founder

Aladdin Founder Darlington Onyeagoro Is Empowering African Small Businesses

Introduction

Africa has a high concentration of self-employed workers. In 2019, 14 African countries ranked among the top 15 countries in the world with the highest self-employment rates. With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing large portions of the workforce online, many of these individuals may have to use multiple programs to manage their businesses.

Aladdin Digital Bank has curated its comprehensive app to make life easier for freelancers and small businesses in Africa. It provides financial services, a marketplace, social content, and even employee benefits. We reached out to co-founder and CEO Darlington Onyeagoro to learn more about why he dropped an earlier project to work on Aladdin and how the company plans to expand.

Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

In your own words, how would you describe Aladdin?

Darlington Onyeagoro

Aladdin Digital Bank is Africa’s first ecosystem bank.  

Aladdin supports the daily hustle of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and freelancers across Africa, starting from Nigeria via a super app. Aladdin provides them with traditional financial tools such as savings, access to credit, secure payments, cards, and investments. SMEs on the Aladdin platform also have a safe marketplace to buy and sell their products and services using the in-built escrow account payment system while enjoying quality social interactions within the platform’s community.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What inspired you to take the leap and start this company?

Darlington Onyeagoro

We found out that banking in Africa has remained largely unchanged even in the face of a pandemic that has forced millions of SMEs and gig workers to move their businesses online. Banks have not evolved to provide the requisite support for SMEs. Rather, SMEs are treated as mere account numbers and are kept by the banks in silos. Traditional banks only have vertical relationships with these SMEs and do not encourage horizontal relationships between them. Moreover, as these SMEs migrate online, they are faced with issues of identity and fraud. Aladdin was designed as a super app to address these challenges. Aladdin allows both vertical and horizontal relationships via its marketplace, social network, and financial services all in one app.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

Who is on your team and how did you come together?

Darlington Onyeagoro

Our core senior management team includes myself (Darlington Onyeagoro, co-founder/CEO), Olayemi Nasiru (CFO), and David Echu (co-founder/CTO).

Yemi and I met during my stint with OPay (a $2 billion unicorn) and Okash (a micro-lending app with more than 1 million users and $120 million disbursed). He was our auditor, and together we visited the banks’ regulator frequently and developed a relationship.

I met David when I was working on an app designed to help companies manage their visitors and employee check-ins and check-outs. This idea was affected by the pandemic, and we shelved it to work on Aladdin, a broader solution for SMEs.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

How is Aladdin transforming the Banking industry?

Darlington Onyeagoro

Aladdin is ushering social+ banking into Africa and beyond. Social+ banking has both vertical and horizontal relationships. Also, as an ecosystem bank, we are allowing licensed organizations in different countries to serve African SMEs by plugging their application programming interfaces (APIs), software development kits, and mini programs into our super app. It’s the first of its kind in Africa.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What does the competitive landscape look like, and how do you differentiate?

Darlington Onyeagoro

Most of our competitors like Kuda Bank, Sparkle, VBank, Umba, Carbon, FairMoney, etc. are still stuck with the old model of monolithic banking with only vertical structures, which allows only relationships between the bank and her customers. We are offering much more to our target market. Every Aladdin customer has a profile page and access to traditional banking services, a safe marketplace, business tools, and an active social community.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

How do you intend to use the money you raise this round to scale the business?

Darlington Onyeagoro

We will direct 30.5% toward marketing (this entails spending funds in advertising on social media, Google Ads, referrals, using influencers, in-built reward scheme, etc.), 30% toward operational expenses, 13% toward platform expansion and security architecture, and 26.5% toward work infrastructure and fixed assets (this entails office rentals and furnishing, purchase of operational vehicles, provision for backup electricity/power, stable broadband internet, etc.).

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What is the impact that you want Aladdin to have on SMEs?

Darlington Onyeagoro

African SMEs and freelancers face the following problems:

  1. They lack structure. Most are not registered and are run as one-man businesses. 
  2. They lack access to opportunities to finance their business.
  3. They lack access to financial solutions tailored to meet their needs or designed to help their business thrive.
  4. They lack online business tools designed to help them better manage their business. 
  5. They lack access to employee benefits like insurance, access to mortgages, and pensions. 
  6. They are currently migrating their business online but face issues of identity and fraud because platforms like Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook are not designed to combat marketplace frauds and also do not have in-built payment systems to aid trade.
  7. Today, they have to make use of several apps in order to manage their business effectively.
  8. They want to expand their businesses and need effective cross-border payment and delivery solutions that work seamlessly. 

Aladdin is solving these identified issues via ecosystem banking, which entails providing these SMEs and freelancers with a super app that provides them with the following:

  1. Financial solutions (such as loans, savings, investments, cross-border payments and delivery via partnerships, etc.).  
  2. Business management tools, a safe marketplace, and a social network to help them expand their business and network while ensuring they are not exposed to fraud (using an in-built escrow payment system). 
  3. Benefits like insurance, access to mortgages, and pension via partnerships. 

We want to provide SMEs with 360-degree tools and solutions to help them thrive, and this includes financial tools, a safe and robust Pan-African marketplace, business management tools, and an active community.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What do you want potential investors to know about you and/or your company?

Darlington Onyeagoro

Aladdin is powered by visionary leadership and a passionate team who will not stop until our goal of empowering SMEs and gig workers across Africa with all the tools they need to thrive is achieved. And by doing so, we will provide healthy returns for our investors.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

As you think about the business 5-10 years down the road, what do you see exit opportunities looking like? Have you set any future goals for the company?

Darlington Onyeagoro

We plan to be a unicorn in the next five years and be present and operational in at least 15 African countries. In five to 10 years, we should be present in at least 40 African countries and become a decacorn

This is possible if we hit our user growth and transaction projections and remain aggressive in achieving other metrics, such as revenue generation. Besides, most of the unicorns in the fintech space in Africa such as Flutterwave, Opay, and Chipper Cash achieved this status in four years or less.

We will start our expansion by focusing first on the major fintech hubs in Africa, which are Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, and Egypt. We will also consider expanding to India because it shares similar demographics with Africa. These hubs will serve as trigger points and launch pads to other Africa countries. For example, Egypt is a major doorway to the Middle East and North African region, while Kenya and Uganda will help us expand across the East African region. However, we will also consider countries with established and connected payment rails to make our launch and expansion easier, as we have to depend on some existing infrastructure provided by other players in the payment and delivery space to make an impact in such countries. 

We look forward to seeing where Darlington and his team take the company. Aladdin is currently raising on Wefunder.​ 

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About: Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

Léa is passionate about impact investing and sustainability. Prior to KingsCrowd, she worked for Stanford’s accelerator, StartX, helping to select the most promising entrepreneurs. She also led the first award-winning study on the Malawian startup ecosystem. In her free-time, she volunteers to help entrepreneurs in Cameroon, Brazil and Colombia. Léa holds a degree in Anthropology from France and is currently enrolled in the UC Davis MBA program.

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