When Edoka Idoko, opened the door to his office at Montgomery Street, Yaba, his confident smile and the glint in his eyes did not give away the rough patch he took to building a fintech company that has now raised $1.2 million and is about completing a $21 million Series B funding.
Ojireh Prime, a transparent and customer-focused bank that offers free credit cards as well as easy access to loans and innovative savings products, was built from ground zero. In 2022, the company raised $1.2 million from mostly individual investors who saw potential in the story of the company and were bold to place a bet on the company. Ojireh Prime has now transformed into a fintech company that services thousands of customers and is looking to expand its operations.
The story began in the commodities market where Idoko honed his skill in convincing customers to buy groceries like garri, beans, etc from retailers in the market. After signing up 54 customers who he counted on for frequent sales, Idoko decided to build a website. The site ojireh.com was built on a Samsung tablet with a faulty battery that only lasted 40 minutes no matter how much it was charged.
“We got someone to help us build the site in terms of basic knowledge. He taught me through a two-week process. We used that faulty tablet to build the site. Every time you have to connect the faulty tab to the light, lift the product online, clean the product out, and upload it from the backend. So it was more of an e-commerce site called Ojireh.com and we were focused on groceries,” he recalls, staring into the Apple laptop on the desk in front of him.
The breakthrough to a fintech idea came when the company decided to say “Thank you” to its 54 customers for keeping them afloat for 12 months. At the point of sending out the mail, Idoko was forced to reflect on a data point that showed the customers preferred to make payments using their bank transfers rather than go through the payment gateway the company integrated into the website. According to the customers’ feedback, their preference for transfers was due to fear of exposing their card details to cyber fraud.
The Ojireh team then decided to partner with a payment card processor like Interswitch to provide at least 100 Verve cards to the customers. The initial strategy was to give 54 cards to existing customers and use the remaining as a customer acquisition strategy. Adoption of the cards however grew beyond the team’s expectations. From 2018 to 2019, about 40,000 cards from the company were in circulation.
The remarkable twist was that the customers who got the cards did not use them for the purpose it was issued, which was e-commerce. They were rather being used for different purposes including budgetary control, utility payments, and savings. The company also discovered that the biggest demographic that wanted the cards were young people who wanted to control their spending habits. Because the cards were separate from their bank accounts, they could easily load money they wanted to use for the week on the card.
At this point, it became clear to the team behind the e-commerce platform that it was now dealing with two separate industries and needed to streamline its operations. This led to the birth of OjirehPrime Financial Services in early 2019.
But Idoko said his new company faced a conundrum; while OjirehPrime was a fintech company, there needed to be a clear understanding of which segment of fintech it was creating solutions for. This was also a period when there were no digital banks to take lessons from in Nigeria. The company ended up modelling itself after a digital bank in the United Kingdom which had a similar story to OjirehPrime.
It was during this period that Idoko also found himself homeless.
“One of my fond memories was in 2017 into 2018, while we were at the peak of trying to fine-tune our product, for four-five months I was sleeping outside. I was sleeping on the road. If you know Admiralty Way, I think there is a club there. I took advantage of the fact that was a busy environment. I will finish work, I am in my suit and my tie looking all corporate, in the night time, I go to the location opposite road. I pull my suit inside out and wear my trouser inside out, put my bag and my laptop under a tree and I will sleep off,” he said. The look on his face now is reflective.
The business was barely generating enough income to pay staff and retain the space where they called their office. The office had to move from one rental to another. The company had three staff members who also had different accommodation issues – the difference was they were not sleeping outside like their CEO. Idoko said he never revealed where he was laying his head.
“There was this uncompleted building at Jakande, I noticed that most of the agberos (touts) sleep there. I just walk in there to sleep. At 4 am, I am in the public bathroom at Ajah Market. I will shower and wear my clothes. I had this brown laptop bag I moved all my clothes to a dry cleaner at Thomas Estate, Ajah explained my situation to him and told him that every day I will find a way to come and pick up the clothes that I wear the next day. I will wear a suit for two days but I will take two shirts. The shirts are looking very clean and they cover every other thing. In that same bag, I had my toothpaste and toothbrush. I find anywhere to sleep,” Idoko said.
A breakthrough for the company arrived when it completed the acquisition of a microfinance bank, Solid Alliance Microfinance Bank. It was able to achieve this by raising funding from investors who placed a bet on the passionate drive of the company. Apart from a microfinance bank license that Solid Alliance already acquired, the acquisition doubled the number of users on OjirehPrime from 40,000 to 80,000. The funding also facilitated the launch of the company’s mobile app. The app download hit over 800,000 in 2022.
OjirehPrime is currently headquartered in the UK, a move that the UK government helped to facilitate. Idoko says the decision is primarily to position OjirehPrime for the future. The company’s vision is to build a global banking service for African Gen Zs. It has also seen data that shows Nigeria and Africa would play a pivotal role in the global economy by 2050 as a result of the exploding population growth.