In the two or so months since Flutterwave tripled its valuation to become Africa’s highest-valued tech startup and unveiled its aggressive multi-front product onslaught under an ambitious campaign christened Flutterwave 3.0, the biggest developments around the company are the multiple fires it has had to put out lately. Fires that may be self-inflicted to an extent.
A San Francisco-headquartered and Lagos-based startup revolutionizing payments across Africa since 2016 with the backing of a marquee lineup of investors, Flutterwave’s very recent run of poor form in the public domain couldn’t be less about moving money. It’s about alleged scandalous misdeeds that go back several years.
As was revealed a little over a week ago to equal-parts displeasure and indifference in the local ecosystem, Clara Wanjiku Odero, a former Flutterwave employee who called time at the startup in 2018 (and leads Credrails these days), detailed bullying and other forms of mistreatment which she claimed to suffer at the hands of Flutterwave after leaving the company – with the current CEO/Co-Founder, Olugbenga “GB” Agboola portrayed as the chief oppressor.
Apparently, Odero’s searing account of events – which came in response to an article published less than 24 hours earlier that some say reads in part like a “pre-emptive PR” story for Flutterwave – would be topped a week later by a fuller story published by award-winning Nigerian investigative journalist, David Hundeyin, detailing possible fraud, perjury, insider trading, and sexual misconduct at the heart of Flutterwave.
Hundeyin’s article titled: “Flutterwave: The African Unicorn Built On Quicksand,” which he says is the product of an intensive six-month investigation, was published April 12 on West Africa Weekly, his Substack newsletter. It highlighted significant evidence of possible improprieties that go all the way down to Flutterwave’s very foundations.
The exposé shines the light on what might be construed as intentionally straying away from the straight and narrow or pushing the boundaries just enough to get away with it. Hundeyin reported an unholy alliance in the early days between Flutterwave and Access Bank; currently one of Nigeria’s biggest banks where GB used to work.
Screenshots of painstakingly-obtained message exchanges portray Flutterwave’s Co-Founder/CEO, GB, representing a bank he works for while using its resources to drive his personal interest at Flutterwave.
It was also revealed that GB actively concealed his concurrent involvement in both entities from investors, regulators and even his Access Bank colleagues, even to the point of obfuscating by altering his voice on certain crucial conference calls.
The article also alleges that the trio of GB, former Flutterwave CEO, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, and Herbert Wigwe (CEO of Access Bank) eventually took a trip to the U.S. in 2018 to answer to the SEC about this suspicious arrangement and possibly offered questionable testimony under oath, though this remains unproven given the SEC’s refusal to release certain sensitive documents.
Previously, GB has mentioned that when Flutterwave was acquiring Uber as a client, his then-boss and CEO of Access Bank, Herbert Wigwe, flew to San Francisco with him for meetings with potential clients that would use Flutterwave and domicile their traditional business with the bank.
In any case, former Flutterwave CEO, Aboyeji, who exited the company in 2018, has denied all of this in a series of tweets in which he communicated that nothing shady happened with Access Bank under his watch.
There was no shady process with Access under my watch. They were our first customer and partner. There are legal agreements to prove this. We partnered with banks to build our payments business. We have never hidden that fact from the public.
— iyin.eth (@iaboyeji) April 13, 2022
“They were our first customer and partner. There are legal agreements to prove this. We partnered with banks to build our payments business,” he tweeted. He also says he did speak with U.S. authorities but that it happened in 2017 for a different reason and he was the only one who made the trip, and the company was ultimately cleared. Aboyeji also provided further details in a comment to WeeTracker;
“We had a SEC investigation in 2017 but we were cleared in September. It held up our Series A. The primary issue was whether we were raising money appropriately in the US. We proved we were and the investigation was terminated,” he shared.
In another tweet, he mentioned that he can confirm that the leadership of Access Bank and the investors knew GB and the third Co-Founder, Adeleke Adekoya (both of whom were associated with the bank), were working on Flutterwave.
“The ethical questions are: did the leadership of Access Bank know GB and Leke were working on Flutterwave and I can confirm yes. Was their phased exit from Access Bank disclosed to investors and the answer is yes. Even I incorporated Flutterwave while being at Andela,” he tweeted.
The ethical questions are did the leadership of Access Bank know GB and Leke were working on Flutterwave and I can confirm yes. Was their phased exit from access bank disclosed to investors and the answer is yes. Even I incorporated Flutterwave while being at Andela. https://t.co/1y01a7PNW7
— iyin.eth (@iaboyeji) April 13, 2022
While Flutterwave remains silent, Aboyeji has also offered comments to WeeTracker on this matter, citing special circumstances.
“What I can tell you is, to the best of my knowledge, appropriate disclosures were made – particularly to investors. In particular, my understanding was there was a long and drawn-out exit because GB and Leke were playing crucial roles in the bank. Ultimately they ended up consulting with Africa Fintech Foundry which was not in contravention with their contracts and was disclosed,” Aboyeji stated.
