Among the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria, there’s a proverb that says: “What was secret is revealed in the marketplace.” And thanks to a variety of experiences across African markets over the last decade or so, I’ve become privy to a number of earned insights regarding innovation-led businesses across the continent.
After senior leadership roles at Uber Nigeria and other organizations, I moved to Lomé, Togo in 2018 to build Gozem, a super app for Africa, with an initial focus on the Francophone region. The earliest days then were spent traversing the streets searching for and pitching informal sector motorcycle taxi drivers. Over time, as we began our planned transition into becoming a super app, we also spent time pitching tuk-tuk and car drivers, a variety of merchants and vendors, and various investors and potential partners. That ultimately led to our Series A fundraise, a partnership with the International Finance Corporation, and more.
Today, Gozem operates a variety of verticals across Togo, Bénin, Gabon, and Cameroon. It generates multi-million USD GMV, employs hundreds across West and Central Africa, and positively affects the lives of thousands of drivers, vendors and other partners on a daily basis.
For me, the journey has certainly been fulfilling both on a personal and a professional level. And while I’ve transitioned away from day-to-day management of the team, Gozem’s best days are still ahead and I’ve learned valuable lessons from the experience. Here are ten of them that I believe will be useful to other entrepreneurs — peppered with Igbo proverbs because, as Chinua Achebe wrote, “Proverbs are the oil with which words are eaten.”
1. Culture is a function of leadership
“When the mother goat chews her cud, her child watches her mouth.” — Igbo proverb
Organizational culture is essential but often easy to overlook at a company’s earliest stages. And across African markets, it can be easy to fall into paternalistic, hierarchy-driven cultures where most or all decision-making comes from authority.
But often, the highest and best use of authority by company leaders is to empower others. While a company’s leadership — intentionally or unintentionally — creates its culture, that culture ideally serves to create additional internal leaders.
2. Talent development is a differentiator
“Knowing but not telling is what kills old men. Hearing but not heeding is what kills young men.” — Igbo proverb
Attracting necessary talent is a challenge for all organizations, and, for African startups, the challenge is compounded by the relative lack of depth in local talent pools. Thus, companies operating in this context must intentionally and aggressively build a talent-development muscle.
From what we’ve seen at Gozem, identifying and nurturing emerging talent and facilitating internal mobility contribute greatly to team morale, retention, and effectiveness.
3. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
“The voice that’s used in quarreling is not the same voice that’s used in making peace.” — Igbo proverb
Moving to Togo to launch Gozem despite not speaking French was a challenge, but it taught me valuable lessons about communicating effectively. While oral communication certainly has its place, thought-out written business communication can improve comprehension, eliminate misunderstandings, and provide organizational clarity.
4. When you have leverage, use it
“If a snake fails to show its venom, children will use it to tie firewood.” — Igbo proverb
Leverage is a dynamic thing. You may have it at one moment under certain conditions, but the next moment, conditions change and you lose it. Accordingly, recognizing where the leverage lies at a given point can be very valuable.
To win, of course, one should develop a long-term, non-zero-sum viewpoint, but it’s advisable to exploit identified leverage, lest it become a source of regret.
5. Systems lead to success
“When a group of people expects things to be done by others, nothing is done.” — Igbo proverb
Many organizations use formal operating systems. At Gozem, we began implementing the Scaling Up method two and a half years into our journey.
The difference in accountability, clarity of expectations, and cross-functional visibility was significant. Perhaps such formality is less important when everyone fits into a single room, but a well-structured management operating system pays dividends as an organization grows.
6. Become a big fish by dominating smaller ponds
“Drop by drop is how the palm wine fills the container.” — Igbo proverb
“Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?” For businesses with venture-scale ambitions, markets matter. So the only answer is to play in a big pond — one where there’s a path to becoming a big fish.
At Gozem, while we launched in Togo with just the ride-hailing vertical, we always maintained a big-fish-in-a-big-pond vision. And this initial small ball approach paid off, allowing us to become a relatively big fish that aggregates smaller Francophone West and Central Africa ponds.
One way to win large markets is through an initial focus on capturing smaller opportunities and I learned a relevant expression in French during my stay in Togo: “Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid” – little by little, the bird builds its nest.
7. Embrace constraints and learn quickly
“Hot soup should be sipped carefully.” — Igbo proverb
In the early stages of new ventures, there are never enough resources: Not enough time, not enough talent, not enough capital and so on. Early-stage ventures should see the opportunity in these constraints and embrace them because they can inspire better thinking, compel creativity, and force focus along with (ruthless) prioritization.
As Marissa Mayer wrote, “It is often easier to direct your energy when you start with constrained possibilities.”
8. Resilience should be a core organizational trait
“A palm nut that wants to become palm oil must pass through fire.” — Igbo proverb
Like many, I love what Mike Tyson famously said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” And startups in Africa should certainly be prepared to respond to the metaphorical punch in the mouth.
All businesses have to be resilient, but it’s much more necessary in African markets where extraneous shocks are much more common. While you can’t plan for everything, the planning exercise is essential and the establishment of robust processes to respond to the unplanned are highly recommended.
9. Character, reputation, and integrity are everything
“Not everyone who answers to the title Chief is a legitimate chief.” — Igbo proverb
As much as we’d all like the freedom to be individuals, business leaders represent more than themselves; they represent employees, investors, and other stakeholders. How they’re perceived among different groups can often have a real business impact.
And in low-trust environments such as African markets, this is doubly important. Both on the individual and institutional levels, it’s essential to always act with integrity, deliver on promises, and avoid doubt-inducing controversies.
10. As you build a business, the business builds you
“The right hand washes the left hand, the left hand washes the right hand.” — Igbo proverb
Building a business is a process of discovery. You discover who your customers are and what they need and will pay for. You discover the products and services that best meet those needs. And you discover how to sustainably and profitably meet those needs.
But there’s also the personal journey of self-discovery. As US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”
And Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with writing, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
A version of this article first appeared on afridigest.substack.com.