Tech in Africa: A Conversation with Tobi Lafinhan
Tobi Lafinhan, co-founder of Venture for Africa, joins the podcast to discuss the tech startup scene in Africa.
Olivia Osuala: Hi, Tobi.
Tobi Lafinhan: Hi, Olivia. How’s it going?
Well, so far, so good. Yeah, so I wanted to start by introducing you. You’re the CEO of Venture for Africa, tell me a little bit about Venture for Africa and how you connect African startups to non-tech talent.
Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me, I guess, on this conversation, always interesting to jump on another podcast. So Venture for Africa, essentially what I like to describe what we do is being a bridge between experienced non-tech talent and fast-growing tech startups. So we always try to define those two groups with a bit more detail because those are very generic terms. So on the startup side, we work mostly with venture-backed teams that have raised quite a bit of funding already, usually a million dollars or more. Not so much about the amounts, but I think just because of the level of skill we’re looking to insert our talent pool into. And on our talent side, we work mostly with people who have a bit of experience on the average, let’s say, three to four years. But I guess what’s very specific is that number one, they’re non-technical, and technical as in non-engineering, so they’re not developers. So things like product management, marketing, finance, strategy, and all those things, but they’re also people that are keen on working with tech startups but don’t necessarily have a way to break into the space. And so we came up with this three-month, essentially like a trial-to-hire situation whereby talents can experiment by just getting exposed to new startups, new opportunities for three months, see if it makes sense, and then after three months, both parties can move into something more long-term. So that flexibility really helps because we’ve had people that have spent ten years in corporates looking for a new challenge or folks that have spent time in traditional industries looking for a new challenge or just looking for a way to ease into startups. And we’ve been able to make that happen for about 20 fellows so far, 70% of which have stayed on full-time. So essentially, like Olivia said, we essentially connect talents to startups, but we do that through a trial-to-hire type of situation. That’s pretty much VFA.
Wow, that’s very interesting. I mean, we’ve spoken about this before, but there are so many parallels between what you do and what we do because we sort of position global entrance here for North American domination. How did you come up with the idea? Did you know there was a dearth of talent for startups that were looking for other skills apart from programmers and software developers? Did you notice that there was a really crucial lack in that area?
Yeah. So the problem was a bit two-sided or just multifaceted to be fair. First of all, we realized that founders were relying heavily on their personal networks to find talent. Not even just non-technical talent, but talent in general. And to be fair, for your first ten, twenty employees, that’s probably the recommended pathway to go and for specific kinds of hires, that’s a good way to go. But at a certain level of growth, which is why we work with growth-stage companies, you realize that it becomes a limited pool and what you then see is people just moving in and around. So you work for this startup in Nairobi, then maybe a new company wants to launch in that market and they come and poach you. Which I guess is great, it’s a very talent-driven market, but I think we are looking more at the long-term sustainability of that in the ecosystem and we realize that if you’re not plugging new talents into the space, we will reach a point where the growth is kind of capped because everyone is sort of exchanging talents. So that was one side of the problem that founders were relying on their personal networks, which led to a difficulty with really finding talent.
But also I think on the flip side of the problem, we were connected to a lot of people that were trying to explore startups but had either this mentality that I needed to be very technical to really add value to a startup or I needed to at least know coding to an extent. And because my co-founders and I spent some time in the space working with earlier-stage startups and now moving into growth-stage startups, we saw that look, even in the Googles and the Facebooks, if you look at their job boards, about 40% of the roles are actually non-technical roles and non-engineering roles. Their narrative is a tech business is still a business at the end of the day, and so, yes, it’s good to have a tech product and you build that out, but as you start to grow in skill, you’re not making that many changes except if you’re forward-thinking and you’re bringing up a new technology. You really have the solution already in place, and what you’re looking for is growth, right? Not just of the product but of your customer base and things like that. And those require very specific kinds of skills that are not necessarily engineering. So that’s what we were seeing. If you know venture capital on the continent started to grow year on year almost by a 100% over the last five years and we realize that we can see a lot of companies entering that growth phase. So raise a bit of funding and in a sense it’s a skill, either you’re in the vertical that you’re in or to different country. And like I said earlier, that requires a different level of skills from talent as opposed to just pure engineers. Like you’re always going to need engineers, no one is arguing that, but I think you need to build up all those other functions as well to actually build a great company in that sense. Yeah.
