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My Life In Tech: A history on bike hailing, hard lessons and growing from Chinedu Azodoh

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My Life In Tech is putting human faces to some of the innovative startups, investments and policy formations driving the technology sector across Africa.

At over six feet, Chinedu Azodoh is towering adjacent a ‘TEDxYaba’ signage. He is the last speaker at the 2018 independently organised TED event in Lagos’ foremost technology cluster. A few seconds after he takes the stage, he has drawn out the audience’s lethargy after a full day of talks, some clearly unrehearsed and ironically uninspiring. But it is not just his ebullient personality that seemingly fills the large conference hall in the next half hour. His talk, Power of Human Connection – Struggle Pornography, curates personal stories of loss and family; the many phases of his journey as an entrepreneur; his genuineness when he describes picking interest in American football, a sport he once considered stupid and finally joining an actual team; and his 5-take home pointers for not falling prey to what he termed the ‘struggle pornography’, echoes across the hall and ends the conference on an aspirational high.

Azodoh leads growth efforts at Nigeria’s first motorbike hailing startup. In 2015, when Metro Africa Xpress was founded alongside co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Adetayo Bamiduro both of whom met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, no one was ordering bike rides via a phone app in Nigeria’s densely populated megacity. His job was an arduous one. 

Three years prior to MAX’s launch, the Lagos state government had banned commercial motorcycles and motorcycles with less than 200cc (cylinder capacity) from major highways and more than 500 road networks across the state as a security measure. At the time, it was not unusual to hear of get-away okadas from robbery scenes or kidnappings facilitated by okadas whose riders the government could not trace. Many were doing business with fake plate numbers. 

“These fake plate numbers, they sell it at 500 naira. We know because we accidentally bought fake plate numbers and we got arrested and learnt our lesson,” he says, the aftermath of a bad business deal with a third-party contractor.  

But what this law implied was that thousands of commercial motorcyclists were rendered unemployed and left to search for alternative inner-city routes or a new means of livelihood. On the flip side, riding in an okada in Lagos was a dangerously extreme sport. It seemed the motorcyclists had spare lives waiting at the end of the day with the way they maneuvered Lagos’ deplorable road infrastructure without safety helmets and with utter disregard for traffic laws. In 2012, the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) said 442 okada accidents were reported on a daily basis in Lagos. 

“The solution to that was not banning. At least in 2012. It still isn’t banning. The solution to that problem was regulating and formalising and that is the position that we came from,” Azodoh says. MAX started out as a logistics service (which still comprises 30% of the company’s businesses). In those early days, there was little to no framework that could guide MAX’s operations but which could potentially hamper it. The bikes which they used for deliveries, although 200cc motorcycles, did not have the government-recommended delivery boxes attached to them. 

“We spent a lot of time talking to people. I remember we used to spend 2-3 days every week from October 2016 till March 2017 going from one office to the other,” Azodoh recalls, offices in Alausa where Lagos’ administrative heart beats. 

In addition to the security challenge the government was trying to solve and nonexistent license issue, the government was also failing to find an effective taxation system for the sector. 

“When people talk about unions, they say unions collect taxes for the government. They don’t. The unions charge drivers money for working on the road as members of their unions. The money is not voluntary. The unions have gotten the drivers to a point where they just pay because if they don’t, they can’t operate.

“It’s kind of how the Mafia works, how the mob worked in Chicago in the 50s’ where you paid protection money so you don’t get beaten up. It’s a racket.”

MAX sought out tackling these issues from both the consumer and rider sides. With its MAX Academy, MAX continues to train their riders, Champions, to obey traffic rules, drive carefully and ensure the safety of themselves and their customers, an endeavour that is yielding positive feedback. With its internal licensing programme, the issue of vague or unknown identities no longer hold.

“We require them to get government licensing, of course,” Azodoh adds, and using the app, rider whereabouts can be tracked real-time in addition to a database of family, behavioural and residential records. 

“Part of what we are going to be doing next in terms of identity tracking is to have them register with the Lagos State Residents Registration Agency (LASRRA),” he adds. 

Most importantly, the company’s financing model has been structured to be mutually beneficial to both the company and the riders whom Azodoh says they are keen on liberating economically. 

