Business, Interview

INTERVIEW: Over 1,300 MSMEs and still counting — How Ayo Bankole Akintujoye is helping small businesses across Nigeria thrive

Ayo Bankole

Anyone who has a grasp of how countries economy work will preach that micro, small and medium scale businesses (MSMES) are critical to the development of Nigeria. 

These MSMEs play a significant role in the national economy by providing various goods and services, creating job opportunities, developing regional economies and communities, helping the competition in the market and offering innovation. 

According to a report by Nigeria Bureau of Statistics in 2018, MSMEs contributed about 48% of the national GDP from 2013. They also accounted for about 50% of industrial jobs and nearly 90% of the manufacturing sector, in terms of the number of enterprises.

Yet, despite these significant contributions of the MSMEs to the Nigerian economy, they do not have quality access to funding, mentorship and the right environment needed to make their businesses thrive. 

The Nigerian government as well as many private firms in a bid to find a solution have created numerous initiatives to solve the prevalent problems of these MSMEs. But many of these solutions have been inadequate in solving the problems. 

Taking up this challenge of providing a right-fit solution is what Ayo Bankole Akintujoye, a strategy and transformation professional, took up when he founded Caladium consulting. 

Having spent a decade consulting for some of the world’s largest organisations on strategy and execution, Ayo discovered that MSMEs have a need for mentorship, but the available mentorship services are priced and unaffordable to the majority of these small businesses that sometimes make just N100,000 profit per year. 

With Caladium Consulting, Ayo found an answer. 

The organisation provides MSMEs with mentorship and resources to achieve strategic growth and stability. It also hosts a yearly SME Bootcamp that has benefitted over 1,300 businesses. 

In this interview with NewsWireNGR’s Oladele Owodina, Ayo talks about the importance of MSMEs to the development of Nigeria, his experience working as a strategy professional for a Governor and the Lagos SME Bootcamp he pioneered. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


You once said you grew up in Isolo, an area that embodies the Lagos spirit. How was growing up like for you? 

I grew up in a couple of places. My early childhood was in Ondo state. I spent my first three years with my grandma in Ondo State, then I spent 7 years in Akure before I moved to Lagos. I had a brief stay at Fadeyi, then we started looking for stable accommodation. We eventually moved to Isolo where I spent my late childhood and most of my teenage years. 

Growing up experience was mixed because we were living in Isolo having a good time and then my dad suddenly passed away in 2003, a year after secondary school and I was preparing for university.

My mom had retired a year before,and she invested her gratuity in my dad’s business. She was working at the then West African Portland Cement company now called Lafarge. My dad’s death literally left us stranded.

The little fund we were left with after my dad’s death was only sufficient for our rent in Isolo and to maintain her shop in Oshodi market.

However, our landlord made matters worse when he decided to throw us out of the house because he didn’t want to rent his apartment to a widow.

As you may know, back in those days in Lagos looking for a new space meant paying for two years, agency fees and all sorts of charges. This meant going all the way to Meiran, after Abule-Egba, because that was what we could afford at the time.

This changed everything for us and was a major part of my growing up dynamics. So yes, this was my story growing up!! It was fun for the first part, then not so fun in between because things became tough and my mom had to hustle with the little she had left.

She started an inter-border trade between Nigeria and Ghana so she could have sufficient funds for my school fees, but it still wasn’t enough because other family relatives had to support as well.    

You rarely see a young Nigerian who wants to be a strategist. What were your childhood aspirations? 

I initially wanted to be a lawyer but my mom was against it because she had a cousin, a thriving lawyer that got killed back then. My grandmother also happened to be a distant relative to the Fawehinmi’s at a time when the late Gani was always in and out of jail. This experience prompted my mom’s mentality that lawyers, especially in the military days, were either going to jail or getting in trouble. Her superstitions must have influenced me in a way because I do not understand how else I had an A1 in English, my first WASSCE (West African Senior School Certificate Examination) and I failed literature.

I switched to Political Science because I did not meet my course requirement for Law. Then I ended up in Education and Politics later at the University of Ibadan because I didn’t meet the jamb score cut off for political science. 

