Ezra Olubi, 34 and Shola Akinlade, 35
In a year in which Nigeria was convulsed by what appeared to be state sanctioned violence against young people, Ezra Olubi and Shola Akinlade provided the world with powerful evidence of the new Nigeria that is emerging and the entrepreneurial energy and creativity that will drive it into the future. And they did so on their own terms.
In a landmark deal that is widely considered the deal of the decade, Paystack the financial services and payments company founded by Akinlade and Olubi only five years ago was acquired by Stripe for a reported amount of $200million.
Akinlade and Olubi are expected to stay on in their roles as Chief Executive and Chief Technical Officers respectively. Paystack is positioned to be Stripe’s platform for growing financial services in Africa, albeit independently. Stripe, which itself is upending the global financial order, has taken a view that Africa is a region in which new technology-driven financial services business models will play an outsized role, and placed it’s bet in the leadership capabilities of the two young men from Lagos, Nigeria.
Nigeria continues to be a hostile environment for young talent. A pre-independence generation of Nigerians (ironically raised on decades of crude oil fueled largesse that is now disappearing) commonly regards young people as entitled and lazy.
As the world greens and the importance of fossil fuels wanes, Nigeria’s finances have been thrown into disarray. In its wake, oil has left a disillusioned population and a country of diminished global standing.
Akinlade and Olubi, through the company they have built, showed that this country’s young people are hard working, creative, bold, ambitious and determined to break with the past. With their work in building Paystack and the subsequent Stripe sale, Akinlade and Olubi have, all at once, sent a message to the world and, more importantly, to Nigerians themselves that a new Nigeria is possible. This is priceless.
They first met at the Babcock University. Before starting Paystack, they had worked in a series of positions in banking, IT and management. Like the best and most durable companies, Paystack was conceived to solve a problem that in hindsight looks obvious. In this case, Akinlade was looking around for a simple way of allowing a card transaction on a website.
In 2016, Paystack was accepted to the US-based accelerator Y-Combinator – becoming the first Nigerian startup to go through the program and receiving $120k in funding in the process. Notably, Paystack was also backed by an array of young visionary Nigerian angel investors. In 2018 – three years after launch – Paystack raised $8 million in Series A funding with participation from investors such as Visa, Y Combinator, Tencent and led by Stripe itself.
Five years later, the startup processes more than half of all online transactions within Nigeria and has helped more than 60,000 businesses in Nigeria and Ghana securely collect online and offline payments. Today, Nigeria’s security and macroeconomic challenges mask the fact that it’s fintech and broader technology industry is alive, developing fast and witnessing frenzied activity by a range of impressive entrepreneurs and investors.
The explosive news of the Paystack exit to Stripe provided a long awaited nod to Africa’s technology ecosystem, in effect saying “you’re going the right way.” It also gave confidence to regulators across the continent that creating the right context for innovation can unlock tremendous value.
For Africa’s young people, the message from Akinlade and Olubi (and likewise from Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Anthony Joshua, and Genevieve Nnaji) is this: It is our creativity, music, film, professional services, technological innovation and willingness to embrace the new forces and networks of globalism that will redeem this land. Not the export of crude oil nor any other basic commodity.
For the pre-independence “boomer” generation of Africans, the message, borrowing from Bob Dylan, is:
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
A lot has been said about Akinlade and Olubi but not enough is said about the team and culture that they have created at Paystack. I have attempted to study this company and, from what I’ve learned, what they have built is truly remarkable.
Staffed mostly by young people passionate about making payments work, Paystack deliberately encourages team members to be smart and efficient but also to be kind to each other. The Paystack leadership also advocates a culture that fosters openness and considers it a responsibility to share useful knowledge with the broader technology community.
For the work they have done and the flame of hope they have kindled, Akinlade and Olubi deserve our respect and thanks.
To vote Ezra Olubi and Shola Akinlade as YNaija Person of the Year 2020; visit ynaija.com/personoftheyear2020