Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|July 21, 2022|19 Minutes|In Billionaire, Billionaire Today

Billionaire Today

The Prince of payments.

He is a ball of energy tied up with humour and humility. Meet Iyin Aboyeji one of the princes of Africa’s new disruptive dynasty of fintech millionaires with a unicorn – a billion-dollar start-up – on his track record. At the age of 30, he has overseen multi-million investments and won the faith of Mark Zuckerberg – you get the feeling he is just getting started.

Iyin Aboyeji has made a lot of quick decisions in his short career as an entrepreneur. He possesses that youthful enthusiasm and humour that gives you the impression he has quipped and laughed through the down days- and he’s had a few. It’s been tough in patriarchal and conservative Africa.

“I mean, it is poetic to watch the tides change there. Because, yes, when I was coming up in the industry… a lot of people were like:  who is this kid? He doesn’t have an MBA; he doesn’t have enough life experience. Can’t do anything,” laughs Aboyeji.

Well, Aboyeji certainly can do something. Before he was 30, he raised millions in investment and founded a number of companies including Andela and Flutterwave. The latter company is a unicorn at the cutting edge of the fintech boom in Africa creating a new rising breed of Young Turks disrupting their way to billions.

“That’s a tough mantle, but with that being said what is incredible about fintech is that all of a sudden you have the ability to leverage technology and that pretty much changed everybody’s lives. Because what you see is just the payment company,” he says.

“What we see is real empowerment. We give people the financial tools they need to broaden their lives and their perspectives.”

Aboyeji oversaw the raising of $15.7 million in capital for Flutterwave the payments company that has conducted more than a billion dollars in transactions across the continent.

“I think it raised a bit more than that. In this last round we raised like $ 170 million in the last round. It wasn’t that difficult necessarily. I don’t know what the experience was for the founders,” he says.

“It was a company that was processing a portion of the Nigerian economy. Something in the order of 10% of it. We still had 90% to go, you know what I mean? It made sense for them (investors) to walk well on that fire and watch things blow up and that is what I have confidence in.”

Aboyeji admits his business acumen has yielded him tens of millions and a dose of humility.

Well, I am not very rich, I am comfortable, at most, tens of millions, but I am not a billionaire,

Photo © Facebook

“Well, I am not very rich, I am comfortable, at most, tens of millions, but I am not a billionaire,” he says.

You could argue that these millions came down to four shrewd and timely decisions in the life of Aboyeji.

  • Avoid desk jobs at all costs– Aboyeji’s father was a pastor.“I always joke that he serves God and I serve people! That’s how we split it!” laughs Aboyeji. The senior Aboyeji was also a corporate man for Shell – in those days the first name in oil in Nigeria. He wanted his son to follow him into an equally secure corporate job when college was done. “It’s so funny. When I first moved back to Nigeria, he got me an interview with big oil corporation. I skipped the interview three times and the other day he said: ‘I am so glad, I hated you at the time, but glad you didn’t take that interview!’”
  • Find your angel investor – Aboyeji set his sights on a young American by the name of Jeremy Johnson, an entrepreneur who had dropped out of Princeton, aged 21, to build his businesses. They included a highly successful educational technology company called 2U. At the time, Aboyeji was a penniless young hopeful running the streets of New York. It was a busy time for Johnson he was tied up celebrating his 30th birthday in the same week as taking his company public. Luckily for Aboyeji, Johnson, who had spent time in Accra, was benevolent towards a persistent stranger from Africa. “I had this bad habit when I was growing up, I was bugging people with email. You don’t want to be on the other side of my email! I was just emailing him and then the responded out of the blue as I was about to leave New York and he said: ‘let’s go out for fresh and coke’. That was the meeting that changed my life.” In English, fresh and coke is salad and a fizzy drink – did it go down well? “I didn’t eat the salad. Us Lagosians like our meat!” he says with a laugh.
  • Seize the moment! – Once Johnson was on board, as an investor, the two spotted a chance to write an article for the influential Wall Street Journal. “I can’t claim any credit for that. My co-worker is an expert networker, which is the biggest thing I learned from him…how to talk to capital. Jeremy Johnson, the American…. we wrote this piece called ‘Will the next Mark Zuckerberg come from Africa?’ it was a very refined piece.  I think Mark saw it and Vivienne who manages his money at the Mark Zuckerberg Foundation…. And they reached out and started the conversation about Nigeria, the Zuckerberg foundation investing in Andela and Facebook being a big part of Nigeria. It’s been amazing ever since,” says Aboyeji who had watched the Zuckerberg biopic The Social Network a score of times. “Hi I’m Mark,” Zuckerberg said when he came to Nigeria, in 2016,ahead of making the subsequent $24 million investment in Andela – a New York-based start-up that helps tech companies build remote engineering teams from Africa. Staff cheered as he walked into the company offices in downtown Lagos. “You can only imagine how inspiring that was to have Mark visiting us in Lagos and investing in our company. That was pretty cool, like full circle,” says Aboyeji. “He is intensely mission driven. He is still for me like a huge mentor and role model. I know a lot of people have beef about Mark, but for me, anybody who can be so mission- driven that they are willing to almost like… I mean it is incredible just to watch him work. In terms of and to watch him think. We got to see a lot of that when he came to Nigeria.He is just so far ahead in what he is thinking. In many ways responsible for the avalanche of attention that the African technology got.” Zuckerberg walked the streets during the visit, question, would the social networker survive in Lagos? “Easily, no really. I’m telling you man. I don’t think Lagos will be a problem.  He has enough money to survive Lagos. More importantly, he is too smart man, he got on the bridge himself, he walked from TC Hub to our office in Lagos. He is good!”
  • Listen at conferences and think! – An existential moment for Aboyeji came in the third row of a dull conference. In the audience were entrepreneurs; from founders in the fashion industry to the owners of emerging e-commerce companies. They all had the same problem. “Basically, all the industry people in one room complaining about payment,” recalls Aboyeji. “One guy on stage said you are too small for us to even bother. Forget about us trying to deal with your issues. Somebody has to do it, but it is not going to be us, because we have bigger fish to fry. I left that conversation thinking ‘wow that’s incredible’, that their fish is that big and perhaps they are missing something. It’s never going to happen if everybody just complains and nobody goes out and does something about it.”

