Tunde Kehinde and Raphael Kofi Afaedor, both graduates of the famed Harvard Business School first began working together, probably did not foresee how big the idea they were teaming up together to work on, would become one of the most talked-about new generation companies in Nigeria; a revolutionary brand.
Unconsciously, they had been preparing for this all their lives. Lagos-born Tunde, attended the prestigious King’s College graduating in the class of 2000 alongside other pioneers including Lulu.ng’s Rotimi Oluranti Oke, going on to obtain degrees from Howard and Harvard, both in the United States. His skills were fine-tuned as an Executive Producer at Wachovia Securities, Diageo and Bandeka, the invitation-only dating website he co-founded with fellow Harvard alumnus, Yaw Boateng.
On his part, the slightly older Raphael attended Presbyterian School, Legon, Accra from 1988 to 1995. He is a polyglot, speaking Czech, Ewe, French, Ga, Spanish and Twi fluently. This rich background was obtained because he schooled in the Czech Republic and Switzerland, amassing three degrees before proceeding to the Harvard Business School in 2007 and bagging his second MBA two years earlier than his Jumia colleague. His path features stops at Monster.com, Goldman Sachs, Notore Chemical Industries and the Sestaya Group before co-founding QluQlu, a Groupon-type website in 2011.
In 2012, Nigerians gradually began to take notice both men.
Their brands Kasuwa and Sabunta soon merged into one and at the head of the new monster were three men – Kehinde, Afaedor and Rocket Internet’s Hendrik Harren. Jumia got funding from Rocket Internet in June of that year, just a few days after renaming itself Kasuwa.
Under their guidance, Jumia garnered column inches of positive press everywhere from Nigeria’s ThisDay newspapers, to the global brand, Forbes. They also kept getting repeated mentions by senior members of the Nigerian government, which led to the kind of reverence in the local ecosystem that the world has seen reserved for the likes of Mark Zuckerberg.
At the time of their exit, the start-up had also taken possession of a state-of-the-art office dormitory and 20,000-square foot-warehouse; the largest e-commerce campus in West Africa, where staff attend to thousands of online shoppers very rapidly. Over 600 workers were employed in Nigeria, with expansions across the continent to Morocco, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Cote d’Ivoire. It was seen, rightly, as a trailblazer in Nigeria’s evolving tech space.
So why did they leave a bubbling startup that was the talk of town and envy of fellow entrepreneurs to venture out into the wilderness?
If the ultimate desire of many founders is funding with as few obstacles as possible, then Jumia was a wet dream.
Far from being a typical shoestring operation in an emerging market, Jumia has had a rumoured input of well over $70 million (N11.3 billion), making it easy to get one foot in the door and go about convincing Nigerians that it was safer – and more convenient – to whip out bank cards and make payments on internet-enabled devices.
Rocket Internet, a German internet incubator company owned by the Samwer brothers, with a history of investing in and cultivating e-commerce ventures across the world, ensured to pump in millions of dollars into this first venture in sub-Saharan Africa until the start-up wheezed to life.
Still, it was no walk in the park, according to the founders.
“Tunde and I had the opportunity to be part of the entrepreneurial effort of building every aspect of this business from nothing – finding the right team, engaging suppliers, building customer base and nationwide expansion,” Afaedor tells me. “As with any new business, these were difficult tasks but we enjoyed every moment of the experience.”
Just before and since their exit late last year, the rumour mill has been on overdrive. Two of the theories make the most sense. One comes from insiders, who say there was both undue pressure from investors and recurring discomfort about the volume of marketing spend. Jumia had a 30-man marketing team and thousands of dollars as its’ daily advertising budget.
“They wanted to put their mouth where their money was,” says a former employee who asked for anonymity. “It is normal to do that, but sometimes people can’t work optimally under that kind of pressure”.
Afaedor weaves past my question about this. “Dealing with an investor is no different from dealing with a board of directors, executive management, subordinates or suppliers,” he stresses. “In each of these cases, you need to understand the dynamics of the relationship, the expectations you have of each other and then you work accordingly. No one, group or categorization of people is difficult to work with.”
The Samwer brothers, infamous for cloning their e-commerce ventures (the Economist once called them ‘the copycat kings of Europe’) are also notorious for endorsing firing sprees.
The public began to pay attention, after the lusty announcement on Techloy.com of the firing of Uche Ajene, who was Jumia’s Head of Marketing, following allegations that she couldn’t meet sales targets. This raised eyebrows because Ajene is easily seen as one of the best hands with enviable experience.
Jumia soon began to make news on a rolling basis for its high staff turnover. Just this year, over 50 employees were also dropped at several other Rocket Internet companies.
It soon became a bit too much for the two co-founders, insiders tell me; with their creative space under invasion and no latitude to make executive decisions they thought best. So they sold their stakes for cool profit and moved on.
“These guys practically made Jumia what it is today,” notes another ex-staff, who did not leave on a happy note. “Perhaps they realized that the brand has matured and so they decided to quit when ovation is loudest, make a handsome profit and move on to start another business again.”
If the Germans were perturbed, they certainly made a good show of not showing it.
The dust had barely settled on their trail than Nicolas Martin and Jérémy Doutté were announced as the new chief executive officers of Jumia. With no noticeable change in fortunes since, it has basically been business as usual for the e-commerce leader.
Then there is the other plausible theory.