It’s very funny that you mentioned this because I think we are really in sync in terms of our perspective on those issues. I was having this conversation with someone in my network very recently and this is someone that had worked in the World Bank and PwC, went to London School of Economics, and was sort of–she had this sort of preconception that she needed to go to maybe Stanford, get an MBA before being able to break into tech. And I really had to explain that tech for the most part are companies like any other, right? What’s the difference between a tech company and an oil company? It’s really just the product they’re selling. You know? Oil companies selling crude and finding crude and tech companies are selling, for the most part, software, SaaS products, AI, blah, blah, blah. And like you said, they need all the other skill-sets that come with structuring, developing, and growing a company. What do you think are the short- and long-term economic impacts of platforms such as yours?
That’s an interesting one. I’d say obviously there’s one in the sense that, like I mentioned earlier, if there wasn’t a platform like us and if everyone just focused on technical skills and poaching what you need to poach, the ecosystem as a whole which is…in terms of talent, right? And if you look at any ecosystem and whatever massive kind of growth you’ve seen, there’s two things that you’re going to see there. Massive capital, but also massive talent base. Right? And if you look at where most companies spent a lot of the funding that they raise, a large percentage goes into acquiring talent. So talent is always going to be an important conversation, and if you’re not creating enough pipelines to get new talents into the pool, you reach a gap, reach a place where you can’t even grow any further because there’s no talent to support that growth.
I like to give a very traditional example, so if you look at banks and traditional consulting companies. About say when I was still in my first year in uni, most people that went into banks and went into consulting companies–and I studied this in school, so banking and finance students, economics students, and things like that. But as I started to near my graduation date, I realized, I saw engineering friends applying to PwC, applying to McKinsey, applying to banks, and you’re wondering like, okay what’s going on here? And what I think happened is that these companies realized that there was a limited talent pool if you’re only going to focus on people that studied x-y-z in school. And so they decided to start to create training programs to get people that were smart, people that were good at what they do, trying to get them into the bottom level of these companies and grow through their programs and just getting into the business itself. Now I say that because you don’t realize that even traditional companies still face this problem of talent and are looking for creative ways to go about it. So I think in the short term, I think we’re definitely helping founders that, again, might not be too outgoing or might not have the right networks yet to build up their talent pools, we’re helping to fill that gap. But I think longer term, we’re really making sure that there’s an inlet into tech startups from talents from outside the ecosystem which we think will be super helpful with sustaining the level of growth that we want to see and that we already kind of see within the ecosystem as well.
I mean, 100%, I agree. I think that when you’re not able to successfully develop and create a pipeline of talent constantly within any industry, it’s also going to lead to stale ideas, right? Because like you said, you just keep recycling within the same group of people. And I also think it’s really important, and I think that sort of contributes into all the exciting ideas we have right now just on a global scale. And generally, not just within tech, I think there’s just a lot of very interesting ideas because people are starting to hire for talent and intellect and set in behavioral attributes like resilience, as opposed to just hiring within a specific niche because they have specific qualifications, kind of sustainable. Yeah, it’s just a very exciting time so far. So would you say that’s–apart from talent density challenges that are obviously a pain point for African tech companies, would you say that remote work is changing the dynamics of the talent landscape in Africa? How is this affecting their hiring strategies apart from what you’ve already mentioned?
Yeah. So I think for sure remote work and everything that the pandemic has driven is playing a big part. But I think it’s hard to see if it’s a– Obviously depending on what side you’re coming from and what kind of person you are, you might look at it as a net positive or net negative. I’m going to look at it and I’m currently looking at it as a net positive sort of effect. For one, we’re seeing that companies are not limited to hiring from their local communities anymore, and I think it’s given companies access to a wider talent pool. Even for VFA ourselves, I think one of the USBs and one of the points that we’re able to leverage is that we’re able to connect you with talent from anywhere across the world and as long as you’re set up to work remotely, you can totally take advantage of that, right? And what we’re seeing teams do is also come into this hybrid structure where, yes, you might work at home–you might be an African company working with someone who is based in the US or based somewhere else, and then once every quarter, once every period, they come together as a team, and that’s what we’re seeing happen. And I think it’s really… Because obviously if you look at the industry of tech, a lot of it is about efficiency. And I think this is kind of like an efficient way of working.
