Since he was appointed chairman of the board of directors of Ecobank at the end of June, the way Alain Francis Nkontchou, 57, speaks has not changed in substance. The former investment banker, co-founder of asset manager Enko Capital, expects the financial sector to support African economies better.
‘Entrepreneurship can come out of necessity or innovation’ – Kolawole Olajide
Entrepreuneurship is gaining more traction across the African continent as more and more youth are looking to start their own business.
Kolawole Olajide is the co-founder of BridgeLabs, his third entrepreneurial project that was founded from his interest in building high-quality technology products designed to enable forward-thinking organizations to compete and perform in the 21st century.
Olajide spoke to The Africa Report about entrepreneurship on the continent, and how the coronavirus pandemic has affected entrepreneurship, and BridgeLabs specifically.
Parts of this interview have been edited for length.
The Africa Report: In Nigeria, more than half of the youth don’t have enough work or none at all. Entrepreneurship seems to be among the top solutions to this. Do you think entrepreneurship comes out of necessity most of the time?
Kolawole Olajide: I think it’s a mix. Entrepreneurship comes out of necessity, but it also comes out of innovation.
Some people are entrepreneurs due to the cards life has thrown at them – my mum became an entrepreneur because she wanted to fend for her children.
Others, like me, are entrepreneurs by choice – we have interesting ideas and a very clear vision that we don’t see other people trying to create. We choose to dedicate our lives to bringing this to life.
The higher the skill set required to survive in a particular sphere of entrepreneurship, the more likely it is that it has come out of choice.
Is there a reason African youth seem to have more of an entrepreneurial spirit than their Western counterparts?
It’s systemic. On the African continent, we have younger entrepreneurs because there are not a lot of opportunities.
People don’t believe in the school system, so if they find a way to create wealth in a legal way, many are willing to sacrifice education. In the West, people go to good schools and stay in the school system, so they tend to start later.
The entrepreneurial drive in Africa is more about necessity than innovation.
Has the importance of entrepreneurship increased in the current global health crisis, and if so, why do you think this?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that its importance has increased, but the African continent now has a slate on which it can compete globally. Particularly in the tech ecosystem, this crisis has opened up opportunities for entrepreneurs across the world. It allows African entrepreneurs to export their solutions to more advanced economies.
I would describe it like a four by four relay lace. In the third leg, the coronavirus crisis happened, and there’s a reset. In previous legs, Western companies came to Africa with their innovations but they took the money back out. Now, we have a chance to build superior innovation, and the money will stay on the continent.
As social distancing is going to be the norm, and remote working is here to stay, we need tools to support organisations – such as video conferencing solutions to support healthcare workers or digital tools to help teachers teach without compromising on quality.
Can you describe your experience with starting Bridge Labs?
Bridge Labs is my third company. The advantage of being a young entrepreneur is that you get to learn and fail fast.
I am part of those who are entrepreneurs by choice because of the vision we want to create, and the skills required. My story is not the average story of the African entrepreneur.
From my first company, I learnt not to compromise on the blend of your team; from my second company I learnt about the legality of things, and about scaling up projects.
When I started this third project, I didn’t have to first raise money. Based on reputation, I was able to close my first big client within two weeks of the company being set up.
I built this company to help organisations with their digital transformation and to build forward-thinking projects that can compete in the 21st century. Bridge Labs for me was a clean slate to build companies in the way that I think they should be built.
Our first client was South Africa’s largest privately-owned car dealership – it rakes in about a billion rand a year in revenue. We were able to convince them to let us help with their digital transformation.
This is not an average story. When people start companies, they think the only source of funding is family and friends, or institutional investment. To me, the highest chance of success is if you can get your first client backing – this will provide an ecosystem for you to innovate.
If you solve one client’s problems, and they are happy, it is easier to scale up. This is why it’s always been easier for us. With every company I start, I try to make sure the first client is invested in the journey.
A big problem we faced was talent acquisition. The work we do is very complex. We work with banks and credit union agencies, meaning we work with really complex and highly secure data. There is no room for mistakes or error.
One thing I learnt about recruiting is that the money is not enough, you have to find interesting ways to compensate your employees.
At Bridge Labs, we build their soft skills, and make sure to expose our engineers to mentors and to clients. We expose them to the problems our clients are going through so they can learn how to communicate.
We look at compensation differently – it’s not just about salaries, we also allow engineers to own stakes in the products we work on. We rarely do anything with big clients without negotiating for a stake in the company. When other companies try to recruit our employees, the employees feel that there is too much to lose if they leave.
