From Gbagada to Texas — an unusual story of grit
Temitope Alabi is mostly known for being the founder and CEO of Afriex, a leading FinTech startup making cross-border transactions effortless for Africans — recently attaining a 99% success rate on all of their transactions. They have raised $11M in funding and processed transactions amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars since being founded in 2019.
As a Nigerian in the diaspora himself, for most of his life, Temitope is building a solution inspired by challenges he has faced, starting with the struggles of his mum to send money back home. While Temitope's entrepreneurial journey might appear as a heartwarming story of a diasporan making a difference in the lives of Africans back home, there was more we didn’t see coming when we had this enlightening conversation where he took us on a journey, tracing his steps from Texas where he resides, back to the bustling streets of Lagos where it all began.
You may have heard of Temitope, the CEO of Afriex, but here is the story of Temitope, who was playing football one evening in Ifako, Gbagada, with friends and would never see most of them again only 3 days after, as he began a journey he didn’t choose, one that would lead him back right where he began — home.
Raised by a single mother who triples as a teacher and relentless entrepreneur, Temitope was the only boy out of four children, the third child of his parents. If you grew up as an only boy among girls, you may be able to relate to the challenge of finding common ground for playing with your sisters.
Because Temitope’s sisters had little interest in the games he enjoyed, and time slots to play football with friends were limited and firmly rationed, Temitope spent most of his playtime alone within the gates of their compound and the walls, which didn’t exist in his mind. While everyone else saw a child up there in his imagination, he was Birdman, Superman, or any other hero he found on TV.
Sometimes, he'd go as far as doing those things “you shouldn't do at home”, inevitably resulting in a few bumps and scrapes. “You have to be more careful”, his mother would say, to which he'd mumble under his breath, “I'll jump better next time.”
However, life (or, say, mum) had something else in store for young Temitope, as he would soon find himself in another man's land, facing an unfamiliar world with new heroes to emulate and higher hurdles to jump.
Another man’s land
“In 3 days, you won’t see your friends again.”
These were the words Temitope remembers as his mother first revealed to him that they’d be moving to America. Talk about an abrupt change that would be disorienting for an adult, much less a 9-year-old boy.
In just a span of a few days, Temitope went from enjoying a game of football with his friends on the streets of Ifako to coming to terms with leaving them behind. Birdman would always be there for him, though.
This is not young Temitope’s first dance with sudden change, however. The other day, just 7 years earlier, he returned from school to discover this tinier living thing wrapped in these soft, gentle blankets — a baby sister. At the tender age of 2, the concept of pregnancy was still beyond his comprehension, and it marked his first experience of life, presenting him with new realities, whether he saw them coming or not.
Little did he know that these early experiences with sudden change were merely a prelude to a deeper social crisis that awaited him as he prepared for his adventure to America.
As you can imagine, the streets of America weren’t anything like the streets of Ifako, where Temitope shared football games with his friends. One of the very obvious disparities for him was the social dynamics. Back in Nigeria, Temitope was a bright kid who always came first in his class, and so his social identity was hinged on his intelligence — often seen as the most popular among his classmates.
However, in his new American school, the social hierarchy was defined by athleticism. Beyond grappling with the feeling of missing his friends, Temitope was now in a new environment that demanded fitting into a different mould from the one he knew.
In the U.S., he attended 2 elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and 2 high schools. Through it all, Temitope learned to shoulder the weight of change, honing his adaptability skills as he perpetually played the "new kid” role every time he switched schools.
Excelling in academics came very naturally to Temitope. He immediately got drafted into the “Gifted Program” in every school he attended. Always coming out on top in spelling bees, history, literature, and science fairs. But above all, there was the need to excel in athletics to be truly cool, at least as the kids in his new reality defined it.
In Nigeria, athletics meant football. Oops, now the goal was the hoops. Repeatedly getting cut from his school basketball team, he had to always fight his way back into the team.
It was a new kind of challenge, but his grit and tenacity were ‘industry-agnostic’. Temitope went from being a novice basketball player to contributing to his school winning third place in a state championship that has only been won by some 150+ schools out of 40,000 schools in the U.S. We will do the maths for you — 0.375%.
Temitope recalls this moment as one of the biggest wins of his life, being that he had not seen a basketball court for the first 9 years of his life before moving to Texas. For Temitope, this would go on to lay a solid foundation for his entrepreneurial journey. He learned a lot about competition, teamwork, constant practice, and, more importantly, winning and losing—two friends from extreme parts of town who somehow find a way to stay besties.
While it is rather tempting to bask in our victories, life has a way of propelling us forward to answer the question, 'What's next?’. With his academic and athletic journey behind him, Temitope faced a pivotal inflection point, a moment that would shape the trajectory of his future.
The inflection point
After completing his degree in electrical engineering with a minor in Mathematics, Temitope faced the dilemma that most graduates face: "What's next?” Like the story of many, he returned to his mother's house in Houston, Texas, unsure of the path that lay ahead.
It was not until one sunny afternoon while hanging out with his friends, that he had an epiphany, “I am going to New York”. Unknowingly to him, fate had conspired in his favour. The next day, his older sister reached out, seeking his assistance with a three-month engagement in New York.
While in New York, Temitope's mother started a new business that required a website. Even though his university studies focused on hardware engineering and not software, he took up the challenge regardless and eventually became better at coding.