“A lot of our riders, within 3 months of joining us, they are making enough money to be able to make the next stage of their lives financially. 

“So they are moving from poverty to middle class,” he says, a feat that would ordinarily be unachievable with the modus operandi of commercial motorcyclists a large percentage of whom do not own the okadas with which they do business daily. 

“So what happens is that someone has a fleet of 30-60 bikes and rents to riders. Sometimes you have three riders sharing the same bike; one person drives in the morning, one in the afternoon, one in the evening or night.”

Another channel for temporary ownership is through a hire-purchase scheme but in the way that these things tend to go, the bike owners often withdraw the motorcycles just before a rider is set to take ownership of it and the cycle continues. The prices of the recommended 200cc motorcycles can also be prohibitive for people who earn between US$5 to US$10 daily after informal taxes and payments are deducted. Azodoh says in MAX’s earlier days, they had rolled out with Chinese bikes which they found quickly became creaky in the course of a few months. Each of them had cost roughly US$830.

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“The banks won’t give loans and when the microfinance banks do, they lend at 7-10% annual interest. Those are ungodly prices,” says Azodoh. 

When the company switched to its current fleet which cost about US$1,700 each, they had to find a way to cover the risks in capital expenditure and lending costs. 

“So we built a package for riders that was going to take care of these things and they paid only 40% interests instead of 200%” which was as high as they had to pay informal lenders or banks cumulatively. 

“We’ve gone from a delivery company promising fast delivery to a financial technology business that builds technology and financial infrastructure to empower mobility in Africa and we do this by working with institutions to raise debt financing for riders, we provide health insurance, death and life insurance, passenger liability insurance for accident cases (T&Cs apply). We’ve almost become a digital financial institution for riders providing these full-fledged services for an underserved demography to help them better their economic prospects,” Azodoh says although he agrees there’s more to be done long-term to help MAX’s 1,250 riders become more financially stable and able to develop their lives and that of their families more roundly. 

Since MAX, more okada hailing services  have launched in Lagos backed by heavyweight investments in the space in the past four years. Earlier this year, MAX closed a US$7 million funding round bringing their total amount of funding raised since 2015 to US$9 million. A month prior to this announcement, Gokada announced a US$5.3 million Series A raise. In the same month, Opera’s okada hailing service ORide launched with a US$40 million investment at its disposal.

“I love competition,” Azodoh says with a stress on the word love. He chuckles when he describes how he finds out a new service has just launched in Lagos, Nigeria’s overcrowded city which has become a viable ground for two-wheelers like MAX. 

“A new company follows you on Instagram and then you look at their profile and it’s a bike. I follow them back, as per solidarity. Then they follow on Twitter.” 

Azodoh recalls one of the company’s investors calling and raising tensions about another newly launched service and the stiffening competition growing in the sector. 

“And the first day you see it, for like a month, you’re like, shit, they’re going to ruin us.”

“And what you realise very quickly is that they can’t really. Businesses fail because of internal factors not external factors” as long as there is a viable product or service being sold. From every new entrant into the market however, Azodoh says there’s been something to learn. As a result of the regulatory grey areas, they refused to brand as ‘okada’ and so when Gokada came into the market, customers had a hard time differentiating both services. But from Gokada, MAX started paying attention to marketing and branding. OPay came with a lot of money and freebies. Backed by Opera, he says there was some slight worry “because they came in with all this money” and quickly built a customer base by offering the lowest possible prices you could find in the market.

“Once you bind your business to who is the cheapest in the market, guess what happens, it will erode all value. And when you erode all value, competition becomes a bad thing. 

“Cheap is attractive but people want value.”

Azodoh stresses that MAX isn’t part of an ongoing ‘bike war’, the prevalent manner in which growing competition in the sector is now being described. 

“I hear a lot of stories about okada wars and I think it is a lot of sensationalism because in practice, maybe two companies are fighting this okada war.”

He says he expects more companies will continue to come into the sector in the coming years. 

MAX introduced a tricycle (keke) hailing service sometime in August. Azodoh says they now have a “couple hundred” operating across Lagos with at least three female drivers, which is exciting for the company. 

“It’s a different business so we are learning the complexities of the business.”

