10 lessons I learned while building Africa's super app
“If a snake fails to show its venom, children will use it to tie firewood.”
Hello, friends. This essay details ten interesting lessons I learned primarily from my time building Gozem.
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Among the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria, there’s a proverb that says: "What was secret is revealed in the marketplace."
And thanks to a variety of experiences across African markets over the last decade or so, I’ve become privy to a number of earned insights regarding innovation-led businesses across the continent.
A quick background: after I earned graduate business and law degrees from leading American institutions, I relocated to Lagos, Nigeria, and joined a VC-funded e-commerce platform in a user-focused leadership role that exposed me to the continent's contingent of newly online customers.
I then joined global ride-hailing platform Uber as the second-in-command to the Nigeria Country Manager in a supply-side role that exposed me to the daily realities faced by workers in the country's informal sector. And after Uber, I spearheaded a consultancy focused on helping African startups & SMEs grow; clients at the time included Kobo360 — a trucking technology platform that's now a Goldman Sachs portfolio company and a leading player in the space across the continent.
In 2018, I moved to Lomé, Togo to bring my various experiences to bear in service of a singular opportunity: building a super app for Africa, starting from Francophone Africa.
And today, after four years of so of advancing this vision alongside an exceptional team, I’ve transitioned from day-to-day management & operational oversight of the Gozem team to a strategic advisor role.
From the earliest days spent traversing the streets of Lomé in search of informal sector motorcycle taxi drivers amenable to a quick sales pitch, to our series A fundraise and our recently announced partnership with the International Finance Corporation, to bringing to market what’s now truly Africa's super app – one which operates a variety of verticals across Togo, Benin, Gabon, and Cameroon, generates multi-million USD GMV, employs hundreds of team members across West & Central Africa, and positively affects the lives of many thousands of drivers, vendors, & other partners on a daily basis — the journey has certainly been personally and professionally fulfilling.
But while I’m extremely proud of the team's progress to date, the company’s best days are still ahead.
So rather than recount past successes or detail the varied contributions of Raph, Greg, Jean-Martial, Grâce, Cécilia, Lionel, Manfreed, Pierrick, and many others over the years, I’ll detail some lessons learned along the way that I hope may be broadly useful.
Here they are — peppered with Igbo proverbs because, as Chinua Achebe wrote, "Proverbs are the oil with which words are eaten."
1. Culture is a function of leadership.
“When the mother goat chews her cud, her child watches her mouth.” — Igbo proverb
Organizational culture is a funny thing. Everyone generally agrees upon its importance, at least in theory — ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ and so on — but in practice, at the earliest stages of company building, there are many other pressing (and more tangible) issues that steal attention.
So as young companies necessarily focus on growth & execution, company cultures often develop unintentionally as a reflection of the personalities, preferences, and peculiarities of founding teams: the culture becomes what they reward, punish, and tolerate—for better or worse.
Across African markets where the innovation economy is still quite nascent and some positive aspects of Silicon Valley-style management haven't (yet?) taken hold widely, it can be easy for startups to fall into locally familiar paternalistic, hierarchy-driven cultures where most or all decision-making comes from authority.
Indeed, it's not uncommon to find that managers are put (or put themselves) on an unwarranted pedestal. (See, for example, the recent conversation around hostile work cultures across the Nigerian tech ecosystem spurred by Damilare’s work at TechCabal.)
But often, the highest and best use of authority by company leaders isn't to simply show power but rather to empower others. While a company’s leadership (intentionally or unintentionally) creates its culture, ideally, a company’s culture serves to create additional internal leaders.
2. Talent development is a differentiator.
“Knowing but not telling is what kills old men. Hearing but not heeding is what kills young men." — Igbo proverb
Attracting necessary talent is a challenge for all organizations, and doubly so for young organizations. They often lack the prestige, ability to pay, and perception of job security(/‘deriskification’) that more established businesses enjoy. And for startups operating in African markets, the talent challenge is compounded by the relative lack of depth within local talent pools.
So, in my view, startups across the African continent need to intentionally and aggressively build a talent development muscle. There needs to be a real answer to the question: ‘How do we rapidly upskill junior staff and systematically prepare them to grow in the company and take on new challenges?’
One specific and perhaps unorthodox initiative that we undertook at Gozem in this vein was to identify promising drivers on the platform and offer them salaried roles within our operational teams. While in some sense this may be cannibalistic as it often takes the best drivers off the roads, these driver ambassadors have a unique understanding of the Gozem platform and are often able to speak and lead certain driver-facing functions more credibly than other staff members would be.