A lot of times, I get the idea of being together in the same room, bouncing ideas off of each other, but that’s not only what a business is about. I think whenever arguments are made for we need to get back in person, it’s always centered around this or this coffee room or coffee chat talk or water table talk and bouncing ideas off each other. And I do get that, which is why I said having a retreat or every three months coming together, you can still draw a lot of value from those, but I think if individually and just working in separate silos, asynchronous work and things like that, I think that is where the ecosystem really needs to get into. And we’re seeing that happen. And so, just in terms of how it’s impacting companies, I think right now companies are able to fight for talent from other markets, right? So as a Nigerian company, you can already be working with a business developer or some product manager in Kenya without necessarily having to figure out immigration and all of these things because you can work with them from wherever they are. But it’s also giving you talents in other emerging markets, right? Africa is not the only country in the emerging market space trying to grow, right? So imagine being able to access people that have maybe done something similar in a relatively similar market to yours, like you said the point about spreading ideas and things like that. So I think there’s a lot of advantages that come with that, but there are also downsides, right? Which is this idea of figuring out, again, tax laws across– Now you don’t have to figure out tax laws across your primary markets because you have talent seated across different spaces. But I think we’re always up to the challenge, I think there are companies that are helping people process hiring and things like that from other markets, Alariss for example. Right? So I feel like the ecosystem is up to the challenge, and we just need to really go head-on into this whole remote and asynchronous work environment.
Okay so, I think you raised a few very important points. First of all, we’ve all heard the arguments for going back to the office, and for the most part tech workers are not having it because there are very, very drastic lifestyle improvements that come with remote work, but it’s sort of surprising to see the companies that are agitating for going back to the office. Apart from the points about losing money in the real estate industry and commercial real estate has taken a beating since the pandemic, so I can understand those industries like agitating to go back to work from the office. But the synergy that is sort of lost from being in the same environment, is to instantaneously and impulsively bouncing off ideas with your colleagues. And I also think that there is a budding industry that is going to grow from having to reconnect and build trust within companies, like you said, have retreats every maybe three, four months, maybe every quarter. We’re actually about to go on our first retreat, so that’s exciting. But I was wondering if you think there are any long-term solutions? And I know there are companies that are trying to address this, we’ve tried a software before that tries to replace that feeling of being by the water cooler in the office and having a chat with your colleagues, but I don’t know that really does a good job of substituting or replacing the synergy you feel in person. Do you think there are any sort of practices that companies can implement? Or any sort of policies that would help to create this?
Yeah, it’s good that you set up the question this way because I for one don’t necessarily think that this is something that software can solve. Right? Software can do a lot of things, but I don’t think this is one of them, at least in the wave software currently exists in. And maybe what we should be trying to do is not to try and create a substitute. Maybe this is the time to evolve, right? I think we have a tendency to want to always keep things the same way. We’re social beings, so–
Exactly. And I’m not questioning that, that’s not what I’m saying here, but I’m just saying maybe, right? If efficiency and if long-term growth is what we’re looking for, maybe calls for a big reevaluation of what’s actually important and how to take the pieces of what is important and embed that into our processes. Because if you end up doing this mistake of, okay, let me try and recreate this experience exactly but in a virtual environment, you end up with–Zoom fatigue is now a phrase a lot of communities learned. It came at the beginning of the pandemic because everybody was trying to recreate that exact feeling of offline online, and they’re just different. For me, I’m more of just understanding the limitations of what we have and trying to find out, okay what is the end goal? Is the end goal to share ideas? Okay, what other ways can we try? Yes, we’ve always shared ideas by conversations, but maybe it’s time to move to something more effective. I, for one, don’t like instantaneous communication. I actually don’t like it. Even like personal friendships, I like long phone conversations, which is why I love podcasts and things like that. So for me, like this world, I’m happy in a way that the pandemic has sort of 10x’ed how quickly we’re growing into this space, like it’s forced a lot of things to happen very quickly. And obviously, there will be growing pains and that’s what we’re experiencing at the moment. And really I can’t say, I’m not that visionary to say what’s going to lie at the end of it, but I do know that there’s no point trying to go back–-there’s no going back to it, I don’t think there’s a world to go back to anymore. It’s been two years guys, so let’s really just figure out how to make sense of what’s really happening now in the most effective ways and drop what hasn’t been effective for us in a long time and just think about the future is how I’m putting it.
