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Profiles

Meet Elochukwu Umeh, founder of Africa’s digital powerhouse

Elochukwu Umeh, a young and aspiring entrepreneur, had a vision. Two years after he conceptualized and established Terragon Group.

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Meet Elochukwu Umeh, founder of Africa’s digital powerhouse

The introduction of smartphones in Nigeria back in 2007 meant different things to different people. For Elochukwu Umeh, a young and aspiring entrepreneur, the cellphone revolution came with a vision – a business idea that would use smartphones to drive interactions and create values for companies.

Two years after this vision came to him, Elochukwu conceptualized and established Terragon Group, a company that would later be described as “Africa’s digital powerhouse.”

The dreams of a teenager 

As a child, Elochukwu had always imagined a future where he would be free to travel the world and explore. This naturally meant that all of his career plans were pointed towards exploring. As he later recounted:

“It had everything to do with exploring, and nothing to do with technology. I pictured being a pilot, an ambassador, and any other thing I thought could take me around the world.”

(READ MORE: Elo Umeh named 2019 B2B SME CEO of the year)

According to Elo, the desire to explore never died. However, it was sort of redirected after he got a job with a technology company, following the completion of his studies at the university. By this time, mobile technology had become a new avenue for him to explore the world.

Elochukwu Umeh, CEO Terragon Group

The realities of adulthood 

Fresh out of school as a Business Administration graduate in 2003, the then 20-year-old Elochukwu joined MTech as a content associate. His commitment quickly took him through the ranks, from content associate to head of Operator services, and then product manager, before he was finally put in charge of Telco partnerships.

The young man soon found himself traveling across Africa, setting up subsidiaries for MTech. As he went from Kenya to Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire to Uganda, Elochukw thought that all his childhood dreams had finally come to pass. But little did he know that he was acquiring the experience and acumen he would later use to build Terragon.

A brief stint with IFC and the quest to unravel smartphones’ endless opportunities

As part of his career advancement, Elochukwu took up a consulting engagement with the International Finance Cooperation (IFC) for some months.  His job entailed rolling out modalities for mobile payment services, management of rural telephony initiatives, and the deployment of new products.

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Even while working out his heart, Elochukwu was busy brainstorming on endless possibilities of the smart mobile technologies. Since his days as an undergraduate, he had always been fascinated by the opportunities inherent in those devices.

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“As an undergraduate in Lagos, I had observed people couldn’t communicate unless they queued along with 30 or 40 people for hours to use a public phone. The government held a monopoly on phone lines and provided relatively substandard service, so not much was happening from a commercial standpoint. 

“The development of mobile communications was a real game-changer and from the beginning, I realized it was going to change everything,” he later explained.

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(READ MORE: Terragon acquires Asian marketing technology firm, Bizense)

And Terragon was born…

In the last quarter of 2009, Terragon was registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission, and by 2010, the company launched fully into the market. However, the journey wasn’t  spicy with everything nice.

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As a matter of fact, it was a tough first year of operation for Terrogan, as the founders explored various options of what people could do with the smart technologies, as well as how companies could get value from it. Raising funds was also a serious challenge for Terragon, as it is the case with all start-ups.

It was a tedious journey for the founders – two young men who, until then, were never really aware of the true pains of entrepreneurship. Reflecting on it, Elo says:

“For the first year, running out of money was a constant problem. We always needed money for one thing or the other, especially to keep the business afloat while working on the product market phase. Another problem was finding competent or strong team members that buy into the vision.”

(READ MORE: WHO warns countries against rushing to lift coronavirus restrictions)

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By the end of the first year, the co-founder opted out, leaving Elochukwu to drive the business alone.

Thankfully, the resilient young entrepreneur had mentors who provided him guidance and moral support. Mitchell Elegbe, the MD/CEO of Interswitch, is one of such mentors, as well as Chika Nwaobi of M-tech. Years later, Elochukwu would describe their help and contributions as ‘unquantifiable’. This is because they provided him with insights into several projects that he later undertook.

During those early days of Terragon Group, one of the things Elochukwu ensured to do was to bring critical staff members on board. A number of those critical staff later became partners in the company. Oduntan Odubanjo was one of those critical staff. He later became the co-founder of Twinpine, which was launched as an arm of the Terragon Group.

Another one of those critical staff was Ayodeji Balogun, who became the company’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Co-founder of the Terragon group.

(READ MORE: Beware of sites offering free internet plans, NCC warns Nigerians)

With an interesting mix of grit and patience, Elochukwu Umeh was able to drive the start-up off the ground and into the competitive global market.

