For the love of Africa and my social responsibility.
Podcast transcription - 13th March 2019
Alan Cowley: Welcome to another Invested Investor podcast. I am sat opposite Tomi Davies. Tomi is an advisor, a speaker, an angel investor, an African early-stage tech advocate, and also a mentor. He's known for many things across the world, including being an author, and the current president of the African Business Angel Network. But that is just what it says on LinkedIn. Tomi, you are a self-prescribed systems analyst. Let's just hear about your background and where this all started.
Tomi Davies: Well, I say I am an analyst because that's how I came out of Miami, University of Miami, into my first role, which was with IBM. The crust of myself is that bridge between technology and business and has been throughout all my career. Recently however, I discovered that I also had, underlying all of this, a social streak. So it makes for an interesting triangle of technology, commercial, and social responsibility.
Alan Cowley: So, where and when did you discover this social, socialist personality trait?
Tomi Davies: Funny enough, just recently I was at the British Library, and I ran into a Nigerian lecturer at the University of East London, where I used to be a mentor in the days when I was head of IT research for Marks and Spencer. I mentored at the University of East London. And then it triggered the fact that, even when I was at IBM in Miami, I'd also mentored in Big Brothers of America. So fast forward to what I am doing now, which is called mentor-driven capital, in angel investing, and you can sort of see how this history has unfolded.
Alan Cowley: So, this mentoring, that's been going back since the early days of the eighties.
Tomi Davies: Yeah, for me personally. And it didn't dawn on me until I ran into this young lady because she triggered the East London mentoring programme that I'd been doing at M&S. And the fact that as I sit in front of you, you'll see that we are pushing the concept for angel investors to lead first with mentoring. That way you get to know the entrepreneur, okay? And it makes it easier to make the investment decision.
Alan Cowley: Okay. So, we'll go onto that a little bit, later in the podcast, why you became an angel investor. But let's talk a little bit about the early career and the transition to some of your social initiatives in Nigeria.
Tomi Davies: Early career was a smorgasbord. Like I said, I came out of Miami, became an SE at IBM. Moved to Nigeria to do national service, which is mandatory for anybody that comes out of university. I did that with the French at Elf Aquitaine, where I very, very quickly demonstrated the fact that American technology was alive and well and coming to Africa. So, the resultant effect of that is, I helped build the network for oil and gas for Elf, in terms of the marketing arm of it, which they call "downstream" – in a very, very short period of time. Unfortunately, I lost my dad, hiked it back to England, and joined M&S.
Alan Cowley: Okay. But during this time, had you just set up one laptop per child?
Tomi Davies: No, that was much later in the game. In fact, it was at M&S that I met Nicholas Negroponte because he, at that time, was running the MIT media lab. And I, as IT research in M&S, was funding ... they were doing some cool stuff. I was funding research that he was doing like [inaudible 00:04:12] in the future, 3D body scanning, all kinds of fascinating stuff, which is what led – 10 years later – to me making the call and him coming to Africa for one laptop per child.
Alan Cowley: Okay. So, in the middle of this, you worked for M&S for 7 years?
Tomi Davies: Correct.
Alan Cowley: And obviously you're mentoring on the side?
Tomi Davies: That's correct.
Alan Cowley: And what about after M&S? Did you then set up a company?
Tomi Davies: Yes. What had happened was, when I was in Nigeria doing my national service, I'd set up my very first entrepreneurship. It was a working space. We called it a Business Centre, if you remember Business Centres? That was my very first entry into entrepreneurship.
That was the first company. Other companies that then came along. The first was Strika, and that's what really led to all of this because Ollie and I, Oliver Power, is sort of one of the founders of Strika. Ollie and I had met when I was at M&S. At M&S, I had built the very first Marks and Spencer website, and he was this entrepreneur from South Africa that had just sold his soda making company. So, we became friends. When he went back to South Africa, his cousin came up with the idea of a comic for African superheroes. So, he gave me a call saying, "Look, I want to do this. I need 5 thousand." I said "Okay, fine. Let's do it." And then in discussions, we decided to pivot because I said, "Look, soccer's going to be the thing that sells this."
