The journey so far: Collins Onuegbu, executive vice chairman, Signal Alliance

Collins Onuegbu

Collins Onuegbu is the founder and the executive vice chairman of Signal Alliance, a Nigerian IT service provider and an end-to-end system integrator. Signal Alliance has subsidiaries and affiliates in technology investment (Sasware), healthtech (Medismart), renewable energy (Nemoante), enterprise IT (Codeware) and fintech (CompexAfrica).

1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

Our business has been around for over 20 years. The biggest challenge technology companies face is the pace of innovation and change in the industry. Twenty years is multiple generations in the industry and companies that fail to evolve through one generation to the next in the industry struggle and fail.

This has been the biggest challenge for me as a founder: navigating the company through the fast change that must come. Some of these changes have wiped out once dominant players. To keep ahead and keep growing, the solution has been to understand that this change is coming whether you like it or not. And instead of fighting, embrace and lead the change. The important thing is what your customers want. It’s simple to say but challenging to make the changes required to implement this constant state of innovation and change.

2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?

In Africa, the business environment is the biggest challenge for any entrepreneur. Surviving the rough terrain of African business is an achievement for any African entrepreneur who has survived for decades. In Nigeria, my company has seen dictatorships, democracy, recession, boom and bust. And we have renewed ourselves and today the company is a leader in its business, and in some circles its model is being followed for corporate sustainability.

3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

My greatest weakness is restlessness. As an entrepreneur there is a time to build and a time to manage what you have built. I want to build new things and, in an industry that’s ever evolving, there is always something new to build. The challenge is having someone run what you have built. In my case, I had a co-founder who was the opposite – wanting stability with what’s built.

This created some balance, which was not without its frustrations. But in the end, it was the best for the company.

4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

I don’t agree with a one size fits all for the entrepreneur journey. I believe everyone’s journey is unique. I mentor young organisations and founders, and I worry that they adopt standardised playbooks that sometimes have no relationship to their journey. Most of these are adopted from playbooks of companies whose founders sometimes did not really know what they were doing at the onset of their own journey but became successful nonetheless.

We cannot, for example, turn what made Google a success into a standard playbook for all new companies starting out their journeys.

5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?

I wish I knew what I know now when I was starting. But then if I knew, would I have taken the risk? As I said, entrepreneurship is a journey. Time and experience teach you along the way. There are some things I would have done long before I did them. Some I would have avoided. Some risks I would have taken much earlier. But I think it’s the same thing as the life journey. You get wiser with experience. Mistakes, pains and triumphs are all part of the learning process.

6. Name a business opportunity you would still like to pursue.

Africa is not yet built. And wherever you look, you see problems that need solving – from manufacturing, trade and aviation to tourism and transportation. I believe the challenge is for policymakers to help Africa start the journey to solve its problems to allow the continent to thrive.

We have a youth population that wants to work and innovate. Solving the challenges that will make them drive the growth of the continent presents several multibillion-dollar opportunities for entrepreneurs. But policymakers must give support to improve the environment for doing business.

I am interested in the reversal of outside-the-continent education, tourism and healthcare. These are opportunities for the continent’s entrepreneurs, but the right environment must be created.

‘The journey so far’ series is edited by Wilhelmina Maboja, with copy editing by Xolisa Phillip, and content production by Justin Probyn and Nelly Murungi.