Africa’s most valuable startup Flutterwave is in the spotlight for alleged dubious business and personal practices by Olugbenga Agboola, its founder and chief executive.
In a story published Apr. 12 on West Africa Weekly, a Substack newsletter by David Hundeyin, a Nigerian journalist, Agboola is alleged to have created a phantom ‘co-founder’ identity to give himself more shares in the company’s early days, and offered share prices below the company’s valuation to employees who wanted to cash in on their vested options. These employee stock sales, the story alleged, went to an investment vehicle Agboola controlled.
Other allegations include that he did not disclose to Access Bank, his last employer, that he was simultaneously working for them while building Flutterwave in the latter’s early days, thereby taking unfair advantage of his position and assets at the bank. There was also suggestion of sexual relationships with subordinate female staff members at Flutterwave.
What is known about Agboola and Flutterwave?
Flutterwave’s stature as an early mover in Nigeria’s online payments scene and its unrivaled $3 billion valuation makes the 37-year-old Agboola one of Africa’s most well-known entrepreneurs.
He is a mostly reserved personality who gives few media interviews, but is on a number of lists that seek to highlight African progress, including Quartz Africa’s 2019 innovators, and lists by Fortune (2020), and TIME (2021).
Over the past year, Agboola’s reputation has stretched beyond his leadership at Flutterwave thanks to a spree of personal investments in other African startups. He landed a Business Insider award for “Tech Investor of the Year” a few hours after the West Africa Weekly story went live.
Flutterwave has also stepped into the world of corporate investments, co-leading a $3.4 million round for Dapio, a UK-based fintech. Part of the company’s $250 million raise in February will be for investments and relentless marketing.
Faults in Flutterwave’s wings emerge
But suspicion about Agboola and Flutterwave have brewed over the past week after a former employee, Clara Wanjiku Odero, accused Agboola of bullying and the company of negligence leading to fraud. Odero, now the CEO of a Softbank-backed Kenyan fintech Credrails, did not respond to comment, but publicly stood by her claims despite Flutterwave’s denial.
Her account of her experience at the company may have been prompted by an article that appeared to cast her unfavorably while glorifying Flutterwave’s unicorn journey. The article was based on interviews with the company’s leadership, including Agboola, during a retreat in Ghana this year.
Fresh from that private getaway, the company now faces public scrutiny on multiple issues from this week’s exposé, including a supposed ethics investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission in 2018 (Flutterwave is incorporated in Delaware and headquartered in California).
The SEC neither confirmed nor denied the investigation citing privacy provisions. Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, the former Flutterwave co-founder, said there was one but disputed the Substack journalist’s characterization.
Most observers have renewed their outrage over corporate dysfunction and toxic work culture at Nigerian businesses.
Some fear that foreign investors who increasingly pour hot money into African startups could be spooked. What comes next may well be vindication for Flutterwave and the ecosystem if it responds to the allegations, or a dance between damage control and course correction by interested parties.
Or, more revelations that intensify shockwaves already stirred, as Matt Flannery, the co-founder of Branch, the lending app which operates in Nigeria and Kenya, expects.