For the “restless” Lagos-based businesswoman Temitope Omotolani, failure is an integral part of success. In our series #Limitless, which profiles women creating waves in male-dominated industries, she explains how failure should be demystified and celebrated just as much as its vaunted counterpart.
Tragedy struck Temitope Omotolani early. In 1990, when she was five years old, her father passed away. Shortly after, fire gutted her mother’s fabric and jewellery store. To make matters worse, extended family members swooped in and sold her father’s property, leaving her and her mother with nothing.
Seizing life by the lapel, a teenage Omotolani started two businesses in Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos.
“We were on our own, so I had no choice but to pick myself up,” says Omotolani. The area in which she grew up was also a motivating factor. “There were a lot of young girls pregnant for cultists and drug addicts, and I didn’t want that to define my life,” she says.
Seizing life by the lapel, a teenage Omotolani started two businesses in Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos: a makeup venture that saw her train novices and later a cleaning company that serviced homes, churches and businesses.
Although she earned enough to pay rent, school fees and keep her head above water, her talent at sniffing out business opportunities saw her founding a third company that specialised in shopping and delivering groceries to homes. However, margins were low. This inspired an exploratory trip to the northern city of Jos, where baskets of foodstuff like tomatoes, pepper and onions were relatively cheaper than in Lagos.
Following a visit to a tomato farm, she called friends to sponsor her next venture. Omotolani remembers how, in her excitement, she forgot to ask the tomato seller in Lagos she planned to contract to dispense her goods about the appropriate quantity to buy and ended up with a surplus. In the end, logistical challenges meant most of the tomatoes went bad by the time the truck arrived in Lagos 25 hours later.
“I lost a lot of money,” said Omotolani, “but I told myself, ‘Ya, I kinda like the experience and I am going to go again’.”
And so the serial entrepreneur borrowed more money and returned to Jos. Each trip was beset by myriad problems ranging from price instability and transportation that forced her to transfer funds from her other businesses to offset her growing debt. In a bid to gain some control over price volatility, Omotolani then partnered with a tomato farmer to keep production costs fixed.
When things fail, you’re not a failure
Once again, disaster struck when pests attacked the crops, leading to a drastic reduction in yield. “There weren’t enough [tomatoes] to bring back to Lagos,” she said. “I had to sell them on the farm.”
It was while recounting her predicament to a fellow church member and entrepreneur that the idea for a crowd-funded agro-tech company was born.
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Alongside five others, Omotolani cofounded FarmCrowdy in 2016 with the aim of connecting investors to farming opportunities within Nigeria. As its chief operating officer, she oversaw 25,000 farmers across 14 states. It was a job that carried equal amounts of excitement and exasperation wrought by farmer-herder crises, flooded farms, pestilence that ruined projects.
“One of the slogans that emerged from this period of my life was to focus on the 20 percent that would give you 80 percent of the result,” she said. “The second thing I learnt was when things fail, you’re not a failure. Failure is part of success.”
After three years, Omotolani was offered the chance to become managing director but she turned it down. She was getting bored and wanted to branch away from agriculture.
Another opening presented itself soon afterwards, when FarmCrowdy spun off Crowdyvest, a cooperative focused on funding projects in various industries ranging from real estate to education to oil and gas. It also operates as a savings account for its members, a feature Omotolani introduced in 2019 when she became CEO. Since 2020, the firm has raised 11 billion naira in investment capital, funded 30 projects, and boasts over 100,000 members.
These days, Omotolani spends her time allaying sceptical investors, untangling government regulations anachronistic to the tech age, and fending off established opposition fearful of start-ups like hers disrupting the financial sector. Having battled similar dragons in her previous businesses, she takes it in her stride.
So what is next for the prolific entrepreneur?
“I want to have multiple businesses, sit on multiple boards, and run multiple non-profit projects that benefit people beyond Nigeria,” she said.
With thanks to Africa No Filter who made this series possible.