“As for obfuscation, I don’t recall the event mentioned. However, I am aware that there were some particularly unique challenges with Flutterwave working with other financial institutions outside Access [bank] given the very competitive financial space because of the background of our founders (coming from Access). Sometimes, dealing with this meant GB and Leke had to take a back seat in the early days when we were dealing with new bank partners,” he explained.
However, it remains unclear why GB came across as playing a game of double-dealing in obtained screenshots of message exchanges.
There are other question marks around the circumstances of Aboyeji’s arrival at and exit from Flutterwave, which seems to be another conflated matter. Indeed, some industry insiders hold the opinion that there was a hushed forced exit.
In the earlier-mentioned story that triggered Odero’s rebuttal last week, GB says he discussed Flutterwave with Aboyeji after learning that the latter had left the tech talent startup, Andela. GB says he brought Aboyeji on board as the third co-founder, complete with equity and a seat on the board.
On his part, Aboyeji tweeted today that his departure from Andela was “phased” and he incorporated Flutterwave by his hand on May 2, 2016, while still at Andela. He also says he resigned by his hand on October 12, 2018.
Aboyeji has given an interview in the past where he hinted that the decision to depart from Flutterwave was his and it was triggered by perceived “negative energy” from the folks who brought him in. But GB’s take on the matter is that Aboyeji left because Flutterwave “needed a product and tech-focused CEO to accelerate its offerings.”
However, Hundeyin’s exposé suggests reliable sources volunteered that Aboyeji was abruptly and unexpectedly fired by GB, leaving him locked out of all company resources including his official email. It claims Aboyeji was never anything more than a “corporate front for GB.”
Aboyeji disputes this, tweeting: “Let’s assume this is true, since when did being locked out of email and slack constitute ‘firing’ for a USD 50 M company with investors, a board and corporate governance.” But Hundeyin claims he is reliably informed by sources who were with Aboyeji when it happened.
Let’s assume this is true, since when did being locked out of email and slack constitute ‘firing’ for a $50m company with investors, a board and corporate governance. David needs to go to business school if he wants to keep doing business reporting. https://t.co/OHz6u2rXhY
— iyin.eth (@iaboyeji) April 13, 2022
In any case, Aboyeji says he possesses actual records that would clear up the allegations. He responded to WeeTracker’s enquiries on this matter in a manner that suggested he offered to resign due to a misalignment with his co-founders and gave a notice period to allow a smooth transition, but the resignation was accepted sooner.
“We did disagree on how to run critical functions in the company and I ultimately resigned and offered the board up to 6 months to transition GB into the CEO role. There couldn’t be two captains on a ship and I felt it made sense for the company to have a founder CEO who was product-focused. They made a decision to allow my resignation be effective immediately. Hence I resigned October 12 and left,’ Aboyeji volunteered. Once again, there has been no word from Flutterwave though it is understood that the company is prepping a robust response.
Apart from these issues which point to possible differences between Flutterwave’s co-founders, GB also stands accused of undercutting employees or forcing ex-employees to undersell while exercising their stock options.
Accounts from Hundeyin’s story suggest some may have been strong-armed into selling their shares at a below-market rate to a vehicle controlled by GB. One case where an ex-employee was reportedly outrightly denied stock options that were initially offered is currently at the National Industrial Court where a former employee is locked in litigation with Flutterwave.
Another case is believed to have disturbed Aboyeji enough to make him put up this tweet early last month:
“There is this infuriating thing going on where CEOs cheat their employees by forcing them to sell their valuable stock at exit at below market value to entities they have interest in. I just want to remind folks that this is illegal insider trader and SEC frowns at it. Stop it.”
There is this infuriating thing going on where CEOs cheat their employees by forcing them to sell their valuable stock at exit at below market value to entities they have interest in. I just want to remind folks that this is illegal insider trader and SEC frowns at it. Stop it.
— iyin.eth (@iaboyeji) March 3, 2022
Sexual misconduct and workplace bullying at Flutterwave are also highlighted in Hundeyin’s work, but solid proof of these remains scarce and fragmented – though it certainly is an allegation that doesn’t seem to be going away.
Besides that, there’s also the other matter of GB allegedly making up the existence of a fictional individual called Greg; a supposed CTO at Flutterwave who was also handed a portion of the company. It was alleged that GB and Greg are one and the same person, and GB made up the existence of Greg to corner more stake in the company for himself.
With Flutterwave; the de-facto poster child for excellence in Africa’s increasingly relevant tech scene, now under scrutiny in the eyes of both local and international stakeholders and observers, some fear negative ripple effects on the entirety of the ecosystem. But it seems plausible that however the extent of any potential aftershocks, the ecosystem would thrive, mature, and be all the better for it.
UPDATE: This article was updated at 06:22 WAT on 14/04/2022 with comments from Flutterwave’s former CEO and Co-Founder, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji.