Coffee Series with Okechukwu Ofili
Everything about this conversation was intriguing and it didn’t just start with his opening sentence: “I sucked at English and I waltzed my way through primary school. I realised that the only class I did well in was Primary 4 but, that might have been because my school teacher was my lesson teacher”, he stated with a shrug. This co-founder would end up graduating with a distinction in Mechanical Engineering.
My fascination with Mr Ofili began from the moment he walked into the room, somewhat bewildered, like a child in a candy store, fascinated by everything in the room from the aroma of coffee beans to the Cinnamon Dolce Latte he ordered, which he would stop every now and again to commend; his naturally wide eyes seemed even larger as he took it all in. I immediately understood that this was a man who saw beauty where no one looked. It is this same passion that has fueled his entrepreneurship journey.
This eccentric 36 year old co-founded Africa’s largest Mobile Books App, Okada Books. Not only is Okada Books about the business, they’re about social impact as well. They just concluded on a partnership with a top bank through a nationwide competition were able to win N1,000,000; N500,000 and N300,000 in order of place as well as a publishing contract from Farafina.
More recently, they also partnered with Union Bank to gift tertiary students with a chance to win N500,000 via the Campus Writers Challenge.
With more initiatives like this, not only is Mr Ofilli changing the narrative, he is solving a problem and creating avenues for new talent to be found.
It was difficult to pick out key take-outs from our conversation as there were so many of them but I’ve been able to summarise them under a few pointers below:
1. Never overthink it.” The more you think about it, the less likely you are to actually do it, you’ll come up with all the reasons why it won’t work but sometimes, you just have to jump. I wrote a book and didn’t even realize I was writing because I wasn’t thinking about it.”
2. Resilience pays off: “My mom made us sell ice cream in church, we were broke but had no idea we were broke. It wasn’t until my brother called and said my school fees weren’t going to be paid anymore that I knew the extent. That was it. We were actually broke. I cried over the phone thinking, I was in a foreign country, the U.S to be precise and it was the first time in my life I would have to fend for myself and it would be in foreign currency. That taught me to hustle. As an International student, if there were 10 scholarships, I was only eligible for one.
The first job I bagged wasn’t at a career fair. I got it because I pushed and pushed and kept following up. I became a hustler. I paid my way through school through scholarships and work. I optimised campus opportunities; I became a referee in the winter when no one else would do it. I learnt the system – If I got certain scholarships, I would get accommodation for free so I had to get it. If I got certain scholarships, I could get my fees dropped to national level so those were the scholarships I aimed for until I was able to graduate from school with no debt.
3. Become driven to make a difference in your community. The ‘How Stupidity Saved My Life’ Author realised the difficulty in publishing a book when he had to publish his. Something he found so easy was so difficult for most people. He opted to stay back in Nigeria after what was supposed to be a brief stint working on a project and decided to fix the problem. This birthed Okada Books.
“Entrepreneurship is frustrating and I would sit and worry hoping I don’t make the same mistake as my dad but then I remember I’m in this to help people. I want untapped talent to really get their voices heard”.
4. Get out of your comfort zone. “As an introvert, I’ve had to get out of my shell by deliberately myself in uncomfortable positions; I’ve learnt so much about investment, having uncomfortable conversations, putting myself out there understanding that this is my brand and many times, people need a face to the brand”.
5. As an entrepreneur, you’ll need to learn to deal with loss. “People will leave and you will have to fire people even after you’ve built personal relationships with them. It just comes with the territory”.
6. Encourage your workers to have a voice and take vacations. “I’m about individual success with each member of our core team. Respect your worker’s individuality and remember that they’re not slaves.” Ofili mentions. Mental health doesn’t get as much mileage in most African countries but the well being and psyche of your employees should be of high importance.
The app is currently averaging 10,000,000 annual paid views across Android and the web and has just bagged the African Writer Series meaning that the good old African classics such as books by: Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and so on which have never been previously available as E-Books; will now officially be added into the Okada Books library. A major win for the founder as he spoke about it excitedly.
“We don’t believe that Nigerians don’t read. We see Books as food-food for the mind. The way I see it, we have a sense of urgency with what we do because we believe that people need to be fed. We don’t have a reading problem, we have a distribution problem and Okada Books exists to solve it.”
If I could take one thing out of my conversation with Okechukwu Ofili it is that the future of Africa truly does lie in the ability of its millennials to pose solutions and I couldn’t help but ask myself, how I’m a part of that solution.