria, particularly through Interswitch’s WebPay—which was the top gun—was not only costly ($1,000 to ingrate); it was also not mobile-friendly. And it failed rather consistently. “Some startups reported that as many as 90 per cent of transactions failed,” said Taylor.
Thankfully, tech infrastructure has steadily grown up, nourished by more understanding government philosophy, and opened the door to a democratic regime in financial services. Interswitch itself is now valued at $1billion. It’s Africa’s first fintech unicorn — a privately held financial tech company worth a billion dollars.
It makes a ton of sense, then, that as the tech that deals with money got more rewarding, adventurous businesspeople would try to bring the same magic to other sectors of the economy. It is for this reason that you now have such portmanteaux as healthtech, agritech, edutech, mediatech, and proptech (property tech)—and companies like, LifeBank, Money Africa, Boomplay, FarmCrowdy, and Andela.
Ah. Andela. That was where Iyin really started, started. Once bitten by the entrepreneurship bug while at school at the University of Waterloo, Canada, Iyin and a friend, Pierre, had started Bookneto. The two boys had thought, they would open a new world of academic resource materials to students in North America and, perhaps, Africa. In the process, maybe they’d make out like bandits. But it didn’t work.
After that first dip of his toe in the startup water, Iyin met Jeremy Johnson, who had recently taken his own edutech company, 2U, public. The got talking. Turned out Johnson was desperate to find a “salesforce engineer” to whom he was ready to pay as much as $105,000 a year. But there were no takers.
Iyin put two and two together. He told the man, “this is something we can definitely find for you here in Nigeria and I am sure a lot of Nigerians would love to learn if they think they can get $105,000 or even half of that.” So, they created Andela, a school for African software developers, who are then outsourced to local and international companies. It was for Andela that they got that money from Chan Zueckerberg Initiative.
A 29-year-old with a first degree in Legal Studies might be seen as an unlikely tech tycoon but by the moves he makes, however, Iyin proves that his successes (he’s also known as the king of exits), is both about the eye for tech he has and how he’s sort of a visionary who connects the big issues.
For a grossly unemployed youth population and frantic, talent-hungry firms, he offered Andela. Following that, he built the Flutterwave bridge. And, early 2020, he began to line up the pieces, with Future Africa, for “capital, community and coaching” for young Africans. This social enterprise also runs the Future Africa Fund, by which it’s raised and invested $1million in nine African start-ups.
Ultimately, Iyin’s biggest goal, hold on to your hat, maybe in his play for a charter city in Nigeria. To oversimplify the business idea, Iyin’s charter city, to be called Talent City, will be a community where urbanisation and industrialisation will grow hand in hand, and the residents will see their incomes rise steadily over time. He hopes to capitalise on the country’s free trade zone laws “to develop policies that are data-driven and evidence-based — free of complex socio-political or economically-protectionist considerations.”
Complex, yes but he didn’t particularly invent it. What he has done, as usual, is to see strewn parts and glue them together. It’s what an entrepreneur does. It is what an entrepreneur, aided with science, gets to do better.
The other day, Iyin tweeted this: “The CBN’s recent directive on receiving remittances in dollar and asking IMTO’s to shut down Naira Ledger accounts has unlocked some massive markets for crypto in Nigeria in ways I don’t think even the APEX bank fully understands. USDT for the win. Those who know, know.”
Okay. There he goes again. Now you can guess why they call him E.