Milestones achieved by Elochukwu

Elochukwu is all about mobile, digital innovation and creative solutions. He is also a staunch believer in the school of thought that Africa’s problems can best be solved by Africans.

Finding solutions has been the crux of Terragon’s existence. And over the years, the company has rolled out products and services to provide a solution to the problems of consumer brands, mobile network operators, financial service institutions, media agencies, and SMEs.

Terragon first launched Terragon Digital – a digital media agency for companies that wanted to connect with their customers on mobile devices.

(READ MORE: Naira under pressure as Nigeria records poor export earnings)

Twinpine Network was then launched as a premium mobile advertising network reaching millions of African consumers on mobile devices, and delivering outstanding results for brands and media agencies. It has helped lots of advertisers and media agencies to manage and optimize returns on their advertising budget.

These two would later form the basis for diving into the data and marketing technology business, a sector where Terragon expected to break new grounds, as the business was relatively unexplored in Africa at this time.

“We were not looking for companies to imitate, so we went in. We did a lot of market research and looked out for opportunities” Elo recalled.

The Terragon group also launched Adrenaline, the company’s flagship software in 2017. Adrenaline is a cross-platform mobile ad serving and data monetization platform specifically developed for the African market. It delivers targeted messaging via Web & Non-Web channels. It combines data, channels & tools to help businesses reach the right audiences at the right time and place.

(READ MORE: Dangote, Otedola, Elumelu, Ovia, others donate N19.48 billion to COVID-19 relief fund)

Bringing Adrenaline to life required critical partnerships, so Terragon partnered with MTN Nigeria, Globacom and Orange.

Over the next couple of years, the software outstripped Facebook’s 18 million subscribers with 80 million subscribers in Nigeria. It gets over 3.58bn monthly impressions across its mobile operator channels, publisher and ad-exchange network.

In November 2018, Terragon Group also acquired Bizense Pte. Ltd, a Singaporean mobile advertising company targeting Telcos and large publishers.

Terragon Group is now the parent company to Terragon Ltd, Terragon Media and Twinpine.

After going through the tough early years, it undoubtedly gets to that point when the recognitions start rolling in.

(READ MORE: TLcom secures additional $31 million from investors across UK, SA, Belgium)

In 2018, Terragon Group won the “Employer of the Year 2018” award at the Future of Workplace Awards – an initiative of HR Summit and Expo for West Africa.

Umeh also made the 40under40 list of Entrepreneurs by IESE Business school, University of Navarra Spain, from over 46,000 alumni across 129 countries. He had earlier completed his MBA from the university in 2016, graduating as ‘The Best and Brightest EMBAs of the class of 2016’.

Elochukwu Umeh was named the Business-to-Business SME CEO of the year at the 2019 Business Day CEO awards.

Personal life

Elo is married with kids. Talking about what he would love to go back to doing, he says, “I am a football commentator in my free time. I have had a football program on radio and I analyze football, but since Terragon started to take a lot of time, I haven’t been able to allocate enough time to that passion.”  

(READ MORE: Five industries that thrive in COVID-19 downturn)

Looking back, Elo would say that patience played a huge role in his achievements, maybe even more than talent. “There are no shortcuts to the entrance,” he says.

He discusses the problem of entrepreneurs as that of imitation. “You must solve head-shattering problems. It’s the only way to keep competition at bay.”

Ruth Okwumbu has a MSc. and BSc. in Mass Communication from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and Delta state university respectively. Prior to her role as analyst at Nairametrics, she had a progressive six year writing career.As a Business Analyst with Narametrics, she focuses on profiles of top business executives, founders, startups and the drama surrounding their successes and challenges. You may contact her via [email protected]

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Profiles

Jimoh Ibrahim: The successes and controversies of a billionaire entrepreneur

With investments in several sectors, Jimoh Ibrahim has had his own fair share of wins and loses.

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One Nigerian businessman who has recently found himself faced with a series of controversies is Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim. An astute investor with interests in the oil and gas, hospitality, aviation, banking, real estate, insurance, publishing and the media industry. Ibrahim recently had a bulk of his assets seized by the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) over a N69.4 billion debt.

Though his assets are said to run into millions of dollars, everyone is looking to see how the 53-year-old businessman will pull through this major dip. Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim is Nairametrics founder of the week.

Education

A native of Okitipupa in present-day Ondo State, Ibrahim was born on the 24th of February 1967 to Alhaji Yakubu and his wife, Omofemiwa Jimoh. The family was a big one with his father having seven wives and several children.