“The prototype recruitment strategy for Rocket Internet is to get new graduates from local universities to be foot soldiers, by seducing them with medium-range salaries and the attraction that you should join a growing company with secure funding,” says Olukotun Olajuwon, an investment analyst. “Now you know why the average age of employees for Jumia is 23.
“For the top staff, they prefer alpha-type management consultants and investment bankers, or people with MBA degrees over traditional entrepreneurs who are doing their business with blood, sweat and raw passion. Alexander, one of the Samwer brothers has an MBA from Harvard so he loves anyone who can churn out spreadsheets and presentations to illustrate numbers. They actually have a lorry load of such candidates and if they don’t perform within three months to a year, they are shuttled out of the door. So it is very possible both CEOs were forced to leave. Germans are by nature impatient and I can tell you authoritatively that Jumia was not making any profit yet, so it might be the investors wanted a change of fortunes.”
If this is the case, and many tech bloggers and their comment boxes insist it is, well, no one is saying.
One morning in November 2013, Kehinde and Afaedor addressed their team of over 500 young e-commerce experts and enthusiasts at their campus in Ogba, Lagos. They announced they were leaving the company they founded and built.
“As we move on to start our own businesses, we owe a lot to every member of the team,” Kehinde said to the team. “Together we made history, together we have built Nigeria’s first and biggest online retail brand; a fate we never would have achieved without you.”
Afaedor echoed the warmth. “Jumia was an exciting one and a-half-year journey for us,” he said. “We are extremely proud of Jumia and wish all the best to the company and all the people here”.
It signaled the end of an era for the market leader, but a new chapter for both men. Jumia’s loss was to become the local ecosystem’s gain. After divesting their shares in the nation’s foremost merchandise peddler, they went to start businesses of their own.
Industry sources say the new ventures are both likely to receive seed investment from local venture capitalists, EchoVC. Repeated calls and emails with questions to EchoVC were not answered. Emails, calls and SMSes to Kehinde’s private line were neither acknowledged nor replied.
SuperMart appears the more striking of the two. “(We’re) an online grocery delivery service where customers can order from as many as 20,000 grocery items for delivery to them in as early as 3 hours,” said Elizabeth Egba, its spokesperson. “We are selling by far the largest number and widest assortment of groceries online.”
There have been some doubts about the scale of this vision, though. “I’m skeptical whether Supermart would be able to keep up with its 3-hour delivery time goal when it starts getting large volumes of orders on its site or when it does expand to other cities in Lagos or outside Lagos,” says Loy Okezie, founder of Techloy.
In addition to this, it is not alone in the online grocery supermarket sub-sector. Its’ foremost competitor is Gloo.ng which recently secured a 20,000 square feet Customer Fulfillment Center and is growing in leaps and bounds since changing name from BuyCommonThings.net last year.
SuperMart however believes it has a superior value proposition, pledging to keep up with the hassles that come with being based in a city with so much traffic and ensure its customers get the very best service. Initially, services were only available to residents of Ikoyi, Victoria Island, Lekki and Lagos Island but since June this year, that has been expanded to fit in those in the Ikeja, Maryland, Ilupeju, Ogba, Yaba, Surulere areas. Accordingly, the variety of 18,000 products in its cart has been topped up to 30,000., with MedPlus pharmacy joining the list of resident retailers.
“Service, service, service,” Afaedor tells me from his pre-SuperMart experience. “Deliver a flawless customer experience and everything else will follow”.
By virtue of social media might alone, the company is nowhere near the heights its owners envisage. Its’ Facebook page has only 563 likes and little or no interaction, even though it was set up in December 2013. Its Twitter has a mere 67 followers too.
Offline, things are slightly better. Ibinabo Romeo, who lives in Lekki hasn’t used SuperMart even though she is aware it exists, preferring to use used Deeski and Gloo, the very same competitors reputed to be more popular. “If you buy with Gloo, your stuff is delivered to you the same day, if you don’t order late in the day. I don’t know about SuperMart.”
A Post to remember
What remains hidden under the sun?
Apparently not A-Post (Africa Post). The start-up has finally put up a website after branding images leaked on the website of its’ designer early in the year. Its tagline is “bridging the gap between African retailers and consumers” and “connecting Africa”.
The company is pioneering logistics solutions in Nigeria and the rest of Africa, aiming to transport and deliver small and large packages for consumers, retail clients and large organizations. Already, sources in the industry squeal that they are working with DealDey, providing delivery services. It has extended operations outside Lagos already, setting up shop in the cities of Port Harcourt and Abuja.
“The main reason we created this platform is that we want to do something impactful and meaningful, we want to reduce the barrier from companies; like merchants to have access to the customers and from the customers’ side, we want to remove the barriers so they can access the goods”, Kehinde said in an interview.
As novel as the idea is, Kehinde who started getting Forbes mentions from his Bandeka days seems to be focused enough to fashion his path through the jungle and developing A-Post into a brand to reckon with. The company has not yet rolled out operations fully so only as the days roll by can the effectiveness be seen and measured. Its social media accounts are still in their infant days as a lone follower on both Twitter and Instagram and the absence of a Facebook page prove.
Both SuperMart and A-Post seem like competitors but whether or not they cancel each other out, the presence of these entrants is welcome for residents of Lagos who prefer a sedentary lifestyle and are increasingly resentful about the traffic indigenous to the city.