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Inside the Scandal at Flutterwave, Nigeria’s Fintech Champion

By Abubakar Idris

On April 4, Clara Wanjiku Odero, a Nairobi-based former executive at the Nigerian fintech unicorn Flutterwave, posted an explosive article on Medium. Odero, who until 2018 held the title of head of implementation at the company, making her responsible for its expansion into East Africa, alleged that she had been bullied and harassed by the company’s current CEO, Olugbenga “GB” Agboola, that she’d had to fight to get paid after she left the company, and that the company’s “negligence” had led to her being investigated by the Kenyan police.

Former employees allege bullying, mismanagement and serious administrative errors at the startup, which is valued at more than $3 billion.

“I really just wanted it [the Medium post] out there, so nobody could try to intimidate me,” Odero, now CEO and founder of Softbank-backed Credrails, an open-banking startup, told Rest of World.

Over the last four weeks, Rest of World has spoken with 12 former employees of Flutterwave, who said that Odero’s allegations are reflective of what they claim are recurring issues at the company, which is valued at more than $3 billion and boasts high-profile investors that include Tiger Global, Y Combinator, Avenir Growth Capital, Visa, and Worldpay from FIS. Most of the former employees requested anonymity so they could speak freely without fear of reprisals. They alleged that the company encouraged a culture of impunity among senior executives and behavior that included bullying and inappropriate relationships between managers and staff, that the company underpaid departing employees for their stock options, and that basic administrative errors were made with company documentation, creating serious legal problems for former staff. Some of the allegations were previously reported by local investigative journalist, David Hundeyin, on April 12.

In an emailed statement to Rest of World, a Flutterwave spokesperson said, “Many of the claims that have been recently made are false, recycled, or have been previously addressed.” The spokesperson also said that the company doesn’t comment on employee matters but that it has “robust HR policies and procedures that aim to create a safe and respectful workplace for all employees. We are always reviewing those policies, and we take action as and when appropriate.”

Industry insiders told Rest of World that the overlapping scandalous allegations at Flutterwave are likely to reverberate throughout Nigeria’s startup ecosystem. Not only is the company a poster child for the country’s thriving fintech sector, its CEO, Agboola, is a leading investor in African tech, with stakes in more than 25 startups.

Several venture investors in the Nigerian tech ecosystem, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there could be a significant fallout from the allegations, particularly with the Silicon Valley venture capital community that has driven so much of Nigeria’s investment momentum for the last half a decade.

Flutterwave was founded in 2016 by Iyinoluwa Aboyeji (who was its first CEO), Agboola (then CTO), and Adeleke Adekoya (chief compliance officer). The team had the credentials needed to bring in serious capital: Aboyeji had previously co-founded the coding jobs and training platform Andela, while Agboola had been on the tech and payments team at two large banks. They attracted early funding from companies such as Mastercard and New York–based CRE Venture Capital. Several funding rounds later, in 2021, Flutterwave hit unicorn status with a $1 billion valuation. The company is now present in 34 African countries, and its services are used by major clients, including Uber, Microsoft, and Wise. Flutterwave Store, a Shopify-type platform that allows small business owners to sell online, launched during the pandemic and now has a reported 30,000 stores signed up. In February, a series D funding roundbrought Flutterwave’s valuation to more than $3 billion, making it Africa’s most valuable startup.

After the company first launched, Flutterwave’s management went on a charm offensive to attract staff, former employees told Rest of World. But they also hired from within their circles, including, in 2018, Ifeoluwa Orioke, Agboola’s brother-in-law, who joined as CFO.

It was around that time that the workplace environment seemed to sour badly, according to people who worked at Flutterwave during this period. Seven former employees told Rest of World that Orioke was aggressive toward staff. They claim that he, along with other senior executives, felt able to act with impunity and to pursue sexual relationships with more-junior staff, including teammates, four former employees said.

Orioke was accused of making unwanted sexual advances to at least one female employee, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, and had consensual relationships with at least two others, one of whom reported to him, according to three former employees. “His philandering was widely known,” said one former developer manager at Flutterwave. Three former staff members allege that Orioke regularly lost his temper and screamed at his teammates. People complained to the CEO about Orioke’s behavior, sources told Rest of World, but it appeared that no meaningful action was taken.

