How we made it in Africa asked some of the continent’s most dynamic entrepreneurs to reveal the toughest situations they’ve found themselves in as business owners, and how they overcame these challenges.
1. Sailesh Savani, CEO, CompuLynx
Sailesh Savani is the founder and CEO of CompuLynx, a technology solutions firm headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.
After about 16 years into the business, I got to a point where I didn’t know how to take the business forward from where it was at that time. Sales were plateauing, we were not able to attract talent, access to funding was a big challenge [and] we had no strategy and plan.
I realised that I had reached my “level of incompetence” and I needed help. Help that would bring some fresh thinking into the business and rejuvenate the team, the environment and the fabric of the business.
I, therefore, started looking out for help from outside the business. I reached out to my ex-boss, who was my immediate manager in my job before I started the company. I ended up engaging him on a part-time assignment to help us restructure the business and bring in some processes in all aspects of the business.
The key learnings for me were not to be in denial when you have a shortcoming or a problem within you or your company, [and] not to shy away from asking for help. There’s nothing wrong [with] asking for help. It’s [alright] to say, “I don’t know and, therefore, I need help”. If you are the smartest person in your team, there’s something wrong. Be open to hiring people who are smarter than you.
2. Ola Brown, CEO, Flying Doctors Nigeria
Dr Ola Brown is the founder and the CEO of Flying Doctors Nigeria, West Africa’s first homegrown air ambulance service.
The toughest situation was venturing into business in the first place, which was a different ball game from my area of technical expertise. As a physician, when you get into medical school, you are told you are intelligent, that’s why you are there. So, I felt I was slightly above average, but this thought changed immediately [when] I started my company.
To overcome this, I had to develop and build business skills because the skills needed for the practise of medicine are completely different from the skills needed to run a business. I wish I realised that difference earlier than I did.
On the other hand, I had to learn from mentors and successful business owners while drawing inspiration from the godfather of business, Aliko Dangote. He is an inspiration to many – and to me from the time I was in university. All these [people] inspired me to keep on building and to keep on working.
3. Ken Njoroge, CEO, Cellulant
Ken Njoroge is the CEO and co-founder of Cellulant Corporation, a Nairobi-based company that builds and operates mobile commerce networks; and offers services such as mobile banking, merchant payments, web payments, digital content, and agency banking services.
There have been many.
However, one situation stands out because of the enduring lesson it taught me. It was back in 2004, in the early days of our company, we had just successfully convinced Dr Samuel Kiruthu to serve as our board chair, a position which he holds to date. Though he believed in our vision and was enthused by the passion of our then small team, he used the first-ever board meeting to interrogate our financials, which, at the time, were not in the best of conditions. It was an excruciating meeting, but it served as a powerful lesson.
Early on, I realised that a business is not a hobby. People had staked their entire careers and reputations on us, and we could not let them down. More than a decade later, I am still grateful for the tough board meeting in 2004: it toughened us up and gave us the drive to build a world-class business with a proper governance framework, market-driven products and a strong commitment to Africa.
4. Ani Charles Bassey-Eyo, CEO, LANI Group
Ani Charles Bassey-Eyo is the founder and the CEO of the LANI Group, a Lagos-based business focused on management consulting and advisory services to medium- and large-scale organisations in the public and the private sectors.
The recession in Nigeria post 2015 was one of the toughest situations I have faced as an entrepreneur. Prior to this period, the entities within the LANI Group had enjoyed decent growth rate and the macro-economic growth fundamentals showed a positive future trajectory. However, 2016, in particular, was tough with the economy tanking at a rapid rate that resulted in all economic activities being at a standstill.
It was tough to exist, at both at a personal and corporate level, but I made a decision to survive and also not to cut down the headcount of my loyal and motivated workforce. It was a combination of faith, grit and focus that enabled me to achieve the objective of surviving through the recession as many businesses went under.
By faith, I listened and focused on stories of others who overcame similar challenges and learned that I was not alone. I also embarked on a rewarding personal fitness regime that improved my resilience and ability to focus through mental alertness. In fact, it was during this period we decided to launch our trading/merchandising business unit to improve the group’s working capital.
Generally, empirical evidence shows that recessions can impact companies positively by instilling grit and focus in such enterprises.
5. Rob Withagen, CEO, Asoko Insight
Rob Withagen is CEO of Asoko Insight, an information services company. It provides up-to-date management information, profiles, insights and data on unlisted companies across Africa to investors, global corporates and institutions.
When we launched our series-A, we thought we were in for an easy ride: we raised a handsome amount in our seed round, delivered on our key performance indicators and kept our burn rate well below expectations.
The reality was different.
We focused our strategy on a small universe of venture capitalists we had established good relations with, only to understand either we or they weren’t yet ready. The time this took left us exposed to issues with employee morale and a rapidly depleting bank account.
We overcame the challenge by banding together. Co-founder Greg Cohen and I regularly revisited how to support each other in chasing additional investors while keeping the business running. The team accepted that pay rises and bonus payments would have to wait – while the workload continued – and our existing investors stepped up by putting in their participation before any new investors were committed. It worked.
In six months, we had external commitments for 50% of our round. Three months later, we were 20% oversubscribed.
We have come out stronger, cohesive and more focused. It’s been a humbling experience and a real test of our skills as entrepreneurs, managers and team players.
6. Faith Kabira, founder and CEO, Aleezas
Faith Kabira is the founder and CEO of Aleezas, a beauty salon, barbershop and spa with three branches spread across the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
Challenges. They almost become part of the furniture at the salon.
On a more serious note, one of the greatest challenges, for me, was training my team to be professional all round. In the hair and beauty industry, you find professionalism is mostly in the technical skill, but not in etiquette, grooming or general conduct.
It took a lot of time and effort to deliver a “five-star-resort” kind of service, from language to demeanour and, of course, the technical prowess. I partnered with L’Oréal Professional, who’s been training us on international service delivery standards. We also have quarterly in-house refresher training sessions on customer service.
7. Glenn Gillis, MD, Sea Monster
Glenn Gillis is the MD of Sea Monster, a Cape Town-based studio that specialises in animation, gaming and augmented reality.
… All of them. What that means is that, as a business owner, you’re having to balance all the challenges you face constantly and knowing which ones to prioritise, and which decisions to make is the challenge because it’s not one thing that determines success.
I like the analogy of the clown at the circus with the spinning plates on sticks – [and] knowing which one to give extra spin to so [that] none comes crashing down, is how every day feels.
[It is about] balancing the short term and the long term: getting cash in versus making investments, [and] hiring people (or not). These are all examples of the spinning plates an entrepreneur needs to keep moving. Success is about a combination of things and, of course, not running out of money while you achieve your dream.
8. Antoinette Prophy, MD, 88 Business Collective
Antoinette Prophy is the founder and MD of 88 Business Collective, a Cape Town-based 18-month accelerator for emerging women entrepreneurs.
Female founders are often faced with the challenge of having to extend a sexual favour in order to close a deal. In 2008, I came face-to-face with this unfortunate part of our journey when an executive insisted that we check into a hotel before he signed on the dotted line. I got up, and with all the grace I could muster up in that moment, declined and went home.
Now, this particular deal was earmarked not only to grow my then-ad agency, Afrofusion, but would have also helped me keep our Durban office open.
What male executives who subject female founders to this severe form of discrimination do not realise is their inability to control their sexual urges, and using this as a power play, means business-growth stagnation and emotional strain. That is an unnecessary burden to add to an already challenging journey. I have faced misogyny: when I expanded my business to East Africa, bumped into it in India and have to deal with it in South Africa. This remains a global issue for many female founders. Men, get your act together.