Dozy Mmobuosi is the Group CEO of Tingo International Holdings Inc., a global company playing in the telecommunications, remittance, healthcare, and agriculture sectors in various countries. Over the years, Tingo has recorded impressive feats in the sectors it plays in. The company successfully distributed 12 million smartphones to players in the Nigerian agriculture value chain. Mmobuosi shares the story of his entrepreneurial journey in this interview. Excerpts…
What’s your educational background and did it have any role to play in your choice to become an entrepreneur?
I had my first and masters degree in political science and economics, respectively at the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma before proceeding for a doctorate in rural advancement at Universiti Putra Malaysia, Malaysia.
And no, my educational background had no role in my entrepreneurial pursuit. I was a special kid growing up. I was almost expelled from a federal unity secondary school before my father took me to a public school in Ilupeju, the neighbourhood where I grew up. Taking me to a neighborhood school was a form of punishment. This is the first time I am sharing this publicly.
I could only stand two school terms at the Ilupeju Secondary School before saying to my father that I was done with formal education and this was while I was in the first year in the senior secondary. Afterwards, I was home tutored and from home, I did my Ordinary and Advanced Level examinations within one year, after which I got into the university.
It was a struggle for me to complete my first degree as I was always out of school because I was a show promoter at the time. I was responsible for most of the shows and beauty pageants happening across most of the Nigerian universities between 1999 through 2002. During this period, I also had a magazine I was publishing and promoting as well. So, I have been an entrepreneur from my university days.
I was usually late in resuming school and an uncle of mine advised that I drop out of school back then. I said I’d just struggle to get it over with and I ended up with a second class, lower division which was fine by me. I proceeded for my master’s degree in the same school while my friends were doing theirs in the United States and the United Kingdom.
I said to myself that I would prefer to go to Asia when I’m done with my MSc because I didn’t want that regular kind of exposure as I knew quite a lot about the Western world. I opted for Malaysia for my doctorate programme where I believed the action was back then.
In essence, your entrepreneurship pursuit during your first degree set the path for your journey.
Sort of, there’s a part I left out. One of the reasons I was almost expelled from secondary school was because I was selling ‘’provision commodities’’ in the hostel. I became popular and earned the nickname, The General.
With that nickname, I was accused of running a gang in the school which my father wasn’t happy about. Beyond school, I was also selling used clothes, which they call okrika, in my neighbourhood when I got home for the holidays.
While others were selling it the way it came from the Benin Republic, I would wash and package mine which I then sold to young white-collar people in Ilupeju. My entrepreneurial pursuit basically started at the age of 13 or 14. It was just seamless in my university days. I think the first concert I organised at Ambrose Alli University had The Remedies.
The interesting thing about the first show was that I was beaten up by a cult group that also stole all the money we had made that day. I remember trekking back home that night but that didn’t deter me.
I still planned another one which was more successful after which I moved to other universities: Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife; University of Ibadan, Ibadan; University of Benin and we went as far as the University of Abuja, Ahmadu Bello University, and Yaba College of Technology, among others. I must have done over 30 shows during my years in the university.
You were home-schooled, is there any correlation between that and your entrepreneurial journey?
Yes, there is. I was, for the first time, exposed to risk. This is my own interpretation of it; it was risky on my father’s part as my uncles, aunties, and mother didn’t like the idea but my father believed in me, And he still does.
He was actually responsible for teaching me. I was really influenced by most of what he was doing back then. Down to his religion and philosophy at that time: he was an Eckist. At that time, I had to understand tolerance more, especially with regard to religion. It also gave me a different insight to life as I even became an Eckist myself but I’m back to the Christian fold now anyways.
The home tutoring taught me independence and built my character. I understood that I just couldn’t fail since it was an opportunity I begged for. And that’s one thing I still believe in today: no matter how hard it hits me, I just must survive as nothing is impossible for me.
You were part of the team that built the first mobile payment platform in Nigeria, can you provide more insight into this?
