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 regular interviews with individuals who have successfully made the leap, so you can learn from their experiences and make a success of your move back.
The Move Back To Nigeria series is a monthly feature on BellaNaija.
My name is Obi Ozor. My background is no different than that of millions of Nigerians born in rural areas. I went to an average school and faced significant challenges but overcame it with the help of God, family, friends, and the tough Nigerian spirit. I was born and raised in the farming village of Abor in Enugu state. I was opportuned to have gotten an admission into Sacred Heart Seminary Nsude, but my education was interrupted when I discovered that I had second stage Kidney failure. I battled this for four years.
After surviving Kidney failure, I relocated to Michigan, in the United States. I completed High school and went to the University of Michigan where I study Biochemistry.
While in school, I started to run a profitable haulage business in Nigeria that employed 11 people. This was the beginning of my experience with running a business in Nigeria. I had always thought that Medicine was my calling, but this was soon challenged by my professor. He asked me why I went into medicine and soon told me that if it was to help people, then being a successful business man would be a more efficient route. He reminded me that Bill Gates has saved more lives than any doctor. After this challenge, I decided to abandon medicine, despite the resistance from many individuals in my life. I moved to Philadelphia and obtained a degree from the Wharton School of Business.
After Wharton, I worked at J.P. Morgan as an investment banker, before moving back to Nigeria as Director of Operations – Uber Nigeria. After my awesome time at Uber, My partner and I launched Kobo, the leading logistics platform, to support the eCommerce growth in Africa.
Where did you grow up and what are some of your fondest memories from childhood?
Hmm, one of the memories is the pay phone business I ran in JSS 2 (13 years old). I had gone for a holiday in Port Harcourt and people gave me money totalling N7500. I used some of it to buy a 3310 Nokia phone which I then gave my friend’s mom to use to run a pay phone business for me. The business grew vert fast, and by age of 15, I gained financial independence. I was able to pay for majority of my education. I suppose I had always had a tendency to spot and take advantage of opportunities.
Why the Wharton School of Business?
I never imagined making the decision to attend one of the leading business schools in the world. As mentioned earlier, it was a professor of medicine at University of Michigan who thought I was good enough to enter the school and lobbied for my admission, as well as scholarships and grants. Wharton was quite a competitive and humbling experience and it has shaped my professional life. It helped me discover my strength in business, which is the ability to see opportunities and at the same time execute them.
While there, I also discovered that I’m not very patient. I do not enjoy playing and talking about numbers arbitrarily; spotting opportunities and execution was more of a sweet spot. Understanding this, I was lucky to transition into investment banking after school.
I joined the Hedge Fund team and helped them seek out opportunities that are subtle (Alpha), and could help the team sell this product to more companies than they normally achieved. My lessons from Wharton were instrumental to my success at Uber. It helped me prioritize my goals while I was there, all of which enabled me to deliver aggressive results within a short window.
And what would you say is the most valuable lesson you learned while there?
Being around talented people who are as good as me, if not better, humbled me a lot. It was there that I stopped fearing success and started believing that it is within reach – when you remember that some of the successful people you hear about sat in the same classroom as you.
I learned the importance of team work and that every member of the team is just as important. At Wharton, most assignments are team based, and though I might be very good at coming up with ideas and put a human touch to cases, someone needed to clean up the financial model in a speedy manner. In summary, I learned to respect each person’s talent, see entrepreneurship as a career which one will continue to build upon until retirement to a golf course.
So, when did you start thinking about moving back to Nigeria and how did you know the time was right
The moment came unexpectedly when my wife was moving back to Michigan in 2015 to complete medical school. Though I was in a solid financial state, I found myself borrowing money to run the house – very much American but still felt uncomfortable. This was disappointing as I thought that Wall Street would have solved all my immediate financial needs, but that was not the case.
In 2014, while at JP Morgan, I played a role in a team that was negotiating on a $5 billion project with Dangote group. By 2015, I had developed strong relationships with key members of the Dangote group. On his team, I saw a lot of smart people who went to tops schools in the States and had great careers but had moved back to Nigeria. They seemed to be doing better financially and appeared to be more fulfilled than me, this reality was another nudge in my gut to consider moving back.
By March 2015, with a team from Dangote at the Wharton Africa conference, I heard that a lot of the issues with businesses seemed to be within power and logistics. I asked Dangote’s chief strategists if they were open to outsourcing their logistics and surprisingly he gave me a nod. I came back to J.P. Morgan, and after months of strategising with my future Kobo co-founder, I decided that I needed more logistics technology experience, and so when Uber came along I hopped on it.
How were the first few months being back in Nigeria?
It was a little tough, especially as I did not have a lot of money to set up, because I needed to leave most my savings for my young family. However, with little patience, I spent less money and was still able to get the basic set up including accommodation and transportation. For instance, I found someone to sublease a bedroom to me in Lekki phase 1, which was closer to my Uber office in Ikoyi.