Back in October when we meet, Azodoh is unsure about announcing its electric motorbike launch just yet. But the company has since unveiled its MAX e Series 1 at the Lagos International Trade Fair. The EV  was locally built from deconstructing a fuel-powered bike. Azodoh says MAX will build out 20-30 more units before scaling manufacturing in a soon-to-be-announced global partnership that will include supporting infrastructure. 

MAX’s new electric vehicle was locally built by engineers from deconstructed fuel-powered bikes.
Source: MAX.ng

There are a number of relationships Azodoh holds dear and which has contributed over the years to the success of MAX and his personal growth. And they’ve come from a diverse number of places including his American football team where he first met Bertrand Njoya who is now the company’s Chief Financial Officer. Participating in the Techstars New York City Accelerator programme after being denied entry into the Chicago programme has also proved immensely beneficial to the organisation. Himself and Bamiduro had scraped funds together to travel on short notice from Boston to Chicago for the selection interview. 

“Somebody there saw us and liked us so much told somebody in the Texas New York program about us and they reached out to us.” Participation in the programme had ripple effects including participation in TechCrunch London and US$1 million investments.

“Techstars was amazing for us.”

One of Azodoh’s 5-point takeaways at the TEDxYaba event the year before was to strive for balance as an entrepreneur or corporate or student. “Balance is evolving for me,” he says when I ask how much of it he’s been able to have with all the facets of his life. 

“Balance for me as I continue to grow is how do I become a more balanced leader, or balanced individual; it means prioritisation; being able to look at my workload and say what is critical and urgent; what is critical but not urgent; what is not critical and not urgent” and outsourcing the parts of his life that are not critical nor urgent.

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French VC firm Partech is fishing for innovation in Africa’s informal economy

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A year ago, venture capital fund Partech Africa gained attention following its investments in two promising African startups. South Africa’s Yoco provides portable point-of-sale machines to merchants, without contracts or monthly fees. TradeDepot, a Nigerian mobile B2B firm, gives retailers access to a wide range of goods directly available from FMCG factories.

Yoco and TradeDepot are examples of what Partech’s Africa drive aims to achieve: spurring innovation around the informal economy.

In 2019, Partech Africa made two follow-on investments and six new deals in Africa, including a leading role in the $5m raised by Kudi in April. Half of the eight transactions Partech has deployed were between $3m and $7m. Earlier in the year, they doubled their Africa VC fund to $143 million and opened a Nairobi office to complement operations in Dakar.

A nascent fintech based in Lagos, Kudi plays in the money transfer and e-payments space through an agent network. It is a model that provides individuals an entry point to the digital economy, without the regular prerequisites for formal access.

“These companies have validated our investment strategy: outstanding team, with validated model, addressing fundamental economic opportunities will build the next African champions,” says Tidjane Dème, general partner at Partech Africa, of their 2019 investments.  “We will continue to focus on financial inclusion, online and mobile consumer services, as well as mobility, supply chain services and digitization of the informal economy.”

What exactly is the informal economy?

Economists are revising how they measure and define an informal economy. One guide is to say it comprises “economic activity that falls outside the regulated economy and tax system, such as street vending or unregistered taxi drivers.”

The IMF estimates that between 2010 and 2017, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are the regions with the highest share of informality both at 34 percent of GDP. The numbers are much lower in North America (9%) and OECD countries (15%), probably because an informal economy is associated with “low productivity, poverty, high unemployment, and slower economic growth.”

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Informal economies are shrinking globally. But it takes time for economies to transition to formality. So what’s the catch for venture capitalists like Partech coming in at this time?

Building innovative pan-African companies

The informal economy is “where we see strong local African innovation,” said Cyrill Collon, general partner at Partech, in a phone call with TechCabal. For those who crack the informal economy, there is a “crazy playground to be a game-changing company in Africa and beyond.”

Of the nine companies on Partech’s portfolio, five already do business in more than one country.

Collon says the reach of the companies beyond the countries where they were founded “deeply demonstrates how African entrepreneurs are addressing the need of the continent and potentially those of emerging global economies.”

For Partech, innovation on business model is a key metric for judging an African company’s potential. “If you are capable of building new business models, you have a reach that no one can have,” Collon says.

