Ekechi Nwokah and Kunle Olukotun founded Mines in 2014. At the time, they were living in Palo Alto where they met for the first time at a mutual friend’s house. Nwokah and Olukotun share similar backgrounds. They grew up in Nigeria and studied computer science while at university. Naturally they clicked and began to discuss ideas around Olukotun’s research on artificial intelligence at Stanford.
Not long after meeting, they started their company where they focused on applying Olukotun’s research to solving real-world problems. After some thoughtful consideration and exploration, they decided that financial access was the problem they wanted to focus on and solve. They felt that this is where they would have the biggest impact. They enlisted some of Olukotun’s graduate students to build the platform and hired an experienced executive to help guide the ship. During this process, the team raised some capital and as they say, the rest is history! The Mines executive team currently consists of myself as Managing Director for Nigeria, along with Nwokah and Olukotun.
What do women entrepreneurs and executives need to know about finding investors and securing investment deals?
As a woman in Nigeria, you will be underestimated. You will be asked questions others do not get asked, but it is fine. Just be as prepared as you can. Be with a great value proposition and find investors you believe will give you a chance. You only need one “yes,” so any “no” you hear before that only prepares you for your eventual “yes.”
What made you join Mines?
Having spent eight (8) years of my career with EMTS (9 Mobile, formerly Etisalat Nigeria), I wanted to make a difference not only in Nigeria, but across Africa and eventually, globally. I was in search of a challenging experience that incorporated the extensive use of technology so when I found out about Mines – a company addressing the challenge of providing consumer credit to potentially 3 billion people currently without access everything came together.
Who is your target market?
Nigeria is our primary market as this is where we have done the majority of our business. We are the leading provider of consumer credit in the country, counting mobile operators 9mobile and Airtel, payment processors Interswitch and NIBSS, along with several banks. Seeing the success of our product in Nigeria, we are focused on expanding into new markets. We are exploring expansion into other African countries as well as into South East Asia and Latin America.
How have you financed the idea?
The research upon which the driving technology for Mines was founded, was funded by a combination of funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States and the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) combined with industrial funding from a number of large companies. This is typical for computer science research projects in the United States.
We continue to be funded by a host of institutional investors both locally and internationally. We recently completed our Series A funding of $13M led by The Rise Fund, a global fund managed by TPG Growth. We have a number of US, European, and African investors to include Velocity Capital, Western Technology Investments, First Ally Capital, X/Seed Capital, NYCA Partners, Persistent Capital, Singularity Investments, Trans Sahara Investments, and the Bank of Industry.
What is your competitive edge?
We are often mistaken for a lender, but we are not one. Mines is a technology platform that enables lending. Very few companies have approached lending the way that we have. We partner with existing institutions to provide financing to customers that they are not able to serve. We make this possible in a profitable manner.
What is the long-term plan for the company?
The long-term goal is to expand into other countries beyond our current footprint in Nigeria and enter into new markets like South America and Asia.
What challenges do you face?
Mines is tailored specifically to the market we operate in. We have worked very hard to achieve product-market fit. Mines uses advanced technology (AI and Machine Learning) and developing this is difficult. Even more so is understanding how to apply this technology to real challenges that consumers face in emerging markets. We are scientists and technologists at heart, so learning to adapt our thinking to the subtle differences that local businesses have as well as understanding the consumer landscape to ensure the product works well, is our focus.
What key things have you learned since the company started?
Startup life offers lessons every day. I will say that the dynamics of a startup are quite different from a big, established organization in terms of available resources, the time needed to make decisions, and the dynamic nature of one’s job scope. One has to understand all these dynamics, how they come together and how they play out in a startup environment like the one we are in; and be ready to make the necessary adjustments.
What advice do you have for youths looking to start an idea but say ‘there is no money’?
More than anything else, I will say one needs to be extremely clear on their product or service value proposition. Many underestimate how much work this requires because it can be communicated in one or two short sentences. However, a winning value proposition will show an intrinsic understanding of the customers who feel the pain of the problem you are trying to solve, and if they get it, they will call you. It is imperative to keep asking ‘why’ someone should buy your product. Many ask this only once, by the time you have asked it a few more times, you start to create something meaningful.
How can we support and improve innovation in Africa?
We need to embrace technology in every sector, I do not see enough of this within the continent. Technology allows us to surpass the limits of our infrastructure deficits and catch up with the rest of the world. Our specific challenge is not just embracing what we have seen work elsewhere, but using technology within our specific context, “cutting and pasting” does not work.