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Polish businessman’s tales of fear and loathing in Nigeria [Book review]
Chasing Black Unicorns: How Building the Amazon of Africa put me on Interpol’s most wanted list by controversial Polish entrepreneur Marek Zmyslowski, is a thrilling read.
The book is the English version of a new book in which he documents the Nigerian extradition saga he endured last year.
The former founder of Nigerian startup HotelOga claims he fell victim to investors who were trying to extort $300 000 by using an extradition request issued through Interpol on 6 February 2018.
The investors claimed he siphoned off tens of thousands of dollars in company funds into his private account, that he went behind their backs to make deals to sell the company and that he ran a secret Polish-registered entity where the hotel management software platform’s intellectual property (IP) was held.
Zymslowski denied that he defrauded the investors. In May Interpol dropped its extradition request.
At times ‘Chasing Black Unicorns’ comes off too wild to be true — a kind of ‘Shantaram’ for European entrepreneurs hitting Nigeria
Today he may have a reputation of something of a playboy, but as unlikely as it seems, Zmyslowski claims growing up he was a fat spotty teenager who was often picked on.
That is, before he took a job as a door-to-door insurance salesman in a small Polish city and found he was pretty good at convincing people to buy things.
Barman at a gay club
In the evenings he worked as a barman in a gay nightclub, where he proved to be very lucky with beautiful women (who came to the club because they felt they wouldn’t be fawned over by desperate men).
Several days after resigning from the insurance job he chanced upon a guy in a coffee shop, tapping away on a laptop. The guy told him he built startups and that there was a lot of money to be made building stuff on the internet.
This got him interested. After getting involved in a failed internet dating site, he set up an online platform to help members of the public who wanted to arrange funerals — a kind of online funeral parlour business.
He then tried to convince funeral parlours, in an industry that was widely controlled by the mafia, why they had to pay to get listed on his platform. Despite landing an investment of 700 000 zlotys ($180 000 in today’s value) from investors, money sourced by a VC from an EU fund, the business never really took off.
After successfully landing a job he applied for at Rocket Internet, to head the German venture builder’s new hotel platform called Jovago, he ditched a car-retailing startup he was involved in with another entrepreneur, and took off for Nigeria. It was the first time he was on a wide-body jet leaving Poland.
In Africa in search of adventure
He left in search of adventure — and to get away from the non-descript small town of Koszalin, where he was born.
What he wasn’t prepared for was the heat (the air conditioning at the large house in the Lekki suburb of Lagos that Rocket Internet had prepared for him, regularly went down when the generator was switched off), the traffic (some in Lagos spent five hours a day travelling to work and another five hours back) and of course the regular bribes that police and traffic officials demanded.
At the Lagos airport it was no different, where touts reigned supreme in the chaos and uniformed officers pushed for handsome cuts.
Until that is, he met his very own Mr Fixit, a guy called Freddie, who would lead him through any delays and get him through more than a few hairy situations.
There were often challenges. When he went to meet hotel owners, receptionists introduced him to their boss as “some white man”.
Employees often held down two or three jobs at the same time, which he puts down to the country’s poor job market and low trust between employees and employers. One time he foolishly turned down the advice of his assistant and posted an online advert for 20 vacancies at Jovago — 10 000 people applied by the next morning.
There was even the time a Polish woman, who had been “kidnapped” by an abusive Nigerian husband, contacted him asking for help to rescue her. He succeeded in freeing her in a bizarre twist that makes it sound like it was taken from a Frederick Forsyth blockbuster.
Zmyslowski also details his version of the messy breakup that ensued when Rocket Internet decided to sideline him, by bringing in a small French executive to oversee a global version of Jovago, that would have control over his Nigerian operation.
‘White man in a black country’
And then the extradition saga broke, after Zmyslowski took to Medium to write a post about how his Nigerian business partners were using the country’s corrupt police to extradite him, in an attempt to “blackmail” him.
The move backfired.
Writes Zmyslowski in the book: “Many people in Nigeria didn’t like my activity in their country. Many local tech entrepreneurs didn’t like the fact that a white person is promoting their own black country.
“I was their competition for business, spotlight and money from foreign investors. Their negative experiences (often very valid) with racially-biased white people got channelled against me.”
At times the book comes off too wild to be true — a kind of Shantaram for European entrepreneurs hitting Nigeria. Yet above all, it is the story of that once picked-on schoolboy who remained resolute in his quest to “show them” he could do it. And mostly he did. Along the way he even hooked up with a Miss Dominican Republic.
It’s a good read for the beach, or when you’re stuck in a Lagos traffic jam. Just don’t get stuck on the odd typo.
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To buy a copy of the book visit Zmyslowki’s website. Zmyslowski says he has dedicated 100% of the book revenue to a foundation he set up with his girlfriend Yaritza Reyes called the Maya Foundation.