Tope Alabi’s Journey to Building One of the Biggest Banks in the World
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Interviews - July 30, 2023

Tope Alabi’s Journey to Building One of the Biggest Banks in the World

Tope Alabi is the CEO of Afriex, a financial technology company specialising in international payments. With a background in software engineering and a passion for solving consumer payment challenges, Tope embarked on a journey that led him to establish Afriex and revolutionise cross-border transactions.

In this interview with Business Elites Africa, Tope walks us through the backend struggle he and his team had to surmount to put the company on the pathway to success.

How did your tech journey begin, leading up to starting Afriex? 

I started as a software engineer at various technology companies in New York and San Francisco. Through these experiences, I learned a lot about consumer technology and payments. And I always knew that I would start something, so then it was just about finding the idea that I was most qualified to build, and that was Afriex. In 2019, I moved back to Nigeria and was paying for my living expenses with money in my US bank account, so I had to use other remittance platforms to move the money. The transfers were so slow and expensive that I figured I could do it better myself.

How were you able to grow the startup to the point of attracting millions of dollars in seed Funding and acquiring a huge customer base? 

My co-founder, John and I got lucky. In the early days, we had a good idea and a bit of traction but needed more revenue to build a sustainable business. Then we got introduced to a startup accelerator called Ycombinator by our friend, Jake Kalmka. Jake was an alumnus of Ycombinator; one of the most powerful investors in Silicon Valley. They invested in companies like Airbnb, Stripe, Paystack, and Flutterwave. So once Ycombinator was onboard, it was much easier to convince other investors to back us as well.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while building Afriex, and how did you overcome them? 

When building a company, there are many challenges that you will face, the first of which is creating something that people want. No matter how amazing your technology is, if your product doesn’t solve a problem for lots of people, the company will not succeed. 

At Afriex, we went through this at the beginning because Afriex started as a trading platform before pivoting to international payments. Sometimes, you have to try a few things before you find something that sticks. Once you’ve identified what customers want, the next challenge is to scale the business, which includes many things like hiring, customer service, 3rd party vendors, accounting, security, regulation, and so on. 

Running a company is a full-time job. One of the key factors in overcoming these challenges has been good advice. I surround myself with like-minded people who are years ahead of me in entrepreneurship. Even if they don’t know every detail of my industry, they will likely have experienced situations that are similar to what I am experiencing and can give me their opinion or tell me what they did. I may or may not take their advice, but it’s always helpful to be able to borrow from the knowledge of others.

What key factors contributed to your success as an entrepreneur and as a company?

 I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. My mother had over eight different businesses while I was growing up, including a hair salon, selling cars, selling electronics, and a healthcare company that was pretty successful. So I like to think that entrepreneurship is in my blood. Besides that, I played sports as a child, which gave me the grit and the competitive spirit to want to win at anything I do in life. In addition to these early experiences, I did my best to surround myself with like-minded individuals as an adult. 

In the ever-evolving landscape of financial technology, how do you stay ahead of the curve and continuously innovate to meet the changing needs and expectations of your customers? 

My advice on this is to listen to customers and keep experimenting. Your experiments will give you the theory, and your customers will give you the reality; somewhere in between is where you will find the innovation.

Could you elaborate on the key technologies or innovations that Afriex employs to ensure secure and reliable transactions for your users? How do you address concerns around data privacy and cybersecurity? 

Afriex offers instant peer-2-peer payments to 7 countries around the world. You can think of it like an international bank app. There is not one key innovation to build this, but rather many innovations put together. And not only technological innovations but financial and marketing innovations as well. From instant ID verification to currency hedging and futures, to personalised messaging, we put together a bunch of technologies to make Afriex an amazing service, and we continue to innovate each day.

Have you failed at anything before, and how do you handle setbacks? 

Yes, lots of times. Prior to building Afriex, I had a phase where I started several startups or projects that did not work out. In one year, I started six different companies that all had some level of revenue or customers. These experiences added to my knowledge and helped shape who I am today.

What lessons or experiences would you like to share with aspiring entrepreneurs in the tech industry? 

My first piece of advice is to make something that people want. This is one of those things that is simple but hard to do. My second advice is to surround yourself with the smartest people you can find. This is a major indicator of success. My third piece of advice is to never give up. You will face many crises in business, but you must be mentally tough enough to overcome each one.

Looking ahead, what are your plans and vision for the future of Afriex? 

In the short term, Afriex will be the fastest way to send money across borders. No matter where anyone lives, you can pay them as easily as sending a text message. In the long term, Afriex will be one of the biggest banks in the world. We are proud of what we’re building and who we are building it for. Our vision is a world where anyone can build wealth no matter where they live.

In your opinion, what are the qualities a good entrepreneur must possess? 

Intelligence, creativity, grit, and enough emotional intelligence to keep your customers and employees happy.

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