Though they decline to reveal all at the request of the companies involved, Collon disclosed to TechCabal that Partech’s 2019 portfolio companies are spread across all regions in Africa. Nigeria has four of the nine companies on the list. May as well be deserved: 60% of its economy is informal, among the highest in Africa on that score.

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Why your favourite African startups are incorporating abroad

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Venture funding in Nigeria’s tech industry has been growing over the years. Yet most investments have come from funds domiciled abroad. Although VCs are increasingly launching funds aimed at investing in Nigeria and other African startups, only few of them keep their funds in Africa. And this has implications on how startups secure funding and how they make business decisions like where to incorporate.

Tosin Oni, a Principal at Nigerian VC firm, EchoVC, explains to TechCabal that there are two reasons why VCs domicile funds outside Nigeria and many African countries.

First, the uncertain regulatory environment in Nigeria is a major headache for investors. “Many investors are worried about any clampdowns by governments in emerging markets where they operate,” Oni said.

Nigeria has maintained tight rules on financial activity designed to prop up the Naira. Dollars could come into the country’s financial system easily, but getting it out is a quagmire. “If you bring dollars into an African country, it is difficult to get it out, so the liquidity is not as good,” said Bdioui Ilyes, the Chief Finance Officer and Partnerships at the African Development Bank (AfDB). It’s not the ideal situation VCs investing in multiple countries across Africa would fancy.

“So domiciling funds in an offshore country helps to forestall the risk or possibility if that,” Oni added.

A second explanation is that offshore countries are natural habitats for investors. Countries like Seychelles and Mauritius, although African, have the climate and the favourable laws that allow global investors to operate effectively. “This becomes the preference for would-be limited partners who would rather do business in a climate and whose laws they are familiar with,” Oni explained.

“It further provides comfort to investors who prefer to invest in climates they understand and can predict.”

In a 2017 article on TechCabal, Olubunmi Abayomi-Olakunle explains that “many foreign investors are unfamiliar with the dynamics of local tax and regulatory frameworks.”

“They reflexively fall back on a familiar offshore parent structure, even though these structures may sometimes be bad for the long term interests of the operating company.”

But really, does it matter? Should the location of a VC fund have any impact on startups? Yes, it matters big time.

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VCs consider a number of things when investing, including taxes and regulatory oversight during exits. But because Nigerian and many African legal and financial systems are too “dynamic” and uncertain, VCs choose to invest in startups incorporated abroad. Think US, UK, Europe or at a Mauritius incorporated startup.

Some others are comfortable with investing in local startups and may go on to set timelines for these companies to reincorporate in foreign jurisdictions to enable them to attract more funding from investors. Explaining a typical startup dilemma, Ilyes shares that: “If you are a company in Ghana [or any African country] with a scalable solution and you are targeting angel investors, some of the investors will tell you that they are not going to put my money in a corporation that is domiciled in Ghana.”

“So open up a company in London that owns 100% in the Ghanaian company and then I invest through the London company or HQ or vehicle’”

So it’s no surprise to find out that some of your favourite Nigerian and African startups are actually foreign by incorporation. Andela, Paga, Flutterwave, Paystack, Branch, Tala, SureRemit (Seychelles), among many others; and Jumia isn’t an exception. These startups have incorporated in San Francisco, Delaware, Mauritius, or other non-African jurisdiction that has business-friendly investment laws.

But a new trend has been on the rise regarding funding activity. A growing number of Africa-focused funds are emerging, with many of them led by African managers. Meanwhile, other funds are expanding their local operations on the African continent, either by opening new offices on the continent or investing more in Africa-focused startups. Whether this will flip the script and get more funds domiciled locally is a bit of a stretch.

However, Oni is betting that this trend will continue. And if it does it could make them reconsider where they domicile funds. “One thing we know that rings true is that LPs typically require fund managers to be domiciled in the regions they wish to invest in,” he said. 

For the meantime, capital hungry startups will continue to incorporate until the continent becomes business-friendly.

