By Mandy De Waal and Jonathan H. Pienaar
A couple of years ago, Jason Njoku was licking his wounds and had moved back home with his mother after several failed start-ups. Today he’s leading one of the most promising digital media businesses to emerge from the continent. Through Iroko Partners, he’s successfully tapping into the billions of dollars that circulate between the continent and the African diaspora, a massive economy driven by expats.
For everyone who believes in Africa, here’s a love story about the power of the continent’s financial muscle. It’s a tale about Africans who left their place of birth and who, through circumstance, adventure or opportunity, took up residence in the US, UK, Singapore or Brazil. Or who fled Ethiopia, Somalia or Zimbabwe to come south. It’s a tale about the expats who put down roots elsewhere, but hankered for a taste of home.
There are tens of millions of immigrants living outside of Africa, and research by the World Bank in 2011 shows this diaspora sent home some $40bn in 2010. “It’s estimated that the African diasporas save $53bn annually, most of which is currently invested outside Africa,” reads the World Bank paper Diaspora for development tin Africa. Because of incomplete data and contestation in the definition of what constitutes a diaspora, estimating the size of this market is incredibly difficult. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa tend to flow to countries within Africa, while other migrants consider countries outside of the continent as being attractive.
However, the World Bank’s 2011 Migration and Remittances Factbook stated that the number of international emigrants from African nations totalled 30.6m in 2010. That’s a massive market with a good chunk of disposable income, so how did Jason Njoku come up with an idea to tap into this market and realise one of Africa’s fastest growing media companies?
Njoku’s success story begins before he was born. It’s Nigeria in the Sixties and a young woman falls deeply in love. But her sweetheart doesn’t come from Africa, so she follows him back to his home in London. The marriage is blessed with a baby boy whom the parents call Jason. But soon after Jason Njoku’s birth, there’s heartbreak and the lovebirds separate.
Jason Njoku’s young mother is left to fend for herself in a council housing project in south east London. Like “the projects” in most parts of the world, life is a struggle in this inner-city ghetto, where many youngsters lose their way and become involved in gangsterism, drugs and crime. “I guess in Western terms one would say we were poor,” says Njoku.
“The aspirations of most people tend to be very low on council estates. The crime rate is high, many of the girls I knew are now single mothers and many boys land up in jail. Life was very hard for my mother. She was a seamstress and worked earning a very low income for many years before becoming a care assistant.”
In “the projects” the chances of fighting one’s way out the ghetto and forging a good career are slim, and certainly the odds of creating a multimillion-dollar global business are remote. Njoku was fortunate in that his mother saved enough money for him to go to university in 2005. There he studied chemistry before embarking on a series of failed business ventures.
The young student’s ventures included starting up a network of blogs, a T-shirt company, a magazine as well as a web-design company. But many of the businesses only lasted for a couple of months. Njoku also entered the formal market as a London recruitment consultant, but this endeavour had an even shorter lifespan.
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