The key thing was that the team members came from different parts of Africa. And that's how Supa Strikas was born. Today, Supa Strikas is Disney's first animated series from Africa. I think we are doing about a million copies of the comic in about 30 countries. We have a YouTube channel in four languages. So, there's English, there's Spanish, there's Portuguese, and the most interesting is Polish because in Poland we have one, 22 minute episode that's got something like a million views.
Alan Cowley: Wow, that's brilliant.
Tomi Davies: So that was sort of the Supa company. And it's what's dragged me to this. And I'll keep looking. So, each of them I am looking for, what did we do in Strika that was different? It was the fact that we went from analogue to digital. Historically, all other comics, until we came along, weren't using DTP desktop publishing then to create comics. So, we – I say "we", they did, you know. But I am part of the company, essentially came up with a mechanism where the artist could draw, and then you could use lines and scan in and colour.
So, the colouring guys became critical to the writers, who were in the middle, were the artists who did sketches, and the guys who could do the line. So, lining became one of the critical tasks. And once we got lining right, which we still do today, boom. The rest is history. So that's how that was done. So, that was Strika.
Alan Cowley: So, you said that you got dragged into entrepreneurship, do you think that's right? Or do you think that your natural progressions of doing a business degree, and everything like that, was the reason why? Have you ever thought about it?
Tomi Davies: No, not that way. But you are right in that I've always felt conflicted between business and technology. Truth be told, I started life out as a software programmer. From COBOL to FORTRAN, PL/1, ALGOL, you know. That was my beginnings in this space. So, I think I've always seen myself as a technology person. But when I really look at it and, truth be told, it's been business.
Alan Cowley: So how many companies have you ever formed or ran as a CEO?
Tomi Davies: Run as a CEO? I ran Sproxil for a short while because we had to. I am your number two man in a team. I am a team player. I do run my consultancy, but I've never seen myself as the lead man. But I've played on some very, very powerful teams and continue to do so. And those are the opportunities that I look for, and they're the ones. So, being president of ABAN, I keep telling people, is for me, nominal only because I've got an amazing team in David and Rebecca and Ben and Alex and Stephen, okay? Sort of collectively, even though we are virtual. That's why it works.
Alan Cowley: So, you touched on ABAN there, which is the African Business Angel Network. Let's take a step back from that. You've had an entrepreneurial career, you're still going with your entrepreneurial career. You then found a new transition to become an angel investor. So why did you transition? What interested you about becoming an angel investor?
Tomi Davies: Selfish a bit, you know? What I do is I bring ideas to life. I just realised, you realise, you can't bring all the ideas you want to life. But you know how to do it because it's something you enjoy doing and you continue to do so. When I discovered through Oliver, and then there was Ashifi who runs Sproxil. And what had happened was, in my tech career I'd had relationships with Intel and Intel capital. Ashifi was introduced as having this great idea that Intel Capital liked but couldn't fund because it was too small a ticket item, and it was too early for them. So, that's how Sproxil came to me.
We managed to reshape it. It started out at Pharmacovigilance, which is bad drugs being able to be identified by the punter before they consume it using the mobile phone, which I thought was really, cool, genius. Cut the long story short, we are heading towards the 100 million verified transactions. So, if you take a drug, you can send a free SMS and tell if the drug is genuine of fake before you buy it. Now it may not mean much in this neck of the woods where we've got a lot of protection, but in emerging markets where 60% to 80% or the drugs are fake, that's life-saving. It goes back again to what I was saying about social impact. So, if you look at that, you look at “One laptop per child”, you start to look at even the comic, which is education, it's interesting why I am seeing myself increasingly as a socialist as defined by those activities.
Alan Cowley: So, is that your focus of investment? Do you think as well then?