On transportation, I used Uber only when I was in a hurry. I relied on rides from friends for most long trips. One must be very cash conscious until you learn how people in Nigeria make months’ worth of money in a single deal. My strategy for dealing with traffic and its interference with business was to have conference calls, and scheduling all my meetings on the same day, same location, and knocking them out in one hour blocks.
What did your role as the Director of operations at UBER Nigeria entail?
My mandate was to grow Uber’s supply in Nigeria. This involved getting thousands of cars on the road so anyone in Lagos metropolis can get a ride within 5 minutes. Onboarding 50 cars is one thing, but securing hundreds and thousands of cars required some serious business development with banks and wealthy individuals. Of course, you can’t forget the issue of smartphone penetration and millions of people who wants to use Uber while paying with cash.
Together with the engineering team, we worked to launch cash option on Uber in January of 2016. Each of these came with enormous challenges with drivers and vehicle owners, so we had to engage in massive driver training and stakeholder weekly info session to carry people along.
Did you ever experience challenges that seemed to be peculiar to Nigeria?
Yes, there were things I experienced in Uber that are peculiar to Nigeria. Most people who can afford a car don’t want to be associated with “Driver”. People rather reduce their profit than drive the vehicle themselves. So, this created what we call “fleet partners” – a middle class person buys car and hires a driver to be driving on Uber platform.
Within Uber and Kobo, I further confirmed that we Nigerians don’t know how to respect agreements. Business partnerships are usually in favour of the bigger partner and you can’t really enforce the partnership as justice in most cases goes to the highest bidder.
So, what my partner and I have learned is to see all partnerships as transactional, and ensure that we have control of the cashflow. Having control of the money for the less powerful company in a partnership can help ensure that the bigger company respects the partnership agreement for some years.
My other observation is common with other employers. It is very difficult to motivate employees here in Nigeria based on vision, mission, or value of their work to the company or society. Motivation in the work environment came mainly from undue salary increases or tips to staff. There is lack of pride in productivity. Also, people don’t know how to take responsibility because they think admitting fault will be the end of their career.
Kobo360, how did you start this venture?
The idea for Kobo was born in 2014 with three people playing important roles – Ife Oyedele II, Dr. Marton Markovits, and myself. I was the logistics junky, Ife was the tech junky, and Dr. Marton a lean operation junky – professor at the Wharton School of Business. After Dangote and other large manufacturers showed interest in our supply chain models, the question was then how can you build an Africanized leading supply chain platform from U.S.? This was very difficult. So for the next one year, we engineered and re-engineered logistics solutions until we realised that the first step was to establish presence in Nigeria, win in the SMEs space, then we could then provide a scalable solution to all manufactures in Africa.
Kobo is in the first phase of that mission to provide logistics solution to more than 200 million SMEs across Africa. The journey has not been easy but there seems to be light at the end of this tunnel. 5 months from launching beta operations in August 2016, Kobo ended 2016 with close to N1 billion naira in revenue, helping create and retain 156 jobs, and looking forward to a prosperous 2017.
And how was this different from your first attempt at running a startup (Bezmo)?
Running Bezmo was like going to University for an entrepreneurial career. After Bezmo, I learned how to build a company, how to say ‘no’ to lots of funding in the first year of a startup, how to be a CEO and not second guess myself all the time or be too democratic. With Kobo, I see what we are doing as a career, so I’m hardly make rash decisions or getting depressed by normal business fluctuations like the recession we are in now. In fact, I like the recession, it’s giving us the time to build capacity and has been instrumental in re-routing capital back to hardworking entrepreneurs instead of oil deals or trade finance which doesn’t create job or add real value to the economy.
Has the recession affected the business in any way and what have you done to mitigate the effects?
It was said, great companies are born during tough economic times. That has been the reality with Kobo. We launched in August, at the peak of the recession and it was very challenging to grow as SME’s were struggling to stay afloat. Facing a tough market, we decided to instead go into a beta launch for one year while we figured out what these SMEs exact needs were. In August, we entered the key markets across Nigeria to hear from business owners, the exact challenge then want us to solve. This helped us build a lean and efficient operations which was affordable to many businesses.
The recession opened our eyes to opportunities we never considered, like the potential for Nigerian export. The export department not only helped hundreds of businesses earn foreign exchange by exporting agricultural commodities, fashion and art, but it also helped us manage our cashflow effectively.
What do you do for fun/relaxation in Lagos?
I still don’t have a lot of friends, though I have a lot of business friends. So, for the most part, I chill with family. I recently fell in love with running at UniLag, after which I engage in a smoothie adventure – buy lots of fruits from the roadside and make the smoothie once I get back from my early morning run! I try to go for movies on Sundays.
Do you have any advice for prospective returnees?
As much as you might be planning your return, you can never plan it perfectly. So, start now to refine your ideas repeatedly. Ensure that it will survive the Nigeria realities – seek for criticism from people in the industry.
If you are not yet ready to launch a venture, then start making contacts through LinkedIn for your dream job in Nigeria. Use organizations like MBTN, YAM and others to network and be very open to people about your struggles in finding a job. In Nigeria, connections can mean everything.