Yeah, I agree with that. I think that perhaps we’re taking the wrong approach because in order to sort of create that synergy internally where you’re constantly bouncing off ideas, I think the actual point should be to create intimacy. Workplace appropriate level intimacy, right? Which is kind of what is missing, especially as they’re tech companies that are really young or just starting off or are about to take off during the pandemic. So now we have, for the first time, I think maybe in decades or who knows, even centuries, colleagues working together on a day-to-day basis spending a significant amount of their daily lives working on projects together that have never seen each other. I actually have never seen any of my colleagues. Yeah, that’s funny. But I think it’s increasingly important for us to find a way on the virtual level, and I don’t know that software would necessarily resolve this as well, but we need to create a feeling of trust and intimacy because without trust, people are going to be hesitant to share their ideas. Right? Like there’s no shared vulnerability. Like the good thing about virtual work is, for the most part, you are able to put your best foot forward. But the pro is also the con, it’s like a double-edged sword. You can put your best foot forward but that does not necessarily build the feeling of vulnerability that comes when you’re able to within the same room, decode body language, decode real intense and not be so guarded.
That’s true. And like you said, I don’t think this is–maybe not yet, maybe we just haven’t gotten there yet where software has something that can kind of account for this. I think for me it’s all about, I think once you’re honest with what the problem is, I guess they have ways to solve it and ways to work around it. Like I think this idea of meeting in person every like one month, two month, three months is not a long-term solution, but it does offer some kind of insight, right? And there are companies that have been remote since they ever started, long before the pandemic started, so I think these guys at Basecamp. So they’re kind of like the main advocates for working remotely, four-hour workday, so they’re very “visionary” in how they look at the future of work, and I think a lot of lessons to learn from companies that have been like that for a long time and are quite successful at it as well. I think the more examples we see of companies figuring out a way to balance all of this out, because a lot of the–I think the flip side of it is that we now get to spend time without primary connections and that helps us actually put our best self forward at work as well if you can find that balance.
I think that’s what people are forgetting because a lot of–In the previous world, people were spending way more time in the office than they were spending at home, right? And that was leading to making office connections try to suffice and replace what your family should be giving you in that sense, right? So if we’re looking at the human being as a whole, I do think that spending more time with your family and doing a lot of this is making people be more effective at work if they’re able to draw the lines. Because now the issue is, you wake up in the morning, you go to your table, you start to work, and you don’t really know when to stop in that sense. And so maybe those are the tools we need, tools to be able to portion our time to make sure that you’re not spending too much time at work because the lines are blurred. So maybe that’s what people should be thinking about, but I do think there’s–I guess economics of behavioral sciences and social sciences, I’m always forgetting that more involved in tech because I think there’s a huge part of that to play in how we design what we design. A lot of the lovely solutions and beautiful tools that we have, if you realize a lot of the research that has gone into it, you find out that there was some psychologist or behavioral person on the team as well because there’s that element that should always be involved. But when engineers feel like they can–Just because you can design a solution, doesn’t mean it’s the right solution to build, right? And so I think we’ll see more of that, and we should see more of that mixing of the sciences, the social sciences, and engineering together to really maybe come up with a long-term solution for this remote world that we’re in now, and I don’t think it’s VR. That’s another conversation for another day. But I guess in the dystopian universe of the Silicon Valley, I guess maybe that could work for them, but I think there’s a long ways to go before that’s a reality, and I don’t even think it should be a reality for us here but that’s just my personal take on it.
