Born and raised in Nigeria, Africa. Chris Folayan is well established successful serial entrepreneur, board advisor, mentor, and speaker with over 25 years of C level role experience in marketing, technology, startups, and corporate acquisitions. In this exclusive interview with Alaba Ayinuola of Business Africa Online, Chris shared his journey into entrepreneurship, how and why he founded Mall for Africa and how he is disputing Africa’s eCommerce and retail space. And his corporate social responsibility strategy. Excerpt.
Alaba: You have launched few startups before Mall for Africa. Kindly tell us about your entrepreneurship journey and the learning curves?
Chris: My entrepreneurial journey started at a very young age. The journey of a serial entrepreneur has not been easy but it is one that has led to a tremendous bounty of amazing learnings you can’t get anywhere else. My journey really started once I left FGCI (Federal Government College Ilorin) a high school in Kwara state, Nigeria. Right after I finished at FGCI I came to America and was captivated by the internet and all things online. It was a whole new world to me.
The ambition, motivation, and sheer dedication to ensure I make something of myself having been given the privilege to come to America for University was a blessing I was dedicated to making the best of it.
One of my first jobs in the US was with a hard drive company. I was fortunate enough to work with many departments from online development to strategic marketing to Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A). All happening before I was 19. Working with the M&A department helped me a great deal understand business development, what companies are looking for before acquisitions, and much more. I was the software guy who came to the meetings and evaluated the product before it was acquired to see if it passed all my tests. I worked on many projects and reviewed many companies over the course of two years.
My first big shot entrepreneurial gig was in a startup music company. I was hired as the CTO working on developing the first ever encoding direct media stream with digital rights platform all in one. From there I learnt about patents, improved my programming skills.and much more. Back then MP3 and RealAudio platforms were the rage. The learning curve was about programing and being at the cutting edge knowing that whatever you build has to have a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) even if you are first in market. You have to set your business and model apart from everyone else. After exiting the company successfully, I started a software and web design company.
For 10 years we developed over 1000 websites in over 60 countries and worked for some of the top Fortune 100 and 500 companies of the world including governments. With this entrepreneurial journey I learnt about contacts, connections, customer service, and the art of pricing appropriately to win. What most people don’t realize when starting a company is reputation is key from day 1. If you start with a bad reputation you will have a higher road to climb. With every business you need to imagine you are climbing a very steep hill.
The key here is to understand what the market wants and needs. Invest time into researching all the core attributes, devising a cost, then doing a cost analysis on development and market value. We did this successfully for many companies we started and sold.
One of the big learnings with “Mall for Africa” was how we legitimize ourselves in the market from the beginning. Everyone in Nigeria is skeptical of every new business. So proving ourselves as legitimate was the biggest hurdle from the start. We accomplished this by placing prime billboards, partnering with banks, and taking out major newspaper and radio adverts. Once we build a reputation for being legitimate we had to work on payments. Learning how to collect payments from a society where many don’t have traditional Visa and Mastercards. We developed a one of a kind platform where people could deposit cash into the platform like a gift card and would be credited the amount so they can buy items from US/UK sites.
This instinctively started and boosted the company into fame as we were able to give the banked and unbanked the ability to shop on US/UK sites. We ended up helping many tap for the first time into eCommerce without any border restrictions. Trust me when I say there were issues but with each one we persevered and never gave up. Being able to pivot has also been key for Mall for Africa. We have tried many new things from auctions to deals of the day sales.
We have also recently launched our white label platform to help businesses in Africa make money off ecommerce. We call this new venture Link Commerce. As you can tell the journey has been long filled with ups and downs, but you morph, and grow as the market moves you so you are always relevant and make money.
Alaba: Mall for Africa is no doubt disrupting the eCommerce and retail
ecosystem in Africa. What inspired this laudable idea?
Chris: Mall for Africa was inspired by friends and family, but not in the way you would think. I simply got tired of packing my suitcases with people’s stuff and with a software background I knew I could do something about it. What broke the camel’s back was really my being declined from boarding a delta flight from San Francisco to Lagos with 10 suitcases. The Delta lady at the checking counter said “You going to Nigeria?” and I said “Yes, I am.” She looked at me snapped her fingers and said “No you are not. Not with all those suitcases.”