Ibrahim started schooling at Igbotako and finished his secondary school at Saint John’s School before proceeding to bag his Law degree and then, Masters in Public Administration (MPA) at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife (now in Osun State). He then headed for Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA for a combined Master of Laws & International Taxation (LLM/IT).

Ibrahim earned an Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) degree at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School and a Master of Science in Programme Management at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

He attended various executive education programmes including the University of Cambridge Advanced Leadership Programme (ALP), University of Oxford Negotiation Programme, University of Oxford Advanced Leadership and Management programme, Harvard Business School Senior Executive Leadership Program for the Middle East and the University of Cambridge programme on How to Lead Successful Projects. Ibrahim also attends the guest category of the annual meeting of the World Bank/IMF.

Early business and career moves

Ibrahim picked an early interest in making money out of his knowledge, even as an undergraduate. He first observed that only the federal and state governments had laws, and so proposed organising law seminars across local governments in Nigeria, to teach them how to make their own laws. Simple as this might have seemed, he made quite some money from it. He also made some money from organising workshops for top government officials.

One might imagine what the young man was thinking as an undergraduate, but it was clear to him even at that age that he did not have to wait till he left school to make money. He also used his fathers’ bricklaying materials to execute some small scale contracts which he secured.

Ibrahim always had his eyes prowling in search of opportunities. When it came to his notice that the federal government was having challenges recovering its withholding tax from multinational oil companies, he sent in a proposal on how he could help recover the funds. He executed the proposal to the letter, recovering billions of naira for the government and earning himself a fortune as well.

In his capacity as a tax professional, he also worked with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and was a part of the Harvard team that backed the tax reforms in Bangladesh.

The full-fledged entrepreneur

As a businessman, Jimoh Ibrahim is known to have interests in key business outfits across several sectors and uses the Global Fleet Group, where he sits as chairman and chief executive officer, as the umbrella company for his investments. Global Fleet is now a diversified conglomerate with presence in several countries.

He started out the Global Fleet Oil and Gas in 2004 as a petroleum marketing company. The company did not focus on setting up fuel stations, but instead set out to buy out other fuel stations. Within a year, they bought about 150 stations and started averaging about $1 million daily in oil and gas sales. Since then, the company has acquired more fuel stations.

Ibrahim founded Energy Commercial Bank, Accra, Ghana in 2009 and it is considered an arm of the Energy Group, one of the largest Africa conglomerates with diversified interest in banking and financial investment. The Group also acquired 100% of the Oceanic Bank (STP) in June 2011, changing its name to Energy Bank Sao Tome & Principe (STP) and making it another arm of the Energy Group and a subsidiary of the Global Fleet Group.

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Air Nigeria was established in 2010 as Virgin Nigeria, with Ibrahim as a major shareholder. Ibrahim is also the Group Managing Director of NICON Insurance and one of its subsidiaries, Nigeria Reinsurance Corporation in Lagos state.

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In the hospitality industry, Ibrahim acquired the former Le Meridian Hotels in 2003 and changed its name to NICON Luxury Hotel.

Ibrahim is also the owner of Global Media Mirror, publishers of the National Mirror, and has acquired 51% of Newswatch Communication Limited to give him a substantial stake in Nigeria’s media industry.

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Ibrahim served as the Chairman of the board of the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) in Nigeria, from April 2009 to December 2012. It was quite a turbulent tenure that saw the CAC workers embarking on industrial action in May 2011 to push for his removal.

In 2011, he was also appointed the Honorary Consul of Sao Tome and Principe to the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The controversial loan and seizure of assets

On November 4 2020, a federal high court sitting in Lagos granted an interim order allowing the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) to take possession of twelve prime assets belonging to Barrister Ibrahim and freeze all accounts belonging to him and his companies over a N69.4 billion debt.

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In compliance with the court order, AMCON took possession of all the assets through its Debt Recovery Agent – Pinheiro Legal Partner, and also took shares belonging to Ibrahim and his two companies as domiciled in Nigerian Re-Insurance Company Plc, NICON Insurance Company Plc, Nigeria Stockbrokers Limited (NSL) and NICON Trustees Limited.

The properties affected include the building of NICON Investment Limited at Plot 242, Muhammadu Buhari Way, Central Business District, Abuja; NICON Hotels Limited building at Plot 557, Port-Harcourt Crescent, off Gimbiya Street, Abuja; the building of NICON Lekki Limited also at No. 5, Customs Street, Lagos; the building of Abuja International Hotels Limited located at No. 3, Hospital Road, Lagos; as well as a property at Plot 242, Muhammadu Buhari Way, Abuja.

