Boss Talk

Olugbenga Agboola: Flutterwave CEO on sticking his neck out amid storm in Kenya over licensing


Flutterwave CEO and co-founder Olugbenga Agboola. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH BARASA | NMG

Flutterwave had an action-packed 2022. From raising $250 million (Sh36.7 billion) to being caught in allegations of financial impropriety and money laundering, its world was changing really fast.

The Business Daily caught up with the Flutterwave CEO and co-founder Olugbenga Agboola in Nairobi and talked about the tumultuous times in Kenya and on the continent and what it takes to ride out of a storm.

He oscillates between being open—like on what is lined up for the Kenyan market— and being reclusive and reserved — like on whether Flutterwave had missteps in the way it entered Kenya.

Looking at how things turned out in Kenya, including the regulator announcing that Flutterwave was operating without a licence, is there anything you feel you should have done differently?

We wished things were done differently actually because we believe there was a lot of trial by media. That was not necessary at all.

We didn’t do anything wrong in Kenya as a company and we welcome any review to our operations and businesses but we don’t believe that if a company is being reviewed it should be a media story; it should be done protectively.

It was such a huge thing for the regulator (the Central Bank of Kenya) to say that Flutterwave was operating in Kenya without approval. Do you feel it is a story that business journalists should have ignored?

We did everything by the book. We are very proud of that as a company. It is really important for people to know that the company went through the process and came out positively as well.

We can’t dwell on the past anymore, we can only move forward. We were all taken aback by the review being done in the media. It should have been done privately.

We have gone through all the required audit and we are so happy that we have been vindicated. It is a privilege to be here.

What is the progress on seeking a licence to operate in Kenya?

We are happy we are going through the process. We didn’t chicken out. We stayed the course even when everything was stopped. The current administration is very supportive.

We have made massive progress. We received CBK first name approval which is the first step in getting the licence.

We are looking at investing not less than $50 million (Sh7.3 billion). We are employing people. We are getting new office and scaling up our infrastructure.

One would say Flutterwave would have avoided all the things that happened had it first received approval.

I don’t want this to go along that narrative that we did something wrong and that is why we got here. I don’t also want to spend time talking about the past because I can’t change it. I can change the present and the future.

Our goal is to operate in Kenya and do it well.

Given that Africa is really fragmented; as a CEO, how do you manage to build a global business but with a local touch?

I approach that from an angle I call glocal—being global and local at the same time. I believe we have to be global in our thinking and practices but local in serving our customers.

The African market is highly fragmented and that is a strength. We see the value there.

Flutterwave had just fundraised then came allegations of financial impropriety and money laundering. In such a moment, being a leader, how do you stay calm and what do you prioritise?

I know my team and we know what we have done and not done. I asked my team “Did you do it? If you didn’t do it, don’t worry about it.”

We knew we had to write our own story by our actions. So when we hit any block, our job is to solve it. We had to come together as a team.

When such storms come, there is always the risk of it sucking morale, confidence and focus out of staff. How did you guard against that?

By being honest and open with your team. I am a very empathetic leader. I am not a typical CEO. I am just an African trying to build a company with people that we are enjoined through a common vision.

They are all vison-carriers and making them know that they matter to me was really critical. I made them know that it was not going to make sense to tear ourselves down.

Anything you discovered as a leader during this crisis?

My strength is my team. It was not entirely a discovery but a reinforcement of what I already knew. The people who come to work at Flutterwave every day are the secret to our success.

I suppose there must have been positives too out of this crisis…

Of course. We have built the business massively. We went aggressively in other markets and it worked, even as we waited on Kenya.

Looking at the success you have registered as Flutterwave since 2016, would you say you hit a level that surprised you?

You don’t know the size of our ambition. We have not been surprised yet.

We knew from the first day that we were building a global business that is local. We are still hungry because we see the potential of Africa. The opportunity is here and we haven’t even scratched the surface. We are not there yet. We are just starting.

You once described Flutterwave as a butterfly that causes ripples in the ecosystem but remains small. At over $3 billion (Sh440 billion) valuation, how would you describe the company now?

We are still a butterfly causing positive impact in the ecosystem. Just almost 1,000 employees, which for an African employer is big. Our reach is massive. We are doing what we have to do.

At about $3 billion, you still view Flutterwave as small. When you look at the next five years, which number crosses your mind?

I don’t think of a number, I think about the impact. I think about how many customers we would have served. By the next five years, we want to have like 15 million SMEs on our platform. We want to be the hub that helps enterprises to scale across Africa.

Only a few start-ups are making it past five years. What should be their key takeaway from Flutterwave's CEO and founder?

Number one, know where you are going and don’t change. Things can change around you, it could be rainy, it could be sunny, it could be summer, it could be winter but it doesn’t matter. You have to keep your eyes on the goal and go for it massively.

Also, from the first day, build for profit, for people and for impact.

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