Raising $1M for your startup in Africa is starting to become more common. As of May 21, 54 startups have raised at least $1M in 2020. Raising $1M as an African woman is still frustratingly rare. Fara Ashiru Jituboh has done just that, raising a $1M pre-seed round for Okra, where she is co-founder, CEO and CTO. Okra is a Nigeria-based “super-connector” which allows the secure exchange of real-time financial information between customers, applications, and banks. Think of it like Plaid for Africa.
The idea for Okra came from the entrepreneur’s best source of inspiration; solving her own problems. Jituboh was born in Nigeria but grew up in the United States. She spent a year in Nigeria as a teenager, but really never expected to settle in Nigeria permanently. During a visit, she kept thinking, “ I can do something really big and really impactful [here]. There’s so much more opportunity to do, to solve so many problems,” said Jituboh. She moved back to Nigeria where she started a studio to build technology for other companies such as AXA Mansard, Sanofi Pharmaceuticals, and Airtel.
In 2019, Jituboh temporarily moved back to the U.S. to have her son and stayed for about a year. During that time, she started using applications like Mint on her phone to manage her funds. Then she moved back to Nigeria and realized that none of these applications worked because they didn’t connect to Nigerian banks. “My financial literacy could never grow here,” she said. Jituboh started trying to connect her own bank accounts. That was the start of Okra.
Many of us have frustrations in our daily life that we dream about solving, but few of us actually end up building a company around it. This is especially true when we run into problems in highly regulated or technical spaces such as banking. But as a highly-skilled software engineer, Jituboh is used to rolling up her sleeves and building. According to Andreatta Muforo, a partner at TLcom which invested in Okra, Fara is an expert in over 20 programming languages.
Even though Okra now has money to hire top talent, Jituboh will continue to hold both the CEO and CTO roles. She believes that in business this technical having the vision for the product and technology and the vision for the company so tightly aligned is a benefit. That’s not to say it’s easy. “If I’m not coding, I feel guilty like I’m not doing my work. But if I’m coding, I can feel like there are some high-level things I should be dealing with. You need to find balance,” said Jituboh.
Okra’s raise is not just an outlier because it’s run by a woman or because it was incredibly fast (less than 6 months after launch!) or because it was oversubscribed despite the world being in the middle of a pandemic. For their investor, TLcom, Okra is an outlier in their portfolio. TLcom has never invested in Fintech. They also typically participate in larger rounds, such as Andela’s $100M Series D. According to Jituboh, they invest in infrastructure and while banking portals do not come to mind as readily as cellphone towers when one thinks of infrastructure, they are an equally important part of the foundation needed for a vibrant digital economy. TLcom took the whole round and Ido Sum, a partner, will join Okra’s board.
In around as hot as Okra’s pre-seed, it’s not just the investor that chooses the company. The company also has to choose an investor. TLcom’s vast experience investing across Africa over several decades brought the technical and market expertise that Jituboh was looking for. The fact that two of the partners are women-only sweetened the deal.