The importance of critical reporting to Nigeria’s burgeoning tech ecosystem

Toxicity in the youth-led space can only be eliminated by spotlighting it

Reckonings have a way of altering pre-existing perceptions. Prior to a few months back, you’d assume it’s all rainbow and roses in Nigeria’s burgeoning tech ecosystem, with all the consistent news of investment rounds and increasing valuations. In addition to being proof that individuals and startups are creating valuable products, the influx of investments tacitly inferred a wholesomeness to the Nigerian tech space, with better practices and healthier work cultures than you’d normally find in Nigeria’s corporate environment.

As the news cycle of the couple of months have shown, it’s that this de-facto perception is not wholly true and a reckoning seems to be in full effect. In late March, TechCabal published an article alleging workplace toxicity at Nigerian payroll startup Bento Africa, furnishing the story with quotes from former staff and pictorial evidence. “Bento took everything from me—my sense of humanity, sanity, confidence, and trust,” a declaration from an ex-Bento staff opened the story, and the following couple of thousand words peeled back layers to the horrible circumstances employees had to endure.

With personal accounts from several former Bento staff, and additional pictorial evidence, the piece details gross verbal abuse, gas lighting tactics, undue pressure, abrupt termination, and more, directly perpetrated by co-founder Ebunoluwa Okubanjo. Corroborated by a few current Bento employees, these accounts merged into depicting a workplace culture that was detrimentally suffocating, harmful to mental and physical health, and even stripping staff of their respect. Immediately it was published, TechCabal’s piece generated a significant amount of shock, mostly because the Bento allegations presented a wildly differing reality to the neo-corporate ideals many young Nigerians expected to be norm in the tech sector.

In Nigeria’s corporate space, the rigours of being an employee are an open secret. From delayed or withheld salaries, to late closing hours without overtime pay, to enduring tongue-lashings, and more. Companies in Nigeria are infamous for consistently putting their employees through the ringer, testing the limits of their physical and mental wellbeing in an environment that’s already riddled with debilitating factors. Within this longstanding cesspool of unfavourable circumstances, Nigeria’s blooming tech space seemed to be much rosier, partly with the naïve expectation that younger corporate leadership would be much more sensitive to wholesome workplace culture.

“It’s disappointing but not surprising,” Systems Analyst and curator of Tech-focused newsletter, Get.Africa, Chiagoziem Onyekwena tells NATIVE of his reaction to TechCabal’s Bento story. It’s a stark opposite of general reactions because many were disappointed and surprised, but Chiagoziem, who’s been keen on the evolution of the tech ecosystem in Africa for years, has seen past the rose-tinted veil long before now. “I think, sometimes, when people think of tech companies, they think it’s better than a non-tech company of the same profile,” he adds. “These are companies that are barely few years old, several don’t have proper governance structure and they’ve only optimised for growth over having a safe work environment.”

That last statement is a perfect encapsulation of the Bento allegations, where Okubanjo expected 24-hour availability from all employees, and tested the boundaries of draconian employer behaviour within the framework of productivity and business upscaling.

Amidst the shock and disgust to Bento’s workplace situation coming to the light, a wider, trickle-down effect followed almost instantly. Within hours of TechCabal‘s breaking story, there were tweets and tweet threads from many in the Nigerian tech ecosystem detailing horrific experiences while working under Okubanjo-type bosses at startup companies, some explicit, others thinly veiled, and even more subliminal ones. It even culminated in a Twitter space, partially titled #HorribleBosses, where dozens vocally shared their experiences. Within a day, we all came to realise that the norm is far from our prior perceptions.

There’s a craze around tech in Nigeria, and for good reasons. The last few years has seen the advent of unicorns, companies valued at millions of dollars, and even lesser-valued startups, creating and iterating exciting products for local, continental and global use. There’s also the fact that this outstanding emergence is being effected by visionaries and highly-skilled experts across varying tech aspects, with a playing field that continues to widen to accommodate new, keen entrants, while keeping up with global tech standards. It’s even more impressive when you factor in the Nigerian factor, where the government is consistently looking to squeeze, rather than aid, a growing sector of its economy—largely because it’s being spearheaded by youth.

In all of this, it’s easy to understand why the presumptions of workplace culture didn’t take toxicity into account. Because this reality is just being given ample attention, it’s difficult to determine if the overall workplace culture is the case of a few bad apples amidst many good, wholesome companies, or vice versa. That sort of specificity allows for proper perspective, but it doesn’t strengthen faith when a unicorn-level company is facing its own share of allegations centred on corporate leadership.

On April 4, former Flutterwave employee Clara Wanjiku Odera published an article alleging bullying and intimidation by the company’s CEO, Olugbenga Agboola, detailing a situation that’s lasted for 3-plus years. Odera, who’s now the CEO and co-founder of Credrails, alleged that her exit from Flutterwave in late 2018 was met by hand-wringing tactics by Agboola, who she claimed refused to “have my dues settled,” blocked subsequent job opportunities, accused her of being behind a social media account spreading rumours of sexual harassment, and negligently roped her into fraud investigation.

Odera’s article was published a day after an interview with Agboola was published, where, amidst talking about Flutterwave’s growth into a $3 billion startup, he referenced Odera’s lawsuit which she filed during her exit. The allegations were, again, shocking. After all, this is the most valuable start-up in African tech, with a pristine outward image. However, that was just the drizzle before the torrential downpour.