Although it was not your first entrepreneurial project, it is (arguably) the most successful? What would you say was the key to your success?
I think that doing it before played a very major role in my success.
What are things first-time or young entrepreneurs should keep an eye out for that might not be immediately obvious?
It comes down to if you are an entrepreneur by necessity or by choice.
As much as I want to support young entrepreneurs, I need to be honest with them. You can’t have a young entrepreneur trying to solve a really complex problem without mentorship or the right experience – for example, you can’t have someone with no tertiary education trying to solve Nigeria’s traffic issue using artificial intelligence.
So, I encourage entrepreneurship, but you have to be wise about it. For me, experience has played a better role than funding. Throwing money at young entrepreneurs does not always work out.
You should also never underestimate the quality of a strong team. Talent is contagious – if you have the right people on your team, you’ll attract greater and greater people. However, if you bring in mediocrity, that’s what you’ll attract.
Bring your A-game every day. If you don’t, it can be felt, and the energy will filter down.
Also, make sure you are solving a problem that exists. A lot of people just think of ideas and present them as solutions because it’s cool. You need a problem that exists, and that is backed by data.
You have said in previous interviews that you are very comfortable with failure. Do you think this is a necessary character trait to have to succeed as an entrepreneur?
I think that you need to be comfortable with failure to succeed in life in general.
However, I wouldn’t celebrate my failures if the story ended there. My comfort with failure comes from the fact that I can unpack it and move on really quickly. I don’t talk about my failures without speaking about the lessons I’ve learnt. If you’re not failing, you’re playing safe, and life is too short to play safe.
For entrepreneurs by choice, failure just means that you are pushing yourself. It is important to take those lessons and move on.
You started with providing students with the ability to connect to their teachers outside the classroom, before expanding to companies outside education. So in this season of many moving towards digital, have more companies and academic institutions taken notice of you than before? Has the coronavirus pandemic actually helped your business?
The coronavirus has impacted our business positively.
The first three months, we were still just hanging in there – we didn’t know how things were going to turn out. Our clients were revising budgets and putting projects on hold.
However, things started to change.
We have a global client base, from South Africa to the US to France, so the currency exposure was great. When the rand took a hit, stronger economies were paying us in foreign currency, which helped with what was happening in South Africa.
When people started to accept that this would be the norm for the next 18 months, budgets started opening up, and some even started to spend more than agreed because they were trying to compress timelines on some digitisation projects.
An example of this was a client who had designed a technical roadmap. All of a sudden, they urgently needed a feature that allows the system to only approve certain IP addresses, when people are working from home. This was not on their work plan before, but they had to extend the product to allow them to only work from certain IP addresses and locations.
We then pitched this idea to our other clients, as remote working is going to be here for a while.
For digital transformation, it’s been great: more queries, more requests on feature development.
At our core, we are entrepreneurs, so we are also launching products during this pandemic that will change the game.
An arm of our company does products for other companies, but we also build our own products, for example the learning management system that we sell to other organisations.
How much are you hindered by the lack of widespread internet on the continent? Is there anything you are doing about this problem personally, or are you leaving it to governments and internet service providers?
This is the biggest hindrance to expanding into countries such as Nigeria.
With regards to cost of data and power stability, South Africa is probably leading on the African continent (possibly also Nairobi and Rwanda).
There have been cases where we explored expanding into Nigeria, but there are problems that are out of our control. I’m sure there are some people cracking Nigeria, but for us not based in the country, these problems need to be resolved before we can enter.
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People need data and power to use our apps. It would cost us more to take our innovations and solutions to Nigeria. We would have to create desktop apps instead of web apps for example. It isn’t worth the investment.
You often say that you want to be able to help Africans and to give back. How important do you think pan-Africanism is?
It is important to give back. What’s life if you’re not giving back? Giving back is not just financial, it can be in many forms. I am a guest lecturer at the University of Johannesburg; I teach the future of technology and its evolution on the continent. I also make donations and sponsor students at the University of Johannesburg. I invest in startups that I think have great social impact.
I subscribe to pan-Africanism, but I think one has to take a good look at the mechanism of how it can be done. With the AfCFTA, we are all hoping that it will move the continent forward, but the truth is that some countries might gain more from it than others. Pan-African thought is a very tricky space to be in.
Another example is with immigration within the continent – we can’t just take out visa restrictions and say that everyone can go everywhere, as this will not work out for some players.
Nigerian startups expanding into southern or East Africa are doing very well. Some of those economies are very supportive, and I hope to see more of that. Governments need to make sure it’s easy to set up businesses and bring in skilled talent. At the end of the day, everyone is trying to protect their own.