I joined AIESEC as a first-year student, the world’s largest student organisation. During a conference I attended at 300-level, I got a grasp of what proper planning using the balanced scorecard methodology was about and in that instant; I decided I wanted to be a management consultant. I thereafter went on to the AIESEC’s portal (aisec.net) and started reading more about the balanced scorecard methodology which solidified my interest and spiked my passion for strategy consulting.

You have worked at a couple of big organisations, the KPMGs, PwC, Philips Consulting and the likes. Walk me through your career trajectory.

I started my career in 2009 with a small-scale tech company called C2G consulting. The company’s focus was SAP ERP technology. I was a marketing executive and my role entailed working with the SAP marketing team, My role was to implement marketing campaigns and also identify opportunities for SAP marketing pipelines amongst others both in Nigeria and Ghana. It was pretty much marketing but from a process standpoint. 

Although my role was a bit related to management consulting, it was not exactly what I wanted. I had a similar issue working with KPMG; where I got KPMG tax, but that did not deter my focus. 

Working for KPMG, new recruits were assigned to available vacant roles like tax or audit but a lot of people did not want it. Some people rejected the offer but looking back to where I was coming was enough motivation to stay because I was not sure the opportunity will be available again. My career started in KPMG in a role I did not want. I tried switching departments, but it was difficult thus effected a plan b and moved to strategy at PwC.

PwC had a culture of recruiting en masse then allocating new recruits to different departments. During the interview, I was clear on the role I wanted, which was strategy and openly declared it was either that or I go back to KPMG. 

Eventually, I got posted to strategy, and I did a lot of projects in PWC because I was playing catch up. My experience got me headhunted by Philips for a project that they were working on. So after Phillips, I decided I needed more experience in executing and to implement the strategies we were developing in consulting.

So, I started looking out for strategy opportunities in the industry, I got offers from banks mostly but they were not offering the roles that I wanted. I wanted managerial roles, but they were mostly offering me assistant managerial roles and sub-managerial roles. 

That was when I moved to FMDQ as the functional head of the strategy team. They were new then and doing a lot of things in the financial markets. That role positioned me for other head of strategy role in the market. And after FMDQ I also became head of strategy in the insurance and oil & gas industries. 

While I was at one of the big four consulting firms, I was at a business development meeting where a company was trying to engage our services, but their budget was not up to our minimum threshold at that time ($80,000). And at that moment I realized there was a gap that needed to be filled, as the MSME segment that needed our services the most could neither afford nor access it.This realization gave birth to Caladium Consulting and Lagos SME Bootcamp.

While Caladium Consulting supports smaller businesses with the same quality of work that is done by the big firms, Lagos SME Bootcamp supports micro-businesses by enhancing their business management capabilities for free. So that was how I started the consulting business that I do and combined it with my 8-5 job and provided opportunities for others who want to build a career in consulting. 

That is a summary of my career trajectory. 

I rate strategy as a core life skill just like communication, design and others. What is strategy and how can the average human implement strategy principles in everyday life? 

There are so many fancy definitions of strategy. Strategy is simply how to get from point A to B. I always give this popular example between GTB and Zenith Bank. If you have read Jim Ovia’s book, Africa rise and shine. He set out to establish the largest bank in this country by revenue, and GTB set out at about the same time too to establish the largest bank in Nigeria by profit. Again, both of them wanted to move from point A to point B but to achieve this in different ways. 

So Zenith bank got on its journey and a few years down the line, Zenith bank became the largest in the country. In fact, everyone thought I was a big boy when I had a Zenith bank account in my first year at work. Zenith bank was after the big boys and a few years down the line, they achieved what they wanted and they became the biggest Nigerian bank making an annual revenue of about 700  billion naira with profit after tax of about 230 billion depending on the year. GT Bank on the other hand makes about N450 billion in revenue and profit after tax of over 200 billion. They both arrived at almost the same destination profit-wise even though they adopted different strategies.

And now, in the past few years, Zenith bank is just trying to play catch-up and has realized they are making almost the same profit as GTB despite making almost double the revenue. 

So strategy is about how to get from point A to point B, but there are frameworks that guide the approach to developing such strategies. It is the understanding of such frameworks and how to adapt them to business realities that make it a specialty or an expertise.

Imagine the government hires you to plan a strategy for the economic advancement of the country. What are the things you would do? 