I didn’t realize I had exceeded the maximum number of bags one person could have. 95% of the luggage was for people who had asked me to bring stuff over. There is a need in the market for a solution to help people buy products from US/UK.
My network of friends was not huge yet and I had 10 suitcases. What if we opened an option up to the entire country for people to shop? I could be shipping tons and tons and we could make money. Fast forward many years we have shipped millions of products to people in Nigeria, and across Africa. Helping people buy the products they want to look good, and helping people buy products to start businesses and improve their lives. So who inspired me? Honestly the best people possible. Friends family and the amazing Nigerian people who I adore who have pushed me over the years to improve our platform and help do more.
Alaba: Despite the challenges eCommerce firms are facing in Africa and some shutting down operations,what business model and strategies is sustaining Mall for Africa?
Chris: Ecommerce in Africa is hard, but by 2025 it will be a $300bn industry and Africa has leap frogged in many things. One vital part being telecommunications and mobile phones. We have more cell phones than land lines. Africa will have more growth in new users online than any continent. You take that into consideration you now have to look at how do you make money in such an environment. For MallforAfrica we have faced the challenges other ecommerce platforms have faced.
However, we are very nimble and able to pivot. Our business model has changed over the years. If you asked me 2 years ago how would you expand I would give you a totally different answer than I would today. Today, we are working primarily with partners to expand our business. Now I didn’t say our name I said our business. We are white labeling our platform and providing businesses with the ability to start their own eCommerce companies with the Mall for Africa infrastructure. We have started a business called Link Commerce which is now working on powering eCommerce platforms for banks, mobile operators, ecommerce companies, and shipping companies in emerging markets.
Alaba: What are the worst and best decisions you’ve ever made?
Chris: I don’t see decisions as worst or bad, I see them as learning experiences. I have learnt that decisions form wisdom and there is nothing like bad wisdom. The same goes for best decisions. We have made some great moves as a company and Link Commerce is one of them. But I would urge every entrepreneur and business owner not to see decisions as good and bad and tie themselves up to such terms. But see each decision as a form of building wisdom. I would say my best and worst decisions have been around the people we hire. We have hired some amazing people and we have hired some really bad people. It’s hard to find great people but when you do they are amazing. Uplift the company and ensure we grow. Having a great team is key for our business to succeed and we have a fantastic group of people working for us today. Beyond blessed to have a great team. Hiring in Africa is not easy.
Alaba: What is your advice for African governments faced with the challenges of attracting the right FDI?
Chris: My advice is simply to ensure that all FDI investments are beneficial to the people and locality the funds are applied to. Africa needs funding in 3 key major areas:
- Power / Energy
I am of the mindset if FDI funding is put into any of these 3, it will be money well used and invested. I recommend governments supply investors with key factors in any of these 3 key areas. Once we have this right the ROI for any investor will be 5X to 20X easy. As Africans we are very driven and entrepreneurial. But we are lacking these 3 platforms to display our true selves to the world. Once we are giving the opportunities Africa will rise to the top.
Alaba: How do you feel as an African entrepreneur? Your advice for
aspiring entrepreneurs and Investors looking at Africa as an investment
Chris: I am a very proud African entrepreneur. There are not enough of us out there and I pray more people take the leap of faith and start a company and do something great for the continent. My advice is to be prepared to fall and get back up multiple times. No one finishes the race if they don’t get back up. With any business in Africa you just have to keep your eyes on the prize. Follow all the rules and ensure you have a great team of trusted people around you. For investors I say Africa is your best return on investment in the world. Nothing can get you a better return but be patient with us. We are writing our future as we go and do not have history to dictate our future. If you stay the course and stick by us, you will be dancing to the bank. Maybe not as fast as you want, but eventually when you do… those dancing shoes will be tapping and clapping all the way to the bank. We are the best bang for your buck. Africa stands strong, proud, and 100% the best investment any investor can make.
Alaba: As a responsible corporate organisation, do you have a CSR policy?
What are the key focus areas for projects?
