Yele Oyekola is the Co-founder of Duplo, a business payments platform developing solutions for a “truly cashless world.” Yele graduated from the University of Reading with a BA degree in Economics and Finance. Prior to co-founding Duplo, Yele worked as a Financial Analyst at Equity Capital Solutions and GoldenTree Asset Management. He later went to work with the United Nations as an Economic Policy Officer.
He moved back into finance as the Product Lead at Carbon where he built and scaled the company’s Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) product. Yele co-Founded Julla, a firm that designs toolkits for managing back-office processes for businesses. At Duplo, he has played a key role in raising $1.3 million in a pre-seed round led by early-stage pan-African VC firm Oui Capital and $4.3 million in seed funding from Liquid2 Ventures, Soma Capital, Tribe Capital, Commerce Ventures, and other investors. Yele is aspiring to work as a part-time DJ.
University, Science or Arts?
I studied Economics and Finance at the University of Reading. My father wanted me to study Medicine but I was not interested in the subject. I had to figure out myself the course to study. I thought – I am very good at Maths and I love to create businesses and make money. A career in Finance seemed the obvious choice. I thought it would give me the opportunity of an exciting and solid career.
Which Secondary School Did You Attend?
What is the biggest lesson that you left the University with?
I studied at the University of Reading for three years. It seems like a very short time but a lot of my closest friends are people that I met in Reading. So, I would say the biggest lesson I learned from the University is the value of being amidst people who think big and want to do great things. I picked up a lot of skills and attitudes, both hard skills and social ones, that have been very useful and that are still very useful to me today. A lot of the people that I met at the University of Reading are doing great things today. Having big ambitions and thinking big is something I learned at the university.
Is there any teacher that you remember for being a big influence?
Not really! And that’s not the fault of my teachers. I was running a side business when I was at the university, so I wasn’t always in class. I did get good grades though. I was just always attracted to thinking of things that I could build an income from. But I remember Miss Jacobs from my primary school, Staff School, University of Lagos. I used to read and speak very fast and I thought it was a problem. This made me a little insecure. I was like seven or eight years old.
Her intervention really built my self-confidence and self-belief. Miss Jacobs encouraged me to become relaxed about the way I spoke and be comfortable with what made me different. And I think that was a very important lesson for me going forward. We all are different and unique, so it’s just important that we all love the things that make us different. I was a bit stubborn in secondary school.
I don’t remember any teacher making a big impact on me. I alternated between living in the hostel and going to school from home i.e., being a day student. I was selling meat pies to both the boarding and day school students. I also dabbled in making and selling shoes. I was able to get good grades because I took my examinations very seriously. I set everything else aside and studied really hard for examinations.
Did your parents influence or nurture this early emergence of an entrepreneurial streak and your eventual path as a businessman?
Perhaps subconsciously. My father is a businessman. I was always aware that he had investments in banks and other interests in the finance sector. He also ventured into real estate and a bunch of other things. But he never tried to do anything to make me an entrepreneur. I was just very attracted by the challenge of building something out of one’s imagination. I was very keen on entrepreneurship also because of just having that freedom to manage your time, to do things as you like. Basically, the freedom to chart your own course in life. The excitement of building something transformational from just an idea. I am also quite restless. I am always having and working on new ideas. But of course, having a father that was an entrepreneur may have subconsciously influenced me.
What did you leave home and what was the biggest lesson you took with you?
I think the last time I actually stayed at home full-time was when I was 13 or 14. I went to boarding school for the last three years of secondary school and after that, I went to university in the United Kingdom. So I was 15 or 16 when I went to the United Kingdom. So that was the last time I actually fully stayed at home. Since then, I have been living in different countries for work and traveling across the world for work as well.
In terms of the key lesson that I took away from home, I think it is encapsulated in something very important that my parents always told me, “never forget where you are coming from” and “don’t forget the son of who you are”. Two versions of the same message. Basically, always think about anything you want to do and don’t do it if there is any chance it is going to embarrass us. I think that lesson is very important. It reminds you of the obligation to uphold the family name and do things in ways that are moral, legal, and fair.