From what we’ve seen at Gozem, this and other approaches we’ve developed to identify and nurture emerging talent and facilitate internal mobility contribute greatly to team morale, retention, and effectiveness.
3. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, and it’s what gets understood.
“The voice that's used in quarreling is not the same voice that's used in making peace.” — Igbo proverb
Often there’s some sense of shock when I tell people I moved to Togo to launch Gozem despite not speaking any French. But it’s true, and the experience taught me valuable lessons about communicating effectively.
There’s a great bit of difficulty involved in leading a team that speaks a language one isn't proficient in, and it’s certainly a humbling experience. For me, among other things, it served as a forcing function for trust & deferential leadership – letting junior team members make contributions in important discussions with external counterparties.
Moreover though, in Gozem’s early days, after a few miscommunication-linked mishaps, I began sending a daily morning narrative email in French (translated via DeepL) that highlighted priorities of the day and key recent wins & opportunities for improvement. After I became more proficient in the language, however, and as our team grew, the practice petered out.
But upon reflecting and after in-depth discussions with early team members (many thanks to Alexandra, Aristide, Farouk, & others), I’ve come to appreciate the positive impact this had on overall team alignment and buy-in to the daily mission at a pivotal time.
While oral communication certainly has its place, well-thought-out written business communication can improve comprehension, eliminate misunderstandings, and provide organization-wide clarity – it’s one reason to take Amazon’s business writing culture seriously.
Paraphrasing Jeff Bezos, “[written communication] forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what, and how things are related.”
4. When you have leverage, use it.
“If a snake fails to show its venom, children will use it to tie firewood.” — Igbo proverb
Leverage is a dynamic thing. You have it at one moment under certain conditions, but the next moment, conditions change and you lose it.
In negotiations, potential 'adversaries' — employers/employees, founders/investors, business partners, and others — are often driven primarily by self-interest, so the ability to recognize where the leverage lies at a given point in time can be very valuable.
To win, of course one should develop a long-term, non-zero-sum viewpoint, but it's nonetheless advisable to exploit identified leverage. While there'll likely be future consequences if a hand is overplayed, more often than not, in my view at least, unused leverage becomes a source of regret.
5. Systems lead to success.
“When a group of people expects things to be done by others, nothing is done.” — Igbo proverb
Best-selling author James Clear wrote, “We don’t rise to the level of our goals; we fall to the level of our systems.” By this, he means that achieving successful outcomes requires consistent faithfulness to enabling processes. And while his book primarily focuses on individuals, I find the same is true for organizations.
It’s why many of the world’s leading innovation-led organizations use operating/management systems — the most popular tend to be EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System), Scaling Up, and OKRs (Objectives and Key Results)
At Gozem (thanks largely to the influence of Kevin Colas), we began implementing the Scaling Up method two and a half years or so into our journey. I won't go into the specific system details here but I will say that there's been a clear contrast since its full implementation. We’ve since seen significant gains in terms of accountability, clarity of expectations, and cross-functional visibility.
Perhaps such formal systems are less important when everyone can fit into a single room, but as an organization grows, implementing a well-structured management operating system pays dividends.
6. Become a big fish by dominating smaller ponds.
"Drop by drop is how the palm wine fills the container." — Igbo proverb
“Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?”
For businesses with venture-scale ambitions, markets matter. So the only answer is to play in a big pond — one where there's a path to becoming a big fish.
But startups can't do everything and be everywhere from the jump, there has to be a strategic choice of what to do and what not to do, where to play and where to delay. In business literature, among other related ideas are the concepts of beachhead markets and wedge strategies which both essentially put forth that the way to win large markets is through an initial focus on capturing smaller opportunities.
At Gozem, while we’ve always maintained a big fish-big pond vision since day one, our initial geographic market was Togo, a country with a population of just 8 million, and our initial focus was on the ride-hailing vertical. It’s no surprise that many viewed us quizzically, with many questions about the strategy of playing small initially.
But years later, this approach has allowed us to become a relatively big fish in the relatively smaller ponds of Francophone West & Central Africa that we operate in. And as more of the Gozem vision comes to fruition, the benefits of starting small and the size of the ultimate pond seem to be better appreciated by observers.
A relevant French expression that I learned during my time in Togo is 'Petit à petit, l'oiseau fait son nid' — little by little the bird builds its nest.
7. Embrace constraints & learn quickly.
"Hot soup should be sipped carefully." — Igbo proverb
According to Howard Stevenson, an entrepreneurship professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, "entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled." And, as alluded to in point 6 above, at the early stages of new ventures, it seems there are never enough resources: not enough time, not enough talent, not enough capital, and so on.