Chris: As our CSR we focus on helping people start companies and build up an online reputation in Africa to sell abroad. We have started a platform called MarketplaceAfrica.com in conjunction with DHL to help people sell into US and UK. This is how we are giving back to society. We provide free lectures, free photo sessions, free online assistance, free pricing guides and help with people who want to get their products online and sold. We are getting Africa ready for eCommerce so ensure we build a sustainable online future for our artisans. We are beyond proud of our efforts to ensure we help our brother and sisters in Africa enjoy the benefits of selling abroad and ensuring that money they get is put to good use in developing their company and building better lives for their family.
Alaba: How do you relax and what kind of books do you read?
Chris: I love to swim and play tennis as my form of physical relaxation. I like reading books on marketing, business, and self help type books. Books that feed off experiences of others. I am currently reading High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way by Burchard, Brendon, Hay House. The previous 2 books were Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.and The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything.
Chris is well established successful serial entrepreneur, board advisor, mentor, and speaker with over 25 years of C level role experience in marketing, technology, startups, and corporate acquisitions. Born and raised in Nigeria, Chris founded his first venture at age 7 recycled tires with a group of friends which he ran for 2.5 years. He migrated to the U.S to attend college in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Coming from Nigeria right into the technology boom era amazed by all he saw around him and the growth of the internet. Chris decided to teach himself various programming, design and software languages which he used as a foundation to catapult himself into various high level advisory roles in fortune 500 companies by age 19 he was working on his first patent, while pursuing a BA degree in marketing. After graduating from San Jose State University, he founded and sold several companies globally, while establishing new companies in Africa, USA, Middle East and Asia. Before Chris founded his current venture, the award-winning Mall for Africa and Mall for the World platforms, Chris was the Founder and CEO of OCFX Inc a multi-million dollar globally recognized silicon valley based, award winning software agency serving and consulting clients such as SONY, LSI, Cisco, HP, EPSON, TYCO, Accenture, CapitalOne, EMC, USA Government and many others in over 60 countries. Chris has a learn as you grow, out of the box thinking philosophy that drives strategy and business growth.
ITFC and OCP Africa unite for the strategic financing, innovation, and capacity building of agriculture in Africa
ITFC CEO Eng Hani Salem Sonbol and CEO OCP Africa Mr Karim Lotfi Senhadj(Image: ITFC)
ITFC and OCP Africa will jointly introduce a new “OCP School lab” campaign in Senegal in November 2019
RABAT, Morocco, October 21, 2019- The International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC), a member of the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) Group, and OCP Africa, a subsidiary of OCP SA, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that will cater towards strategic funding, innovation and capacity building measures to increase agricultural production yields and income levels for Africa’s smallholder farmers. The agreement was signed between Mr Karim Lotfi Senhadji, CEO, OCP Africa and ITFC CEO, Eng. Hani Salem Sonbol.
The MoU will increase collaboration between ITFC and OCP Africa in various areas, including smallholder farmer training on sound agricultural practices; soil testing and fertility management to support better yields; innovation and digitalization tools to modernize agricultural practices; and capacity building and support of young farmers for sustainable and inclusive development.
Commenting on the MoU, Eng. Hani Salem Sonbol, CEO, ITFC, said that the cooperation with OCP Africa is in line with ITFC’s mandate to support the development of strategic value chains in countries member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). “The services provided by ITFC in the agricultural sector, both in terms of trade financing and tactial support, has expanded significantly over the past years, targeting critical areas of the value chain, from farm input to processing, pre-export, and export. The sector is also one of the value chains that is ready for innovation and SME development.”
OCP Africa’s CEO, Karim Lotfi Senhadji said, “The smallholder farmer is central to OCP Africa’s strategy to support the transition of farming communities from subsistence farming to modern, sustainable agri-business. Our aim is to strengthen the continent’s agriculture ecosystems thus enabling African farmers to prosper. The agreement with ITFC will support efforts to train farmers on best farming practices, test soils for accurate fertilizer recommendations, facilitate access to financing, and improve access to markets”.
