Joey, as he is fondly called by a few friends and family is an enterprising, very shy and very hardworking man. He has pushed his startup to the forefront of the oil and gas industry, with completed and potential deals to secure oil pipelines on the Niger delta. He is on the verge of being the youngest Nigerian millionaire that we know of.
To get Joseph to tell the story about how he transformed a struggling startup everyone had given up on was a herculean task for the both party – for him, who would rather face his business and do great things while he is at it, and for me, who felt telling his story would inspire thousands of young Nigerians who are at the point of being exasperated with a struggling startup and are gently romancing the thought of throwing into the towel.
After a gentle, yet persistent prod, Joseph tells me: “I am only doing this because you said it would inspire a lot of young people, okay?” I smiled an “okay” and we began this life changing chat – for me.
Nigeria’s youngest CEO and entrepreneur, Joseph Imonikhe Afen, tells me at not too distant past, the road to building a company had been a very rocky and slippery one.
Here’s where the journey began. “I started my first real idea in my first year at the University. I had done a few startups in the past that failed, so my parents weren’t really keen to support me in any of my ideas. They felt I could get myself an education, and get myself a comfortable job, and live a comfortable life. That wasn’t my objective. I wanted to leave the university, an employer of labour.”
Two years into university and $980, he started his first idea, The Ekogidi Network, aimed at bridging the gap between leaders in Nigeria and the masses. Together with a team of five, all students in his school, at that time – Nkechi Ogbuagu, Lanre Osidele, Mide Coker, Anita Princewill – he tried to make that project a reality.
“At the start it was all fun. Until, at first, the person I got to work on the idea for us ran away with my money. Then, I started losing members of the team. Nkechi and Mide left due to personal reasons, and Lanre with Anita graduated and got good jobs. Back to square one, for me. Building a team was quite difficult, because you needed young minds that were as committed as those guys I had, especially Nkechi. I still miss her zeal and passion to make things happen,” he says.
Of course a few friends laughed at him. He was after all taking a bite of the big apple, they said. But he wouldn’t be deterred. His was a dream of leaving the university as a job creator, and not a seeker. So, off he went trying to get another set of young people to work with him. This proved a little bit more difficult than he thought.
“Trying to get another set of young students, I had the problem of getting them paid monthly. No one wanted to work for free, demands were high. I had to get five students that could work on the Ekogidi platform, and I sacrificed N25, 000 from my monthly allowance to pay them. It means I was paying N5,000 to each to them. I started to live a broke-student kind of life,” he tells me.
But the thing is, according to him, he was always contented each time he saw the Ekogidi network running well. “That was enough for me,” he said with a nostalgic smile.
One of such dear friends was Tenioluwa Eniola. An ex-girlfriend, a daughter to one of the professors in the school, and also a student of the school. She was always there for Joseph during the rocky part of his life.
“She supported me with everything including money, and a few times, used her car to take me for meetings, most of which ended unfruitful. I remember one afternoon, when I went for a meeting to discuss the birth of my latest idea in the oil and gas industry, with an Indian, Mr Mukesh, and his Nigerian friend, Osahon. Once they saw me, they asked that I left their office, and come back when I know anything about life. I cried to meet Teni at the car that afternoon. On the way back to school, she advised I register a company and give it a name. Right there, that afternoon, after so much guess work, she came up with Haynes-Worth, and that was what I liked.”
A few weeks later, she passed on. That was possibly the toughest period of his life. “I struggled in school, but just didn’t want to give up with my startup. Giving up was never an option for me. I had to push on,” Joseph narrated with tears in his eyes.
After several months of struggling, first with the loss of a dear friend and how to sort his ideas out to make a meaningful business impact, he got a deal with MTN Nigeria to deliver traffic updates to a selected amount of Lagos road users. With about 10,000 subscribers the first six months, the young startup was hitting a good number real quick. “Life as a business man started for me, even at a young age,” he tells me.
With the support from family and friends, people who mean the wold to him, his life changed yet again, for the better. His father saw the potential in his young son and supported his dream of being an entrepreneur. “That was the turning point for me. He supported me with everything, and he started to put me through to the right people I needed,” he tells me.
Joseph says building a company is really hard and it requires your greatest persuasive abilities to hire the best people you can, and keep them doing the best work of their lives, and hopefully, seeing how far it goes.
With a principal capital of just $900 to current worth of several thousand dollars in months and a potential multi-million dollar investment in few months, Joseph believes that when one puts his mind to achieving anything, he really could, provided he’s willing to go all in.
By Ruth Olurounbi (@Olurounbi)