How to lose $1 million and risk it all again

How to pursue your entrepreneurial dream after an epic fail? Ask OyaNow founder Abbas Dayekh


When Abbas Dayekh was 18 years old, he walked confidently into the reception of Sussex Place, London Business School’s main campus, and asked: “Where can I enrol?” Security told him he would have to wait a few years. Dayekh was in the wrong place. He was looking for Regent’s University London, where his parents had sent him to study a BA (Hons) in International Business with French. Dayekh, ethnically Lebanese, is from Nigeria, the grandson of a textiles’ industrialist. He was sent to the UK to gain experience, then return and add value in the family firm.  

Dayekh, CEO and founder of OyaNow, an app-based delivery service in Nigeria, chuckles at the memory. It’s not the first time he has taken a detour in his life, and it probably was one of the more pleasant – and less expensive - occasions. Without doubt, the most difficult was having to tell his mother he had lost all her savings – about $600,000 – that she invested in him to set up a Beirut branch of exclusive Parisian couture brand CLVII in 2012. “It was a friend’s shop. The customers are very high end; elite footballers and such. It’s got a specific image.

“I ran CLVII for about a year, and then the Syrian civil war escalated. Bombs started going off in Beirut. The Saudis and Emirati tourists – my customers – they went home and didn’t come back. I was stuck with a lot of expensive couture and no money”

I ran CLVII for about a year, and then the Syrian civil war escalated. Bombs started going off in Beirut. The Saudis and Emirati tourists – my customers – they went home and didn’t come back. I was stuck with a lot of expensive couture and no money. Between my mother’s savings, a friend’s investment of about $200,000 and the money I’d spent in that two-year period, I’d managed to lose $1 million.

‘Not a tech guy

While Dayekh, from Kano in Nigeria’s northern province, felt upset that he’d let down his mother, his first – and biggest – entrepreneurial flop did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for the entrepreneurial path and his zeal to succeed. In fact, he reflects that it spurred him on to eventually found OyaNow, an app-based logistics company helping businesses to reach Nigeria’s increasingly connected population of almost 200 million through reliable and fast last-mile delivery. 

This despite the fact Dayekh claims to be “not at all a tech guy”. He laughs: “I can’t code.” Dayekh has won the People’s Choice Award in the George Bernard Shaw Unreasonable Person category at this year’s Real Innovation Awards (RIA) in recognition of his dogged determination to succeed despite there being no good reason that he should.

When he had the idea for OyaNow, he was practically broke, having returned from Shanghai where for nine months he had been acting as an outsourcing broker for a few Nigerian clients he’d managed to secure. “They were small contracts and so the commission was small,” he says. “I had come back to Abuja to be with my mom and figure out what I was going to do with my life. I hardly had any money, but I still knew I was going to do my own thing.”

It occurred to him that consumer confidence in Nigeria was zero. “There was no trust in the market in Nigeria and not much customer care either. I thought about the success of food delivery services in Europe and America like Deliveroo and Uber Eats. Nigeria is probably one of the last countries in the world with such a big population that is still so underdeveloped. I saw that gap as a huge opportunity.”

But who was going to pay for the coders? And for the bikes? After all – this was Africa, not Europe. Banks don’t give loans to people with no assets. Dayekh was fortunate to have a network of international professionals and investors he cultivated from having gone to one of the best boarding schools in the world in Switzerland. A friend came through with some seed money and that paid for developing the app and the first motorbikes.

Right time, right product, right place

“I knew this would be a very different proposition from Deliveroo and Uber Eats. For one, we would need to offer full pastoral care to our riders – whom we call marketers – because they would be coming from all over the country. We would have to give them a place to live. They would be the brand. I needed to make sure that I did everything I could to empower them to be fully engaged in OyaNow and support the brand to achieve its key performance indicators of reliability, convenience and quality of service always.

“My uncles felt I had been born with a silver spoon in my mouth and that I would amount to nothing outside the family business. I had a burning desire to prove them wrong and show the world I could make it on my own”

OyaNow is an abbreviation of a phrase meaning “we are coming” in Nigerian slang English. It is widely understood across ethnic groups and tribes and was a perfect match for the operating model and for the cultural context. It soft launched in Abuja, before launching in Kano and then Lagos.

Starting off as a food delivery service about three years ago, OyaNow got an unexpected fillip from the Covid-19 pandemic which saw demand for its last-mile delivery service go through the roof. Now, it delivers almost anything that can be delivered and OyaNow has business relationships with many factories across the country.

The firm now has about 85 bikes as well as vans and other vehicles, microinvestors and is eyeing the next phase of expansion in other countries in Africa, but Dayekh can’t say too much more at this stage. The serial innovator also has business interests in medical marijuana and hemp in Malawi through a Swiss-based startup called Space Africa. Earlier this year, Malawi legalised the growing, selling and exporting of cannabis for medical use.

“Winning this award – the George Bernard Shaw Unreasonable Person Award – I love it! It pleases me more than if I was to be made President of the United States! It seems that I do new things all the time. But, in fact, there is a pattern. Africa is a difficult place to understand if you are not from here. Western businesses see potential in the economies here but are nervous to make a move because of the perception of risk and a lack of certainty.

I have realised that I can be that bridge that links Africa with the West. It is a fairly unique position to be in and I am just getting started.”


6 tips on entrepreneurship from OyaNow founder Abbas Dayekh
  • To be an entrepreneur really isn’t easy. You need conviction and determination. It’s maybe a cliché but you cannot succeed without it. It’s a lonely road. You will take risks. You will upset the status quo, and people don’t like that. People like it when you fail. Personally, once I become committed to something, nobody can stop me.
  • The most important business lesson I have learned was the four Ps: price, product, promotion and place. These are the key ingredients for success. OyaNow brings all four together perfectly.
  • Failure is learning and nothing to be ashamed of. Be honest with yourself about what went wrong and move on, trying not to make the same mistakes again.
  • Entrepreneurship can be tough on your mental health. There are daily concerns about cashflow, and whether you will have enough money to pay your bills; to pay your employees. Even now, I suffer from panic attacks. It can be very difficult to continuously have to project a façade of strength to your workers, investors and the market when deep down you don’t know where your next tranche of capital will come from to keep going. Be honest with yourself about whether you will be able to handle this pressure.
  • When you grow, empower your workers. They are your business. They will be the difference between success and failure in the end. Be humble as a leader and listen to your workers. Apologise for your mistakes. They must buy into your vision. Empower them to co-create that vision as it evolves.
  • Employ a disproportionate number of women in your management team. Women tend to be less self-centred and competitive. Coming from a patriarchal family business dominated by warring factions, I like to be surrounded by women, who tend to bring stability and lead for the greater good rather than personal gain.

The Real Innovation Awards is an annual ceremony celebrating business innovation around the world, hosted by the London Business School’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE). To see this year’s event taking place on 10 December 2020 and hear insights on ‘Innovating in Adversity’ sign up here.