Flutterwave and Aboyeji fried the small fry and made millions from it. These days everyone from your aunt paying her church tithe to people selling handbags can get their money from customers in other countries with ease.

It was not always easy in business for Aboyeji. Like many young Nigerians, from prosperous families, he went to school overseas – in Canada in a small prep school followed by the University of Waterloo in Ontario where he studied law.

At the age of 30, he has overseen multi-million investments and won the faith of Mark Zuckerberg

Photo: Wikipedia

It was at university that Aboyeji acquired his nickname: ‘E’

“My lecturer knew what sound my name began with,but couldn’t say the rest so he said: ‘I will call you ‘E’!’”

University led to an encounter that would usher in Aboyeji’s debut as an entrepreneur.

“The first day at tech school I met this guy on the first year of school at university and he was just this crazy long-haired computer scientist from Montreal. We became really good friends.He left and went to Silicon Valley and when he came back, he told me about Silicon Valley. I didn’t even know that people my age could build all this stuff. The old man of the Internet or something. He was the first guy to open my eyes to what is possible on the internet,” says Aboyeji.

The crazy long-haired man was named Pierre Arys and with him Aboyeji became an entrepreneur.

“At first, we used software at school called: Blackboard, it was oddly was very difficult to use. At the time me and my friends thought it would be really, really cool to improve the software. We didn’t understand how University procurement and how the steps worked… (laughs) and I knew nobody was going to give contract of half a million to some kids. So, we started and hoped to get lucky. So, we built the software and presented it to the school. The school went ‘hell no, you are still at school!’ you are not a business – so, scrap,” he recalls.

Then, came another venture that also struggled.

“Then we started selling past question papers to other students, so we got past questions papers from other students. We were actually a research school, so a lot of professors own the IP. A lot of the professors didn’t do a lot of lecturing and went to class as little as possible.  They were actually like used the past questions to set the exams. They couldn’t care less about the lectures. They used past questions, because they didn’t care less about the lecturing, it was just something you had to do. Having access to that passing test questions was as good as passing the exam. So, we made their lives hell,” he says.

“A bunch of the professors sued us for posting the past questions and making money off the past questions on our website. So cut a long story short, we won the law suit, but we had to close down the website. The professors own the courses, but the only loophole was the IP. So, then we came into the business of helping professors sell their courses online.”

This was the root of the company Bookneto where the two ended up selling exam questions for up to $80 each. Aboyeji sold it and moved back to Nigeria where his Andela, Flutterwave and Future Africa adventures began.

There is a school of thought that Aboyeji, with so many ventures in so few years, is the king of exits.

“(Laughs) It’s better than the king of blow-ups!  Look a bunch of things about exits for me. I think the thing is to really understand what you are good at. What I am really good at is doing all the groundwork that no one wants to do. 

You know it is like a delivery some time, not a fun job. You are a midwife, you have to get out the baby and clean up the mucus, make it look pretty and hand over to the mother. ‘It’s like, I like her, good job.’ That’s my job. That’s where I excel, the first clients, the first investors, the first employees, that’s where I really excel.”

Abojeyi wants to retire at 40, but for now sees a bright future for African entrepreneurs like him. He sees the new African Continental Free Trade Area as a big opportunity, but also warns of a number of hurdles for entrepreneurs that he has tips on how to overcome.

“Capital is a big thing. Figure out how capital works. Identifying how to design a product for people you don’t know.  Cause people often forget, Africa has 1.3 billion people. Most people know and average of maybe a thousand people. You have to leverage data,” he says.

“You have to think carefully about people’s incentives, you have to leverage and people don’t really understand that. Partnerships; you need credibility from people who have gained trust from the public.  It is very difficult for people to do that.”

And the next big hurdle?

“I think the biggest one is finding good people to work with. Not even capital, I see a lot of entrepreneurs trying to start out alone, which is always a mistake. You can’t do it by yourself it’s just not possible.

It is so hard to do things by yourself in Africa, you are going to kill yourself.”

 And you find the people?

“That it, what is your own life experience, where you’ve been and how you set yourself up for success. How do people regard you? What assets do you have?

Are you a trickster? I don’t want to work with a trickster”

Aboyeji is investing in the next generation of African entrepreneurs with his new venture Future Africa. Those entrepreneurs in the Aboyeji stable can be sure of two things: rapid investment decisions and hundreds of emails.