Why Tech Entrepreneur Bunmi Akinyemiju Left His US Business Partners And Went Back To Africa

Written by Dana Sanchez

Fintech startups accounted for almost a third of all 2017 venture funding in Africa, where 12 percent of sub-Saharan adults have mobile money accounts compared to just 2 percent of adults worldwide.

Based in Nigeria, Venture Garden Group is deep into fintech, using payments and data analytics to transform industries across Africa. Headed by CEO and managing director Bunmi Akinyemiju, the $60 million fintech holding company has strong links to the U.S. The company works to address inefficiencies in payment collection reconciliation in aviation, power and education in emerging African markets.

The company’s venture capital vehicle, Greenhouse Capital, invests in startups. This includes two young entrepreneurs, Ogunlana Olumide and Chukwuwezam, who created PrepClass, an online test-preparation company that operates a marketplace for home tutors.

Born in the U.S., Akinyemiju grew up in Nigeria, went to university in the U.S. and returned to Nigeria to “do something bigger.”

Moguldom interviewed Akinyemiju at Africa House, a venue at SXSW 2018 where Africans in tech could tell their stories, conduct business and meet like-minded people from around the U.S. and the world.

Moguldom: Venture Garden Group describes itself as “audacious dream makers and bold transformers.” Talk more about that.

Bunmi Akinyemiju: That came out of a retreat we had a few years ago where we were just reflecting on what we’re doing for the African continent. On average, (Africans) get power four-to-six hours out of 24. How can we change that? How can we use tech to allow people to have power 24/7? You have to be bold to do that, to transform such a major sector like that. We talk about “audacious dream-makers” because the ability to create, the ability to innovate the types of ideas that can enable that kind of transformation is key to the DNA of the types of people we recruit, the talent that we need in the company so that we can have such an impact across the continent.

Moguldom: You invested in two young Nigerian entrepreneurs, Ogunlana Olumide and Chukwuwezam Obanor, who created online test prep company, PrepClass. In addition to test preparation, they offer personalized home tutors. Why did you pick them?

Bunmi Akinyemiju: We have two companies: one is Venture Garden Group where we focus on payment and data analytics for industries. We also have Greenhouse Capital, a venture capital vehicle where we make investments into startups. Greenhouse Capital invested in Prep Class a few years ago and we are very happy with our decision. They are visionaries and focus on a space that’s very dear to our heart — education. In the emerging markets such as Nigeria, education is the foundation of making these economies viable. You have to take that young workforce that’s able and ready and smart — you have to turn that into productivity. That’s how you create a lot of entrepreneurs, employees, value and industry. The fact that they focused on education was a big checkmark for us.

Secondly, in this new sharing economy like Uber and Airbnb where you connect a group of people to another group of people and meet the demand by removing intermediaries, that’s essentially what they are doing. They’re kind of like the Uber for educating African youth. They take the parents who are looking for somebody to teach their children, and they take these young or older adults who have the capability to teach, and they create a marketplace where both sides can meet. Prep Class connects both sides, allows the payment process to be smooth, and both sides are happy. It creates a huge opportunity. It creates employment en masse across Africa potentially. It creates youth that are well trained well educated because of this platform. We think that they have a huge ability to scale, to transform the continent, the ability to create employment at scale — those are the three things that really impressed us with the vision of the guys.

Moguldom: What type of investments are you seeing in the Africa crypto space?

Bunmi Akinyemiju: The Africa crypto space? We think it holds a lot of promise. There’s a lot of issues to sort out around regulatory hurdles and clarity. The way we see it, I focus a lot more on the enabling technology for crypto — the blockchain technology. At the root of it, a lot of people confuse bitcoin with crypto with blockchain. I like to focus on the foundation which is blockchain and the ability to democratize and decentralize the concept of trust and verification of data. I think the transparency that emerging markets require is now possible because of blockchain. Whether that’s health records, land ownership, credit history — a lot of these things that are nonexistent or paper-based or just not easily accessible in a trusted way can now be possible because of blockchain technologies. I see that as a huge initiative. It’s quite exciting that the Kenyan government announced a panel — essentially a presidential announcement — to look into how blockchain can help transform the economy. I think those are the kinds of exciting announcements that you’re going to start seeing out of Africa.

For us, we are already experimenting with using blockchain technology for the power sector. We know that the power sector in Africa needs a lot of digital transformation. We have already worked on leveraging blockchain and crypto for the purpose of international remittances. Remittance is a big issue because you have migrant workers from Africa who are in the U.K., U.S., China, almost every country around the world, sending money home and it’s highly inefficient — it takes so long and it costs so much.

We have a startup — SureRemit — that we have invested in that essentially provides a way to use cryptocurrency, blockchain technology, to perform non-cash remittances into Nigeria, Rwanda and Kenya. That group has already gone on to raise over $7 million from an ICO. They’re one of the most successful ICOs in Africa. There’s been a handful of ICOs in Africa — my guess is (less than) 10. I know of about three. Theirs is one of the most successful that I know so far.

Moguldom: You left a promising career in the U.S to risk it all in Nigeria. Can you talk a little about this?

Bunmi Akinyemiju: I went to college at Michigan State University. After college, I joined a group called Artemis Solutions Group. All through college I was working with John Gilkey (president of Artemis). I had joined them at the early stages of the business, became a partner and helped grow it. After that we went on to found another company called Enliven Software out of East Lansing, Michigan. They were doing quite well and growing but around 2010, 2011, I just decided that I needed to do something bigger and I needed to do something that affected the continent. I left my business partners to continue running the Michigan businesses but I went to Africa to start all over again. The whole idea behind that was, we’ve done something pretty successful in Michigan. How about doing something in Africa where there’s essentially nothing — or not a lot — in terms of technology innovation and the type of problems you’re trying to fix are not 10-percent-incremental-efficiency problems but really starting from scratch, essentially creating something transformational. That was quite exciting for us and that was the reason for moving back to Africa. Starting from scratch, not easy, and then doing this in Africa, Nigeria specially, not easy, where you have infrastructure problems, talent challenges, but again, where there are major problems also creates major opportunities for breakthrough, and I think the kind of scale of growth we’ve seen in Nigeria, in about seven years, (our company has) grown to almost 250 people, we’ve grown to five different subsidiaries in Venture Garden, we’ve invested in 15 different companies. That kind of scale is only possible where there’s a lot of inefficiencies so I don’t regret that one bit.

Moguldom: Name some of the other companies you’ve invested in.

Bunmi Akinyemiju: We’ve invested in RentSource that’s doing solar energy pay-as-you-go systems, one called Max.ng which is a logistics/delivery type of company, SureRemit that did the recent ICO, a company called Helium that’s doing healthcare automation for hospitals.