Cutting through the clutter

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Recently, I hosted a webinar that sought to cut through the clutter and generic chat around business in the COVID-19 era, and look at how Nigerian entrepreneurs and their companies were applying technology to business building as part of the so-called “new normal”. The COVID-19 business related noise out there is deafening. For start-ups and SMEs, how can they actually choose the best next steps to save their businesses? To grow their businesses? Together, as an entrepreneur-first community, my panelists and I want to simplify the narrative and unpick how digital is reshaping business in a whole new way, through awareness, appreciation, adoption. #DigitallySimple

The panel comprised battle-hardened entrepreneurs, many of whom had already worked through and survived recessionary times, to find out how they were applying their knowledge to combat the tough current climate and, in some cases, scale their businesses. Necessity is the mother of invention; so during these times, how were leaders in the Nigerian food, education, health, transport & logistics and payments sectors, build their businesses, turning challenges into opportunities for organisational reform and growth — powered by digital?

In the education space, tech entrepreneur Sim Shagaya, discussed the launch of his edutech platform, uLesson, just ahead of COVID-19. For him, technology has always been the ultimate platform for scaling access to education, as the present model of education quite simply isn’t sustainable for millions of young people on the continent. For him media, technology and rigorous academic standards are central to what his new platform is achieving, and COVID has simply accelerated parents’ understanding and grasp of what education can look like — outside of the traditional schoolbook/classroom combination. Like any visionary entrepreneur, Sim was planning for tomorrow, today; but the lockdown and schools shuttering only helped to accelerate his mission, and uLesson is seeing incredible growth. Through his product, Sim is building trust between his company and parents who are instinctively inclined towards traditional teaching.

Interestingly, our panelists Obi Ozor of Kobo360 and Vivian Nwakah of MEDSAF, also focused on how technology was being used to build trust and value between their platforms and customers. For Kobo360 truck drivers, for example, they were willing to adopt new technology as part of their everyday working lives, once it was patently obvious that they could earn more, work more efficiently, and receive additional working benefits through the platform. They saw the value in being part of Kobo360 in real terms — financial returns. Vivian Nwakah, in discussing one of the most important aspects of trust — one’s personal health — was clear in how her team are using technology to actually scale during the COVID-19 crisis, using technology to enable what they are doing in terms of building the trust in their brand and driving forward their mission that access to quality medication is a fundamental human right, and that they are using technology to achieve this.

A curveball for our tech-focused panel was the inimitable Reni Folawiyo, Founder and CEO of NOK by Alara. Prior to COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown of restaurants in Lagos, Reni and her team had only ever offered an offline experience. Keen to preserve the restaurant’s unique hybrid experiential brand, they had never really considered how technology could be applied to grow their business, other than perhaps seasonal menu changes uploaded online and social media marketing / word of mouth. However, as we have already stated, necessity is the mother of invention, and with COVID-19, Reni and her team soon found a way to ensure they meticulously maintained their brand, through same-team delivery, and a laser focus on every detail of the delivery process [from quality of food, to packaging and the usual finessed touches one would expect from NOK], whilst leveraging technology to continue selling the NOK food experience. NOK went digital, almost overnight — and to rave reviews.

Hearing Reni’s story, especially in the context of our tech pioneers who are all digital natives and whose businesses are built solely on technology, was fascinating, because it revealed how entrepreneurs from all sectors must continue to innovate and move outside of their immediate comfort zone if they are to thrive. At this moment in time, thousands more businesses are adopting technology to survive, and ultimately scale. It will be fascinating to see how Reni’s team continues on their digital journey.

And of course, no digital business in Nigeria can grow, without safe and secure payments, and our esteemed fintech panelist, Shola Akindlade of Paystack discussed how especially in the fintech world, it was critical to build trust, adding that the main barriers to entry are infrastructure, literacy, trust and security. These are really the fundamentals of business building, and were common themes amongst all of our panelists when they discussed how they went about building their brands pre, during and, of course, post-COVID. Each and every single panelist focused on trust — it goes beyond technology, it has to be central to everything you are building, especially during fractious times.

Of course, the lively debate and discussion that came from the webinar was music to my ears — and also went far in validating what we are building with Sparkle; a platform that provides access to financial products, at scale — as we look to push the broader financial inclusion agenda in Nigeria. And how will we do that? By leading by example and instilling trust, transparency and freedom into absolutely everything we build for our community of Sparklers.

The sense of community between our panelists, via Zoom, was striking; innovators, business builders, entrepreneurs was great — sharing knowledge, sharing stories, sharing failures, sharing successes — it’s part of the business journey for us all as we look to cut through the clutter and focus on real business learnings, with a particular focus on how technology can be used to both simplify and scale a business. My only regret is that we weren’t able to get through all of the questions and items for discussion shared by our attendees. In my next blog post, I’ll be answering some of the questions that were posed by our attendees [that we weren’t able to answer on the day] as well as analyse some of the fascinating data regarding the adoption of digital / access to banking / new ways of working from our Sparkle webinar polls.

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