What it’s like to launch a startup that makes a difference for underserved communities in Nigeria? Company Builder recruits individuals with diverse yet complementary skills to explore and create. Participants work together to understand financially underserved Nigerians’ aspirations and challenges, generate business models to address those issues, and work with future co-founders to validate their solutions. All of this is done with the aim of co-building a scalable fintech startup with Venture Lab’s continued support.
In partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, Accion Venture Lab launched its first Company Builder cohort last year. Participants formed six teams, one was selected as the awardee, and two others have continued to build their companies. As we look for entrepreneurs to join the second Company Builder cohort, previous participants reflect on their experience in the program.
“Company Builder gave me the push and the enabling environment to try and build the company of my dreams. A shot worth taking for anyone,” says Bankly CEO Tomilola Adejana. Bankly is a voucher-based payment solution that enables people to complete transactions at the point of sale without a debit card or even a bank account. Since completing the Company Builder program, Bankly has participated in GreenHouse Capital’s 2018 Female-Focused Tech Accelerator Program and in TechCruch’s Battlefield Africa.
Even with four years of investment banking experience, an MBA, and three years as an executive at another inclusive fintech startup, Tomilola found the Company Builder experience valuable. She reflects that “the whole ideation process, the practical use of the lean startup methodology, and the ability to innovate with people with similar goals was quite satisfying.” She goes on to explain that “it is important that the consumer or user is part of the development process. Company Builder taught me to let the market dictate what the market needs rather than sitting in an office or in a bubble as with many of us in Lagos, making assumptions devoid of real experiences.”
Farmnet has evolved from a microlending and saving platform for smallholder farmers to a market maker for agricultural commodities that also provides credit to purchasers.
“I found the program to be a unique opportunity,” says Emmanuel Obinne, who co-founded Farmnet. “[Accion Venture Lab] will help you in the ideation stage, the validation stage. That felt like something that was set up for success from the very beginning.”
Despite his several years of experience in the payments industry, Emmanuel still felt that the Company Builder program was a learning experience for him.“It’s taught me how to start a business and gave me the belief that I can do anything I set my mind to, knowing there’s a process that can help me to achieve that dream.” His Farmnet co-founder, Abdul Adejoh, also found Company Builder illuminating. “They told us to first make sure that whatever you’re doing works. If you can’t do on paper, you can’t do it online. That was the best advice,” he says.
Already Farmnet’s founders are making a difference. “I love seeing that I can put a smile on people who didn’t have any hope because they thought they could not get funding, says Abdul. Looking to the impact they can make in the future, Emmanuel says, “I hope to see FarmNet become a platform that adds value to the life of every farmer, and shows our culture that it’s not a poor man’s job.”
Lever, a payment agent management and liquidity platform, was selected as the first Company Builder Awardee and received a $100,000 grant from Mastercard Foundation, office space, and ongoing support from the Accion Venture Lab team as they launch a full-scale pilot.
Co-founder Ayo Oladimeji has spent his entire career in financial services and has spent the last 7 years helping to build one of Nigeria’s largest mobile money networks. He joined the Company Builder program immediately after completing an MBA at Lagos Business School. He remembers how the individually selected participants were “sizing each other out,” at the start of the program but that soon that it soon became clear to him that “I’m with 14 other super intelligent people and it was really exciting.” He appreciated the collaborative nature of the program and reflects that “we didn’t feel like we were in a competition, we felt like we were in a training — in a life-transforming program. It felt like each of the 15 of us would eventually come out with something. So it was a win-win scenario. And that was the sense that we all I dare say got out of the program.”
Ayo recollects that he “came into the Company Builder program with the intention to come out with something that would be relevant for now and the future and through our interaction I identified that [Lever co-founder] Tosin Olanrewaju had the same innovative ideology, same mindset about creating value.” They then completed their team with “entrepreneurial” full stack developer, Femi Oladele.
Throughout the program and now as the awardee, Ayo has found “the quality of the input that we have been able to receive from the Accion team has been very rewarding. They have been able to take our outputs, review it, and provide candid constructive feedback.” While he values the hands-on support Lever has received from the in-country Accion team, he relishes the perspectives of “the larger Venture Lab team that has experience working with entrepreneurs and startups across different parts of the world…it’s a massive learning opportunity and I think that’s the most satisfying part of the Company Builder program for me.”