I have done something similar for a Governor before; we managed the strategy office of a Governor for about two years. 

Governance in Nigeria is extremely complicated, and it starts at the root, which is the process of selecting or electing our leader.

Robert Bryd says, “It is money, money, money! Not ideas, not principles, but money that makes American politics”, this is way worse in Nigerian politics today. However, advanced democracies have developed their politics to a point where they can raise funds from the private sector, donors, citizens and others.In Nigeria, our economy is poor, the parties are also poor so they depend on the politicians to provide funds to run electoral campaigns. And data shows that to contest for just governorship in Nigeria, you would be spending up to N4-6 billion. Those funds are coming from people’s pockets and most of the funds are not given for charity, so when you get into government, you are already conflicted, people have to recoup their investment. Your office is already designed to run on a corrupt foundation.

So as a strategy person, If I were to advise a leader. I will first, thoroughly look at the situation from the inside point of view because it’s not standard practice to give advice before a diagnosis. And you will be deceiving yourself if you advise that a leader should just cut off everybody that brought him/her to power because even in America, there are lobbyists who support the government to power and benefit the most from a lot of their policiesAn example is the National Rifle Association, and it’s support of the Republican party and vice versa.

The next step would be to identify the projects that have the biggest impact on the economy and cause a ripple effect on other sectors. An example of such is the power sector, if any government is able to solve this in Nigeria, it will solve many other problems across multiple sectors and boost the economy.  You can see the impact telecommunication has on a lot of things. In fact, tech is a direct result of telecoms reforms And power is even bigger. If we solve electricity, transportation, infrastructure, and security, then our economy would most likely shape up. 

I will most likely then engage the vested interests in those various sectors, the corrupt powers that stand to gain from the inefficiency in those sectors, and probably belong to the same party or supported the leader during the election. We would then meet and tell them “hey guys, we can compensate you with maybe businesses from other sectors, but these three critical areas, we need to make it work”. Then you will bring in proper investors that would make that place work and it would be project-managed like a private sector project and you make those things work. 

Even for the guys you compensate, there would be minimum success metrics. What is even going on in the country now is that the government would give contracts to their cronies, and still inflate the contract figures.

Let us say the actual contract sum is like N2 billion, they would inflate it to like N20 billion. If you inflate it to N20 billion, you should ordinarily give the contractor N2 billion so the contractor does his job, but they would end up giving the contractor N500 million. So the money given to the contractor would not even be enough to complete the project. And out of the N500 million, they still would not even pay everything,  so it most likely the project would never finish. It is evident that the corruption is deep rooted.

There should be a round table discussion to appeal to everyone that adds value to the government, with an agreed minimum success metric and consequences for those that perform below the agreed metrics. 

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Nigeria is struggling economically and a lot of Nigerians are becoming sachet-entrepreneurs as a means of survival. What innovative or entrepreneurial skills do we need to learn? 

I will advise that people learn business management skills. But for innovation, I think you are either innovative or not. At times, innovation is also instinctive, an idea can come to your mind but then, execution can be a problem. 

However, if you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to look around you and see where the opportunities lie. So depending on your environment, identify what needs, wants, or demands people around you have that you can convert to money, or what skill can you learn that you can commercialise, what value can you bring to the table and how can you improve on these values? Because the skills you are commercialising today can become irrelevant tomorrow if you do not continuously improve on it.

Also, the skills you’re commercialising are not enough to sustain you as an entrepreneur, you need to acquire skills in financial management, marketing and brand management, people management because people are integral to the success of your business. You need to understand technology, planning and managing the cash flow of your business so you don’t become cash trapped, you need to know how to assess finance and funds; and the need to build relationships. There are a lot of skills involved in becoming an entrepreneur.

So the technical skills become inadequate because that is not the only thing needed to survive. In fact, the chances that you will fail with having a strong technical skill alone is about 90% based on data, it is all those other skills that you then need to learn. It is in the quest to support the development of these skills that we set up the Lagos SME Bootcamp.

Data says you have trained over 1300 people already, can you tell me a little about the bootcamp?

The Bootcamp is way up among the foremost SME supporting capacity enhancement platforms that exist in the country, especially in Lagos.

I identified that a lot of people cannot afford the professional services or business management skills that they need, or afford the resources necessary to engage a professional consultant.

