Photograph — Plat4om

Every business seeks to expand beyond its initial market to reach a larger market. However, certain factors must be considered before venturing into new markets. In Africa, language diversity, policies, and cultural nuances across countries and regions have always posed a challenge to businesses hoping to expand beyond their initial market. Failure to recognize these challenges can be costly to businesses, making them ill-equipped to navigate new markets.

Tola Onayemi established Norebase to deal with this issue. Norebase is a single digital infrastructure for every business to start, scale, and operate in every African country efficiently. The infrastructure assists business owners with experience and knowledge to successfully navigate the economic peculiarities of different countries with just the click of a button.

In this interview with Ventures Africa, Onayemi discusses the significance of Norebase and what it’s like to build a novel solution for the future of business in Africa.

Tell us about yourself and your background.

My background is in law. I spent the first few years of my life working in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). I worked in the office of the Vice President on trade and investment, helping to improve the ease of doing business in Nigeria. I also advise tech companies on fundraising, investment, or intellectual property. Generally, I have spent many years around economic policies and tech trends. 

How did Norebase come about?

As a tech lawyer, many tech companies thinking of expansion asked me for help to get into unpredictable markets. At first, Norebase started with ad-hoc services, helping people expand into new markets. Then we realized there was a huge need for more of these solutions. Unlike on other continents, expansion in African is a matter of survival. 

For example, if you want to start a business in the United States, you can stay in one state and easily build a widely successful business there. You can see an American company in San Francisco generating high revenue because there is a lot of purchasing power and disposable income. Businesses in Africa need to be in Lagos, Nairobi, and Accra simultaneously because disposable income affects several markets.

The second thing is that regulators can be interesting. They can change laws unexpectedly. It means you have to incorporate anti-fragility measures into your business so your company will be able to survive regardless of what regulators do. That means even if the regulator moves funny, you can restrategize and move into a different market.

In most African markets, the solutions to most problems are very similar. A tech company from Lagos can work in Accra because the challenges are so similar. It means there is a natural case for expansion and for starting and scaling businesses across the continent. However, while there is an obvious case for growth, the processes remain demanding. It is either the policies around the market are erratic, or there are several nuances one needs to learn. As a result, when businesses try to expand, they run into brick walls. That is the problem Norebase is solving. Norebase helps you build a Pan African business seamlessly.

Tola Onayemi

What have you discovered since you started?

We have learnt that it is a bigger need than we thought initially. I remember an instance where we helped someone expand into another market, and it had been a pretty stressful process because it was a francophone country, and there were translation issues. After successfully setting up the business, the person indicated interest to expand into three other countries. Per experience, so many people have been interested in expanding their business but couldn’t due to the difficulties involved. One of the things we’ve accomplished is bringing people to a central point to focus on their core business while someone else handles their expansion.

One of the most important aspects for us is that there is a lot of learning going on. Many companies are expanding into new markets, and they have learned a lot along the way. But all the knowledge is siloed up in different places. One of the benefits of centralizing expansion is that it allows you to easily pick up important knowledge. So having a way to aggregate all of those learnings and apply them at scale to a large number of people is critical. That way, everyone can benefit from better experiences for growth. 

Another thing you learn is trust. If you want to expand into Ghana and have to deal with a lawyer for the first time, the lawyer does not need to be on his best behaviour because you will only have to deal with him once. When he makes a mistake, there isn’t much you can do about it. It is different when an establishment like ours has to deal with the same lawyer regularly. Because we are a consistent actor, we can demand better pricing, higher standards of trust, and behaviour than a one-time customer. That alone changes the quality of what one’s expansion experience can be.

What are the difficulties you face in running Norebase?

One of the challenges is establishing trust with partners. We have to convince partners in different countries to trust that a person is new to their environment and is only trying to build something in their best interest. So having to invest in educating partners is a challenge. 

Another challenge is dealing with cultural nuances. There are markets where everyone is hyper-charged, markets where everyone is laid-back, and some others that are closed on certain days. Having to deal with these nuances is a bit challenging.

Dealing with payment is also a challenge. You’d often find yourself scurrying around a market to ensure you can receive payment in local currencies because that’s what most people prefer. Usually, USD is the easiest way to transact, but most locals want payment in their local currencies, and that can be challenging due to currency conversion volatility.

Another issue is the consistency of information. You have to speak with several people repeatedly to cross-verify information. Most of these people have only dealt with local expansion, not international expansion, so you must explain and have them understand what it means for a foreigner to enter their market. Obtaining information from one person and cross-verifying it with other people in order to have an ultimate source of information on which to act is challenging. 

Government regulation is another challenge. A change in the law could have a significant impact on everything you’ve done. So it’s critical to build in a way that allows you to adapt and work quickly.

How do you see Norebase influencing the ease of doing business in Africa?

One of the things we say is that we are not a legal tech company but a trade tech company. And the reason is that we think our focus is to help trade across the continent. There is the fact that you can now service a much larger market and reach a much larger number of people. Beyond that is the fact that you can build more widely successful businesses. You can probably reach over 1.2 billion Africans with Norebase. The idea of building a pan-African business becomes much more realistic and practical.

Another thing is governments realising that businesses have alternatives. Today, some businesses are probably stuck with the Nigerian government and unfavourable policies that they must adapt to. However, at Norebase, we believe that when people start a company, they should know which market is most advantageous for them, and they should go and start there. This will put governments on their feet to create favourable policies and pitch businesses to enter their market. 

We believe we are building the most significant company for the pan-African market. Not only do we help businesses get started and scale different markets, but we also help them operate in those markets and provide alternatives for expansion. As a founder or business owner, you should go to a market that best suits you rather than one you are stuck with because it’s your original market.

Written by Adekunle Agbetiloye

Elsewhere on Ventures

Triangle arrow