Move Back to Nigeria is a series on BellaNaija which aims to encourage young and not-so-young professionals in the diaspora who are trying to make the decision of whether to move back to Nigeria. In collaboration with the brilliant team at MoveBackToNigeria.com, we hope to bring you a weekly interview with individuals who have successfully made the leap, considering the leap, as well as those who have tried it and realized it is not for them. MoveBacktoNigeria.com’s mission is to showcase stories of Nigerians abroad who have moved back home and are taking giant strides, often against all odds and to serve as inspiration to others.This, however, does not preclude us from sharing stories of the people who have moved back and are facing various challenges.
This week we caught up with Adebola Adeola, who moved back to Nigeria from the UK a few years ago and subsequently launched a quite interesting ‘tech’ business. His move back to Nigeria was quite untimely as he planned to stay in the UK for a bit longer but was forced to come back home for reasons that will become clear later in this interview. Carry on reading to hear his story, which we hope you enjoy as much as we have.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Adebola Adeola, and I’m an entrepreneur. I would describe myself as a believer, and I subscribe to the notion that if you want something done, just go on and do it. I believe anything is possible.
Thank you. Please walk us through your educational background.
I grew up in Ojodu/Ikeja and went to St. Leos Catholic Private School. I attended two secondary schools: Lagos State Model College Kankon, until SS1, and then Dansol High School in Agidingbi, where I graduated. Moving to Dansol was a good decision by my parents because that’s where I became smart. I wasn’t particularly getting the best grades in Kankon. After Dansol, I did my A Levels at D-Ivy College in Ikeja, Lagos and then on to the University of Surrey, UK, in 2003.
What did you study at the University of Surrey?
I studied Mechanical Engineering, I guess because my dad was an engineer. I also liked Physics (which I still do), so it seemed like a no-brainer. I chose the four-year degree option that included a one year work experience (placement) with General Motors, what we call ‘IT’ in Nigeria. Overall, I enjoyed my university experience.
Why did you decide to do a work placement, and what were your day to day responsibilities?
Honestly, I chose the 4 year option because a friend of mine, also at the university, chose it. My placement was with Vauxhall Motors (now owned by General Motors) with the job title: ‘General Assembly Maintenance Engineer’. My role was varied; one of my projects involved testing a range of vehicles to track the cause of a known issue with the handbrakes, and I was also the champion on another project that ended up saving the company 100,000 Euros per annum.
What was the next step for you after graduation?
I tried to get a job in the UK and had a few opportunities. However, due to the status my visa, I couldn’t take up any of them. I eventually decided with my dad it was best I came to back Nigeria. I got back to Nigeria on a Sunday and was off to Iseyin, Oyo state, the following Tuesday for my NYSC camp, which was in February 2009.
Can we talk about your NYSC experience? What was it like for you?
NYSC camp wasn’t a culture shock; I rather found it laughable. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t already experienced in Kankon. So even though I’d been in the UK for six years, as I would say: ‘you can take me out of Kankon but you cannot take Kankon out of me’.
After camp, I served at a company called CA Consultants, a building service electrical and mechanical engineering consultancy. I worked as an HVAC engineer on projects such as the Lagos Oriental Hotel, Four Points Hotel, the Mobil building, and others. I was with C.A. Consultants for the entire service year which ended in February 2010.
What did you do after NYSC?
I started working on building an e-bay clone with Lanre Oyedotun who I met at Iseyin. Some way into the venture, we realised we needed an online payment processor – which didn’t exist in Nigeria in 2009, and decided we’d solve the problem ourselves. We tried partnering with an existing technology company and made significant progress with ‘U-Paid’. The idea was that they would provide the payment technology and we would handle the business development in Nigeria. We’d met with MTN and GTBank and were gathering some momentum, at least it felt like so.
It turned out the solution we were trying to assemble was called “Mobile Payments” and the CBN had a framework that required us to have 500 million Naira to be in that business. We didn’t know anyone who would give two unproven graduates that amount of money to experiment with, so it was back to the drawing board.
What did your drawing board reveal the second time round?
While working on the payment solution, we had obtained our NCC (Nigerian Communications Commission) license and so decided we would do what we call an MVP (minimum viable product). We decided to build an airtime-vending platform for mobile phones; we already had the license and it didn’t require a mortgage to finance. Our MVP was ready sometime around January/February 2011. It took about 18 months to automatically connect to all the mobile networks, so we manually scratched a lot of recharge cards during that time.
So now you have a company that sells airtime to mobile phone customers?
Yes, we incorporated the business under the name iThena Logic Ltd, and our service is hosted at: www.topupgenie.com. We initially bought and scratched thousands of recharge cards which we uploaded manually unto our MVP to prove the concept and later raised funds to build a more robust platform. We launched the second version in July 2012 and grew our revenue at an impressive rate of about 23% per month mainly through word of mouth. We were really excited but it was short lived because in November 2013, two things happened. First, banks (GTBank) introduced the One Time Password (OTP) to improve security however the initial implementation was poor and caused our sales to dip by 90% in one day.
The second issue was fraud. Occurrences of fraudsters using stolen bank (atm) card details to purchase airtime was rising rapidly so we implemented customer verification checks. This was effective but it had a negative impact on our growth rate due to the ‘stress’ involved with verification checks.
A major challenge we still face is the ‘un-robust’ payment infrastructure in Nigeria. The occurrence of incomplete transactions and errors across all channels is too frequent and so trust in e-commerce is not able to grow as quickly as it can and should. These channels include POS, ATMs, online payments, etc.
It would appear most people in Nigeria still top up via the recharge cards. How are you educating Nigerians to top up online?
People are used to recharge cards because that is what has always existed. Gradually Nigerians are realising that online top up is quicker and more convenient and they will ultimately make the switch. Infrastructure and trust is also a key. As more people get online and with improved payment infrastructure, we will see more consumers patronise e-commerce. The CBN and banks are doing a great job of educating the public on e-commerce/payments and they have deeper pockets to do so. We can leverage their progress.
With over 80 million mobile phone users in Nigeria, the future looks bright for you?
Our present focus is on organisations and that’s because the market for individuals is well catered for. There are numerous “mobile money” and banking options for individuals to get airtime. The way we position ourselves is as a provider that helps companies manage the distribution of airtime to their staff to which there are numerous benefits. One of our selling points is that we are often able to provide better and quicker service to companies than even the networks can. The networks need vendors like us to help handle these issues but a lot of companies don’t understand that.
Our mission for Topup Genie is to be the leading provider of topup and advisory services for choice utilities e.g. power, water, DSTV and so on.
More broadly, how have you found life in Nigeria since moving back? How do you deal with the power and traffic situation?
I would say I am blessed. More often than not, there is power at home and at the office. Of course this is a mixture of PHCN, generator, and inverter. When you have power and access to the internet, business can happen – that’s one of the benefits of internet based businesses. As for traffic, it initially irritated me and still does but I complain a lot less now. Bad traffic comes with the territory. Certain motorists are unaware of what constitutes proper behaviour on the road, and if they did, then they would do the right thing. More education is needed on that front.
Outside of work, how do you generally unwind and relax?
I used to do a lot of poker nights with my friends but not so much recently. I also do a bit of salsa.
On a final note what advice would you give to Nigerians abroad thinking about moving back?
I’d say come by all means but have a goal/something you want to achieve here and work towards it because that’s what will keep you going in the midst of all the chaos and potential frustrations.