We will all confront situations where we need to make a call between cutting corners a little bit and securing an advantage and following the straight and narrow path. I am very grateful that because of the way I was raised and the lesson I took away from home with me, I have not found it difficult to make the correct or moral choices.
What was your first job?
Officially, my first job was working for a finance house, GoldenTree Asset Management, that had offices in London and Lagos as a credit risk analyst. My role there was to evaluate credit requests from enterprises and businesses. I did that for a year from their office in Lagos. They are like an investment bank sort of. That was my first experience in finance and my first real job.
And what would you say is the major thing you learned on that job?
I learned a lot. That is where I actually got exposed to how important it is to work very hard in the early stage of your career. And the reason I say that is because in your first job you have no clue or experience about what you are doing. The critical things I learned were that you have to work very hard so that you can learn as fast as possible, and you have to be eager and prove to people that you can take on more demanding tasks.
You have to be open to learning more and more when you are in any new position or situation. Right now, a lot of people get their first jobs and they expect things to be easy. They are not braced up for challenges, not willing to work very hard. When you work really hard, a lot of older colleagues would see you as dependable and reliable and would give you more work. That’s how people grow. I learned all this in my first job and it has served me very well over the years.
Two or three things you have learned in your career that they don’t teach in MBA programmes?
I have founded two companies. As a founder, your day is full of turns and twists, ups and downs. You learn how to navigate through each day. You learn how to manage people, how to quench fires that happen on a daily basis, and how to manage your own mental state as well. All these things are not taught in business school. You learn how to convince customers and convince investors. These are things you learn on the job. You hone the skills as you get more exposure. I am lucky I have learned very fast. By nature, I am very open to learning. I have also been around great people who have been very willing to show me the ropes.
What key problems does Duplo solve for SMEs?
Duplo, first of all, just to give context, is a business payment company. Duplo is the simplest way for businesses to pay each other. Business payment in Nigeria and much of Africa is still very clunky. It is very manual, based mainly on paper. Invoices aren’t standardized. The result is that payments are always delayed and there is a lot of opportunity for fraud and theft. This inefficiency often constitutes a very thin line between life and death for many of the businesses at the receiving end.
Duplo simplifies the way businesses collect payments from their clients and partners and the way they make payments to their suppliers and vendors. We are trying to make all this happen in real-time. And beyond that, we also provide tools to enable entrepreneurs or some owners to track payment flows within their businesses.
So, for Duplo, what we are trying to do for businesses are; automize the way you make payments and collect payments, simplify your payment flows, and of course just reduce the cost and the time it takes to make payments and reconcile payments. All this is very critical for businesses to survive. We launched less than a year ago and we are growing very fast. We have hundreds of businesses that rely on Duplo every day to make transactions and operations more efficient and secure. Business payment has been a sore point without a solution for many years. Duplo increases the potential of businesses to thrive.
What would you say FMCGs benefit from coming on the Duplo platform?
That’s a good question. When you think of the FMCG space right now in Nigeria most of those payments are in cash. For example, my grandmother is one of the biggest distributors of NESTLE in Nigeria in Osun State. She would send her Sales Reps to deliver goods to retailers and come back with cash. When those guys come back with cash, the cash is either stolen or the cash is not complete. This is a massive issue because every single day, she is losing money to lies and fraud.
So, Duplo is focusing heavily on the distributors, the guys delivering goods to and taking payments from the retailers for the deliveries. We are digitising the payments and cash flow. We are reducing the use of cash. Cash is cumbersome and risky to move around. Secondly, we reduce the fraud and theft that are involved when transactions are cash-based. Lastly, Duplo facilitates immense transparency and visibility and hence helps everyone involved to make informed decisions. This is why we have been able to grow so quickly.
How did you get the inspiration to start Duplo?