Tomi Davies: It seems to. But when I look at the portfolio, no, which is different. So, I've got Cafe Neo is like Starbucks. I was co-investing with friends. The ones I've led are, for example, media, tech media. FlexiSAF is education software and is media again and Terrarave is logistics.
Alan Cowley: It sounds as if the companies that you've led, investment there, are they companies that you have your background, your industry background, such as M&S?
Tomi Davies: Oh, yeah. It's more tech-enablement because I have a mental image on tech that I find a lot of the young CEOs don't have, which is that tech is the most structured thing in the world. It's just once you understand that it's a stack. It starts from the physical and goes all the way to the logical. And in between, there are different layers that sort of interface with each other. Hence, this so, called new term API. But we've had APIs in software from the very beginning.
And that's what defines technology is those layers, and how they communicate with each other. Once you get that into your head, it makes it easier, architecturally, for you to be able to design solutions.
Alan Cowley: What is the key advice that you give to your entrepreneurs when you're sitting on a board or whether you're investing in their company?
Tomi Davies: "Begin with the end in mind," as Stephen Covey would say. All enterprises are ongoing concerns. You have to think of it that way. So whether you are building a platform that would allow teachers and parents and administrators to actually look at the development of a child, or what you're doing is trying to tell stories to an audience that requires it for inspiration and motivation, or you're actually trying to protect lives by helping to avoid dangerous intent; all of those must be within the context of commercial enterprise. And, as long as it's within the context of commercial enterprise and technology-supported, then I tend to find I take a shining to it. Does that make sense?
Alan Cowley: Definitely. Is your focus the companies you invest in, in Africa?
Tomi Davies: Definitely.
Alan Cowley: Only Africa?
Tomi Davies: Sorry, I hesitated for a minute because I am thinking, have I done anything in England? In fact, I'll be even more stringent. It's strictly Lagos, Nigeria. Not even just Africa but specifically Lagos, Nigeria.
Alan Cowley: What's the reasoning behind that?
Tomi Davies: That's me. I am essentially, I am a Yoruba boy, or a Yoruba man, or a Yoruba old man or whatever classification. But first and foremost, first amongst all of that, I am Yoruba. Yoruba is a tribe of people that are essentially found in western Nigeria. But out of the Yoruba's also, I am from Lagos. And Lagos is separate, it's this cosmopolitan. It's like being a Londoner. If I am from East London, right? I am from somewhere called Isale Eko, which is the bottom of Lagos. Just like you've got East London, the Hackney borough, you know, da, da, da, da, da. Right? My part of Lagos is very special to me. We've been there generations. So, I want to be sure that the generations to come, understand that's our genesis as a family.
Alan Cowley: So, you set up the Lagos Angel Network, are all your investments through the network?
Tomi Davies: Everything I do is through the Lagos Angel Network. I have co-founders and, a number, of good co-founders, who are still with us. Everything I do in terms of investment, I try to do with the Lagos Angel Network. Though my mentoring is on a personal level.
Alan Cowley: So, what drove you to set up the African Business Angel Network? And who did you set it up with?
Tomi Davies: I wish I could say I set it up, but within the African Business Angel Network, there is a gentleman by the name of Bibasal Tuntash. Ben White, I had known through VC4Africa, and he'd mooted this idea of a Pan-African angel investment or Pan-African early stage investment. Ben's broader than just angel investors. He was looking at the whole ecosystem, including start-ups. Which is why, he knew how to develop the whole start-up ecosystem. But in addition to that, there were the investors. So, the platform was balancing both. That's how VC4Africa was created. And in developing both of those, one of the gaps he'd identified was that local investors, grouped as angels, were missing.
So, when we came along and formed the Lagos Angel Network, it was like, "Damn, that's what I am talking about." I don't know if he had that a-ha moment, but the thing is we did Angel Fair West Africa together and did some other things together. And eventually, he says, "Look, we really need to do something pan-African." I say, "Okay. What do you have in mind?"