My brother was in need of some money while in school but he didn’t have a bank account. So my parents had to send the money to someone’s bank account but the person claimed that he never received it. I had to send the money to him through another means after my cousin that worked with a bank confirmed that the transaction my parents initiated was successful.
After that, I thought there are ways instant transfers can happen without the need for a bank account. I had done shows in the past that had banks as sponsors, so I reached out to an official in one of the banks to get his feedback on my idea. I was told that I couldn’t do something like that without a banking licence, which, of course, I didn’t have. I told him that I was going to do a proof of concept and show the bank.
We ended up designing an SMS-based platform for cash transfers. Back then, mobile phone penetration was very low which meant the idea wasn’t really viable at the time and we had to wait a bit. When mobile phone penetration started picking up, we went back to pitch the idea and developed it for them.
The product was simply allowing people to send money through SMS and the money could be claimed over the counter at the bank even when the recipient didn’t have a bank account. Understandably, I can’t mention the product or the bank in question for the sake of confidentiality.
After delivering the banking solution to the bank, I moved on to creating Naijafans, a social media platform, with the likes of Ikenna Okpala, amongst other people. This was in 2003 when Internet penetration was still poor in Nigeria. I think Naijafans was the only Nigerian-focused social media platform at the time. It had features like forums, instant messaging, and indigenous emojis.
We ran it for two years and by then, I was the last person in the company as everyone had left. When Internet penetration wasn’t improving as expected, I said it was time to just bury the project. Then I was also running a company, Fair Deal Concept, which was founded by my father and I.
How did you end up founding a company with your father?
My father and I co-founded the company which later became Tingo Mobile but he left the business fully in 2005. Being a co-founder at that time was because I was young and needed someone to guide and basically fund some of the things we were doing which was where he came in: he was our first investor.
What are the lessons you learnt being part of the team that built a banking solution as well as a social media platform as of the early 2000s?
I wish we were more patient and consistent with both products as it would have been a different ball game today. I would just go straight to say we have learnt something. When you build something you believe in, you just have to hold strongly to it. I really wish we didn’t give up on Naijafans because of low Internet penetration in Nigeria at that time.
There was also the part that we hardly believed in new ideas then. I remember going to insurance companies and banks in Nigeria, giving them all sorts of ideas.
Is the banking solution your team built then still in use?
Yes, to the best of my knowledge.
How did the idea for Tingo — the company, not the name — come about?
When I was promoting shows back in university I was running a company, Fair Deal, which I co-founded with my father. My father is an author and he published his first book in 2000. After he had just published, I told him that we could distribute the book electronically; this was happening around the world at the time.
So, Fair Deal was to be an e-publishing company. The book he wrote — Scam the 419 — was a book to help people avoid being defrauded. And this was the first project that Fair Deal did. We made sure the book was out there by allowing people to read part of it after which they would need to place an order . One of the highlights of the project was getting a call from the United States Embassy in Nigeria, requesting a meeting with the author.
The book was featured on CNN at that time and it recorded some level of success as we had it in major airports in and outside the country.
After that, we thought of taking television online but the major challenge we had at that time was poor Internet infrastructure in the country which didn’t help.
So, we went into developing software for companies in various industries like insurance, banking, print media and logistics amongst others; it was just more of servicing clients. At some point in 2005, we became a reseller for domain name and hosting services.
We had also gone into the media industry by offering Value Added Services (VAS) like ringback tunes and the likes, partnering with MTI Nigeria; I believe they are still around. We moved from being a book publishing platform to building software for businesses and offering VAS. This was when I went for my doctorate in Malaysia and I had just gotten married at that time.
I was working with a lean team in Nigeria and the company suffered a bit because it was difficult juggling business, a doctorate programme, and marriage. Also, I had developed another interest at that time and gone into renewable energy — buying and sending solar pv panels and inverters back to Nigeria and other African countries for resale.
How did the journey into the telecommunications sector and building an agricultural ecosystem start?