Even after starting the boutique consulting firm to support all of these small businesses, and then realised again that over 70% MSMEs are actually micro businesses. They are micro-businesses by definition because they have about 10 staff and earn less than 25 million per annum. In fact, most of them have less than 10 million in total startup capital. So these guys cannot afford even the cheapest professional services and they are the lifeline of this economy. 

Again, as you said, our economy is a sachet economy so we can’t keep doing things as if we have all the riches in the world. So if people like us who have acquired these skills cannot then give back to these guys for free then there would be a problem.

The Bootcamp is about aggregating skills and expertise, giving back these skills to MSMEs and empowering them to understand all those business management capabilities that they need to manage their business properly. And we do not just do it alone, we pull together similar professionals and business/thought leaders who have helped larger businesses achieve these results and harness those skills to the benefits of all of these MSMEs.

We hope that we can reach more people. Our vision is to reach tens of thousands of them as there are 41 million MSMEs in this country,  but we can only do it with the limited resources that we have. This is why we are constantly looking for partnerships. 

We are starting the first Ibadan SME bootcamp and after that we are doing Lagos SME bootcamp; we are constantly looking for partners in media, brands, financial institutions and anyway we can add value to it so that we can do more for these guys, we can help that woman who makes N10,000 to N100,000 a month. That may be the only source of income she uses in sending her child to school,and that child tomorrow might be the one employing my child and your child. So it’s very critical that we help these guys because we don’t have an organisation who employs 1,000,000 people like Amazon here in Nigeria. This is basically what we do, and this is the 4th year we’ve been in existence and we hope that we get bigger.

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You have achieved a lot at 33/34 years old. What are the other things you are looking to achieve?

I am very far from the pinnacle, if anything at all, it is how to get to the pinnacle. With the boot camp, there’s a lot more we can do and I believe the only way Africa can unlock its true potential is through MSMEs. The government supporting the Dangotes, the BUAs will not solve the problems even though they need support because how many people is Dangote employing in this country? If you seriously support 10,000 MSMEs to scale, to grow, the ripple effect on the economy will be bigger than 5 Dangotes. You don’t need as much money to support them and we can do that across Africa, there’s a lot we can do with the bootcamp alone. 

In my career, there is also a lot more that I can do. Even though I have led strategy teams, I haven’t even scratched the surface. We need to be globally competitive and with the business we need to build more collaborations, probably want to exit at some point. I think there’s a lot more that I can achieve even on the academic side. I will probably be pursuing a PhD sometime but I am not sure yet about where or how I really want to but it’s something that is hovering in my head somewhere, there’s a lot more I’m still going to do so I’m still very far from the pinnacle and I still want to make money and be comfortable and live a life of impact.

Wow, you still have big money plans. Are you gunning for a billion dollars?

Haha. I just want to be comfortable and build a recognisable brand and make sure I secure my kids and family from poverty. There are a lot of people who are not billionaires but well respected. I do not think someone like Wole Soyinka is a billionaire, but he is not poor and I do not think his family can be poor. 

Looking back, do you have things you should have done better or lessons as they do call them?

Talking about lessons, maybe I should have deferred my KPMG recruitment, maybe I shouldn’t have started up in tax, but again it all worked together for good eventually because all of those experiences come together to help me in my role right now. 

When talking to a client you’re talking from a holistic point of view because you have cross-competency experience. There are things I think about that may be life lessons. I probably should have left this country earlier to sort out my academics all the way up to PhD and then maybe come back to start my career. 

What scares you most in life?

It is dying before making as much impact as I want to make. But again last year and early this year, I converted that fear to now living in the moment and try to do as much as I can. I bother less about other things I used to bother about those days. I now understand I can just die tomorrow and if that happens, what position would I have left my son, my wife, my mom, and everyone around me? What will they talk about? 

I have come to realise that death is constant. I think that fear started off because of how my dad died suddenly and the position he left us back then. That used to be my biggest fear, but that is what I have converted to become my inspiration. 

What is your biggest win?

My biggest win, for now, is the number of people I have been able to support their career growth and help them improve themselves and in turn, they also support other people. That is what gives me the biggest joy ever. That is what I try to do with my business, career and everything else. And also the businesses I’m able to support through the Bootcamp.

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