Nigeria: He led TikTok’s entry into Africa, now he’s building his own fintech start-up

Kennedy Ekezie-Joseph

By Seth Onyango, bird story agency

TikTok made huge waves when it announced its sponsorship of the African Cup of Nations, the continent’s biggest football tournament. Kennedy Ekezie-Joseph who helped lead TikTok’s entry into Africa, was no longer with the company for that moment of triumph. Instead, he was grinding away at a new start-up. Big mistake? Maybe not.

Leaving a budding career at a social networking behemoth that has big ambitions in your home continent, to launch a start-up, sounds like a suicidal move. But for Kennedy Ekezie-Joseph, 23, who was part of a small group that led TikTok’s foray into Africa and was well-positioned to benefit from the company’s continental ambitions, it actually wasn’t.

Ekezie-Joseph’s start-up, Kippa, is a bookkeeping and finance app that he founded with Duke Ekezie (his brother) and Jephthah Uche in February 2021. In November, the firm hauled in $3.2 million in pre-seed funding.

Mobile phone and WhatsApp-friendly, Kippa targets small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) providing them with free, easy-to-use accounting software. Kippa then looks at potential financing opportunities and makes revenue by taking commission fees and earning interest by lending companies working capital.

“In Nigeria today, there are 47 million SMEs … About 280,000 merchants out of that number, have used the product. And our goal is over the next five to 10 years to capture as much of that number as possible, by building out new features, by launching new product lines,” Ekezie-Joseph told the bird story agency.

As a child, Ekezie-Joseph saw first-hand how the absence of judicious record-keeping could impact fragile and shock-prone micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.

“My dad had a small business around when I was born, which he lost. And so for me, it really means a lot to build for a segment that I feel very intimately familiar with,” Ekezie-Joseph said.

Kippa (a play on book-‘keeper’) is a bookkeeping mobile app that allows small business owners to keep track of their daily income and expense transactions, issue invoices, provide receipts to their customers and create marketing materials like business cards.

The app also keeps track of debtors who owe the subscriber companies money.

When he launched Kippa, Ekezie-Joseph knew from personal experience that he was addressing an existential threat to businesses. This gave him and his team confidence.

“Traditionally, SMEs have been laggers when it comes to the adoption of digital technology. What we’ve seen is digital technology has changed very many other industries – healthcare, transport – but the way businesses are run and the overall back-office operations are still very manual, they’ve really not changed since the 60s,” he noted.

“So what we’re trying to do here is unite the tailwind of the deep penetration of the internet that is continuing to grow across the continent and the smartphone penetration. So by 2025, Nigeria alone will contribute 4% of total new smartphone users in the world.”

Ekezie-Joseph and his team are now planning another round of fundraising to scale the company’s operations.

“So we will be talking to investors over the next couple of months. And one of the big things we believe in is building relationships early and taking time to identify the right partners to work with. So if we do meet investors who are the right fit, we’ll be able to work with them,” he said.

A master’s degree from an elite academy at Beijing’s top research university must have made Ekezie-Joseph a shoo-in at TikTok, owned by Beijing-based Bytedance. He was part of the early expansion of TikTok into Africa. But the experience at a university that has given rise to some of the world’s greatest tech companies and spawned dozens of top global entrepreneurs, may have also given him bigger ambitions.

While acknowledging the economic impact of Covid-19 on the continent, Ekezie-Joseph noted that it had helped fuel the growth of the tech industry and internet adoption in Africa.

“That was the first time many merchants understood that they could do business online. That was the first time many consumers understood that they could transact with merchants online. So it almost helped us leapfrog the absence of trust around digital tools. And that’s been super helpful. And more and more people are doing business online now. So that is very significant for our growth as a business,” he said.

So have there been misgivings over leaving TikTok?

“No! The plan was always to eventually move back to Nigeria and build a start-up and the onset of the pandemic in China, gave me the perfect reason to make the move back and take the leap,” Ekezie-Joseph said.