Just over a week later, journalist David Hundeyin published a lengthy investigative piece, alleging fraud, perjury and insider trading. Hundeyin, who’s (in)famous for reporting and digging into contentious, complex scenarios with a sensational and authoritative (or gonzo, if you like) verve, paints the portrait of a corporate leadership that’s comfortable flouting the rules, with Agboola as the main culprit. The pillars to Hundeyin’s story are four former Flutterwave employees who serve as his sources, while his observations and inferences tie the story together.

While Hundeyin’s approach and reporting ethics were called into question, his piece was shocking and disappointing. It didn’t help that Flutterwave kept silent in the immediate aftermath of the piece reaching public eyes, which many took as a tacit admission of guilt, if not on all the allegations—at least some. If Odera’s article was an oil stain on the immaculate image of Flutterwave, Hundeyin’s was only driving this image further.

So far, the only response from Agboola and the Flutterwave brass is an internal memo to its staff, which was made public by Techcrunch, and the publication also (rightly) flagged the memo’s inadequacies. Just before that, Iyin Aboyeji, co-founder and former CEO of Flutterwave, granted an interview with TechCabal, attempting to clear up his role at the unicorn start-up and the circumstances surrounding his exit, which Hundeyin had roped into his story as both a co-conspirator and one of the indicators of Agboola’s aversion for being checked. However, Aboyeji’s interview did little to assuage the disappointment of those observing, with many even pointing at the far from rigorous questions he faced during the interview.

As a footnote to the interview, TechCabal did the much-needed diligence of publicising its working relationship with Aboyeji, Agboola and Flutterwave. It framed the complicatedness with which the publication has had to cover this situation. While Hundeyin has turned his investigative piece into a personal crusade—taking it to typically obnoxious extremes no less—TechCabal’s affiliation with Flutterwave puts them in a tenuous situation, making it difficult to be as thorough and critical as their Bento Africa story.

For a long while, the media surrounding Nigeria’s burgeoning tech ecosystem focused on overtly positive things like fundraises, valuations, interviews with founders and experts about products and new strides, helping to create that utopian image. Those investigative stories from earlier this year have helped to embolden critical balance. Right now, you’ll easily find articles digging into layoffs and salary cutbacks at start-up firms like 54gene and Alerzo, and reports on frozen bank accounts belonging to Flutterwave, signalling more attention to the grimier details in the Nigerian tech sapce.

“I like the fact that we’re discussing more than just valuations and fundraises,” Chiagoziem says. “We’ve been judging the tech space by just one data point, which is how much they’re raising. We’re not using other data points like whether they’re profitable or, in this case, whether they’re actually sane environment people are working in. We shouldn’t just been glory-singers and praise ourselves all the time, if not we’ll create an echo chamber.”

Juxtaposing the stances of TechCabal and Hundeyin, with relation to the Flutterwave situation, Chiagoziem acknowledges the complexity of this type of media coverage, as the intensity will vary based on structure and relationships—especially in a space that’s still relatively small. “I think TechCabal is stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he says. “How do you objectively report on your main sponsor and some of your investors? I actually empathise with them; for me, it’s reduced the standard of what to expect. It’s bigger than [these scenarios], and more about the models that these publications and publishers operate.”

At the beginning of this week, news came out that Eke Eleanya Urum, co-founder and CEO of stock investment app Risevest, had stepped down from his position due to ongoing investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct and non-sexual impropriety levelled against him. It isn’t the first time Eke has been in the news for allegedly unsavoury behaviour: In 2021, he was accused of fostering an unhealthy workplace by a former Risevest employee, and he was accused of sexual harassment by an unknown person during the Bento brouhaha. (He copped to the former and vehemently denies the latter.)

TechCabal was amongst the publication that broke the Risevest news, including quotes from Eke in their article, and also citing similar news from recent months. However, there were complaints on social media that the publication had omitted the Flutterwave situation in the roundup, even though it did publish news of Flutterwave’s ongoing money laundering accusations in Kenya. While some are clearly looking for a pound of flesh, or hoping to see a breakup in relations between TechCabal and Flutterwave, it’s also an indicator that concerned youth are looking for wholesome accountability, rather than the eye service that used to dominate the tech news cycle.

“In that regard, I still think critiquing is good,” Chiagoziem say of TechCabal‘s position and tech-related media in general. “I think criticism helps strengthen companies’ corporate structure, and even individuals. If you realise you’ve made mistakes in your part, then maybe in your second coming you’ll do better.”

To his latter assessment, Chiagoziem references Favour Ori, former CEO and founder of Wejapa, who was found guilty of underpayment, extortion and breach of contract, after some of the freelance developers he was working with outed his underhanded practices. These days, Ori is the CEO of payments start-up PayDay, which secured a $1 million pre-seed fund last year and, shortly after, joined operational investment company, Techstars, which has 15 unicorns under its umbrella. It’s the sort of redemption story that sets a precedent for the healthy effect of critical reporting and observation.

“Bento might end up being a good example, there’s been some restructuring at the top and they’ve put some people in there to improve work culture,” Chiagoziem says. Applying to the general playing field, it’s the sort of optimism many rooting for the continued uprising of the Nigerian (and African) ecosystem can hold on to, that it doesn’t just look like rainbow and roses, but that there is actually zero practice of toxic corporate leadership.