“At one point, after I had left, I called GB [the CEO] and warned him that this guy [Orioke] was your problem,” one source, who left Flutterwave as a senior level employee a few years ago, told Rest of World. The source said Agboola responded, “I know what to do.” But Orioke remained in his position. “He’s not going to fire his wife’s brother and start family trouble,” another former employee said, referencing the fact that Agboola is married to Orioke’s sister.

Three employees who worked at the company at the time told Rest of World that Orioke was moved to the position of chief commercial officer (CCO) in 2019, after they were told investors questioned some of his financial practices. “The company termed it as a ‘promotion,’” one of the former employees said.

Orioke did not respond to Rest of World’s multiple requests for comments.

At least one other senior executive had relationships with more-junior staff, three ex-employees told Rest of World. Several former employees said that they were uncomfortable with these relationships. The company has opaque promotion and pay structures, they said, and they worried that people in romantic relationships with management might receive preferential treatment.

Allegations of harassment and concerns about relationships between staff at the startup surfaced publicly in late 2018 and early 2019, when a Twitter account, “Eko Minaj,” began posting allegations of improper conduct. The account’s holder later sent emails to staff and investors. Former employees who left before 2019 said the company’s management contacted them about the Twitter handle, looking for the source of these allegations. The allegations led Visa, which was due to lead Flutterwave’s series B investment round, to pull out, former employees said. Agboola acknowledged that an investor had pulled out as a result of the allegations in a recent interview with a local blogger, without naming the investor. The funding round had to be delayed by a year. Visa was named as an investor when the company did finally raise its series B, but not in subsequent rounds.

Visa did not respond to a request for comment.

Following the Eko Minaj allegations, in 2019, Flutterwave hired consulting firm KPMG to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and introduced a new whistleblower policy afterward. However, most people who spoke to Rest of World about this audit said they felt it was mostly cosmetic and that the findings of the investigation weren’t revealed to them. In a 2019 company all-hands meeting — a recording of which has now been widely shared on social media — Agboola told workers that he had reviewed sexual harassment policies of several big corporations domestic and abroad. “One big trend I saw was this,” Agboola said, “I think it would be very very funny that as a company, we’re also a moral judge.” He added that employees’ relationships are “their business.”

Former employees also alleged that around this time the company made significant administrative errors.

In 2019, the former CEO of the company, Aboyeji, who resigned from the board in 2018, was arrested by Nigerian police and spent a night in the cells, two people with direct knowledge of the incident told Rest of World. The police said at the time that the company had been accused of fraud, after failing to refund a customer card transaction; Aboyeji was arrested because Flutterwave had neglected to take his name off its official documentation. He was ultimately released without being charged.

Also Read: Flutterwave Valuation Up 200%, Hits $3 Billion; Becomes Largest African Startup

In her Medium post, Odero alleges a similar thing happened to her. She had been named as the contact person for the company’s bill payment service in Kenya and for its M-Pesa mobile money account. Even though she’d left the company in November 2018, she was still listed as its contact in May 2019, when she was approached by 20 people demanding refunds after they’d paid for access to sex parties in Nairobi via Flutterwave. When it turned out the parties weren’t real, the buyers started threatening Odero. Odero was later investigated over the parties by Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigation. The experience was terrifying, she said. Odero sued Flutterwave for negligence and emotional trauma and was awarded $2,500 in damages. She is appealing, seeking a larger settlement.

Odero also accused Flutterwave of withholding payments due to her after she resigned. Several other former employees told Rest of World that they had experienced difficulties with their employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) after they left the company. These stock options give employees the right to own equity in the company and are becoming a common way for startups to attract talent in Nigeria.

ESOP distribution at the company was not fair and impartial, alleged one former employee, and a majority of its workforce had no equity until 2020. One former manager who had a signed contract with the company that included ESOPs is currently suing the company for allegedly reneging on the agreement.

“GB is on every cap table … These days, if he isn’t on your cap table, other investors will ask you why not.”

