Everything important these days can be found online. Now, while your colleagues may head to a bank in search of funding to support a business transaction, you may sit in your office, fill out some forms online and alert hits your account. The only time you may need to have human contact may be at the last stage.
This is the new reality in Nigeria’s lending space especially for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Meet the young woman, the busy brain behind this innovation, especially from the Port Harcourt end of the new reality.
Let her speak for herself; “My name is Ife Ibitokun, Founder/CEO of BizNurture Financial Services Limited. I am married with two children. I have a BSC Accounting from the University of Lagos. I am a Chattered Accountant and also have an MBA from a UK School of Management. I have a degree Harvard Business School (Online) on business strategy.
“BizNurture is an online lending company that provides funding for SMEs in Lagos and in Port Harcourt. We have been around for four years, having started as a consulting firm that ran for two years before I now sold the vision to my partners and we started online lending platform in 2018.
“We started from Port Harcourt because it is the region I know. I used to work in a bank in Port Harcourt for six years. I left the bank for about one year for studies. When I got back, I saw there was an opportunity in the space because I had people calling me, asking about finance and funding. This was despite that I was away from the country for about 15 months. I would turn on my phone and it would be the same issue of ‘we need funding, the banks are not funding us’, etc.
“What I did was to start using my own little funds to help these SME owners. Now, the word started going out; when you help one or two persons, they begin to tell others about you. I was in the banking sector, so I had contacts. People knew me. That was how I started consulting. I would get people who wanted to invest in small businesses. That means they have the funds, and I took the funds from them, use my skills in banking, credit analysis, financial analysis, to assist those coming to me for loans.
“Many wonder if truly there are people interested in genuinely investing in others. I will say yes, there are such persons. They do so for better returns. Right now, returns are low. Treasury Bills are below five per cent but inflation is very high. So, people want higher returns. Interest rate is single digit while inflation is double digit. So, people are willing to invest where there is higher return but they do not know where. They want to put their funds in someone’s hand, someone trusted and that person in turn looks for profitable investments for them. That was how I started.
“It started with family and close friends that know Ife (me) as a person who worked in the bank with trusted skills, etc. They know if they gave her their funds, she would do the right thing. So, funds started trickling in. Borrowers also came. So, business started.
“From 2016 and 2017, it was about getting funds from those that had and giving to those that needed. When I saw the traction by December ending 2016, I spoke with one of my friends who had an idea to start a crowd-lending or lending platform for borrowers and lenders to get connected. Then, we were not sure what the regulations (CBN) were. We wrote to the CBN then. We did our business plans, name, etc. We presented the idea to the CBN in writing. We didn’t get the response. Yes, they wrote us a letter that we sent it to the wrong department and pointed us to the right department. We wrote to the said right department but we never heard from them to this day. That was that.
“Eventually, my friend had to move on to fend for his family, got a job in a bank. This effort started in October 2015 and by 2016 nothing was happening. I remained here in Port Harcourt while he moved to Lagos. I didn’t want to return to the banks even though I had offers. I now started using my funds to help people in business, family and friends. So, I registered a business name to do this as the umbrella of my services. That was when I started the consulting service. When it gained traction, and I was still in touch with this friend, I told him, look, there is opportunity here. I started doing a lot of research in online lending. I had met some of such when I was in the UK, even though I was not thinking of becoming an entrepreneur, but I came back and the opportunity just came up. I said, okay, fine, let’s do this.
“I called him up again in June 2017 and sold the vision to him, something different from what both of us had in mind. I told him, look, we can do this. We can change the mode of doing this, that I had done a lot of research. Already, he just tendered a resignation letter to start his own consulting practice. He is into strategy and IT. I said, ok, lets do this. I got introduced to one more person. The three of us came together, created a new business plan for the online lending platform in January 2018. That is the background.
“We have done about N1Bn volume to over 200 SMEs. In the same 2018, we opened our Lagos office. Again, we just migrated the list in my consulting company to this new firm. People were beginning to know us, so, we started the Lagos office. We have moved from a one-man company to a 15-man company (three partners, 15 workers).