We had been running, by then I think it was our second angel fair, which we tagged onto the back of something or the other. Then he said, "Okay. Fine. The Europeans want to talk to us." All right, fine. What did they have to say? And Bibasal shows up, and he has this whole story to tell about his escapade in Nigeria, almost getting arrested for not having a yellow card and all kinds of stuff. But he made it. And his message from the President was like, "Look, we'd like to invite you guys over to the EBAN thing around November." All right, fine So, once Dawson said yes, I was game too. We showed up in Helsinki. And in Helsinki, there was a whole bunch of us. Candace Johnson, who was the president of EBAN, says "I've heard about this whole ABAN. I've been following, tracking, with Ben and everything else. I am glad to see we are inaugurating ABAN." Okay, sounds interesting.
And that's how we started. That's the truth. What then happened was we went through a whole series of, okay, who's in, who's out? What do we do, what don't we do? We had a whole brainstorming session with all kinds of people around the table. Some dropped out, as would be expected. Others, who were in the shadows sort of stepped into the limelight as things have evolved. But we ended up, for some reason I don't know what it is, it was because, A, ABAN is non-profit. B, high social impact. And 3, defined areas, which is: create the networks, educate the investors, and engage with the policy makers. I like clarity. Because they were so clear, it was like, "Okay, you are president." Fine. I'll take that charge, let's see what we can do with this. And that was the genesis of ABAN.
Alan Cowley: And how many years ago was that?
Tomi Davies: This was 2015. So this is 2019. This'll be the fourth year.
Alan Cowley: Brilliant. Brilliant. So what's next for ABAN, investment in Africa, the early-stage tech ecosystem? What can you see for the next 5 years or 10 years?
Tomi Davies: Well, if we look at what we have today, investment into Africa has been doubling quite literally, every 18 months to 2 years. And we know that this is unlikely to stop because, as the chaos and as the challenges get more serious on this side, we are starting to see the investments pour in there because of the opportunities that Africa presents. So that's sort of a given.
The other given is that I don't expect to see the governments do a flip-flop overnight. They've been inept, they can't get their acts together, it's a tough one. That's also a given. Development partners are “umming” and “ah-ing”. But I believe that the volume, you've got this latent consumer society that is growing younger, I am starting to see a situation where they become self-generating economies. There's thinking on the ground that says, well, if you look at the fact that at one time, the manufacturing centre of the world was right here in the UK, we know when it moved to the US. We've seen it move into the Asian Tigers, and we've seen it go into china. We are now starting to see it come into Africa. So it's going to be an interesting five years.
They're not being driven by government, by the way. So, what I am talking about is independent of layers. These are activities, they're almost natural, organic activities. The cost structures in China, no longer worth baring. They have to transfer. It's cheaper to manufacture in Africa than in China. Okay, what do I need? And that's starting to happen. Documented. You can read up on it.
So that's the context in the background for infrastructure. Sitting on top of that is it's creating a consumer class because the consequence of manufacturing is the creation of a consumer class. That will also happen. And you now have a youthful consumer class because we all recognise that the average age on the continent is under 18. The unknowns: how governments will play, what kind of rules they will and won't come up with, et cetera, et cetera.
But again, if you are sitting where I am sitting, which is I am looking at the local investor. I am very clear on my focus. I am looking at the guys who've, through entrepreneurship, managed to make something of themselves. And how they can do that sustainably by betting on the next generation. So it's a very small-knit group of people that I have to talk to. But the impact, on the other hand, I am hoping, touch wood, is more significant. Does that help?
Alan Cowley: It really does. It really gives us an incredible insight into Africa, into what's coming up, from, obviously, a force in ABAN.