Soon, Temitope secured a job at Wix.com and eventually moved to a web dev agency called The Mechanism. It was a comfortable position with good pay and job security. Yet, ‘arriving’ eluded him. At the age of 24, he made a pivotal decision: to leave the comfort of his stable job and venture into the uncertain world of entrepreneurship.
Recognizing Temitope's intent, his boss at The Mechanism decided to intervene one sunny afternoon, taking him out for lunch. 'I see the ambition in your eyes,' his boss remarked, 'and I know you'll get there eventually, but you are not fully prepared yet.' However, Temitope's resolve remained unwavering. He would go on to quit his job at The Mechanism to establish his own agency.
Interestingly, Temitope’s first entrepreneurship lesson began 10 years earlier in a moment that seemed rather insignificant — when he stopped receiving 'lunch money.’
Dear mum, Yours Tope
“My mum is 64, and I have never seen her without a business”. Temitope recalls his mum having to combine being an English Language teacher with being an entrepreneur. Back in Nigeria, she used to run a hair salon and a small shop. At some point, she sold cars and would go to China to bring TVs to sell here in Nigeria.
Upon arriving in America, Temitope's mother juggled a demanding work schedule of 60 to 80 hours per week while simultaneously managing a side business, driven by her determination to cater to her four children in a foreign land.
For Temitope, that first lesson came at the age of 14 when his mother decided he would no longer receive lunch money. This decision would mark the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey. Starting with selling candy to his classmates and eventually leading to a lifetime of ventures.
His journey continued, leading him from New York to the tech hub of San Francisco, where new challenges and opportunities awaited.
From Ondo New York, to San Francisco
Although he never lived there for a minute, there was an Ondo before Gbagada — the home state of his parents. After quitting his job at The Mechanism, Temitope founded his agency, naming it "Ondo NYC", combining his origin with what appeared to be his future. He had put all of his savings into an office space in an upscale building on Wall Street in downtown New York, marking the launch of his agency with 2 full-time software engineers focused on building MVPs for startups.
Ondo NYC was an exciting time for Temitope; it was a point in his life he was extremely proud of. Not trying to revel in his achievements alone, he decided to fly his mum to New York so that he could take pictures with her in front of the fancy building where he had acquired an office.
However, challenges emerged, and 1 year later, Ondo NYC closed its doors. And that’s when Temitope moved to San Francisco.
Connecting with an old friend named Obed over dinner, Temitope ventured into the heart of the tech ecosystem in San Francisco. Soon, he teamed up with Obed to develop a machine-learning prototype for a hackathon. Their prototype analyzed social media posts from sites like Twitter and Facebook to categorize an individual’s personality. As you’d have guessed, they won the hackathon along with a cash prize of $3000.
Soon after, they turned their hackathon project into a business called Social Capital and raised a $150,000 seed round from TechStars to refine the product further. One of their biggest clients was Sprint Wireless, one of America’s biggest Telcos. However, despite initial success, breaking into the enterprise market proved challenging. In the space of 2 years of building Social Capital, Temitope had learned the dynamics of raising capital from investors and building a team, which were pivotal skills for the next phase of his entrepreneurial journey.
Eventually, Social Capital closed its doors, and Temitope, once more, stood at a crossroads.
The new crossroads
On one hand, there was the allure of diving deeper into the world of AI and Machine Learning, a space where he had been honing his skills and knowledge for the past years. On the other was that 9-year-old migrant kid who wanted to build something meaningful for his homeland.
In his search to create something meaningful for Africans, Temitope comes into the subject of remittances, a struggle he is all too familiar with. He soon discovered a stunning revelation when he delved into the complexities of remittances: remittances played a key role in practically every African country, frequently contributing a significant amount of the GDP. He saw this as an opportunity to streamline remittances and pump even more money into the continent. This meant doing it faster and cheaper than anyone else.
When asked during the interview why he decided to go with the latter, he said this is what his future self would be proud of. And so, this marked the beginning of what you now know as Afriex, which officially started in late 2019.
The big vision
From the sudden arrival of his sister at age 2 to the abrupt transition from Ifako, Gbagada to Houston, Texas, down to picking up the challenge to learn an unfamiliar sport (basketball) and to take on an unfamiliar skill (coding), the abrupt changes, leaps of faith, grit and the deep dives into the world of technology have all shaped his philosophy and mission with Afriex today.
Born of his immigrant experience, Temitope believes that globalization represents one of the most rewarding challenges for the world to address. His grand vision for Afriex is to level the playing field globally, helping developing countries actually develop.
Temitope envisions a world where global economies are deeply integrated. He believes that the money spent in one country doesn't have to be the money made there. Now, that’s the future Temitope wants to co-create alongside everyone on the Afriex train — a world where every person can choose how their money moves through borders.
An unusual story of grit
Temitope Alabi's story is not just his own; it is a story of grit — one that inspires us all to embrace change, take bold steps, and, like Temitope, build a better future for not just ourselves but the world around us.
In the end, each and every one of us is a product of our journey, and it was beautiful to learn about Temitope’s — travelling abruptly from Gbagada to Texas, and today facilitating remittances the other way round, and vice versa.
In Temitope’s words, “Go for It!” Go after your best ideas, no matter how hard they may seem.
Written by Wilfred Alfred and Victor Fatanmi, for FourthCanvas — based on their interview with Temitope Alabi where he really made the job easier by holding nothing back in a conversation that lasted several hours. At some point, we asked if we should call it a day and finish up the next day. “Let’s just see it through”, he responded.