Well as they say, shots fired, we are a Silicon Valley company. But I totally agree with you. Bolt I think is pioneering the four-day workweek. I think that’s very interesting. I think that the less spoken about pandemic, in a sense, is the pandemic of loneliness that sort of really, really was very much impacted by the pandemic. And like you said, people used to get a certain level of social and emotional support at work, and I think what’s happening now is because the world is really a global village and people are very, are less likely now to end up where they started in terms of where they grew up or they find to be familiar. Right? A lot of people, especially I think even– Because at Alariss we definitely center multicultural people who tend to be from immigrant backgrounds, right? Or immigrants themselves. So it’s very possible that loneliness, fatigue, whether Zoom fatigue or just regular burnout has been exacerbated by the gap that is no longer being filled through physical brick-and-mortar office environments. Right? So not only are you not getting this certain level of social support from your peers and your kin, you’re also not getting any sort of social support from the office. And I don’t necessarily–I think that the pandemic and the current virtual work sort of evolution has sort of highlighted those gaps, right? I don’t think that it was ideal for people to be getting high-level emotional and social support, I think there should be a base level, right? Like a harmonious environment for work so you can be productive, and you can be pleasant. But I think that work was overcompensating for a lack that as a society we should have resolved. And I think now, the sort of burden or like tech now has the obligation to sort of design for that, because as you know a lot of people are complaining about burnout now. So is this something that you think has also impacted African startups?
For sure. I think right now there’s a very strong conversation around mental health, around not just the tech ecosystem but even outside it, and I think a lot of it has to do with this idea of burnout. And that’s been the trigger, right? Because like you said, I think people were overcompensating with some things at work and things like that and now, you now get all of the intensity from work but with none of the social banter that would calm it down initially, right? As if you were in a toxic place. So I think definitely that’s a thing, definitely among African startups as well, and I think people’s solution, like half-solution, is really to switch teams and just get to a new environment and that’s becoming more easy to do, right? Especially with remote work. So people can now take multiple interviews elsewhere and just try their hands out at something new and see what makes sense. Because obviously there’s a lot of funding coming in as well and so we try to compensate for that lack of whatever with a bit more like better pay and maybe you can get a better house and maybe that helps. So you’re right that, I think, it’s an issue that has always been around but obviously tech kind of acted as a Band-aid and the whole office environment did act as a Band-aid for a long time. And now that the pandemic caused that to come out of the picture, we’re now seeing a lot of pressure around. So as I said, I don’t have an answer to the question, I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that we can’t exactly just continue as things always were or as things are to be honest.
Yeah speaking of startups on the continent, so far I think Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, and Rwanda are emerging as major stakeholders in the African tech landscape. Are there any particular factors you think have proliferated investment and progress in these countries?
The funny thing is it’s not even country-wide, right? It’s almost very city-specific. Yes, we say Kenya, but it’s mostly Nairobi. It will say Nigeria, it’s mostly Lagos.
At one point it was actually just Yaba Hub, right?
Exactly, just a place in Lagos, right? And to be fair, that’s not to just throw away the service because even in the US for a long time, it was really Silicon Valley. Right, and I think everywhere has its hub, right? I think the world functions in this hub and spoke kind of model where there’s everywhere where everyone congregates and then sooner or later once the density reaches a point, people start to spread out. And so I don’t think it’s a problem, but let’s just be real that it’s not the whole country, I think, like it’s one state or one city in the whole country. So I think it’s more like, there’s a lot of leading indicators and a lot of other factors that cause these places to be hubs for talent and hubs for startups. First of all, like education, like once there’s a university there, there’s a density of young people with ideas and things like that that usually happens. If it’s a big enough city with big companies in there, these are companies that can hire people as well to experience what it’s like to work in certain spaces. So I think it’s more a big city conversation than anything else, like startup hubs usually happen in cities that are relatively big, have like a dense education population, and also have a bit of business activity going.
So once you have those, I think there’s research that has gone in together and I think France and a couple of people have tried to recreate all of these things by trying to identify what makes an ecosystem thrive and trying to put those pieces together. And the foundation really is this idea of education, innovation, business all being in and around the same space so that you could walk into a coffee shop, there’s a student, there’s a CEO, there’s somebody else. Let’s just say it’s that dynamic of different ideas and different perspectives that really births innovation to be honest, right? So I think that’s kind of what’s driving what’s happening across the continents because if you look at the big cities–Like Ibadan is a big city in Nigeria, it has a high student population, but what it’s lacking is sort of that business element, which is why Lagos is more active than Ibadan now. That’s changing because there’s only so much Lagos can take and so people are…as well. And yeah, so I think that’s really just the case everywhere and hopefully–Because even in Cameroon I think, it’s funny enough it’s not…where you have a lot of activity going on, so there’s just all of those different social-economic factors that affect where startup hubs and ecosystems emanate from.