Tomi Davies: Well, there's something you've heard me say, about Africa. That I think the audience needs to be cognizant of, It's my own perception of how I see it also – and that is, the less you think of Africa as a monolithic whole, the better off you are able to deal with it. You have different constructs. So we have eight regional economic communities. We have the African Union, which everybody will tell you, cannot speak for the continent. Although it does contain the continent and is representative of the continent, but cannot speak for it.
You have the eight regional economic communities, but you also then have 55 sovereign states. Each a country with its own passport and citizens and all of that. So that's what makes up Africa. If you want to be commercial and be an angel and work in Africa with people like me, don't think that way. Please leave it there. Let's talk about cities. Okay? That's how to have an African conversation. Is to talk about the city in which you are focused. I am a Lagos boy, but I can talk to a boy from Nairobi, just like I can talk to girl from Cape Town. I can talk to a lady from Accra, or from Cairo. That's the African language. And when you understand that there are a hundred cities that generate near 70% of what the continent's doing, it makes it slightly easier for you to have good conversations. Does that help?
Alan Cowley: Yeah, it does. So let's just go back to what you said at the start about this triangle of tech commercial and social. You are a known speaker. You're an educator. You're a mentor. What is it that helping others really gives you? And would you suggest other people, if they have the opportunity, to do the same thing?
Tomi Davies: I am not a guru, but the answer that came to my mind is, what is the one thing that you get more of the more you give? Think about it. The more of it you give out, the more you have. What's the one thing? It's love. So when you sit on that fundamental principal, you can then use it to explain just about any other aspect of nature. If you don't have it, you can't understand it. But when you do have it, and you see it ... so that's what I've just discovered. And that's why I feel almost cocky about what I do.
The fact that I've set out all my life trying to help, is something ... and it didn't occur to me until like a week ago that, "Hang on dude. That's always defines you" because I've always credited other people for that. And I've always admired it in other people, not recognising that I myself was in possession of. Although I have had serious hints along the way and continue to. But it's just heart-warming to self-recognise, is that the word?
Alan Cowley: Yep. So you've self-recognised this trait. What's next? Are we writing another book?
Tomi Davies: I've been looking at the inspiration for the book. I've had structures of the book. This crystallises the African angel for me in a way which, until this watershed moment, I hadn't really recognised what story I wanted to tell. You know how you know you have a story in you. The question, okay, is what's your story? And why does it matter to the person listening? And that's sort of where it's coming from now. It is the fact that helping others matters, and there is intrinsic rewards that you may not recognise. But you get to my stage of the game, and you can look back. It's uncanny when you do it. Because I am a very visual individual, so at the beginning of the year I decided to get a notepad.
Alan Cowley: Which is what you're flicking through, at the moment.
Tomi Davies: And in it, sort of do my thinking on paper. So you look at, and you can analyse, the different aspects of what you've done. Of your work so to speak. And of course, in my natural state, the first thing I am looking at are all the failures. "Oh, you went into this particular enterprise with so much euphoria and everything. You came out with your tail between your legs. You went into this one, and it was amazing. And you guys were going to conquer the world, and what happened?"
But then, it's back to what I was saying earlier about swapping sides. When you flip to the other side and says, "But what are the positives?" That's how I came across, for example what I was saying about teams, and the fact that the successful aspects of my work have been with teams.
Alan Cowley: Yep. That's an absolute perfect conclusion of this podcast. And I’d just like to say to the listeners, at the top of this is the words, Profile of Success, 2019. And anyone that is listening should just plan this out and understand what you want from the next year.
Tomi Davies: That's it.
Alan Cowley: Amazing. Tomi, it's been, absolutely fantastic.
Tomi Davies: Thank you very much.
Alan Cowley: Thank you very much for recording a podcast with us and all the success for the future.
Tomi Davies: Appreciate it.
Peter Cowley: Thanks for listening to another Invested Investor podcast. You can subscribe to all future podcasts via our website, investedinvestor.com, or via a number of podcast platforms online. Remember, you can order our book online. And be sure to follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to get the most up interesting and insightful content from the Invested Investor.