Feature: TPC MSME Enterprise Journey…Thoughts and Works that Inspire Action.

Idris Ayo Bello is popularly referred to as the ‘Afropreneur’ – a word he coined to describe the bright, independent, and tech-savvy entrepreneurs using creative thinking and the power of innovation to take over Africa’s economic destiny, Idris Ayodeji Bello is a Founding Partner of the Wennovation Hub and Loftyinc Capital Management, where he oversees the Afropreneurs Fund.

Listed among CNN’s Top Ten African Technology Voices, Idris holds advanced degrees in computer science, business administration, and global health from the University of Houston, Rice University, and the University of Oxford, UK respectively. He also holds a First-Class Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Engineering from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

As a leader, Idris has mentored and catalyzed scores of contributors across the growing African landscape and is an early-stage investor and advisor to several African startups including Andela. He has also worked or consulted for global organizations including Procter & Gamble, Chevron USA, ExxonMobil USA, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Clinton Health Access Initiative, and the Nigeria Primary Health Care Development Agency, among others. 

He spends his time between Houston, Cairo, and Lagos, with a focus on the development of innovation-driven, technology-enabled social enterprises that empower the underserved and develop transformative ideas to change lives on the African continent.

In this exciting chat with Idris Bello, TPC Senior Consultant, Kate Majekodunmi, engaged him on various issues concerning personal and entrepreneurial success as well as the critical needs for strengthening the entrepreneurship ecosystem and development in Nigeria.

Kate: Thank you so much again sir for accepting this feature in our platform.

Idris Bello: You are welcome.

Kate: We would like to also welcome you to the month of Ramadan; we pray that Allah gives us peace and happiness in this time.

Idris Bello: Amin. Thank you so much.
Kate: Kindly give us a brief introduction.

Idris Bello: My name is Idris Bello and I currently work as a founding partner at “Loftyinc Capital Management” which is an early-stage African-focused venture capital firm. I also happen to have co-founded “Wennovation Hub” which is a West-African-based technology incubator and accelerator, and I am also an angel investor in several African-based startups. 

Kate: Okay sir, my first question: As an investor, what are the key things you look out for before you go into any startup to become a partner or an angel investor?

Idris Bello: Well because I invest very early on, my thesis is very simple because at that point or stage you don’t have many years of data to go over, so usually we are asking three major questions: 

This first question is usually focused on the founder because like they say ideas are a dime a dozen, so we are usually interested in your connection to this problem. What is your understanding of this space? What is the main knowledge you bring? Why would you succeed? What unique insight do you have that someone else doesn’t have? So, these are the first things we asking before we invest- it is usually about the founders, what creative experience and exposure do they have, and networks.
The next question would then be why now? Timing is one of the biggest factors in the success or failures of startups and so we are saying why do you think you would succeed now? Are you following trends? Is it the market? Is it a health factor, like Covid? What is driving why people would need this for now? So, this is the second question.

The third question after that is How? How do you intend to make this happen? Walk us through how you intend to get your first client. Your first 1 million dollars. The various milestones, how are you thinking through this, and how you expect to execute this and that?

So again, for us, these are really the core questions we ask before making our decisions on investing, and before that, we are also looking at- is this a sector or domain that we can add value to? Beyond money, we want to be sure we can help you to grow because we usually say that “if money is the only thing, we can bring to the table we’d probably not invest in you”, as you are probably better off with another investor than add more value and so these are what determine investment in that early space.

Kate: I went over your story on Twitter, so I want to know, what drives you because it is not easy to walk up to anybody the way you did and demand a position. So, what exactly motivated that, and what drives you generally as an investor?

Idris Bello: So, my take in life is what’s the worst that can happen right? Someone once said you either do or you don’t do. There is no harm trying, right? The status quo for anything is already “no” so the worse that can happen is that you remain at the status quo …- that’s the way I look at a lot of these things. So, if I’m convinced about something even if they say it’s as high as the moon, I’ll probably try and reach for it and maybe I’d get back to where I was.

That’s the same kind of thing I put into my career, investments, and other things I do and I usually tell younger people, when looking at a career, the most expensive real estate you can buy is the space on your CV/resume because you are buying it for years in your life, so when I go to work somewhere or do something, I ask myself is this where I want to spend the next few years of my life because it’s more than the money … So that’s the way I usually look at these things so I look at it like what is the worst thing that can happen apart from a “no” So, that is it for me. When it comes to investment, we look at the impact like ‘What can we do to make an impact?’ I came from a background where I used to be an entrepreneur and got to a point where I realized that there is so much I want to do that I can’t do alone, so how do you go from success to significance? How do you impact through others? And I think that’s what drives my investment philosophy.

Kate: So basically, you have no other place than to go up?

Idris Bello: Yes, considering you are already down anyway. 

Kate: I fully understand that sir. So, my next question would be: What lessons have you learnt that you feel have not been well taught in life generally and especially in the Nigerian economy?

