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I started business at 12 – Bayo Adelaja

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Bayo Adelaja has a B.A. (Hons) in English Literature from Durham University and recently finished her MSc in Culture and Society at the London School of Economics (LSE). She worked at the House of Commons as a parliamentary assistant. She also spent some time volunteer work and has had experience as a policy researcher at a leading public affairs company in London.

Adelaja was named December 2016 Entrepreneur of the Month by AFFORD UK (Africa Foundation for Development.) She  is the founder of Do it Now Now (DINN), an Africa and Diaspora-focused fundraising platform which provides research-based tactics to grow communities and raise funds.

In this piece, Adelaja tells The Interview the work of DINN in promoting entrepreneurship and development in Africa.

Please share a little of your background with us.

I spent most of my formative years in a different country to my home country, so it has shaped my life. It means that my view of Nigeria is more pan African than it would have been otherwise. And it also means my communication with Nigerians who have lived there all their lives is a little bit more interesting because I get to say what I have experienced, but I get to learn a lot more about their experiences and filter them through my own. I know that happens with everybody, but the difference that we see is, because I don’t live there, I sort of kept a part of my life here in London and that was it. As I got older, as we are seeing more openly now with the election of Trump and with Brexit happening and people being a lot more open about things than they previously did, you can’t forget that ‘otherness.’ I have always called it otherness – people treat you well but you’re not quite part of the club. You’re invited to the party but no one asks you to dance. It’s that feeling. I didn’t know what it was until I got to university.

I remember in school one day. It was towards the end of term and everyone was a bit idle. One of my classmates said, “I heard this really funny joke, I heard this really funny joke.” Everyone was interested because he was the funny guy. As was often the case, I was the only black child in the classroom. The boy turned to me and said, “Oh no, she probably won’t like it though.” My teacher, in his infinite wisdom, asked me to turn around and close my ears for a second. And I did! I was a kid and a teacher pleaser. After a while, I heard muffled laughter and I turned around and just kept sketching. That was the first time I really recognised that otherness. That huge experience stayed with me. There were other experiences where people would yell the n-word and such like. I would walk down the street, wondering what they were doing with their lives and how their insult was supposed to affect me since I didn’t know them.

These kinds of experiences kept building up and I got into university. This was a space that was no longer a small town but everything was exactly the same. That’s when I realised that this isn’t my fault and it isn’t my responsibility to make people realise that not all Nigerians are scammers. That was the stereotype at the time. Every single time it happened, I was supposed to find the references funny, and it’s not funny because I didn’t make that happen. I spent a lot of years being irritated by the portrayal of Nigerians and Africans in Western culture. In that frustration, and finding that they are so remote from the experience that they don’t even realise what they are doing, I realised that the problem wasn’t actually them; they have no idea why this was wrong. It was us. We have allowed those situations to happen. There is not enough representation of African people in western spaces. It is only recently that Nigerians, like Chimamanda Adichie, have risen up and similar people, and Adichie’s feminism speech is taking so much flight. She is creating that space where you can be in your African print and be on CNN and Channel 4 and all these news outlets and can have your voice heard in a most articulate way and no one can say, “but she’s African.” That’s kind of what I’m trying to create – through entrepreneurship, through initiatives elsewhere, to encourage people to bring their best selves to the things of Africa. That is what Do it Now Now (DINN) is, in the bigger sense of it. Take those passions, take those ideas and the barriers that have stopped you from moving forward such as, “it’s extremely difficult to work in Africa; corruption will eat all my money; I have not lived there since I was young; I don’t know if my idea is strong enough”, all of these things that stop us moving forward is what DINN is intending to break down. One of the methods we use is crowd funding, because the biggest stumbling block people mention is the availability of money. Technically, if you don’t have the money, we will do everything we can to resource you with the tools you need to raise the money. We do it by providing a platform and providing a lot of help. We essentially took the crowd funding platform as it exists and looked at it in terms of how would African people and Africans in Diaspora respond and what do they want to see?

African people, as much as we are tech able, we are not always tech people. We enjoy community; we want to see your face; we want to know who you are before we give you our money, and that is a part of our entire being. So, we are looking at creating an experience that fits into who we are as a community, one that doesn’t just transpose what other people are doing in other parts of the world and expect it to work in our own space.

Did you work before setting up DINN?