ITFC and OCP Africa will jointly introduce a new “OCP School lab” campaign in Senegal in November 2019. A flagship program of OCP Africa, OCP School Lab is an innovative program aimed at increasing the yields and the incomes of smallholder’s farmers on strategic crops by offering a full set of agri-services:
- A School: interactive training sessions with live demos on good agricultural practices and animated videos in local dialects for higher impact
- A mobile Lab: Soil-testing using latest innovations (X-rays, big data and machine learning) and live information on soil needs and fertilizer recommendations
ITFC has been providing significant support to ensure food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2018, trade finance approvals for the food & agriculture sector amounted to US$749.6 million, representing 14.4% of the total trade finance portfolio, a 71% increase compared to the previous year. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 50% of ITFC’s food & agriculture sector financing extended in 2018.
Egypt urges World Bank, IMF to support regional integrity in Africa
CAIRO – 18 October 2019: Minister of Investment and International Cooperation Sahar Nasr called on the World Bank and IMF to boost their support to Egypt in achieving regional integrity and intra-trade in Africa, a press release on Friday read.
Addressing the Intergovernmental Group of 24 on International Monetary Affairs and Development in Washington, Nasr called on the WB and International Monetary Fund to expand investments in the region.
The minister said that Egypt’s vision to face the slowdown in global economic growth and trade tensions is to achieve more economic integration and continue to take the path of reform to make our economies more competitive and attractive for investment, to achieve the aspirations of the world countries in growth and development.
Nasr explained that the Egyptian government has implemented a comprehensive economic and social reform program to promote sustainable growth, alleviate poverty, create good jobs, enable the private sector to promote growth, and provide opportunities for all sectors of society to participate in the economy, especially women and young entrepreneurs.
The Minister added that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as the chairman of the African Union, has set the achievement of regional economic integration as a top priority.
Nasr also discussed Wednesday with the World Bank the provision of $500 million for the pollution control and solid waste management project in Egypt.
Nasr added in a statement that Egypt is also discussing with the World Bank raising the level of partnership to support the health and education sectors in Egypt.
For his part, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa Farid Belhadj affirmed that Egypt is a very important country for the bank’s fields of work.
“Therefore the World Bank is keen to contribute effectively to the efforts exerted to achieve development in Egypt, especially in the field of infrastructure, in light of the economic and legislative reform that contributed to improving the investment climate in Egypt,”Belhadj explained.
African Development Bank inks €12.5 million deal with Adiwale Fund for SMEs
The African Development Bank on Thursday signed off on its €12.5 million equity investment in Adiwale Fund 1, a first-generation private equity fund targeting high growth potential Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in francophone West Africa.
The Bank Group’s board of directors approved the investment in March as part of its commitment to grow SMEs and improve livelihoods in countries underserved by the global equity market.
With a target fund size of €75 million, the Fund will take minority stakes in vibrant SMEs in countries where economic prospects and the Fund’s networks permit a rapid scale up.
Deal size for the Fund will range from €3 to €8 million. Primary target countries will include Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali, while secondary beneficiaries will include Togo, Benin and Guinea.
Across these economies, some of which are fragile states, the Fund will target three sectors: consumer goods and services, including education and health; business services such as transport, logistics, information technology and construction, and manufacturing, including pharmaceuticals, agri-processing and chemicals.
Abdu Mukhtar, Director for Industrial and Trade Development said the Fund’s investment strategy is aligned with the Bank’s High 5 goals especially ‘Industrialize Africa, Integrate Africa and Improving the Quality of Life for the People of Africa’.
“The most exciting part is that the Fund focuses on SMEs in francophone West Africa which accounts for nearly 19% of West Africa’s GDP but attracts only 7% of private equity capital. As these companies grow, they cross the borders and integrate across different countries,” Mukhtar remarked as he signed and exchanged deal documents with the Fund Manager’s co-founder Jean-Marc Savi de Tové.
Established in 2016, the Fund Manager, Adiwale Partners, houses a team of experienced West African nationals with several decades of combined private equity, operational, development finance and asset management experience in Africa, Europe and the United States.
From a development perspective, the Bank’s equity investment will provide growth capital to African SMEs, resulting in spill-over effects on job creation and tax revenues, with about 45% of the jobs going to women, Mukhtar said.
Savi de Tové said the Fund will also provide local entrepreneurs with management expertise and boost best-in class corporate governance and human capital development, which ultimately unlocks growth and supports economic transformation.
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