How we made it in Africa takes a closer look at the story of Esigie Aguele, co-founder and CEO at VerifyMe, a Nigerian identity verification company.
Take us back to the beginning.
Esigie Aguele had a comfortable life working as a senior manager for a technology company in Washington, DC. After spending almost two decades in the US, Aguele was looking for an opportunity to return to his country of birth, Nigeria.
“I was inspired to come back to Nigeria because I felt the expertise I gained in the States would have more impact at home. The society there was more developed, and whatever solution or idea you could come up with was probably already done. In Nigeria, I felt I could bring my experience and knowledge to provide a solution that would help build the economy.”
During a business trip to Nigeria in 2014, he found what he was looking for in VerifyMe Nigeria, an identification management company providing both corporates and individuals with services such as identity, address and employment verification.
Aguele had a chance encounter with the company’s founder Olutunji Oluwole, who started the business after a cook poisoned his family.
The story goes as follows: upon returning to Nigeria after living in the US, Oluwole hired a family cook. Before appointing the cook, his wife conducted meticulous background checks, which all came back fine.
However, within two weeks, the cook poisoned the family, robbed them of their possessions and disappeared. The family had to be airlifted out of the country and it nearly cost Oluwole’s eight-year-old son (at the time) his life.
Once back in Nigeria, the same cook was seen working in another residence in Oluwole’s estate. He went to the cook’s new place of employment with the police, but the house help who opened the gate said there was no “Francis” in the house. Apparently, he had changed his name to “Joseph”. When Oluwole explained to the residents why he had brought law enforcement, he found out Joseph had attempted to poison them, too.
This experience revealed the need for accessible ID verification and work history reporting services in Nigeria, and gave birth to VerifyMe in 2013.
Aguele and Oluwole hit it off, and they agreed that Aguele would work for the company in a consulting capacity while keeping his job in the US.
“I pretty much had two jobs for a while because I felt VerifyMe wasn’t mature enough in terms of where we were in building the business. I was newly married and had a child.”
Then, in 2017, VerifyMe raised its first tranche of angel investment, which gave Esigie the confidence to quit his job and join VerifyMe full time in Nigeria, first as COO, and currently CEO.
How did the company grow into the business it is today?
When VerifyMe started, it manually collected identity and biometric details from Nigerians as the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) didn’t share this information with third parties. Some of the company’s early customers were large housing estates that needed security.
In 2017, NIMC changed tack: it prohibited companies from collecting their own identity information and instead provided outside access to its database to companies such as VerifyMe.
VerifyMe has since added other identity databases to its platform, including Bank Verification Number (BVN) – a biometric identification system implemented by the Central Bank of Nigeria to curb illegal banking transactions – and driver’s licence details.
These days some of the company’s largest clients are banks and insurance companies that require know your customer (KYC) services. KYC is the process by which a business verifies the identity of clients and assesses their suitability as well as any potential risks of criminal intentions in the business relationship.
Aguele explains that VerifyMe is contributing to the growth of Nigeria’s banking and financial services industry. A 2018 study found that 69% of Nigerian adults had not accessed credit in the past 12 months. For those who did, less than 10% borrowed from a formal financial institution.
“There is no economic development in Nigeria without proper lending and there is no lending in Nigeria without KYC. We are at the crux of what needs to happen for economic development in this country.”
Another significant group of clients is Nigeria’s growing on-demand transportation and logistics companies such as Gokada, which need to verify their drivers for safety reasons.
Aguele adds that VerifyMe plans to launch operations in two other African countries over the next 12 months. His aim is for the company to have a $100 million valuation in five years.
Anything we can learn from his experiences?
One of the biggest learning curves Aguele had to deal with was hiring software engineers in Nigeria. “In the US, my focus was on hiring for skillset: is the person skilled for the position? In Nigeria, the skillset is actually secondary; more important is hiring for integrity and openness to training. Had I known this, it would have allowed me to roll-out our product sooner.”
He advises other entrepreneurs to have their own “personal board of directors”: people they can reach out to for advice. “Know what your strengths are and believe in those. And know your weaknesses and be open to learning from others so you can get the best help.”
Aguele describes VerifyMe as a journey in uncharted waters for two reasons: the company introduced a new concept to the market, and because of Nigeria’s tough business environment, very different from what he and Oluwole were used to in the US. He likens an entrepreneur’s ability to execute a business plan as the boat that will keep the company from sinking.
“Effective execution requires courage, consistency and discipline. It is not about being good one day and bad the next. It is about doing it every single day, every single minute, and just sticking with it. So many people have great ideas, but how you manage yourself through uncharted waters is crucial.”
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