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My Life In Tech: The silent voltron that is Titi Akinsanmi

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Google’s Policy and Government Relations Lead (West/Francophone Africa), Titi Akinsanmi’s life and career, an intricately intertwined unit, are built on three pillars: a four-word mandate, a latin mantra and actionable faith. On the evening we meet, she has just arrived in the country and is preparing to attend Google’s end of year Christmas party in Lagos. When people come into the country, they hang out, she says jokingly, but “I am attending a Google Christmas party”.

“My friends are my colleagues, my colleagues are my friends.”

Our conversation eases into itself. Akinsanmi is telling me about her newfound interest in being talked about in the media and her wariness about divulging her personal life to the public. Why she agrees to speak to me, however, must be in line with a responsibility to share bits and pieces of her career journey for the benefit of a younger woman or girl who, like she was over two decades ago, may be in need of a female figure to aspire to. 

Despite having chosen a career path that now requires constant interfacing and interacting with other humans, Akinsanmi tells me she is shy, still gets jittery ahead of public speaking engagements and sometimes contends with “what we now call Imposter Syndrome”. But she compliments these curves with a palpable sense of self-worth and respectability that when she says “…absolutely think that Titi is brilliant” in response to how people perceive her after meeting her for the first time, there is no iota of doubt about that.

Inspire. 

Akinsanmi’s career spans a 19-year period in the technology sector beginning sometime in the mid to late 1990s.

“I came into technology because someone abused me,” Akinsanmi tells me. 

In her final year of university at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife, a classmate had just bought a new computer and in youthful excitement, while examining the new device, the young man had brushed her off saying she probably did not know how to use it. That stung. But also lit the fire that has burned for nearly two decades. It was the dawning of a new century, the age of technology. It wasn’t that she had no inkling of how computers worked but having majored in English in her undergraduate studies, her interaction with technology and computers hadn’t been consistent. So, during one of ASUU’s incessant strikes, she took to making chin chin, selling them to a staff community around which she grew as a teacher’s daughter and raising funds to pay for lessons in the basic computer appreciation as well as computer languages in Alagomeji, Yaba. 

Armed with both knowledge and zeal, it wasn’t long before she would meet late Professor Gabriel Olalere Ajayi who was the pioneer Director General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). Akinsanmi and a group of friends, including ‘Gbenga Sesan, now the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, with funding and support from NITDA embarked on a nationwide computer training programme. 

“The one place that really sticks to mind for me is Zaura Baba community in Kano, and getting into the village, training the kids both girls and boys, and seeing their eyes light up,” she recalls, a validation of the impact of the work that she was doing. 

To further this work, another initiative, Afara, which sought to shore up content production in Yoruba to inform what this new crop of technology adopters were interacting with, followed. 

“Afara, literally means the bridge, the bridge between my real life and the technology world,” she says. 

Paradigm Initiative had also begun taking shape at this time and Sesan ran with it. But there was a huge gap still with all the technology adoption and knowledge acquisition that she was spearheading or involved in at the time. Government policies, regulation and stance on technology were unclear, completely lacking and anything but progressive.

“I think that’s where I found my perfect space,” she says. 

Involve. 

Prior to this time, after serving as a news broadcaster in National Youth Service camp in Nonwa Gbai Tai, a local government in Rivers state, Akinsanmi ventured in media working as a reporter and sports presenter for Superscreen Television before she got offered a role at Mtech Communications PLC, a mobile content company that was founded by Chika Nwobi in 2000. 

“I recall the person who was my producer at Superscreen telling me; you have two paths in front of you. You can decide to go into television, you’d be very great at it but this technology thing, I don’t really know whether it’s going anywhere but think really hard about it.”

Unsurprisingly, Akinsanmi had no iota of doubt that she would have excelled in either fields. But she chose technology.

“I chose to sit quietly behind the desk with some engineers and be the one that ensured that the first VAS news platform that we had in Nigeria was working and had content every single day. That was my job.”

But on the side, Akinsanmi continued with her advocacy and activism work for the sector, volunteering to continue interfacing with government/regulatory institutions and driving technical knowledge acquisition and fostering the spread of the benefits of the digital economy. 

“I would forever be grateful to Mrs. Sherri Williams and Chika [Nwobi] for giving me the opportunity to be able to do what I did.”

