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Celebrating 10 years of Paga

By Rakesh Apte

For every success story in Silicon Valley, where you will find one of the most supportive ecosystems for startups, there are many failures. The majority of startups in this tech utopia don’t make it to year five, and over 70% don’t make it to year 10.

Now, add to that the obstacles that have to be overcome to achieve this same accomplishment in Nigeria. A tech startup today in Nigeria faces geopolitical, regulatory, infrastructure, and financing challenges in addition to all the typical startup hurdles: achieving product/market fit; building a strong management, operations, and technical teams; creating systems to quickly scale up the company; and defending against competition in the market.

Enter Paga – Nigeria’s leading mobile money and multi-channel digital financial services platform, and a GIF success story, now in its 10th year of operations.

Paga’s journey began in 2009 and a lot has happened in the past decade: 72 million transactions have been processed, worth $4.6 billion, by the 20,000 agents that operate across all 36 states of Nigeria.

This month I had the pleasure of being in Lagos for the in celebration of this historic milestone. What I witnessed was energising and exciting – a dynamic, diverse team who really live their values; and focus as much time on building a culture as building a business model.

With over 12 million customers and a team of 460 people, Paga is on a mission to help one billion people use and access their money, and transition users in the emerging context to a digital economy. At the helm are the founders, and visionaries, Tayo Oviosu and Jay Alabraba. Tayo and Jay have successfully created an incredible culture within Paga, in which all levels of staff are encouraged to speak their mind and take full ownership of their responsibilities. Each individual on the team, many with mutli-national experience, spoke passionately about what attracted them to joining Paga. As part of the investor and management team roundtable I was also delighted to see progress in female leadership – 17 delegates were present for this meeting, and over half were women.

With Paga Board members, employees, and a Paga agent during my Lagos visit

 

I am a firm believer in Peter Drucker’s adage that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and am certain that a collaborative culture can be a competitive advantage for tech startups, one that encourages individuals to bring their best ideas forward, is a necessity in today’s fast pace of innovation. Culture also helps attract and retain A+ grade talent that otherwise may have more lucrative opportunities with established companies.

An all staff meeting, followed by partner and investor roundtables, a Board meeting and evening gala were all part of the series of events to celebrate Paga’s 10th anniversary. Attendees consisted of VC investors and Board members from around the world, including representatives from Flourish VC, Adlevo Capital, Alethia Capital, South Bridge Group, and myself and Charlotte Ward from the Global Innovation Fund.

As VC investors, we always speak about the importance of teams. It is hard to quantify what percentage of a startup’s success is due to the team alone, this is a somewhat intangible metric to judge companies on. Paga, however, has definitely found the X factor in its team, something we can all learn from.

Lessons from Paga that can be replicated throughout the ecosystem:

Focus as much time on building a culture as building a business model
Culture is an important part of not only attracting talent but also retaining talent. It is well understood that the cost of losing an employee can be upward of 125% of that individual’s salary, and that recent research from LinkedIn indicates that the tech sector has had the highest turnover rate. Paga’s culture is a contributing factor to its low turnover, especially among senior level hires.

Growth without losing sight of profitability
There is always a trade-off between focusing on growth versus profitability, but few companies in high growth sectors such as fintech are able to successfully manage the two. Paga had its first
EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) positive quarter in 2017 after several years of investing in growth but being extremely capital efficient with available marketing resources. When I visited the company in 2017, I was surprised to learn that everyone at the company knew this metric and where they were in achieving that.

Diversity of thought
It is essential for startups to surround themselves with executives, employees, investors, and a Board that not only have different backgrounds, but also think differently. What has propelled Paga forward in part is a commitment to diversity and incorporation of inputs from such distinct voices. The investor group is a great representation of this, with investment from the likes of Tim Draper – a pioneer in the Silicon Valley ecosystem, to organisations that care about macroeconomic development of frontier markets like the Global Innovation Fund.

Public/private sector partnerships
Many entrepreneurs shy away from opportunities to link up with government initiatives due to hesitation around being too early stage for such a partnership, in addition to the complex nature of large governmental agencies, and the pace of partnership development. While there is some truth in this, the reality is that governments across the world are actively plugging in innovation into their DNA and want to accelerate achievement of macroeconomic objectives through startup partnerships. A great example is the Shared Agent Network Facility (SANEF) in Nigeria, in which Paga is a primary partner in increasing access points for the mass market of Nigeria to enter the financial system.

When I spoke with many other entrepreneurs in the Nigerian tech ecosystem, it was clear that Paga has had multi-generational impact on the ecosystem – inspiring the next generation of founders. These entrepreneurs are smart, energetic, and purpose driven in helping solve major pan-African and global challenges. Congrats to Paga for achieving 10 years, GIF looks forward to your continued success!