Oh, I’m currently working – doing an internship at the London School of Economics (LSE) and studying for my second Master’s degree. It is what informed me of the fact that intellectual resource is our problem. And in my research, I found that the reasons many things don’t work in Africa is because no one cares about the community they are serving; they only care about the problem itself. If we use HIV as an example (not all organisations are like this), they focus on HIV as a disease in itself, try to cure it, but they don’t care about the people that are stigmatised; they don’t care about the people not allowed to talk about sex education; they don’t care about the people not being provided with the right resources and the right tools. If you don’t care about the people and you care about the disease, then you are missing the entire point. That’s what we are - a tech platform - but we are very people-focused.

How did the journey lead you to found DINN? Did you just one day make a decision and say you’re going to start?

While I was at the university, I started several businesses. One was a community for creative people; another was one for writers, yet another was an events community. These all enjoyed varied levels of success. They were successful to their own merit but I didn’t have enough money to take them forward. I then reached out to people who were willing to invest in me. One of them wanted me to quit university, but I told them that my parents wouldn’t want me to do that. Plus, I wasn’t that inspired by the idea; I was just curious to see if people would buy into it. When someone offered me enough but said I should quit school, I thought that wasn’t the way I wanted to go.

Another person said a lot of very nice things. We spoke over the phone for about six to seven months, emailing back and forth about my idea, what I was doing, exactly how I was building it, what I was going to do and how it would fit into their business, because the reason that we started talking was because they were going to buy my business from me. At the end of the seven months, I was left stranded in the middle of north London, walking up and down, having realised that this person had been stealing my ideas and presenting them as his own to their company. In that moment, I got very angry. I then stopped all businesses, all entrepreneurship which I have been passionate about forever. My mum will tell you that I started my first business at 12 years old. I stopped at this point because I didn’t know how to move forward, all the ideas that I had. I quit. I refused to bring anything forward as I was fearful that someone would hurt me in the way that I had been hurt previously.
But when it came down to it, having experienced so many things - people shouting at me in the streets, growing up and kind of recognising at that point, sitting in the lecture room, and having the revelation that, “this is the reason, this is the reason.” We need to represent ourselves the way we want to put forward, so how can I contribute to seeking that solution?
It wasn’t crowd funding in the beginning; it was a lot of different things. I had a massive wall of ideas and different concerns and things that I wanted to create that would help people. I wasn’t sure whether I needed to create them or support someone else’s efforts. In that year of frustration and search, I found that none of them existed in the way that I wanted them to, so I just decided to start. That took a lot of guts for me, because I was so fearful to start, having been burnt so badly in the past. So that was the transition. I came to my own self-realisation and I asked, what problem exactly am I trying to solve? The fact that people in Africa or of African descent do not necessarily have the ability to provide their best selves to the world. And that is why everything I do is trying to create. DINN just happens to focus on the entrepreneurship side of that.

Would you say that DINN has been well received and that the response has been positive?

The response so far has been fantastic. Having said that, the majority of my audience are people in Diaspora and in my general demographic. 2017 is going to be the year that we are tested. We want to reach out to people who don’t necessarily share the same ideas. Our team’s average age is 26, and I say to everyone on the team, “Make sure that everything we do is reaching 18-year-olds. They might not be at that age but they will at one point be in our position. We need to constantly make sure that we have their backing, know what they want and how they want to express it.

On the topic of youth, this is an excerpt of words credited to Professor Wole Soyinka: Where did we go wrong? Wake up Nigerian youths! Awolowo was 37 years, Akintola, 36, Ahmadu Bello, 36, Tafawa Balewa, 34, Okotie-Eboh, 27, and Anthony Enahoro, 27, and they led the struggle for Nigeria Independence after the death of Herbert Macaulay. Only Zik was 42 at the time. Why is it that this age bracket is today still collecting pocket money from their parents? Why is it that this age bracket is today so docile? Why is that this age bracket is today incapacitated, unwilling, unable and incapable of asking questions?” What are your thoughts on this?