She had wanted some time off work to attend a Youth Employment Summit in Egypt to continue her volunteer work in advocacy. This was in 2002 and led to a job opportunity in South Africa which she took up and lost 6 months after. 

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“They wanted somebody else. I didn’t fit the perception that they had of the work I was doing.”

They had expected “a big African woman” when she walked into the room during a brainstorming session, a young, petite, black woman whose work had clearly gone ahead of her to warrant being invited into the room. As soon as word got out that her contract had been terminated, Akinsanmi says she was inundated with offers from organisations who had heard of and respected her work ethic. 

That period was demoralizing. But it passed and a few years later, she was working as a project manager for a Dutch organisation with operations across Africa, Asia, Europe and North America where she continued to develop strategy around technology education and community building. She was only 22 and spent the next six years navigating the tough racial landscape of post-apartheid South Africa. 

“The one way you can get me broken, and I have been broken, is when you question my work ethic or my ability to be able to willingly share,” she adds.

Akinsanmi has since worked with global organisations like the World Bank Institute, the United Nations’ Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development and the Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and more recently, Google where she continues to work along the lines of education, growing the digital economy and influencing digital policy development.

Impact. 

Akinsanmi’s idea of impact is fluid, a sum of many little actions and moments of interacting and planting viable seeds in people, from her dress maker to girls, women and men from across the globe whom she’s had a chance to speak to or be involved with including Nigeria’s film industry.

“I love the arts, I love the theatre!”

For the last 8-10 years, Akinsanmi has been bridging the gap between budding and established screenwriters, producers and filmmakers to produce films that speak to technology and how it is impacting our lives today: issues around cyber criminality,  copyright issues, intellectual property, internet safety especially for underaged users. 

“Increasingly, I did a lot of partnerships with a group called Homevida based out of  Abuja and the 10th edition happened this past Tuesday.

“It’s about being able to take Nollywood and let it speak to real world issues in a concrete way so that it gets into the consciousness of people,” she explains. 

While Akinsanmi continues to shuttle around the globe, her family remains one of the critical stabilisers in her life. Her husband, a soft-spoken younger man, accompanied her when we met and came in and out during the hour we spent conversing to check in on her as she got ready for the Christmas party. They both met face-to-face in 2005 in South Africa having been introduced on Yahoo Messenger by a mutual friend. They had interestingly been in the same circles since ‘96 as students in Ife. They’ve been married for 14years. 

“The support system that I have is critical to excelling personally and career-wise and my husband is at the core of that. My children as well. My daughter says to me-mummy, I love that you work for Google. I wish you traveled less but I am very proud of you.”

Despite her constant traveling (think six countries and three continents in four weeks), Akinsanmi says she ensured her daughters, aged seven and four, were with her in the first two years of their lives taking off and landing wherever the job took her. 

“My motherhood is a nondivisible part of my ability to succeed and thrive in my career and in everything else,” she stresses. Now she actively provides similar support and creates safe spaces for women (and men) to do the same.

Inform. 

Akinsanmi is an avid reader, and education and information remain the bedrock of her work in the sector and this takes on a number of forms including intensive digital training drives, the painstaking work of policy advocacy and the ability to provide and convince someone on the other side of the table with enough information to rethink their stance on a certain topic or area. 

She remains quietly working on these areas, especially around internet freedoms in Nigeria and across Africa, police harassment in the sector among others.

“This social media bill has shown up in different veins over time.”

Across Africa, internet shutdowns and new digital taxation policies seem to spell doom for a continent still attempting to catch up with the rest of the world technology-wise. Still, Akinsanmi believes that we are living in much better times historically.

“At least they are aware there is a digital economy now and there is a need to connect with it,” she explains. 

So while the policies and regulations are not entirely progressive or fruitful, there is need to remain hopeful and double efforts in implementing already existing regulations, an area that is sorely lacking. 

Is she at the summit yet? She can’t see it. Akinsanmi believes in something she calls the multiplicity of paths and the idea that there is not one place an individual is destined to arrive at so there are more areas she hopes to pursue in time, including being a jazz lounge singer. 

“There’s a hunger inside of me and that hunger is not detrimental. That hunger is to be able to consistently inspire, inform, involve, impact even if all I’m doing, sincerely, is bringing up my four and my seven-year-old.”

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