But rather than lament these circumstances or spend too much time trying to remove constraints (e.g., a 100% focus on fundraising), early-stage ventures should see the opportunity therein and embrace it.
Constraints often inspire better thinking, compel creativity, and force focus and (ruthless) prioritization. In many cases, this leads to quick iteration and rapid learning of what works and what doesn't, and what truly moves the needle. And when a winning formula is found, constraints push you to fully exploit the opportunity and develop a thorough understanding of the underlying mechanics.
A good quick article on this subject is Marissa Mayer’s “Creativity loves constraints,” which she penned while at Google. As she writes, “it is often easier to direct your energy when you start with constrained challenges…or constrained possibilities. … Limited investment makes it easier to move on to something else that has a better chance of success.”
8. Resilience should be a core organizational trait.
“A palm nut that wants to become palm oil must pass through fire.” — Igbo proverb
All businesses have to be resilient of course, but when comparing my experiences in the West to those across sub-Saharan Africa, I’d say that resilience — the ability to recover quickly from sudden disturbances and adapt easily to misfortune — is much more necessary in African markets where extraneous shocks are much more common.
During my time in Togo, Gozem experienced its share of unforeseen external bad luck, from office flooding to power outages to regular connectivity disruptions and more. And when I poll peers across the continent, it’s clear that one can’t plan for everything. Depending on the market, there can be a high likelihood of infrastructure shocks, regulatory shocks, and more.
Still, the exercise of planning is essential and robust processes to respond to the unplanned are recommended.
While I love the Mike Tyson quote, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” getting punched in the mouth is far from uncommon in a boxing match and one should certainly be prepared to respond.
9. Character, reputation, and integrity are everything.
“Not everyone who answers to the title Chief is a legitimate chief.” — Igbo proverb
One of the most famous scenes in the critically acclaimed TV series The Wire involves ruthless crimelord Marlo Stanfield (played by Jaime Hector) exclaiming, "My name is my name!"
For founders and managers of young ventures, your name is your name. Said simply, reputation matters.
As much as we’d all like the freedom to be individuals, startup leaders (and business leaders in general) represent more than themselves; they represent employees, investors, and other significant stakeholders. How they’re perceived among different groups — potential customers, partners, investors, etc. — can often have a real business impact, like it or not. Call it the penalty of leadership in today’s connected age: “[Leaders] must perpetually live in the white light of publicity.”
If leaders don’t recognize this, stakeholders certainly do. (See, for example, the recent critical letter published by SpaceX employees declaring that “every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company.”)
And in low-trust environments such as African markets, my view is that this is doubly important. Both on the individual and institutional levels, it’s important to always act with integrity, deliver on promises, and avoid doubt-inducing controversies.
10. As you build a business, the business builds you.
“The right hand washes the left hand, the left hand washes the right hand.” — Igbo proverb
Building a business is a process of discovery. You discover who your customers are and what they need and will pay for. You discover the products and services that best meet those needs. And you discover how to sustainably and profitably meet those needs.
So there's customer and market discovery, product discovery, and business model discovery, but one thing not talked about enough is self-discovery — throughout the entire process one learns and discovers things about her/himself.
In early-stage ventures, founders and early employees, at the least, tend to be unusually invested in a company’s ups and downs, its peaks and valleys, its daily mishaps and milestones, and they learn things — about markets, management, and more — that ultimately shape their worldview. The intensity of the experience often brings with it earned insights that can last well beyond the lifetime of one’s involvement with the business.
Here, I’m reminded of two quotes that I’ll let speak for themselves.
The American Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions." And Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with the quote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
Those are some of the lessons I've been fortunate to learn and master during my time working across the African continent and building Gozem.
And, as mentioned above, I believe the company’s days are still yet ahead and I remain excited to see Greg, Raph, and others continue to push things forward on a daily basis while I fully step into an advisory role.
As I look towards the future, I’d love to engage further with those working across Africa’s innovation economy, and in particular, there are three groups I'd love to talk to:
Entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs building businesses primarily for or from Africa (both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa)
Investors, aspiring investors, and LPs interested in opportunities across the African continent
And subject matter experts, potential mentors, and others worldwide and in the African diaspora who’d love to apply their experiences to help catalyze innovation across the continent
I’m reachable on LinkedIn or by email at email@example.com. That said, I’ll leave with three additional Igbo proverbs:
“The world is like a cow’s/goat’s udder. It doesn’t yield any milk unless you punch and squeeze at it,”
“The ram retreats before attacking,”
and “The big game often appears when the hunter has given up the hunt for the day.”
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Awesome article. Thanks for sharing these valuable lessons
Got values. Thanks for sharing. I am a budding entrepreneur - venture designer, connecting with you right away