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By Emma Broomfield
How old were you when you opened your first bank account? Tomilola Adejana was barely 20 years old, and had recently graduated from the University of Lagos, in Nigeria – where she studied human physiology – when she submitted the signed documents that would give her access to her first savings account and debit card.
A little over a decade later, and Adejana, now 33, is co-founder and CEO of Bankly, one of Nigeria’s fastest growing fintech startups, digitising cash for the “unbanked” – an estimated 45 million people in Nigeria who don’t have a bank account (Bankly’s strapline is “financial services for the underserved”). The business operates much like a traditional bank, but with fewer assets, revenue and operational costs – savings that can be passed on to the customer.
Adejana wouldn’t say opening her first bank account that day in 2007 was a life-changing moment, but it was certainly an experience she didn’t take for granted: for she was well aware that this simple piece of plastic in her purse, bearing her name and signature, was something millions of people in Nigeria, including a high percentage of women, didn’t have.
A lot happened in the intervening decade, and Adejana faced considerable challenges and prejudices to get to where she is today – but she’s happy that the company she set up is going from strength to strength. Bankly was founded in 2018 and officially launched in 2019, to cater to people in Nigeria – farmers and market traders, and women, those who deal in cash on a daily basis – who have little or no access to financial services. In March, Bankly closed a $2 million seed round, and the company aims to grow its customer base to 2 million over the next three years.
It’s estimated that more than 95 percent of transactions in Nigeria happen in cash. Alongside her co-founder, Fredrick Adams, Adejana puts her energy into Bankly, as they work towards digitising Nigeria’s informal thrift collections system, known as esusu or ajo. Adejana spotted a gap in the market when she saw that people without access to bank accounts often resort to traditional systems that are offline and unregulated. Traders and farmers save their cash earnings with a thrift collector responsible for disbursing funds. But this is open to serious problems, including the potential for fraud, security issues and limited access to cash.
“Financial independence is directly proportional to women being able to stand up for themselves, no matter your level of education.”
“Banking has come a long way in the past few decades, but not far enough,” Adejana says. She adds that her parents didn’t have the same opportunities to open a bank account that her generation does now. “Growing up, my father, yes, he had a bank account, but my mother never had access to own one,” Adejana says. “[My mother] wouldn’t have had anywhere to put her money,” and as a result, Adejana adds, wouldn’t have had any of the security a bank offers.
“The importance of financial independence for women is something I picked up in childhood,” Adejana says, over Zoom from her home in Lagos. “There’s a lot that would have happened differently for my mum, god bless her, if she’d had the opportunity to be more financially independent.” Adejana suspects that her mother’s autonomy, borne from managing her own finances, might have positively impacted on her own life, too. “But I have found a path,” she says, “that made sure I didn’t have to go through certain challenges that I probably would have gone through, or had to fight my way through, if I’d had that buffer, that support, started by my mum if she’d had the right financial independence.”
Bankly, during their research, found that women are often excluded from financial services. “There was a report recently by Stears,” Adejana says, “that shows that over the last five to ten years, the gap between the inclusion of women and the access to financial services is widening. Women have less access to finances.” For a woman, having access to financial services could mean that she is able to protect herself, protect her children, that she is able to save in a meaningful way. “Financial independence is directly proportional to women being able to stand up for themselves, no matter your level of education. Women are the focal point of some of our products right now.”
After university, Adejana gained experience in investment banking and completed an MBA in Sydney. But still, she has experienced sexism, ageism and elitism in her bid to set up Bankly, but is “fighting it every day”. Having a different perspective works in her favour. “I’m a researcher by background. I think about problems in a scientific framework.”
“You just have to keep proving yourself – it’s not necessarily about being the best person in the room – but showing that you can bring in the right team. To be able to show a clear understanding of the problem and that you have the ability to solve it.” Being research-driven, she adds, she has to consistently show that she’s thinking about things in a way that no-one else is. “I’m passionate about financial inclusion and Bankly in a way that nobody is passionate about it. I will give everything it takes. My early investors saw that. They knew I’d have to learn as I went along, but they wanted to give me a shot. They could see I was right for the job.”
Adejana’s first foray into fintech was in Singapore, where she was assigned to an investment firm who were looking to channel capital to Africa, specifically to Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. “Being the only African and Nigerian in the class, I was the one who had to look into the region.” She was tasked with looking into the data of people who had defaulted on their loans. “The question was there: do Nigerians just not like to pay back their loans, or is there a blockage that prevents them? I did some research, and one thing I started hearing was, ‘Oh, I was able to get a loan from the comfort of my shop – but it was easier to download money than it was to upload it.’ Then when it was time to pay back, because they were getting paid daily in cash, to digitise the money became a challenge. The closest place to pay it in could be miles away, which has an impact on their business. So, I started trying to solve that.”
Clearly, she had identified a problem, but she laughs, “I didn’t know I was going to be the one to solve it”. After returning to Nigeria, Adejana worked on a product that offered loans to small businesses, then later joined Accion Venture Lab, a program focused on products that foster financial inclusivity. But Adejana started going to local markets, to ask people about the challenges they faced. “I’d sit under the bridges, sit at taxi ranks and talk to people. It’s easy to get distracted from the impact side, and go after making money, but the idea started from sitting down with the people and understanding them.”
“It’s easy to get distracted from the impact side and go after making money, but the idea started from sitting down with people.”
Today, Bankly is hailed as the next frontier of financial services – but Adejana isn’t resting on her laurels. “We’re asking, how do we build digitally inclusive, economically viable communities in a way that impacts people’s lives directly?”
It’s questions such as these that mean Adejana was recently commended in one of LBS’s Real Innovation Awards, honouring organisations and individuals who have demonstrated unbelievable tenacity in the face of enormous obstacles in their mission to make the world a better place. Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS, said of her: “What impressed me most about your story is your boldness, your tenacity.”
Adejana credits vulnerability in the workplace, in part, for her success. “We underestimate the value that we get from the universe, the people, the environment, the partners, from employees, when we are vulnerable.” When it comes to vulnerability in leadership, it’s not one size fits all, she says. “You don’t have to burden your team with everything on your mind, but there are times when you need to consider the value of being honest and authentic. The vision becomes more important, more alive for them, when you share it.”
And what about the future? Bankly is clearly set to generate some impressive revenues over the years to come, but their mission is “not just about getting people to open bank accounts and chasing the money, it’s about asking, ‘How do we lift people out of poverty, how do we improve people’s lives?’ It was never something that I said, I’m going to go and fight this battle. I was just doing the work, asking the questions, and Bankly is the result.”
Photo by: ©Cartier