The former Allied Bank Building on Mile 2, Oshodi ExpressWay, Apapa Road, Lagos; Energy House located on No. 94, Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos; NICON Building at No. 40, Madeira Street, Maitama, Abuja; a Residential Apartment at Road 2, House A14, Victoria Garden City, Lagos; NICON Hotels Building at Plot 3, Road 3, Victoria Garden City, Lagos as well as the NICON Luxury Hotel’s Building, Garki I, FCT, Abuja were also affected.

Ibrahim and his companies sued to recover the seized assets on grounds of “non-disclosure and misrepresentation of material facts” requesting an indemnity of N50 billion from AMCON, but the Federal High Court declined his application, upholding the subsisting order.

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The case between Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim and AMCON has been a longstanding one dating as far back as 2016. The loan was one of the 393 loans AMCON purchased from Union Bank of Nigeria plc during the first phase of Eligible Bank Assets (EBA) purchases. Since then, attempts made to recover the loan have proved futile. AMCON also seized assets belonging to other debtors in the same year, taking advantage of the amended Act, which had been signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari.

In his response to the asset seizure, Ibrahim had said there were no grounds for such an action since his organization already had over £220 million as bank deposit in Union Bank. “The order is discharged already as Union Bank is owing us £220 million that is over N150 billion; four times over what AMCON is claiming, so AMCON is pursuing nothing,” he said.

Another hearing has been fixed for March 9, and while AMCON pushes on with its moves, Ibrahim is clearly not going to give up without a fight.

Other interests and Honours

Jimoh Ibrahim has been conferred the honour of the Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic OFR, and Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic CFR. He has also received honorary doctorate degrees from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Osun State; Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State, Ladoke Akintola University, Ogbomoso, Oyo State and the Ondo State University.

In 2003 and in 2016, Ibrahim attempted to become the governor of Ondo State, on the platform of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) respectively but was not successful. He has authored three books.

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Profiles

Iyinoluwa Aboyeji is redefining the future of startup investments

After founding several start-ups, Aboyeji now manages Future Africa as General Partner of the company.

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It is no longer news that young people especially under 30 entrepreneurs are tackling the world’s biggest challenges with innovative creations. They create companies and organizations aimed at solving the problems confronting society today.

Among them is Iyinoluwa Aboyeji who is a young Nigerian entrepreneur and co-founder of Andela, an engineering and service business that helps companies to build remote teams quickly at a cost-effective rate.

Aboyeji is also the founder and former managing director of Flutterwave, a technology that uses digital payments infrastructure that assists banks and businesses to build seamless and secure payments for their customers.

READ: Andela launches Pan-African technology hub in Kigali for software developers across the continent

In March 2019, he founded Future Africa, an innovation fund that provides capital and coaching to innovators.

As a young boy, he was involved in lots of innovative creations and as such co-founded quite a number of companies. Among them was the Bookneto Inc. alongside Pierrie Alrs, a social learning platform for sharing and organizing learning resources within learning communities. It allowed users to manage course interactions and the ability to see questions, insights, and discussions on course material from students taking related courses at other schools.

In 2014, he met with Jeremy Johnson, a technology entrepreneur and enthusiast who shared the same passion and drive as him. They both started Andela, a company that invests in African software engineers to help companies solve the technical talent shortage and build high-performing distributed engineering teams.

READ: Iyinoluwa Aboyeji steps down as Flutterwave CEO

The rise of Andela attracted investments from both local and international investors. Aboyeji worked with Andela for two years after which he resigned and moved on to his next venture. Before he resigned, the company raised $24 million Series B funding from investors including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and former US Vice President, Al Gore.

In 2016, Flutterwave was launched. Flutterwave is a platform that partners with businesses to process payments globally. It allows for payments to be made and accepted anywhere around the world on its integrated platform.

Aboyeji was the CEO of Flutterwave for two years before resigning in October 2018. Under his leadership as CEO, Flutterwave had become one of the fastest-growing payments technology business of all-time, attracting significant investments from Y Combinator, Greycroft, Greenvisor Capital, and Mastercard.

READ: Meet Omowale David-Ashiru, the first female Andela Nigeria Country Director

Flutterwave is currently valued at $150 million, and it is also Y Combinator’s most valuable startup in Africa.

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He moved further to work as the Deputy Director-General on Oby Ezekwesili’s presidential campaign from 2018 to February 2019.

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In March 2019, Aboyeji founded Future Africa and became a General Partner of the company. Future Africa is a platform for providing capital, coaching, and community to innovators and entrepreneurs looking to solve problems throughout the continent.

Some of the start-ups in their portfolio include; Lori Systems, Andela, Flutterwave, Eden, MAX, and Kobo360.

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