Great. Yeah, I think those factors that you sort of outlined are really just what make a tech hub bright and then it’s really just expansion when the density gets to a point of diminishing returns. So on another note, what do you think tech in Africa is going to look like in 10 years?
That’s an interesting question because I guess there are different ways to look at it. Let me just say what’s on my mind right now, so I can’t really speak as to what exactly does it look like but I think we’ve done a good job of starting off with solving real problems. I think that’s always quite important and there’s a lot of difficult problems that we need to solve. The challenge now I think is a challenge of financing and not in a sense that we’re not getting enough money but that the money’s coming from a certain place and money always comes with certain kinds of expectations. A lot of the funding has gone to African companies has come from the US, right? And so investors have the expectations and things like that, and if you’re supported and backed by an investor who doesn’t understand the market and things like that, they can be quite tricky. And I think what happens is that bad behavior and behavior that doesn’t benefit the customer as a whole, gets a lot of money a lot of times and although people– I always have a problem with funding announcements being announced and that’s what’s celebrated, right? Again, everybody has a different opinion about this, but I think we’re getting to that phase where we’ve seen a lot of growth funding coming into the continent. Growth funding I think is very different than seed funding to start off with. Like seed funding, everybody’s sort of like yes, there’s a one in 10 chance this is going to be successful, so yeah that’s fine. But I think growth funding comes with a different kind of requirements, right? And by the time you have more private equity coming into the space and playing around the space, metrics start to become a lot more important. And so right now if you say venture funding is funding 10x growth and we’ve raised $5 billion so far in the ecosystem, are we saying that we’re able to sustain the market that is 50 billion strong right now? Say take in Nigeria for example. So those questions are what I’m like might start to come up a lot I think over the next say five to ten years and only to companies that have strong fundamentals, who have really built actual businesses, or going to survive, and that could have an effect on the ecosystem. But I think we’ve grown and built a lot of depth enough to weather those kinds of storms, and I do think they’re going to come. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong, I don’t know so much about the spaces but just from what I’m seeing it just feels–there’s just a lot going on is what I would say.
Wow, I think that’s an important sort of reservation you raised because just right now off the top of my head, I’m thinking about a lot of Nigerian tech startups, especially fintech, right? I feel like there’s been such heavy concentration on fintech, and I think at first it was organic because we did have very resilient problems we needed to resolve ourselves, like on that level. But I think afterward there was this sense of, oh, this is like a plan that has been proven to work. But do we have a $50 billion market for fintech? Just in terms of actual paying customers, do we have that market? I’m very optimistic, but at the same time I think sometimes we are preferring solutions for problems that do not yet exist and I think companies may run into very, very serious foundational issues within the next five to ten years if they do not sort pivot. But yeah, I just thought that was a very interesting point. So what would you–I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this or like a variation of it where people say, if you’re coming to do business in Nigeria and you have an MBA from Harvard, just forget everything they taught you at Harvard. Literally sort of unlearn that, they would be like burn your Harvard certificate, right? And then come here and see how things are done in reality. Because–and I don’t think this is peculiar to Nigeria even though, I think for the most part a lot of Nigerians or people that have lived in Nigeria understand that Nigeria is sort of different beasts, right? And I mean this in the most jocular but respectful way possible. Like Nigeria is unlike any other place on earth, right? The law of physics sometimes might not necessarily even apply, as crazy as that sounds, and I think that is common with a lot of emerging markets or sort of markets that are culturally very different from Western structures. But what do you think are maybe one or two things that investors or even founders that are looking to expand into Africa, right? Markets such as Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, what do you think? But let’s just focus on Nigeria for instance, Nigeria is very different from Rwanda, right? So what do you think a founder or an investor coming into Nigeria should know about the way the Nigerian market or Nigerian business functions?
