10 African entrepreneurs who’ve lived abroad, but built thriving businesses back home

These 10 entrepreneurs have all experienced life in developed countries like the US and UK, but recognised the business opportunities back home.

1. Mercy Kitomari, Nelwa’s Gelato

Tanzanian Mercy Kitomari is founder and CEO of Nelwa’s Gelato, an ice cream business operating in the financial hub of Dar es Salaam.

Her interest in ice cream began while she was studying for an MBA in the UK. She worked part time as a tour guide, and after every sightseeing trip she would take visitors to ice cream parlours at Leicester Square in the heart of London.

Upon completing her studies, Kitomari took up a job at a bank in Tanzania. In 2012 she started making ice cream from her mother’s kitchen and eventually quit her job to run her business full time.

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2. Lucia Bakulumpagi-Wamala, Bakulu Power

Seven years ago, while visiting her family in the town of Gayaza, in central Uganda, Lucia Bakulumpagi-Wamala couldn’t help but notice the garbage on the streets. Having grown up in Canada, this was an unfamiliar sight for her. She began to wonder if the trash could be used for something productive.

Initially, Lucia wanted to focus only on producing power from waste, but after talking to a friend, solar energy piqued her interest. As a result, she founded Bakulu Power, a Uganda-based renewable energy company that designs, installs and operates systems for residential and commercial clients.

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3. Fahad Awadh, YYTZ Agro-Processing

In 2014, Fahad Awadh, founder of YYTZ Agro-Processing, began looking for a business venture he could invest in – something that entailed value addition in Tanzania.

“I was looking for something with export demand and I came across cashew by looking at what Tanzania produces a lot of, that is exported and valuable,” said Awadh, whose first major entrepreneurial venture was a clothing business he founded with friends while studying at York University in Canada.

While doing research, he found out that Tanzania is one of the largest cashew-producing countries in the world and that about 90% of its cashews are exported in its raw form to India and Vietnam, where they are processed and re-exported to developed markets.

“That really stood out for me,” Awadh explained.

To understand the ins and outs of the industry, Awadh left Canada for Tanzania to conduct research on cashew production.

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4. Olatorera Oniru, Dressmeoutlet.com

Olatorera Oniru completed her tertiary education in the US and graduated cum laude in business administration and management from North Carolina A&T State University. She also holds an MBA from Emory University in Atlanta.

After gaining years of experience in the corporate world at Fortune 500 companies Bank of America (Merrill Lynch) and General Electric, as well as Ericsson, the Central Bank of Nigeria and MTN, Oniru headed into the less-predictable world of online shopping in Nigeria, founding Dressmeoutlet.com in 2015. The Lagos-based e-commerce platform focuses on fashion, health, beauty and home-goods.

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5. Nelly Tuikong, Pauline Cosmetics

Kenyan entrepreneur Nelly Tuikong’s journey began when she met American couple Stephen and Judy Leapman at a hospital she was working in. She eventually became friends with the family, and one day Judy pulled her aside, and broke the news that the family would like to sponsor her to study nursing in the US.

It was in her final year of studying that the entrepreneurship bug bit her, and she started thinking of developing her own beauty brand. So she moved back home and founded beauty line Pauline Cosmetics.

“I’m proud of having built a local cosmetics brand that is competing neck and neck with international companies in the market. Right now I can walk into a beauty shop and my stand is right next to the giants, such as Revlon and Maybelline. It is so incredible,” Tuikong explains.

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6. Julian Kyula, MODE

Julian Kyula, founder of technology company MODE, previously lived and worked in the US for 11 years before relocating to Kenya in 2005.

While in the US, he tried his hand at business and failed.

“I tried a real estate business and it flopped completely. I lost a lot of money and I have lost a lot of friends,” he recalls. And his first business in Kenya after returning from the US (a financial risk and debt management company) “did very badly”.

“I sold it for a dollar because I didn’t have the strength to restructure it,” he said.

Today MODE has operations in 31 countries with a customer base of over 250 million.

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7. Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, Flutterwave

Serial entrepreneur Iyinoluwa Aboyeji is one of the minds behind Andela, a company training African developers and hiring them out to global tech companies, and, most recently, Flutterwave, which provides banks, enterprises and entrepreneurs with the underlying technology platform to make and accept payments anywhere in Africa.

In 2009, after his first year of studying in Canada – with the hopes to become a politician – Aboyeji went to work at the UN, which he quickly realised wasn’t for him.

Upon returning to his studies, he founded his first company Bookneto, which was later acquired by the Canadian Innovation Centre. Aboyeji then moved back to Nigeria, his birthplace, and launched his second venture, Flora. After that, he co-founded Andela, which received US$24m investment from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

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8. Mbwana Alliy, Savannah Fund

Originally from Tanzania, Mbwana Alliy, has lived and worked in the US, Europe and Africa. After attending university in Bristol, and acquiring an MBA from Stanford, Alliy worked as an aerospace systems engineer and software developer in the UK, as well as in two Silicon Valley start-ups, among various other things.

One of his most notable endeavours is Savannah Fund, a seed capital fund, which he co-founded in 2012. As of 2017, he has overseen 26 investments in six African countries – Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana.

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9. Matthew “Tayo” Rugamba, House of Tayo

When Matthew “Tayo” Rugamba ventured into the fashion business in 2011, he began by selling his bow ties out of a backpack. At the time he was still living and studying in the US, but whenever he came back home to Rwanda for the holidays, he would work on making bow ties, and peddling them informally.

Rugamba is now the founder and creative director of House of Tayo, a Kigali-based fashion label known mostly for its attention-getting bow ties, neck ties, pocket scarves and snoods which are made from African “kitenge” fabrics.

While his designs have found bigger audiences abroad, Rugamba continues to produce in Rwanda with the help of local artisans and tailors to “keep the brand authentic” while creating employment opportunities.

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10. Chris Folayan, Mall for Africa

When he was younger, Nigerian Chris Folayan, founder and CEO of e-commerce platform Mall for Africa, moved to the US to study. But whenever he came back home to visit, his family and friends would give him long lists of items to bring from America.

As the lists grew, Folayan noticed a strong demand for items not found easily in Africa, and so built an e-commerce platform that would tap into this market. Today the award-winning company enables Africans and people in emerging markets to purchase products from over 200 US and UK online retailers.

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