As new technologies increasingly make the world a smaller place, international partnerships are not only more common but essential — especially in developing areas like Africa. At the forefront of creating long-lasting and effective business relationships across countries and cultures is Olugbenga “GB” Agboola, the founder and CEO of Africa’s massive fintech company Flutterwave.
Because it’s based in both Nigeria and San Francisco, Flutterwave perfectly represents the potential of international business partnerships. As a true African unicorn and the highest-valued startup on the continent at $3 billion, it’s an inspiration for entrepreneurs in Africa and beyond.
The key to Flutterwave’s rapid rise from a tiny startup to the backbone of African fintech was creating sound partnerships across borders, Olugbenga Agboola said.
“What we didn’t expect was to become the infrastructure of payments in Africa,” Agboola said on McKinsey’s Banking & Securities “Talking Banking Matters” podcast. “There’s no Africa fintech who is not our customer, and that’s very interesting. There is no other infrastructure to pay or get paid across Africa.
“So now we are seeing ourselves more as an emerging-markets payment processor, not just in Africa. We are starting to see customers ask us why we can’t do their payments in Europe, why we can’t do it in the U.S. We have customers who have incorporation in the U.S. and the U.K. and Nigeria, for example. A lot of African airlines are like that. So there is opportunity to drive value across the board. For us, it’s just a question of forging ahead and continuing to build that infrastructure.”
Olugbenga Agboola: ‘So Many Problems To Solve’
While it’s easy to understand the appeal of foreign investment, local know-how is a component that has often been overlooked by tech companies — much to their detriment, Olugbenga Agboola said.
“There are so many problems to solve on the continent. There are so many things to build. I’m excited by entrepreneurs who are willing to take on these crazy problems and try to solve them across the board. Africa has always been known to leapfrog. We go from nothing to something, consistently — no phones, to mobiles, to internet. People skipped browsers; they search for what they want to buy on Instagram.
“We’ve always been that way when it comes to [technology] leapfrogging a generation.”
Indeed, Africa has represented a missed opportunity for tech investment. After Twitter founder Jack Dorsey visited Ethiopia in 2019, he announced plans to move to Africa and help spur a dramatic rise in the continent’s tech development. Quick on the heels of that announcement, Meta (then Facebook) announced a new program called Free Basics, which offered internet access to mobile phone users across Africa and other developing areas.
Unfortunately, Dorsey never made the move, and Meta’s program has been met with some concern (it was entirely banned in India, and its practice of limiting access to preapproved content has spurred criticism).
The fits and starts of a Silicon Valley-sponsored redevelopment plan has yet to truly bear fruit. For Olugbenga Agboola, this is partly due to an underreliance on Africans as business partners.
“At the beginning, we saw that payment in Africa is a bit different from payment everywhere else. The problems are different. Africa is highly fragmented when it comes to payments. Every payment system is unique and works well in its own country, but they’re not exported well beyond their shores. Obviously, we can’t just copy and paste a Silicon Valley or European model. We have to build what works for our environment.”
It’s a guiding principle that has served Olugbenga Agboola well. Since deciding to expand operations to new countries, his company has sent employees to Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, and other nations with the goal of getting a read on their societies and better understanding the subtle nuances of each culture.
“We used to just look for talent that understands what we’re trying to build and the mission of the company — where we’re coming from and where we’re going,” Agboola said on the podcast. “This is one of the very interesting parts of my job. Now we’re thinking more in terms of understanding other markets.
“African talent is really amazing. We have the best engineers you can imagine, who can see a problem and by Monday it’s been built, tested, and is ready to go live. We have to be very agile and extremely responsive to customer needs. That is driven by the talent we have. They understand the need for what we are building. For example, we’ve got a lot of amazing women at Flutterwave, from my COO to the head of expansion, head of operations, and the head of data science. These folks are really the best people I could imagine to lead the company.”