I worked in the United Nations and my job there was to advise governments in Africa on their economic policies. I got to see how it is difficult to grow an economy where transactions are largely based on cash. I then moved to my first FinTech business which was enabling merchants to thrive in East Africa. And then I moved to Carbon, which is one of the biggest digital banks in Nigeria. And all these experiences of course morphed into Duplo.
But the main idea for Duplo came about when I went to see my grandmother last summer. As I have mentioned, my grandmother is one of the biggest distributors for Nestle in Nigeria. Even as a kid, I could see the enormous effort she put into running the business. Tracking payment and preventing theft are big problems. I went to see her in May or June last year and I could see that she was still struggling with the same issues after 20 years. I saw a massive opportunity to start a payment platform that could solve a big problem for thousands of people like my grandmother across Nigeria. That’s where the idea for Duplo came from.
We launched in August and it’s just been massive growth ever since. We are growing very fast and that is because we are solving a very important problem in our continent. Theft is less of a problem in advanced economies because the formal infrastructure exists that limits the opportunity.
What key business insights have gained as a FinTech founder?
A lot. To be successful, you have to solve a very big problem in a very big market. Without this, I wouldn’t say that you are wasting your time but success just becomes harder. I think there are three important things for a successful business: one is a big market, two, a very important problem, and three, a very good team. Those good things have to be in place for growth.
If you are building with the right people, the days can be very long and very difficult with a lot of ups and downs, but you will succeed because you are working with the right people. You should also be solving a problem that you actually care about. There are days you are with your family, but then you have to go to your laptop to work. You have to be really passionate about what you are trying to do to sustain the focus and discipline. But most importantly, you have to take care of your health. You can’t function if you are not in top shape mentally, physically, and emotionally. Taking care of those things is very important. For me, starting and running a business is the most rewarding thing anyone could do. But honestly, it is not for everyone.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I only read biographies, and for some reason, I like biographies about American presidents and scientific innovators. I don’t know why. My favorite biography would probably be Teddy Roosevelt’s. Roosevelt is one president that I admire a lot. I read biographies of entrepreneurs, innovators, and politicians. That’s how I ease the stress of work.
What type of music do you enjoy?
I love music. In fact, my goal now is to be a part-time DJ! What I listen to depends on the country that I am in. So now I am in Nigeria, and I am enjoying Afro-Beat and Amapiano. There were times when I listened a lot to folk and hip-hop, but I think what’s been stable for the past few years has been Amapiano and Afrobeat. I can’t go a day without listening to both genres. I hope to realise my goal of becoming a part-time DJ very soon.
Where do you like to holiday in Nigeria and abroad?
I love living In Nigeria but I have not been to a lot of places in the country. And I haven’t been around for a while. I would probably say Abuja because I go there a lot. So, I would say that Abuja is my favourite place in Nigeria. But my favorite place in the world would probably be Cape Town. I used to go there a lot for work. It is one of the most amazing places I have been to. They have almost everything- a nice seafront, mountains, nice wineries, etc. The food is great as well. So, my favourite destination in the world Is obviously Cape Town. I lived in Nairobi for about two years and that was also fun. I like to travel the continent. I have been to thirty- two countries in Africa and they are all very nice places but Cape Town remains my favorite place.
Where do you see Nigeria in the next 10 years?
Where I see Nigeria in the next 10 years depends on the type of leaders we elect next year. Of course, I wouldn’t say my choice for president, but I know the person we elect as the next president is incredibly critical to our growth. So hopefully we elect the right person next year.
Where do I see the African FinTech landscape in the next 10 years?
Honestly, this is just the beginning. I think we will probably triple or quadruple what we have now in the next 10 years. And the reason is that we are seeing more businesses becoming more comfortable with digital or going digital. Also, central banks across the continent are putting measures in place to ensure that startups can thrive. We are seeing more consumers going on the internet, and the reason for that is data is cheaper and mobile phones have also become cheaper. Many things are moving in the right direction. And of course, we have the biggest, fastest-growing population in the world as well. So, all these factors are making it seem like we are just at ground zero and the potential is incredibly massive. I am personally very bullish and grateful for being able to be in this space.