I will say that age brings a rosiness to memory that should be checked at the door. I think when you get older, and this is not being ageist, there is this recognising the fact that he is someone that has accomplished so much. It is possible to disregard the struggle that came with identifying what it is that you are passionate about and identifying your own genius when you have reached a stage in your life that you are already recognised for your genius. To disregard young people’s struggle is entirely insensitive to the daily life of people who are 20, 30, 18 or 12. To say that, in a world where we are much more connected to the greatness of other people - because we see it every day on social media, we hear it on television, we see people doing great things; we are a generation that is more inspired than anyone else by the accomplishments of our peers that we need more people who are older than us saying, “don’t worry, you will do better. I was 20 once and look at me now.”
I suppose in 50 years there will be “thinkers” and “social historians” who utilise the achievements of 10 individuals in my generation and hold them as standard for the future generations. 10 people do not represent the struggles of an entire generation, they never have and they never will. Hindsight is a powerful tool that when used irresponsibly, negatively affects one’s ability to comprehend the present as a formation of everything that has happened in the past, not just the things we would rather remember.

There are many that remain cynical about those who remain in the relative comfort in Diaspora, essentially giving back from a safe distance. Shouldn’t more people aim to move back to their home countries, reduce the brain drain and help the growth from within the continent?

I think it depends on what you’re trying to do. This is a very frequent theme in conversations and panels that I’ve been on. The fact that you are trying to start an African charity that serves African people but you live in a different country, or your charity is based in a different country, doesn’t mean you cannot achieve positive results. The way I see it is that no one must live 100% of the time in a country to know that country and love that country. I think it depends on exactly what you are trying to do. If you are trying to do something in a very specific community and you are not willing to partner to do that, you do need to be there, you need to understand it completely. It’s a very individual question. I think I will just answer for myself and what we are trying to do. In the coming year, we will have representation on the continent in terms of our own team, our own DINN employees that will be based in the countries we are trying to service. While I’m not moving back myself right now, I will have representation there. Forgive me; I think it’s a belligerent statement to make: I don’t understand why you can’t advocate for something and not be there. It does come from ‘they’re living that cushy life’ sentiment. I think people need to re-evaluate the reasons behind that. I will say that if someone is trying to run a hospital or a farm from afar, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The way we evaluate impact at DINN is that the companies that we work with must have some positive social impact on the continent: who are you hiring and where are you shipping to? Are you giving African people an opportunity for economic empowerment? You don’t need to live on the continent to give people an opportunity.

How do you stay in touch with, and connected to the pulse of Africa, given that you operate from outside the continent?

Last time I went to Nigeria was last Christmas and, unfortunately, I’ve had some quite tight deadlines, so I couldn’t go this Christmas. The way we connect with people in Ghana and Nigeria is by partnering with organisations that are already there and have those direct communities that they can work with. We will work with incubators and accelerators already on the continent - women’s groups, NGOs, essentially anyone that has a network of people doing something along the lines of what we are interested in and just looking for an extra way to support their community. Our crowd-funding solution is something that a lot of people can plug into. We are building something that is specifically for an African community and tailoring every single solution to African people based on the partner we are working with in that community.

Where do you see DINN in the next few years? What’s the big dream?

We would like to have chapters in every African city. By chapters, I mean versions of our offerings, which are events, resources, tools, up-skilling market research as well as the tech platform, to have all of that duplicated and transformed in such a way that it situates itself perfectly in the community that it is in; that’s my dream – to be able to move exactly what we are doing and have such strong principles that we could go into, say Zimbabwe, and into a couple of cities there and say, “You’re going to find incredible entrepreneurs and we are going to put them through our programme which is called Start Up for Africa.” At the end of that programme, we are going to make sure that we help them get to the place they are trying to go. There are incredible incubators doing that right now, but I want to see something that is uniquely African; because at the moment (not to say anything bad about what others are doing) what is happening right now is that the metric of success is whether or not you make it with the top boys of Silicon Valley or the London Roundabout, for instance. I want to put us in a place where we have our own Africa, we have our own metric, our own communities and our own cultures. What works over there is great for them. I want to be part of the story that is creating something for us. That’s where we are heading.

Who do you admire and why?

I think I will disappoint a lot of people by the way I answer this question. I don’t necessarily admire specific people. I have things that I see that I am in awe of – when you see something that is so different, that you can see the before and after. That ability to come into a space and completely change it for the better - I am inspired by the ability to do that but not necessarily the person that did it, because people are people at the end of the day. Everyone has their flaws, their unfortunate opinions; everyone makes mistakes. I don’t personally like to focus on the people; I like to focus on the thing. I’m inspired by the things people have accomplished.

Aside from DINN, what do you do to unwind?

I am a music fiend. I love all kinds of music. I have music on all the time. I also love Ted Talks. That’s pretty much my entire social life. I’m very boring when I’m not working. My work is the thing that I enjoy the most. That’s when I am most in the flow.

 

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