I had to settle back in when I got back from my doctorate programme in 2008. The renewable energy business was doing well and we did a private placement to expand the business. During this time, I was still paying close attention to the technology space because of my love for the space in Africa. I was pushing more of the energy business and was using that to invest in our technology business.
In 2013, I was on a trip to China and visited a factory in Shenzhen. I said this is the right time to move and become the first manufacturer of mobile phones in Nigeria, and that was it. Manufacturing by all standards is not necessarily you making every bit of all the components and everything in the device. We were practically assembling it, and we were the first to do that in Nigeria.
Of course, we didn’t have the kind of resources needed to compete with the foreign brands whose influx provided a lot of competition. So, to stay afloat, I thought to just focus on a sector and see how we could spark some change there.
We saw it as a way to apply technology to solve problems. We knew that there were issues in sectors like agriculture and healthcare, amongst others and we decided that we had to take the sectors one at a time, and so we focused on the agriculture sector. We went head-on to provide solutions for players in the sector and we are still doing that.
You now play in entertainment, telecommunications, agriculture, remittance, and healthcare. What is the hardest lesson you have had to learn over the years playing in all these industries?
I’m going to be very blunt about this. The hardest lesson for me is being able to surrender myself to scrutiny: what we call corporate governance. You get to a point where your business is growing and you need a board of directors and people to provide checks and balances, which are necessary for your company to grow.
So, I had to learn to work with a board. That was one of the hardest things I had to learn. Before then, I just felt that I was the founder and bringing in these people was just to impress investors and the banks. I didn’t immediately understand their purpose or the reason for having them and it took me a while to do so.
That was very hard. Not complying and working with my board put me in a lot of trouble. Back then, I just felt I could shoulder the burden by myself, and that really didn’t go well. I have learnt and today, we have a strong corporate governance code. The lesson for me was that this is the process if I must succeed in what I’m doing: I can’t do it alone.
Something else I must mention is that I have always felt we are in a country that can give you everything and also take everything from you. I have had instances when all I had was taken away from me, including my reputation. This is a country where some people do not understand that disputes arise in business and settlement must be done in a very civil manner. However, some people are not civil in their dealings.
You said Nigeria can take everything from you. Would you care to expatiate?
Let me give a scenario. Nigeria only celebrates whoever is ‘’displayed’’ as successful. So, if a major magazine celebrates you as successful, then everyone would celebrate you. And the day that people make accusations on the basis of suspicion, the next thing is that everyone would throw everything about you away without verifying your accuser’s claims.
This somewhat makes entrepreneurs take things easy with celebrations. I feel people need to be more informed and do enough research before putting out anything about anyone because you never can tell what you are taking away from the person who is the subject. People soon forget these things but the digital footprints would always be there.
What’s the biggest mistake of your entrepreneurial journey?
I have made a thousand and one mistakes and I know I must have stepped on toes because I was very brash in the past. I believe my mistakes have led me to where I am today. My mistakes were mostly with decision making; I was hasty in decision making. Those mistakes moulded and exposed me to the way the world works.
How about from the angle of running a multinational firm, what are the lessons?
I’m learning every day. Running a multinational business means you have to conform to the standards of your host country. You must abide by regulations and this is our backbone today. Compliance is key and you can’t cut corners. This is making us a more responsible organisation.
Going back to Nigeria, Nigeria gives you ‘’crazy profit’’. This is mainly because the regulators are weak. I have to be blunt, our regulators do not understand trends in the sectors they are regulating. Our regulators need to understand global trends in various sectors of the economy because things are changing.
One other lesson I have learnt running a company outside the shores of Africa is how to raise funds. It’s not just about raising funds, you don’t raise funds when you don’t need to. I’m now exposed to raising funds that would not dilute the equity of our shareholders.
Lastly, what’s your long-term goal for Tingo?
The goal is to continue using technology to solve problems in all sectors of the economy in all the countries we currently operate in while also entering other markets as well. We want to remain that African company that has become global while maintaining best global practices and making sure that our stakeholders are satisfied.