Bretton Woods: Increasing Trust Among Africa’s Leading Innovators

Photo: Seated from left to right Pule Taukobong - Andela Investor, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji - Andela Co-Founder, and Seni Sulyman - Andela VP of Global Operations lead fireside chat at the Harambe Bretton Woods Symposium in 2015.

At the turn of the 20th century, when the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods was built, it immediately attracted leading American innovators, such as industrialist John D. Rockefeller, financier John Pierpont Morgan, and inventor Thomas A. Edison. The Hotel, a pentelic white marvel under the majesty of snow-capped Mount Washington, provided the leading protagonists of the Gilded Age with a space for ideas, relationships, and trust to flourish. The Mount Washington Hotel further cemented its place in history as the site of the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. In the 21st century, Bretton Woods is playing a similar role for African innovators in the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance. The first class of Harambeans gathered around our rosewood table in the Gold Room on April 19, 2008 and signed the Harambe Declaration, thereby pledging “to work together as one” to build Africa’s future. Over the course of our inaugural decade, Harambeans have leveraged the relationships and trust established at Bretton Woods to develop high impact ventures such as Andela, Flutterwave, Yoco and attract over $400 million from investors such as Google Ventures, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Alibaba.

A 2016 study that pulled data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found that at least half of the variation in entrepreneurial spirit across countries is driven by trust considerations. Essentially, since trust is an inherent component in business transactions, the more trust is established, the more businesses generally thrive. The opposite is also true, and in regions where formal institutions to uphold accountability are still developing, entrepreneurs need to turn to their own networks to establish a foundation of peer-to-peer trust.

This is why building trust is one of the key functions of Harambe’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Trust is what binds our Alliance together. It is trust that enables Harambeans and our investors to share risks and work together across geographical borders, time zones, and cultural barriers. Our annual symposium at Bretton Woods is the first step in the trust building process — a process that is reinforced through our idiosyncratic traditions, knowledge transfer sessions, intimate gatherings, and the annual reaffirmation of our pledge. Like the 20th century guests of the Mount Washington Hotel, the Harambeans that have graced its halls are becoming leading protagonists of their time and shaping the world around them. Harambeans such as Iyinoluwa Aboyeji H’10, who proudly states that through Harambe he found “friends, co-workers, and investors.”

In 2010, Aboyeji, just 19 years old at the time, joined Harambe’s community of trust. He came to Bretton Woods with a dream of making education more accessible for Nigerians and leveraged our ecosystem of trust to accelerate the process. When Aboyeji began to put his dream into motion by co-founding Fora — a distance learning platform for African universities — Harambe provided opportunities for meaningful connections.

For instance, when another African innovator, Pule Taukobong, heard Aboyeji speak about Fora at a Harambe gathering at the Harvard Club of New York, he immediately invested $10,000 of his own money into Fora. He wasn’t just driven by a hunch — to Taukobong Aboyeji was de-risked not only by his contagious passion and sound strategy, but also by his admission to a competitive and trusted Alliance of African entrepreneurs. A few months later, still inspired by the Harambeans he had met at the Harvard Club, Taukobong left his job at Investec and co-founded CRE Venture Capital as a way to partner with visionary entrepreneurs building category-defining tech companies across Africa. When Aboyeji launched his next venture, Andela, he brought Taukobong into the fold. The trust established between Aboyeji and Taukobong carried over from one venture to the next, and eventually resulted in Taukobong leading a $40 million Series C funding round for Andela with CRE Venture Capital. The round made headlines as one of the largest investments led by an African venture firm into an African technology company.

Aboyeji also found opportunities through peer-to-peer connections. When Seni Sulyman made his way to Bretton Woods to join Harambe in 2015, it was with a desire to have an impact in his home country of Nigeria. At Bretton Woods, he began the trust-building process with his fellow Harambeans and moderated a fireside chat between Aboyeji and Taukobong. Sulyman then returned to Nigeria after graduating from the Harvard Business School, intent on acting on his desire. Eventually, thanks in part to his relationship with Aboyeji and Taukobong, Sulyman joined the Andela team to help streamline the company’s operations in Nigeria. The achievements he reached in scaling the company were so remarkable that he was promptly promoted to Vice President of Global Operations, responsible for Andela’s global expansion.

Sulyman also illustrates how building trust and relationships through Harambe is not a rare occurrence but a cycle that repeats itself from one Harambean to the next. Sulyman decided to pay it forward by mentoring a young innovator named Obinna Okwodu H’16 and nominating him to join Harambe’s ecosystem of trust in 2016. Okwodu then teamed up with his fellow Harambean and Andela fellow, Olatunde Garuba H’18, to design a solution to Nigeria’s housing crisis with their venture Fibre. Using flexible payments and leasing options, Fibre has created an affordable housing market and is reshaping the lives of Nigerians as a result. Through this example, we see our ecosystem of trust in action, as Harambeans build connections, invest in each other and drive prosperity across Africa.

Harambeans are not the only ones investing in Harambeans — our ecosystem of trust has also attracted the attention of global investors. At the start of 2019, Andela secured $100 million in Series D funding, earning them a top spot in the list of African ventures that have secured the highest amount of startup funding for the continent. Solstice Energy Solutions, co-founded by Ugwem Eneyo H’16, received funding from six major investors and has won numerous awards for its technology, including the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge and the MIT Clean Energy Prize. Similarly MAX NG, co-founded by Adetayo Bamiduro H’15, raised capital from prominent investors, including Techstars and Yamaha.

The journeys of Aboyeji, Okwodu, Garuba and Taukobong demonstrate that once again Bretton Woods is enabling innovators to establish the relationships and trust necessary to shape the world around them. While this is just Harambe’s first decade and these stories single data points, the majesty of our snow-capped mountain in Bretton Woods reminds us that a single pebble can start an avalanche. Thus we are confident that as our community of trust grows, transaction costs within our Alliance will continue to decrease — as entrepreneurs and investors in our Bretton Woods system choose “to work together as one” to build Africa’s future.

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