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5 lessons African startups can learn from Nigeria’s president-elect

It’s no longer news that Nigeria has a new President-elect, what is however new is the fact that he is actually the first person in the history of the country’s democracy — and since independence — to defeat an incumbent president. Even though he is more than 70 years old, his emergence as Nigeria’s new president from 29 May is filled with numerous lessons for startups in Nigeria, other parts of Africa and perhaps globally.

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1. Giving up is not an option

Abraham Lincoln used to be the poster politician for doggedness and not giving up. With the emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari, African startups may no longer need to look up to the former US President for inspiration. Buhari succeeded in his bid to become the country’s president for a record four times. He never changed his focus nor modified his interest. He wanted to be president and he kept trying until he achieved it.

The importance of this lesson is better appreciated when one considers the millions of dollars that are spent by each candidate during every election. For some of the candidates, they can barely survive one bid, while for others, they will rather be seen as underdogs than spend their life’s fortunes on ambitions they are not sure of.

The same could be said about startups on the continent. There are startup founders that want to build companies bigger than Google, Oracle and Facebook put together. But because they couldn’t get their desired results within the first few months, they gave up on their dreams and embraced something else entirely.

I recently heard the story of a Nigerian female startup founder who wanted to build the biggest bus ticketing platform on the continent. But because the startup did not get enough traction in the market, she literally closed shop and is now selling stuff on the streets of Lagos.

2. Transparency and integrity are golden

As much as his opposition strived ridicule his candidacy through series of allegations and accusations — something many Nigerians called The Travails of Buhari in the Hands of the Corrupt Cabals, the retired general remained unshaken. They attacked him on every side — they even politicised the case of his late daughter that died of sickle cell disease. But what they couldn’t touch was his integrity.

History and those that were part of the various phases of the country’s sojourn since independence do not mince words in describing Buhari as a man with impeccable integrity. He once had millions of dollars and billions of Naira committed to his hands. No cent went missing. This was in sharp contrast to his closest rival, Goodluck Jonathan, whose administration is marred with numerous poorly handled cases of corruption.

For startups in Africa, deciding not to compromise on integrity is golden. It is much easier for companies that customers trust to stand the test of time than those that are engaging in shady deals to stand the test of time.

Falsification of data, lack of openness, stealing other people’s ideas are among the myriad of ways that startups on the continent are limiting their growth even before anyone hears about them. Take startups playing in the real estate ecosystem as example. There are several classical instances where some of them have been pointed out as having on their site information that had been painstakingly collected and curated by others.

Furthermore, there is little or no true publicly available information on the earnings of most African startups. The singular fact that they only want the world to know about their positive exploits, new investments, awards, and commendations without anything about their losses and mistakes, make them look too-good-to-be-true to the people they want to target. Good PR is giving bad feedback.

Nigerians were aware of how much Buhari had in his bank account, they knew he had seen millions of dollars before and did not steal. They know about his cows, his strength and his weaknesses. Everything about him is in public glare. It was not surprising that they saw him as someone they could trust — not a devil hiding behind some good PR to perpetrate evil.

3. Get the right team and theme

Even though Buhari had contested thrice prior to 2015, from the go, everyone knew this was his best chance. This wasn’t because he publicly got huge sums of money or was endorsed by Barack Obama and other world leaders; it was because he had a formidable team — Nigeria’s strongest opposition in recorded history. And for the first time since he started to contest, he had a theme: Change!

From his speech writers, campaign organisers, photographers, social media crew to those that chose his attires and decided which strategy to deploy, the Buhari Campaign Organization was well organised.

Voters also heard a theme that resonates and adequately connects to the cries in the land. Many Nigerians were killed due to acts of insurgency in various parts of the country. Corruption is also ubiquitous in addition to other social ills that made citizens to clamour for change.

Startups can learn to build the right team. They should stop making do with who is around — instead, they should go for who is needed and who can help them to achieve their set goals. There are African startups whose ideas would have made the founders to be on the Forbes’ List of Billionaires, but because they couldn’t build their teams well enough, they remain in incubation phase.

Nigerians knew Buhari was very popular in the north, but he needed more than the north to win a presidential election. So he merged with an already established coalition that delivered the west. This also suggests startups could merge to build formidable coalition that can conquer the country and the continent.

4. Everyone needs an angel investor

Buhari is not a very rich man, he confessed he couldn’t afford to pay for his party’s nomination form. But he knew those who had money, and were ready to invest in his ambitions as they’ve seen him as a good product to sell to the Nigerian electorate.

The situation is the same for startups whose poor founders are stubbornly bootstrapping because they don’t want to give any investor a major stake in the company. There are several popular African proverbs that stress the importance of going together with others instead of walking alone. Ubuntu is just one of those.

Beyond providing funds, angel investors will leave no stone unturned to ensure their investment succeeds and thrives. Since they are putting their money where their mouth his — and throwing their full weights behind the ventures they support, angel investors could be the much elusive link and the launching pad for many African startups.

Just as Buhari was allowed to only focus on propagating the message of change without worrying about the bills, the founders (and co-founders) of startups in Africa should be allowed to entirely focus on building their products while the investors should make sure the products succeed in the market.

5. Dream has no age-limit and no dream is unrealisable

Buhari is an attestation to the fact that there is no age restriction as far as dreaming is concerned. If a man that is above 70 years of age could still aspire to lead the most populous country in Africa, a nation that doubles as the continent’s biggest economy, anyone can dream to achieve anything in life.

Many young Nigerians who were being paid to post abusive messages on social media taunted Buhari’s ambition, some actually called him senile! But to everyone’s amazement, he got what he wanted in his lifetime.

African startup founders should note that there is no dream that is too big for them to achieve. As long as they distinguish themselves as transparent and of the highest integrity, have the right theme and team, refuse to give up, get the right persons behind them, and they refuse to give up, they can get their startup to the status they want it to be.

Let’s put it in a much better perspective

If a 72-year-old poor retired army general can achieve his life-long dream of ruling a democratic Nigeria and had to contend with the federal might to achieve that dream without giving up, a young, unrelenting, ambitious, strategic and innovative startup founder in any part of Africa can achieve whatever he or she sets his or her eyes on.

Image via Avaz

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