Idris Bello: Well for me personally and I say this to a lot of smart people, life is all about relationships, I think we over fixate on the big things or small things… so I think people don’t do enough to invest in relationships, so young people, older people, if there is one thing I’ve learnt over the years and even as an investor, it is building relationships with people. So as an investor to a future investor, relationships are all about the long-term gains… a lot of people view life as transactional but again I ascribe to the game theory where you have multiple interactions with people and they all build upon each other, so when you look at life from that perspective where it’s about continually building relationships with people then hopefully at some point people add value on either side.

Then on the other part is that people are locked in on this zero-sum game of life, where for you to win someone else would have to lose. Well, that is a scarcity mindset, and I would rather abide by an abundant mindset, where if you grow the pie there is enough to go around and we don’t have to fight ourselves over a small pie.

Kate: So basically, how would recommend one builds on relationships?

Idris Bello: For me, it would be always seeking to add value in relationships and build on, so it’s not only about going to meetings and handing out business cards and you think you have contacts or relationships but it’s about always seeking to add value to people even before you need them or having the mindset of you getting a payback, and eventually everything connects. If I look back at my academic life, all the people I found ways to add value to overtime in one way or the other, they have added value to me directly or indirectly, or there are people now, who need something from me, which I cannot offer, be it advice or directions, but those people within my network are able to help them with such, and it goes on and on, that’s the way I look at relationships- it’s continually adding value.

Kate: What tips can you provide on surviving in the Nigerian market for various startup entrepreneurs? 

Idris Bello: It is a tough one. Again all markets are tough but when you now look at the Nigerian case, when you have to deal with the government, you deal with regulators, you deal with the market, inability to plan, you have to deal with all of that, what then happens is that if you are not strong enough or not very focused on what you want to achieve then you might easily give up and so what happens then is that there is something that has to be driving you specifically beside the financial returns; and so what then happens as you go along is you find a way not to be a solo person on the journey, find people that are on the same journey with you, who encourage you or people who have been on that path that can provide some directions to you so that it doesn’t feel like you are alone.

Also, increasing customer focus is very key as there is a lot of hype around entrepreneurship and at the end of the day what you are doing is offering service to someone, offering value to a client who needs something and so the question is why should they pick you over someone else? As even in worse situations people still have to eat, people still have needs despite the economic situation and everything. People still make purchases, so why would they need to choose you and keep coming back over and over again because that’s what really keeps you in the market.

Kate: This brings me to my next question. What advice would you give every day Nigerians that want to move from ordinary to extraordinary in this startup journey?

Idris Bello: I think this just builds upon each other, so what I tell people is how big is the problem you are solving? I think that is what is at the core of it- solving problems. Hopefully, money comes from it, the bigger the problem you have to solve the bigger the opportunity to do extraordinary things. When I tell people that five years ago when I looked at Flutterwave deck solution, they were very clear that they were solving an 860-billion-dollar problem, and even if they solved a very small part of it, they would still be extraordinary and I think that is where the problem is that people focus on small problems, as against key pain-points. So as an entrepreneur you’re supposed to focus on that and build a strong team that is even smarter than you, by increasing the average with every new hire. The possibility of moving from ordinary to extraordinary is higher.

Kate: In Nigeria of today, do you see technology, learning, and development moving this country any further than it is now?

Idris Bello: I know we have no choice despite all our challenges, technology and entrepreneurship are what has gotten us here and we have just started and as young people embrace technology more and become less of consumers and more producers themselves, that can only move the country forward, so in terms of the newer generation bringing better ideas, applications which would place us where we need to be on the global map, well yes I believe technology would move this country forward and with the help of the government not just paying lip service but actually providing the infrastructure like cheaper and faster internet access, it could unleash a great amount of prosperity that would do much more than what government could ever do with all their donations and subsidies.

Kate: So, given the opportunity to make such decisions in technological advancement in Nigeria, what would be the top three things you would choose to change or fix in Nigeria, today?

Idris Bello: In the Nigerian education system, the education system has never really been tied to outcomes as we got our education system from the 60s to 70s that was tuned to providing workers for the civil service and we have never really gone back to change that, which ideally every 3-4years we should go back to change the school curriculum, and refining our teachers and lecturers for that, but rather we have this process where we push out graduates who have to figure out what to do after they are done with school. So, our education system needs to be fixed so graduates can think critically as against memorizing texts, which is missing in our curriculum.

Another is that studies have shown that the more access to the internet and technology tools, the more resources they can access themselves, the more leverage they can have to become better people to society, so I think finding a way to make this more accessible is going to be very key in where we go.

Finally, I think, just general infrastructure, is needed to enable people to thrive to generally increase GDP.
Kate: So, my final question for you sir, following everything- your whole story, and the various steps you took which have formed the bases for success, looking back what would you have changed? What would you have done differently? That is if you could change anything.  

Idris Bello: Probably nothing because considering the way life works, everything just connects at the end of the day. Looking forward, you can never be able to connect the dots looking forward, and so I think everything was just meant to be the way it is, so even my path from engineering to business to healthcare to entrepreneurship; but again, just looking at a younger person: building more relationships, connecting with people.

Again, I have had a good academic career but even 10-15years down the line of what I’ve been able to build, because there is just so much you can build- on your own smartness, have you been able to get people to work with you on things that are bigger than you?

Kate: Thank you so much for your time this has been very informative and educative.

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