Former Flutterwave CEO Aboyeji told Rest of World that he helped design the stock options program to reward early employees and advisors and approved some names to receive ESOPs. “I was made aware afterwards that the founders decided to do things differently, and some of the people on that list weren’t issued stock options after I left, but I don’t know why not,” he said.

Other former employees said that when they left, they were given three months to convert their stock options into full equity, but when they tried to sell their shares, they found their choices limited.

In March 2021, Flutterwave completed its series C round, led by U.S. hedge funds Avenir Growth Capital and Tiger Global. But the company also bought back equity from angel investors, former employees, and others who were leaving the company, according to six former employees. Former employees alleged that the company made low-ball offers for their shares — as low as $3.50 per share. A cap table spreadsheet — a list of investors’ shares in the company — seen by Rest of World showed that Flutterwave shares sold for around $20 during its series C round and were valued at $52.45 during its series D.

Former employees were also limited in whom they could sell to. In messages seen by Rest of World, when one employee asked the Flutterwave CEO if he could sell higher to a new investor, Agboola said he wouldn’t be able to get sign-off from the board. “As a company, we can’t just get someone on our cap table without board approval,” he explained to the employee. “Unless they will give us value as an investor, [the] board wouldn’t approve it.”

Instead, they were encouraged to sell to a company called Berrywood Capital, an early stage investment company. Two sources in the Nigerian investment community confirmed to Rest of World that Berrywood Capital is Agboola’s vehicle for investing in startups.

This has raised questions among investors of whether shares were purchased below their true value, which two investors who spoke to Rest of World referred to as a conflict of interest, also called self-dealing. “If they don’t disclose that the buyer of secondaries is an entity controlled by Agboola, it’s a problem,” one of the people said.

Agboola did not respond to a request for comment. But in an email to employees on April 20, reported by TechCrunch, he denied the allegations of impropriety and self-dealing. “The fact that the allegations of financial impropriety, conflict of interest and sexual harassment have been proved false or have already been reported, investigated and addressed by management matters less to me than the reality that these claims may have shaken your confidence in the company,” he told Flutterwave workers.

The accusations against Flutterwave and Agboola are significant not only because of the company’s scale and prominence in the Nigerian startup ecosystem but because Agboola is a serial investor in startups. As an angel and early stage investor, he has backed at least 25 other startups over the last two years, typically investing between $25,000 and $150,000 alongside major domestic and international VC players, including Tiger Global and Greycroft. His portfolio includes the stock trading app Bamboo, fintechs Mono and Sudo Africa, and media company Big Cabal Media, publisher of TechCabal, a Pan-African technology news outlet.

“GB is on every cap table,” said one former Flutterwave employee, who started his own company. “These days, if he isn’t on your cap table, other investors will ask you why not.”

Nigeria’s tech ecosystem is close-knit, and rumors of alleged mismanagement and misconduct at Flutterwave have spread widely through the community for the past few weeks. An acquisition deal being negotiated by Flutterwave and another startup is hanging in the balance as a result of the these reported allegations, as the dealmakers worry about a “doomsday scenario” where Flutterwave is unable to raise a series E round, said one person with knowledge of the discussions. “Most are just waiting to see what comes out next,” he said.

Some fear that the stories will confirm international investors’ prejudices against Africa’s technology sector, but others hope that the scandals could be a moment of reckoning for a sector where questionable management practices are far from uncommon.

“Telling these stories are actually important in how we grow our ecosystem into self sustainability,” Jason Njoku, CEO of IrokoTV, an African video streaming company, posted on Twitter. “Hot emerging market money [has] poured into Nigeria with zero checks & balances,” he added.

In March, 259,000 people tuned in to a Twitter Space that lasted seven hours, as tech workers highlighted their experience with bad management and abusive practices in response to an investigative report by TechCabal.

“I feel like we are in this phase of the tech ecosystem where our foundation needs to get stronger,” one Nigerian developer told Rest of World. “We have passed the flowery stage, and these are some of the things that have to happen, as employees at companies know they have some power.”

This article was culled from restofworld.org

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