So I don’t think I have the perfect answer for this, but I’ll try to answer it from the perspective of a startup which is the idea of like foreign degrees, Harvard, and coming from business school and having to burn the certificates. I think it’s more–I’m not fully in support of that because I think at VFA, we do look for talents in those circles but not because of those–I think what that statement really points out is the bad crops of people that try to over-leverage their certificates and their degrees and think that that sets them apart. But also because on the other side of the problem, people don’t want to do the hard work of finding who really knows the work and so rely on leading indicators. So as long as it’s a Stanford degree or Harvard degree there, you kind of feel like your mind is at rest but that’s not the case, right? And as people who focus on recruiting talent, leading indicators are fine but you still have to know what you’re looking for and know how to test for things. And so what I think people who were trained elsewhere, what they bring is a different perspective and I think what happens is there are certain stages where they are most relevant and there are certain stages where they might not be super helpful, and so it’s about the company and even the talent themselves understanding where you can add the most value. So I wouldn’t write a blank check and say, okay, go burn your Harvard degree or whatnot, I think a lot of first-principle thinking, a lot of networks that you come with can be super helpful to companies on other continents, no doubt about that. I think it’s when you try to take things that are not really helpful and try to cram it down to the startup you’re working with or it’s because you came from Harvard, I think that’s what we are trying to speak against. But for founders and investors looking into the market, I think it’s like every other thing, you function the best and you function the most when you understand things from first principles. Whereas when you try and figure out why, like ask why I guess say five times and see what’s going on, right?
So you should know that in the Africa market, data is scarce, and if you want to start a business in the US, there’s a lot of resources you can lean on. Oh, this industry’s X amount of size. And the funny thing, so you see I find it’s very interesting when you see a lot of pitch decks on the continent and all these numbers and all these things in there and a lot of it is just like, look. But if you’re talking to early-stage companies you can’t really know, a lot of this data is hidden in silos and maybe doesn’t even exist. So I think you first of all need to be comfortable with working in the midst of ambiguity, not just knowing what’s going on, right? And the other thing is you have to do is you have to build a lot of structure yourself. I think one of the reasons why fintech has got a lot of attention is because I think the financial ecosystem in most countries is really what’s built first, right? The central bank, the banks, there’s like a system of structure and legal frameworks that function enough for you to build on top of. So the banks are the roles for the fintech companies, but if you look at any other industry, like the fintech–sorry, the startup themselves technically have to build those roles and that is very expensive. That’s like trying to take the place of the government and building up the foundation of an industry. Right? So I think that’s probably why fintech…because it’s just easier to see returns “that way” because you’re building in terms of structure.
But I think generally if you’re coming to the continent, not just Nigeria specifically, you need to come with the mindset of being a builder. You’ll most likely be building the rails for a lot of the businesses to function on and a lot of times building the rails is not necessarily profitable, so I think that’s–you genuinely need to be passionate about the problem and be in it for the long term. Because if you build the rails and you’re able to stay within the market, then you will benefit off the rails that you’ve built and also everybody else that has built in that ecosystem. Right? Which is how a lot of things function in a tech space. So I think that’s just the way I see it. To be fair, everybody seems to be chasing the same class in the markets, the middle to upper class, they have a lot of money but not a lot of volume, right? And so everybody talks about the underserved and everybody’s trying to capture the underserved, but I think unless you truly understand what’s going on on the ground, it can be quite tricky to serve the underserved. Because even the fintechs say they served the underserved and they’re not necessarily serving the underserved if we’re being very honest, so that’s another shade I’m throwing on this call.
Yeah, again I’ve had this conversation with a few people and fintech, I mean, I do love a lot of the fintech startups and ideas that I’ve seen coming from Nigeria and other parts of the continent, but like you said, it really does seem dear to the 1% and I don’t even think that the 1% is enough of a sustainable market. But then, if we want to go down this rabbit hole, it all points to much larger issues that are not even within the purview. With that being said, I actually am very curious about your background, can you–’cause I saw on your profile that you’re actually an engineer, so can you sort of take us from your childhood, very quickly, I don’t want to take too much more of your time, but what led to your present sort of career position?
