Nigeria: Doctor to Entrepreneur, Okeleji’s journey to launch Africa’s own SaaS platform

By Kanika Saigal
Posted on Thursday, 8 September 2022 11:42

Emmanuel Okeleji, CEO of SeamlessHR, speaking at an event. (photo twitter: @Seamless_hr)

Emmanuel Okeleji is a serial entrepreneur. “I remember being eight years old and sitting in on my dad’s board meetings,” Okeleji tells The Africa Report. “To this day, I’m not really sure why – maybe my dad thought it would be better than watching TV – but those meetings really left their mark on me. They spurred on my entrepreneurial spirit.”

Okeleji’s father was a vet and his family’s business was in farming. Based in Southwest Nigeria, the family grew crops and bred livestock for commercial sale. Along with his brothers, Okeleji would help on the farm and with the business side of things – at board meetings and around the dinner table.

Despite his background, Okeleji decided to go into medicine. By 2013, Okeleji was working as a house doctor in Lagos – but couldn’t shake the desire to be an entrepreneur. Okeleji was at cross-roads: should he stay on in his career and train as a kidney surgeon – which would involve a move to the US at least another eight years of study – or give it all up to follow his dreams of being an entrepreneur?

As a surgeon, Okeleji assumed that he may be able to carry out 10 transplants a month, but as an entrepreneur, the potential was much greater.

“I knew I wanted to work on something impactful but at scale and I wasn’t sure I could so that as medical doctor, so I left,” he says.  “It was either inspired or stupid. Looking back, it was one of the best – albeit hardest – decisions I have ever made.”

The transition

Part of his transition from doctor to entrepreneur involved working on the development of a new hospital in Lagos in 2013. “We were building a 160 bed, multi-specialty unit in the city, which is one of the best hospitals in Nigeria today. It was a great opportunity for me, because while I was leaving medicine as a doctor, I was still building an institution in healthcare this allowed me a decent transition from medicine to entrepreneurship.”

We believed a tool to help fix the unemployment problem in Africa would be hugely valuable…It seem like a no-brainer at the time.

That same year, Okeleji and his friend Deji Lana came up with, a job search aggregator for Nigerian job seekers. In Nigeria, the unemployment rate is over 33% according to The National Bureau of Statistics and more than half of the near 200 million population are either unemployed or underemployed.

“We believed a tool to help fix the unemployment problem in Africa would be hugely valuable,” says Okeleji. “It seemed like a no brainer at the time.”

But slowly the co-founders came to the realisation that there just weren’t enough jobs in Nigeria and there was little could do to change that. “No matter how fast your web page loads, it’s not going to create jobs that don’t exist,” says Okeleji.

Moreover, “jobseekers in Africa don’t have money, so there was no way of charging unemployed people to use the site,” says Okeleji. “And then on the employer side because there’s just a deluge of job seekers, employers didn’t need a platform to act as a kind of megaphone to advertise their jobs – they were getting thousands of applicants without us.” To this day, says Okeleji, job aggregator sites in Nigeria haven’t really succeeded at scale.

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On their journey, what Okeleji and Lana did discover, however, was that the fundamentals behind job creation were lacking. “We needed to go lower down the value chain,” says Okeleji.

That would be where the team would add value.

Moving on

A few days out of the office strategising, the co-founders and their team came up with the idea for SeamlessHR, an online platform for businesses to manage HR, payroll, performance, recruitment, time off and attendance management. If SeamlessHR could help businesses run more efficiently and grow, the hope was that this would create more job opportunities going forward, says Okeleji.

Given that was already employer-facing, providing access to HR teams to a slew of new tools was straightforward, and it also meant that the founders could get direct feedback from companies that they were already working with.

But it was also unique to Africa. Companies such as Oracle and SAP, that dominate the Software as a Service (SaaS) market abroad haven’t really made inroads in Africa, unless for some of the larger multinationals with operations abroad. They are also usually too expensive for local companies and just difficult to set up because they rely on legacy infrastructure to function. “Technology can help businesses scale, but no one was really building technology that is tailored to the problems and opportunities Africa’s growing businesses face,” says Okeleji. “It was a natural segue for us.”

And while the market may be finite, Okeleji believes there is a huge opportunity. “There are millions of small to medium sized business across Africa that want to scale and can use our systems to do so. And so far, there is very little competition here. We have a lot of room to grow,” says Okeleji.

Going forward, SeamlessHR hopes to offer credit and other financial products to customers. “Access to credit can transform individual lives and company development – it’s like having a superpower,” says Okeleji.

There’s no going back to medicine for me – I burnt all those bridges when I left – so this start-up has to work.

Others seem to have bought into the model as well. At the beginning of the year, SeamlessHR raised $10m in Series A funding, which will be used to expand their business across Africa. To date, the company already has a physical presence in Lagos Nigeria, and Nairobi Kenya, with a Johannesburg office planned for later in the year.

“Fundraising for us was a relatively quick process,” says Okeleji. “We had a good story to tell – traction, results and first mover advantage – and investors could see that.”

While SeamlessHR received some interest from some European and American mega-funds, they chose to partner with TLCom Capital, Capria Ventures, Lateral Capital and Enza Capital all specialist VC firms that work with entrepreneurs in Africa and the Global South as well as strategic investors the leading HR and payroll software company for SMEs in the US.

“There’s no going back to medicine for me – I burnt all those bridges when I left – so this start-up has to work,” says Okeleji. “We didn’t want to work with any investors who didn’t really have an African thesis, who might be using us as an experiment, as a way to test the waters in the African start-up ecosystem, so we decided to work with folks we knew had a focus on Africa – at least at our Series A.”

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