All right so, my background. Definitely civil engineering, that’s kind of like where I started off and that’s sort of what I always wanted to do as a kid, but I guess the question you can ask is what do you know you want to do as a kid? I think it’s weird that—I think in the US I like the education system where you don’t have to declare a major that early, you can really experiment and then figure out something. In Nigeria, which is where I schooled, we’re more like the UK where you kind of specialize very early on. Even from high school, you’re kind of put into either sciences or arts, right? So asking 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds to determine their trajectory that early on. But anyways, I loved engineering and wanted to do it, but I think I got an opportunity of doing multiple internships almost close to a year combined and I discovered that there wasn’t–it wasn’t a space I felt I was going to be able to be my true self in long-term. Like it felt like a box, like if I want to be a civil engineer, I’m going to have to be that and there’s only a limited number of options. Like I was looking at people that had spent years in the industry and they were great, doing well, rich, and everything, but I think even from a young age I was always doing so many things at the same time and I was like this is not going to allow me to do that. So I made a decision like, okay, I’m going to look for something else, but not civil engineering. Which is wild because when you do things like civil engineering, law, medicine, those professional courses, you’re kind of on a track. So I broke out of it early enough and I just was looking for stuff elsewhere. Journey to tech was quite serendipitous in that sense because I used to do a lot of stuff, I used to play around with coding at some point, and so that introduced me to the tech circles, but I never really saw it as where you can build a business in. But after graduating, so in Nigeria we do this thing called the National Youth Service which is where you go work in different states than you grew up in for a while, usually in a local community, and then after that I was looking for a job, most of the companies were taking too long to hire or they were in hiring processes and I stumbled upon some startups in legal. And I applied, the interview process was great, and they gave me an offer and then I joined and it was in Yaba and it was in CC Hub, and there I just saw a whole new world. Like my idea of entrepreneurship at the time was like you retire and then your retirement money is to set up a business and all of those things. But when I saw 20-something-year-olds building businesses and doing stuff, it just felt really wild, but I felt at home and so I just stayed. So from there I moved into MEST and this was this incubator of training software entrepreneurs, so it’s like yes, we’re going to teach you how to code but we’re also going to teach you how to build a business, which was like a very good balance for me. So I started off on the incubator side, so helping them get settled after they start, and then I moved earlier into recruitment. And so that was sort of like a transition into this talent space and just trying to understand how to find talent and how to identify talent and how to make talent work. I did that for–so I recruited the two classes in there, so 60 people every year, bringing them in, did all of that, and then was looking for a new challenge pretty much and decided to move up the talent funnel by looking at experienced talent, and like I said, my co-founders and I actually all worked at MEST at some point, so I think we already saw these gaps and decided to try our hands on building something that works in this space. So yeah, very quick hearing the history but yeah, that’s sort of my journey into tech and then what I’m doing right now.
Awesome, that sounds really exciting. So sort of toround-up our chat, just random, what is the kindest thing that anyone has ever done for you or to you? I know it’s hard.
It’s a tough one, let me see. I probably would just pick the most recent one, let me see. Who has made me really happy lately? Oh my God. Oh, okay. Okay, this is a bit far back. but one of my former managers, we used to work together and everything and at some point, my laptop was giving me serious issues and whatnot and she just gave me hers. It was very–like it feels like a very trivial thing but the sequence of it happening and how quickly it happened and how much more that made my work a lot easier. It wasn’t even a, oh, let’s figure out a payment plan or let’s do whatever, it was just– And that wasn’t the first she had done stuff like that I think. She definitely has set the bar for me in terms of how I want to be a manager as well because it’s more about doing–it’s beyond the work, it’s like being a kind person and just whatever you can do that won’t cost you anything in a way, just do it. Right? And so that was– I don’t know why I remember that specific, I don’t think I’ve thought about that in a while, but that was definitely a very kind-hearted thing to do at the time for me.
Well, that’s a great example of service leadership. And on that very high note, we’re going to conclude. It’s been so great having you here, thank you again. So this was our episode with Tobi Lafinhan from Venture for Africa. Thank you for joining us, and I look forward to talking to you soon. Bye.
All right, thank you. Bye, thank you for having me.